Dan Potter and Tim Edmond launched Potter’s Craft Cider nearly two years ago not knowing what to expect, and now they are barely keeping up with demand for their two styles of crisp, dry, favorful hard cider.
But then they are making a high- quality artisanal beverage, using local apples, that’s intended for a local consumer, so they have a place on the wave of the local food movement.
They are operating out of a former horse vet’s clinic on a farm in Free Union, a one-story block building that is a little too chopped up for their needs, but it has high ceilings and concrete floors with drains.
Farmhouse Dry, their marquee label, is fresh, dry, slightly sparkling and satisfying. It’s available in bottles (wine-looking bottles) and in kegs at local restaurants. Each batch of Farmhouse takes about three weeks to ferment and the cidery expects to run through January, when the availability of suitable fruit for cider making is expected to end. They only use fruit stored under simple refrigeration, not that stored in gases. In 2011 they produced about 4,000 gallons of Farmhouse Dry.
Their second cider, more aristocratic in bearing, is Oak Barrel Reserve, which ages six months in used oak casks that once contained Laird’s Apple Brandy. They use terms like caramel, vanilla, toasted oak, mellow and round to describe it. It has a hint of cognac, too. They have six barrels of the Reserve aging, and expect to produce about 800 12-bottle cases of it.
Potter and Edmonds became friends at Princeton University. They began brewing beer together as a hobby and became, after much, much practice, accomplished brewers and were producing beers in the Blue Mountain Brewery vein, Potter said. They even branched out into things like a mint chocolate stout.
Potter was working at Tuckahoe Plantation in Henrico, the eighteenth-century farm that was for several years the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson. A Princeton friend is trying to revive the agricultural enterprise of the farm and Potter was helping.
“Beer making started taking over our lives, so we thought we would start a farm brewery,” explained Potter. They planted hops and barley, but the barley crop failed and the plan seemed to stall.
Meanwhile Potter had bought some apples from Henley’s Orchard in Crozet to make fresh cider and in the course of that took a stab at making hard cider, too. The result surprised him. The hard cider was dry and flavorful, nothing like apple juice or the sweet style of ciders available commercially.
“It really educated us,” said Edmond. “We tasted our way through all these blends. All these flavors developed. We were doing it in small batches so we could develop flavors, like butter or pepper. It’s uncharted territory there.”
What they call their “pilot year,” 2010, was a real education, too. They started carrying samples to area bars and grocery stores and offering tastings.
“We found out there is a feasible market,” he said. “Everybody is doing something unique, but we are more in the vein of what Albemarle Cider Works and Castle Hill Cider are doing.”
Cider Week Virginia, held in November, was hectic for them, but it exposed them to the flavors the handful of other cideries are making and it fostered camaraderie among the cidermakers.
“Even in this niche,” said Edmond, “there is tremendous variation. You get year-to-year variation in flavor, just like wine. Few apples can stand alone. Sugars, tannins, aroma—those are the marks you’re trying to hit.”
Their blend is based on Albemarle Pippins, Winesap and Stayman apples. “We buy local apples from orchards in Albemarle and Nelson and now from the Shenandoah Valley, too.
“We ferment to complete dryness so there is no sugar at all. We use whole apples and yeast. We never add sugar or water. We’re expressing the fruit’s character. It’s the cider’s structure that gives an impression of sweetness. We want each blend to have real character, a really different flavor profile, not just a nuance. That’s the fun for us. It really goes well with food.
“We haven’t brewed beer in a while. This takes everything now. We had a bigger jump in demand than we expected. The puzzle is interesting because you have to make all your decisions in a three-month period. It’s tough to know how deep the market is. It was a question of how much we could do and how much space we have.”
They distribute for themselves, and Farmhouse Dry is available at 43 places around Charlottesville—including Crozet Great Valu, Piedmont Store, Greenwood Gourmet Grocery, and on draft at Blue Mountain Brewery and Mountfair Vineyard—as well as a few places in Richmond. Their inventory is sufficient, they think, to be able to supply their stores through the next year. Farmhouse Dry, which is 7.5 to 8 percent alcohol, sells for $10 or $12 per bottle and is also available at the cidery in cases by appointment.
They are studying problems they are facing in production planning. “The core of our model is to go deep at home,” said Potter. “Good relations locally, not spreading out. We want to get to more spots and show people about cider. The market needs better education.” They are considering how they might get a tasting room added to their building.”
“Craft ciders will always be regionally limited and tied to the land they come from. We want to stay true to what we do and to the quality we make,” said Potter.
But word about the flavor is getting out. Southern Living magazine recently came calling and Potter’s Craft Cider could end up being a local favorite all over the South.