Cider Road Trip Pt. 5 – North Carolina/Virginia

The first stop in North Carolina on the hunt for real cider apples was a lunch appointment at the home of the world’s foremost expert on Southern Heirloom Apple varieties, Creighton Lee Calhoun, author of ‘Old Southern Apples’. After his retirement from the military, Lee and his wife Edith had travelled the South for almost 20 years, tracking down, documenting and saving literally thousands of rare old apple varieties. So where does the foremost expert on old Southern apples live? On Blacktwig Road of course!

Lee turned out to be the nicest, funniest and most entertaining old guy I’ve ever met. A staunch liberal, he was at first somewhat distressed that we were basing our business in Texas! I tried to explain that Austin is about as liberal a city as you could imagine, but I’m not sure he was entirely convinced. Interestingly, Lee is descended from former Vice-President John Calhoun, who a quick search reveals was a pretty significant figure in American political history, you might say the Ron Paul of his era.

Lee had prepared a delicious assortment of southern delicacies for lunch, including 3 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I dug out a bottle of our cider, a new prototype for a blend we will be calling ‘Eastciders Original’, which Lee very much enjoyed and was very surprised by. He was aware that historically (and still to this day in England) hard ciders had been made with real cider apples, or ‘bittersweets’ and ‘bittersharps’ as they are called, but he had assumed that these apples would give a cider a very aggressive bitter or sour flavour. In fact, counterintuitively the opposite is true. It’s the eating apples that tend to give cider very aggressive upfront flavours, whilst these very strong tasting bittersweets and bittersharps give a cider a much smoother, more rounded taste profile. Think ‘bitter’ in the way that a great cup of coffee or tea is bitter, or a good red wine.

After lunch we talked for several hours. Lee was very supportive of our aim to work with growers to recultivate rare Southern cider apple varieties, but he was also very frank that he thought we were taking on a massive challenge. He told me to expect an enormous amount of reticence and rejection at first from growers, who are generally very conservative people, his exact words were ‘they’ll think it’s some kind of commie plot!’. He also couldn’t name a single grower who was currently growing these historic varieties. I knew it was going to be tough, but it was a big blow to discover that the world expert on these fruits didn’t know anyone at all who was growing them commercially.

Before I left Lee took me around his garden, which until recently had housed his own personal collection of more than 400 extremely rare varieties. Tragically last year, in quick succession Lee lost his dear wife to cancer and then lost his entire orchard, his life’s passion, to fireblight. The Magnum Bonum tree I photographed him with was about the only tree left alive. One small mercy was that Lee had duplicated his collection at the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard which I visited later in the trip, so at least none of these varieties would be lost for ever.

I had a wonderful afternoon in Lee’s company. I left feeling honoured to have met him but very sad for his loss. He had also made me realise just how hard it was going to be to achieve the goal we have set ourselves. The great news was that Lee very kindly offered to join our advisory board and help us in whatever way he could, which is just amazing. This will be an enormous help in what is going to be a long road ahead and a very, very generous offer.

After a night’s rest in Chapel Hill, a lovely little town which I’m told has the highest concentration of PhD’s in the country (!) I called the very few leads for growers of old varieties in N Carolina that Lee gave me. I soon discovered that even those who grew some heirloom apples had been completely wiped out by an unseasonal freeze in late Spring this year. Things were not looking good! At a bit of a loss as to what to do, I decided to get in the car and head north to Virginia with very little plan as to where I was headed and who might be available to see me. Vaguely hoping to meet the people at Century Farm Orchards in northern North Carolina and visit Foggy Ridge Cider in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I drove about 7 hours, only to discover nobody was home at either place! I did however encounter my first ever real-life hillbillies up there in the Appalacians and some interesting local stores…

Hoping for some help from good old Serendipity, I decided to head for a little place called Austinville that jumped out on the map. Austinville turned out to be a town with no shops, no cafes, no bars, no nothing really…just 3 churches and a funeral home. I couldn’t even get a coffee. Broken and battered, as evening set in I picked the biggest looking city within a couple of hours drive, Roanoke, and headed for that. I didn’t even know how to say ‘Roanoke’, never mind know what was there. Frankly I was too tired to care.

Thankfully, Roanoke at least had a bar! In fact it had a bar full of college kids making the most of a $1 deal on PBRs. All I wanted was a seat and a stiff drink, so I waded through the college kids to the one last seat in the house, took my seat at the bar, ordered my bourbon and coke, then quite incredibly…Serendipity finally showed up. After one of the most disappointing days of my life, the last seat in that bar happened to be next to a girl called JJ from Seattle, who was not only a huge cider fan, she also knew all about heirloom apples…AND…she claimed to know of an orchard just outside Roanoke growing real American cider apples. According to her, ‘the best apples you’ve ever tasted in your life!’…

‘Barman! Get this lady a drink!’

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