There were more than a few reasons why Johnny Appleseed wore out his boots and slept rough in all kinds of weather on his quest to plant apples wherever he thought settlers might follow. Most likely he wasn’t dreaming of a sweet bite of fruit or even an apple pie. In the famous sack on his back were the seeds of cider apples, as important to the frontiersman as a knife or a shovel, but destined to bear mostly small, hard, sour fruit.
It was shortly after the Revolutionary War that Johnny (his real name was John Chapman) set out. He had embraced the teachings of Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who encouraged his followers to devote their lives to doing good, even to animals. It was a bit of a weird view at the time and, coupled with his unusual attire of a burlap sack, he became a legend in his own lifetime.
What he carried was absolutely vital to the pioneers to come later. Without reliably clean water, without anesthesia, and without a way to sanitize wounds, the clusters of hardy souls who gathered near his apple nurseries relied on hard cider. Offering a cup of hard cider enabled an amateur healer to dull the pain of his patients and strengthen those delegated to a sick bed. Diluted versions were the staples of liquid refreshment for children, and the vinegar that was carefully cultivated in the golden juice allowed families to pickle and preserve some of their harvest and to cleanse open wounds.
If you’ve noticed that cider has replaced beer in your neighbors’ refrigerators, you know that Virginians have been rediscovering cider. According to the 2022 Virginia Cider Apple Report (the first of its kind) the early growth of the hard cider industry inspired commercial apple growers across the state to plant cider-specific cultivars in 2015. Small brands are now the hottest trend in Virginia, and the state’s regional cider market share grew from 29% in 2018, to 51% in 2022, supplying about 5% of the country’s total cider production. Growers use a mix of dessert and cider apples in their fresh and hard ciders. By regulation, Virginia’s cider makers may sell only the fresh-pressed cider onsite.
Gazette readers are fortunate to have four nearby cider fermenters and a number of fresh cider options.
Vintage Virginia Apples
As soon as they bought their farm in North Garden several decades ago, the Shelton family began to plant an orchard with the kinds of apples that had been neglected for a century or so. “It was a hobby for my father, as well as for us,” Charlotte Shelton said. “It kind of got out of hand.” The orchard grew until they now have nearly 250 varieties today, including 70 rare varieties. They were guided in many respects by Tom Burford, an internationally-known orchardist conveniently located less than 50 miles down the road in Amherst. Known as “Professor Apple,” Burford, now deceased, also had a life-long interest in the uses of both heritage and modern apple varieties. As the Shelton family became more skilled in grafting, they began to sell seedlings for those also interested in the lesser-known but usually better-tasting apple varieties.
“We had to do something with all those apples,” Shelton said. They’d made their own fresh cider and shared it with people who came to their orchard, but their accumulation of apples kept growing. Their commercial cider-making enterprise followed later, in 2009, but is now the oldest of its kind in the state. Shelton doesn’t especially like the term “hard cider,” so sometimes refers to her family’s fermented product as “proper cider,” using the uniquely British adjective for the beverage that never lost its reputation in England as a food-friendly drink.
The family invites others to follow them in the revival of cider-specific as well as vintage dessert and baking apples. They graft, nurture, grow, harvest their apples, and ferment, bottle and sell their “proper cider” through Albemarle Ciderworks. Their cider always wins honors at state and national competitions: at the last Governor’s Cup judging they won two gold medals and “best in show.” Unlike most Virginia cideries, Shelton doesn’t see herself selling hard cider with added sugar or flavorings. Will she ever put it in cans? “Never,” she said. “Cans are for beer, bottles for wine. Cider really is a kind of wine.”
Besides a huge selection of apple varieties and cider, Vintage Virginia Apples offers workshops and live music on the grounds. The annual “Apple Harvest Festival,” held jointly with the Covesville Ruritans, offers tastings, food, music and vendors. For more information about the festival, the apple varieties, the nursery catalogue, as well as an upcoming class on how to start your own orchard, go to Albemarleciderworks.com.
A few years ago, the Henley family, led by Jacqueline Henley, delved into hard cider making, producing a sparkling cider as well as a couple of still varieties. Tastings are available at the orchard Thursdays through Saturdays. Despite the late frost that wiped out nearly half their apples, Brook Henley said the remaining apples are of high quality. Known for their low-spray program, the Henleys also sell peaches, pastured beef and farm-raised pork. Some of their product goes to Bold Rock Cider Co. for the many kinds of hard cider and seltzers sold there.
