Seltzers Roll Out, Apple Brandy in Bold Rock’s Future

John Washburn and Brian Shanks purchase 70 tons of apples each week for Bold Rock Cider products. Submitted.

Bold Rock has grown rapidly to reach the top tier of the craft cider industry simply by using what was already here, said master cider maker Brian Shanks. Speaking at the Lodge at Old Trail in August, Shanks—who founded the company along with John Washburn—told the crowd of cider-lovers that the decision to use apples already grown in central Virginia and later in North Carolina allows them to procure the 70 or so tons of apples crushed weekly for Bold Rock’s phenomenal growth. Starting out with the Granny Smith green apple and a couple of common varieties of red, the Nellysford cidery began in 2012 with two hard ciders, the Virginia Apple and the Virginia Draft, and now produces hundreds of thousands of cases for distribution throughout the mid-Atlantic. 

It’s not that there was anything wrong with the traditional cider apples that used to dot the hills sloping above the Shenandoah Valley, Shanks was quick to say: It’s just that they were no longer there. He blames it on the women of the early 20th century who became weary of seeing their men stagger home at all hours from the cider house. “So, you had Prohibition,” he said, “and orchardists cut down their cider apple trees.” These traditional trees bore small, intensely flavored fruit, and orchardists replaced them with apples to be eaten out of hand for dessert, tucked into lunchboxes, or made into apple sauce or apple butter. 

The partnership began when the craft cider explosion hit and Washburn wondered if his Nelson County farm could be used for a cidery. He decided to recruit one of the world’s most respected authorities and got in touch with Shanks in New Zealand, someone he’d never met. Shanks had been in the business for decades, making cider for his own company and then serving as a consultant for cider start-ups in New Zealand, Great Britain and North America, so he was not hard to find, he said, and often dispensed advice to fledgling cider makers. “I always tried to help,” Shanks said, “but this was the first time I agreed to appear in person on the other side of the world.” It helped that Washburn had a New Zealand connection, having lived at one time not far (in New Zealand terms) from where Shanks grew up.

It took a couple of trips to the Rockfish Valley to convince Shanks that the business would work. Both men knew that if anyone could make good cider from readily available fruit, it would be Shanks, but he shares the credit with a single-cell organism. “I always use champagne yeast,” he said. To the crowd’s amusement, he compared the powerful strain of yeast to a dictator: “It works by killing all the competition,” he said. “No other strains can survive.” Also important was the size of the fruit. “We’re like Goldilocks,” he said. “Big apples are too bland, small apples too acid. Medium-sized apples are just right.” 

Shanks said he wants to keep Bold Rock’s cider at a fairly low alcohol level. “I don’t want people having a cider at a restaurant or bar to worry about whether they can drive home,” he said. Generally, the alcohol content is 4.7%, with new Rose-style cider at 6%, and some premium products at 7%. 

The rapid growth of the company propelled the expansion to apple country in North Carolina, near Asheville. Right now, Shanks said, Virginia produces about 40 percent of the apples for cider and North Carolina contributes 60 percent.

With his expertise and champagne yeast, Shanks said he’s able to make cider out of almost anything, and has made cider out of pears (known in England and New Zealand as peary) and also out of local peaches. 

Presently, Bold Rock is headed in two directions. They recently put a seltzer with a very low alcohol content on the market (available in both cucumber melon and grapefruit), and he confirmed in the Lodge at Old Trail talk that Bold Rock will soon be in the distillery business. He likens their future product to the Calvados made in French apple country.

The seven-year-old company is thriving, employs 150 people full time, and Shanks said they will continue to innovate. At the beginning, he said, they had hoped to name the cidery “Black Rock” after the familiar peak, but that name had been copyrighted, so they came up with Bold Rock, named not after an existing rock but after their initial vision. “Well, it was bold,” he said.  


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