The libation of choice of our Virginia colonial ancestors, hard apple cider, had a 200-year run in the commonwealth and the rest of the U.S. before falling out of favor in the early 1900s due to a new penchant for beer. Prohibition delivered the final blow to America’s affection for the fermented apple brew, until orchard owners recently discovered the value-added benefits of fermenting and bottling the juice from apples instead of selling them to eat out of hand. And so, the American tradition is back and being hailed by some as the key to keeping Virginia orchard businesses alive and sustainable.
In fact, Shannon and Sarah Showalter, the husband and wife team who own Old Hill Cider, are counting on it. They purchased their orchard in the Shenandoah Valley from Shannon’s father in 2002 and are in their fifth year of production and distribution of their Old Hill Cider. They realized that just as grape growers can generate more profit from turning their produce into wine then selling it straight from the field, they, too, could earn more by jumping on the new cider-popularity bandwagon. Though they still sell eating apples, much of their agricultural business has now shifted over to this new model.
It’s thanks to the Showalters and other enterprising orchard owners that are busy fermenting apples instead of selling them in hand that Virginia has become the first state to have an official gubernatorial “Cider Week” proclamation. Current Gov. Terry McAuliffe proclaimed each week before Thanksgiving, Nov. 14-23, to be Cider Week.
“Its indeed bad to eat apples, its better to turn them all into cider” – Benjamin Franklin
Of course every week was cider week for our American forbearers. At a time in which the principles of sanitation and bacterial contamination were poorly understood, drinking water was a risky business at best. Fermented beverages were known to be a safer choice and were, hence, touted as a healthful alternative to the ubiquitous clear liquid found in Virginia’s plentiful rivers, streams and lakes. Men, women and even children drank it regularly. Thomas Jefferson’s champagne-like cider, made with Hewe’s Crabapples, was his “table drink.” Cider’s high levels of vitamin C had sailors relying on it as protection against scurvy on long voyages. And it was often relied on for barter and trade.
In fact, many forget that American legend and pioneer nurseryman, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman, actually planted apple trees in the early 1800s for cider making, not for eating. His apples would have been unappealing for fresh eating, yet provided a safe and cheaper alternative to coffee, tea and wine, all expensive imports at the time.
It’s interesting to note that though Virginia is the 6th largest apple producing state in the U.S. right now, except for two species of crabapples, the fruit isn’t even native to America. Furthermore, apple trees do not grow true from seed; they have to be grafted and planted as seedlings.
Many of the uninformed are dismissing hard cider as a new alternative to beer or wine, but to do so is to be ignorant of its long history. The Showalters and other apple orchard owners like them are aiming to revive the cider tradition and industry by growing apples and crafting fine cider. Their small-production artisan ciders with names like “Heritage” and “Yesteryear” are part of a growing niche in the alcohol beverage market—a niche that like a phoenix has risen from the ashes of the last century’s beer industry boom and prohibition laws to rise like a beacon of hope and future prosperity to new generations of apple growers.