The Henleys also have freshly pressed sweet cider. These products and others are celebrated at “Henley Fest” every year, along with pumpkins, a corn maze, chrysanthemums and pony rides. Henley Fest will happen every Saturday in October at the shed. To find out more, visit Henleysorchard.com.
Chiles Peach Orchard
The demand is high for Chiles’ fresh apple cider, said Cynthia Chiles, and it’s a major ingredient in the popular apple cider donuts. The Chiles family doesn’t make hard cider, she said, but you might find their apples in hard ciders throughout the state. There’s live music at the orchard on weekends throughout the fall, and Chiles has initiated a new “crown club” where members receive quarterly wine selections, attend festive pick-up events, and a sip on a free glass of wine at each visit. For more information, go to chilesfamilyorchards.com.
Bold Rock Hard Cider
Bold Rock Hard Cider began in Nellysford in 2012, the project of two men who characterize themselves as an unlikely pair. John Washburn, a southerner, was the visionary, and Brian Shanks, a New Zealander, was the cider expert. The two men teamed up to disrupt the US cider industry, using mostly local apples from nearby orchards.
Bold Rock has two cidery and taproom locations in the area: the original in Nellysford and a taproom at Carter Mountain Orchard. They also have a couple of outlets in North Carolina. Their combined understanding of the market propelled them to the nation’s #2 spot in cider sales and to their current position as the nation’s largest independently owned operation. After expanding their barrel barn into a distillery, they introduced several lines of hard seltzers, hard lemonade, hard tea and other ready-to-drink canned cocktails that include whisky, bourbon and vodka as well as hard cider. For hours and products, go to boldrock.com.
Blue Toad Cider
Blue Toad Cider owner Todd Rath prides himself on his blends. The “blond blend,” for instance, uses Golden and Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples, with some others as needed. Other blends balance the acid and sugar with more red delicious. “We only use dessert apples, not the cider varieties,” Rath said. He buys a tanker or two from Seaman Brothers every year.
Rath, who learned about cider from an enterprise in his native New York State, said he moved to Nelson County several years before he bought the former Wintergreen Winery because it reminded him of his home, also a major apple growing area. “But it has less snow and lower taxes,” he pointed out.
Blue Toad Cider has distinguished itself in Nelson County with a number of community events: last month they produced their second sold-out rodeo, and they offer a 5-acre corn maze each fall, with pumpkins, private campfires, pony rides, and apple sling shots. Future plans are to offer a “sky deck,” a platform far from ambient light where visitors can watch the night sky or keep tabs on their kids in the corn maze.
Farmers Advocate for Do-it-Yourself Repairs
It’s no secret that most farmers can fix anything from a hole in the fence to a balky tractor motor, but their ability to do this has decreased as more advanced technology finds its way into agriculture. Farmers are doubly frustrated when manufacturers conceal operating manuals and block access to digital and manual tools, forcing the farmers to lag behind their crucial timelines and pay high prices to the original manufacturer for repairs.
A bill supported by the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, the National Farmers Union and others, requires the manufacturer to make any digital or physical tools available, or in their absence, to provide enough information for a farmer or local repair shop to create the tools.
It’s called the Agricultural Right to Repair Act, introduced late last month by a bi-partisan coalition of U.S. representatives from farming states. A similar bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
Local Cattle Earn Top Dollar
Stars of September sales at Staunton Union Stockyard were eight steer calves selling for $309 per hundred weight. Across Virginia, the average price for similar weight (400 to 500 pounds) in September was $213 to $260 per hundred weight. The Shenandoah Valley was considered to be in a mild drought, but heading into late September, most farmers across the state reported adequate moisture and mostly good crop conditions.
Although those Staunton calves were especially big earners, beef prices are higher across the country. According to the Wall Street Journal, the cause is a rapidly shrinking cattle supply. Nationally, years of drought conditions (parts of Virginia have been spared), have made cattle more expensive to raise. Pandemic disruptions and widespread cost increases have caused beleaguered ranchers to sell off livestock. The number of cattle in the U.S. is at its lowest level in nearly a decade, also according to the Journal.
Those supplying grass-fed cattle for growing consumer demand are especially vulnerable. On a good pasture with plenty of moisture, cattle can grow to maturity on as little as a third of an acre. Forage is normally the cheapest way to grow cattle for market, but that changes when dry conditions increase the amount of pasture needed for one calf to as many as 8 acres.
Highlights at Staunton Union Stockyard in October will be some 70 calving heifers and cows to be sold on the 17th, with calving expected in late winter through early spring.