With fall in full swing, we take a look inside Blue Bee Cider to learn what makes Virginia apples so special, and how they’re being utilized in RVA’s newest cidery.
I stopped by Blue Bee Cider one evening last week to find Courtney Mailey, the owner and head cider maker, using a forklift to wrestle a new stainless steel bright tank into her beautiful space next to the James River. Courtney has been working at a fevered pace since the beginning of 2012 to make Blue Bee operational, and pending inspections, she’s very close. I spoke with Courtney to get the details of the new business, and learn how to make apple cider.
The name Blue Bee is an homage to a species of pollinating bee found here in Virginia with a dark blue body. The unique coloring allows these bees to absorb more of the sun’s heat so they can be active much earlier in the season. These industrious little bees help pollinate Virginia’s apple trees each year. As Courtney explained to me, Virginia apples are unique because they are significantly sweeter than apples grown in other parts of the country. Virginia apples, when made into cider, result in much higher alcohol by volume (ABV) cider than you might find elsewhere. I consider this extra booze a bonus for living in good ol’ Virginny.
The process of creating cider begins with selecting and maturing apples. The apples traditionally used for cider are not the sweet varieties that you would buy to eat raw; rather they are bitter apples full of tannins. The tannins give structure and body to the cider, much the same as when selecting the right grapes to make a wine. Cider apples that Courtney uses will usually “sweat” or mature in cold storage before being used, which ensures that the hard cider apples become soft and ready to be ground. The bushels of apples are fed into the grinder, a messy process that yields apple pulp that is then collected in the apple press.
The press was not like the traditional wooden press I had pictured; rather it was a perforated steel cylinder with a balloon inside that compresses the apple pulp from the inside and forces the juice out. This juice is then collected in a basin at the bottom and pumped into one of two containers. If the juice is going to be fermented, it is collected into an oxygen-permeable plastic bag (like a giant box of Franzia). If the juice is not going to be fermented, it is collected into an 1000L airtight plastic jug. From there, it might be filtered. If the intent is to make hard cider, it will then be transferred into a stainless steel bright tank for clarifying or carbonating. Finally it is put into bottles and heat pasteurized in a high temperature water bath.
The ciders made by Blue Bee will be wine-like artisanal ciders that are not as sweet as large commercial ciders like Woodchuck or Angry Orchard. Instead, Blue Bee ciders will have earthy and complex flavors. Courtney currently has three hard ciders planned for the future: a very dry variety, an off-dry variety, and a dessert variety. The dessert cider will be a complex process that starts with making apple juice and then sending it to a distiller who will make it into apple brandy. This apple brandy is then aged in oak barrels on site at Blue Bee. After aging, it will then be combined with unfermented apple juice to make an apple port. I cannot wait to try this! I was also happy to hear that she plans to sell juice ready for homebrewers to take home and ferment to make their own hard cider. In addition to all this, Courtney has even more planned for Blue Bee Cider.
She hopes to create an urban orchard outside the cidery’s doors on a piece of land that runs along the old Reynolds Metals plot and the rail lines, which might even end up producing the fruit for a batch of cider. She also mentioned holding an event for the community to donate apples from their backyards to be included in a batch of cider, similar to the Hardywood Park Community Hopped IPA project. Even seemingly inedible apples in your backyard might be just right for a batch of cider. She hopes that somewhere in Richmond’s backyards, long-lost heirloom apple varieties like Royal Pearmain (once common in Virginia, but now thought extinct) might still be rooted waiting to be found and cultivated.
photo by ohmeaghan