So at the end of the least successful day you could imagine in my search for real cider apples in America, I had finally been given a red hot lead…by a random girl in a random bar in a random town I was never even supposed to be visiting. Now hidden in there is a valuable life lesson folks!
Next morning I duly headed off to find Ronnie at Gross’ Orchards, very aware that I had to make it to Vintage Virginia Apples & Albemarle Ciderworks near Charlottesville before the end of the day. In my original research for Eastciders, Vintage Virginia Apples had been a really intriguing discovery, a Southern nursery with all sorts of fascinating old apple varieties who had themselves recently started making cider. If there was one place I had to visit on this leg of the cider road trip it was there.
The name Gross’ Orchard is a bit of a misnomer to say the least, it’s a really beautiful orchard in a glorious setting…and YESSSSS!!!…finally I got my first sighting of a real heirloom cider apple in Virginia. Some Winesap, some Grimes Golden AND some Blacktwig! Ronnie turned out to be a good guy, straight-talking and knowledgeable, with considerable experience in growing heirloom apples and a real interest in working with us to get more of these varieties being cultivated. Everything was looking good…until he told me how much he currently had, which was not very much! We need about 80 bushels of any given variety in order to make it practical for us. Ronnie was talking about at most 50 bushels, frustratingly close but not quite enough. However, he gave me two other promisingly leads on cider apples, recommending I stop at Morris Orchards and Drumheller Orchards on my way up to Charlottesville and he seemed genuinely interested to work with us on the long term plan. So this was definite progress.
Morris Orchards turned out to be in an equally beautiful setting, where father and son Scott & Will Barnes had some small amounts of very interesting old cider varieties inc. Golden Russet, Stayman, Albemarle/Newtown Pippin and Arkansas Black. Scott & Will were incredibly helpful, giving me all sorts of contacts and information and were also keen to work with us over the long term to cultivate much larger crops of these old varieties. They were growing maybe slightly more than Ronnie, it seemed we might just about be able to get 80 bushels of something from them, but running out of time to make it to Albemarle Ciderworks I had to cut things short and arrange to reconvene over email.
Feeling much more positive about things I jumped back in the car and high-tailed it towards Charlottesville as fast as I could. I made it to Vintage Virginia Apples with 20 minutes to spare and stumbled into their beautiful tasting room, very much ready for a cider. I was lucky enough to be greeted by Anne Shelton, daughter of founder Chuck, who was extremely welcoming. Anne very kindly took the time to take me through all of their ciders, their whole production facility and some of the orchards too!
Sampling Albemarle’s ciders with Anne was invaluable. It gave me some of my first inklings as to the characteristics these celebrated old Southern apples were capable of bringing to a cider. I was able to try some blends incorporating Blacktwig, Winesap and Albemarle Pippin plus a single variety Winesap and even a single variety Hewes Crab. We’ll talk more about single variety vs blended ciders in another post, but for now here’s a massive generalisation…cider is the opposite of wine, the best ciders are generally blends of many many varieties, because it’s very rare to find just the right balance of acids, tannins and sugars along with enough complexity of flavor in just one apple. There are exceptions, and those varieties are highly prized by those making single variety ciders.
Albemarle’s ciders were all delicious. Just as had been the case with Farnum Hill, West County and Foggy Ridge, Albemarle’s ciders were in a style very much more simlar to wine or champagne than I’m accustomed to. They were bone dry, very clean and crisp, best sipped and savoured to explore the subtle complexities within. It was immediately clear that Winesap and Hewes Crab are going to bring some wonderful flavours to our blended ciders. I was not immediately convinced they are going to make wonderful single variety ciders within the very different style we intend to follow, but the jury is still out. Albemarle were certainly doing great things with them and I came away very excited to start working with them. But the most surprising discovery for me was hidden within their ‘Ragged Mountain’ blended cider. This incorporated some GoldRush apples, not really an old heirloom variety or indeed a real cider variety, but it seemed to impart a wonderful, tropical citrus note to the blend. It reminded me of the Cox’s blend made by Thatchers Cider in the West of England. This was a really unexpected discovery and really great news, GoldRush is known as an extremely hardy fruit, enormously popular with growers in the US for being so robust and easy to work with. It is also very capable of growing well in the hotter southern climates. So look out for some tropical, citrusy notes in some Eastciders offerings in years to come!
Just as I was about to leave, Chuck & Charlotte appeared and whole new round of drinking and talking commenced. Chuck was very generous with his time and his knowledge (and his cider!) and it was so useful to talk with someone who had been working with these apples for some time and getting good results. Talking to Chuck really finally confirmed for me that there are no great amounts of true cider apples being grown in VA/NC right now. He mentioned a few of the local growers that they got some extra fruit from and I made a mental note to try to avoid approaching these same people. The US cidermaking community is a small tight-knit one, the last thing we want to be doing is upsetting people! But whilst talking to Chuck I had a bit of a ‘Eureka’ moment. We were discussing which American cider apples have a decent amount of tannin (vital for good cider production and seemingly quite rare in American apples) and along with suggesting various crab apples varieties like Dolgo, Whitney and Nelson County, Chuck mentioned Arkansas Black. I’d heard Arkansas Black mentioned a lot, but until now had never put two and two together. I suddenly thought ‘Arkansas?? That’s right next to Texas, surely there’s some Arkansas Black somewhere in Arkansas?’. I felt another road trip coming on!
I spent the night in Charlottesville, which to be honest kicks the ass of Charlotte, unlike Austinville when compared to Austin as I discovered the day before. Props to the Blue Moon Diner for a great breakfast hash, after which I headed off to Drumheller Orchard on my way back to N Carolina, though after talking to Chuck I wasn’t expecting very much at all. It was at this point that my Sat Nav lost it’s sense of reason and sent me off the freeway far too early and across country, over ever narrower and narrower dirt tracks, to the point where I wasn’t sure my little Nissan rental car could go on! With a very long drive to Greensboro ahead of me I was ready to give up. Then I spied a beautiful house on a hill surrounded by apple trees, which turned out to be the home of Kevin Drumheller!
Kevin was yet another lovely guy, a real character with a charming, thick Southern accent. Better still, Kevin actually had a few hundred bushels of a some great cider varieties, Pippins, Winesaps, Blacktwigs etc. Finally someone with a decent amount of the good stuff! It seemed he was able to help us. It was only after we’d had a good long chat and I was saying my goodbyes that Kevin said ‘Albemarle Ciderworks are gonna pissed with you guys, they love the Blacktwigs!’. Chuck hadn’t mentioned they got fruit from Drumheller…my heart sank! We talked a little longer and Kevin assured me that he could provide us with some apples without it effecting what he could supply to Chuck, so hopefully that will work out, but we’ll have to see.
After a long drive and a lovely night in Greensboro (props to The Pour House for some good pours!) I headed to the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard established by Lee Calhoun, a direct replica of the 400-variety orchard in his garden which had so tragically been wiped out by fireblight. Lee had told me that funding for the Horne Creek Farm historical site was increasingly limited and that the orchard was not in the best of repair. What greeted me when I got there was pretty tragic. Their truly dedicated orchardist Andrew was struggling single handedly with an enormous workload and the orchard was in a pretty terrible state. Knowing that the only other collection of these super-rare varieties had recently been completely wiped out made this all the worse for me to see. Many of the trees were not producing apples, or falling down, or simply rotting away, it was a very sorry state of affairs. With only two trees of each variety in the orchard, we are genuinely headed for the extinction of multiple species of historic American fruit.
Andrew very kindly took me through the orchard such as it was and gave me lots of insights into the flavor properties of the different apples varieties. He showed me the Hunge, which strangely tastes just like a strawberry, the Fall Pippin which kinda tastes like a pineapple, the Kentucky Limbertwig which tastes like a banana and the Sheepnose which tastes just like a grape…and looks just like a sheep’s nose! I left the orchard full of enthusiasm for what could be done with these varieties but concerned that many could soon be lost forever.
On my return to Texas I went into my local HEB and looked at the apples on sale. My eyes were soon drawn to a plastic-wrapped 4 pack of apples with a funny cartoon graphic and the brandname ‘Grapple’ emblazened on it. What is a Grapple? A ‘Grapple’ is a regular apple wrapped up in child friendly packaging and injected with flavouring to make it taste like a grape…Yep!…to make it taste just like that cute-looking, child friendly, natural, healthy apple teetering on the verge of extinction in that field in N. Carolina. That folks is ‘progress’!
It’s also a pretty good analogy for our approach to cidermaking. We don’t wanna just take whatever apples are cheap and available, then start adding random things to them to try and make them taste good. We wanna use the right apples for the job, ones that naturally create much more subtle, complex and exciting flavours. This leg of the cider road trip has proved beyond doubt that it isn’t gonna be easy to find sources of the right kind of fruit to make outstanding real cider in the US. But I guess if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth doing!