Albemarle Ciderworks - A day on the orchard

There is a road in central Virginia that will make you question everything about your place on earth. 20 South winds slowly towards Charlottesville and is impossibly beautiful. It’s 7AM and the sun is still resting behind the next mountain. A group of black skinned cows lay quietly in a valley. The purple fog surrounding them takes my breath away. The light is just right. The rumble from my trucks exhaust is the only reminder that it’s 2018 and not 1718.  It’s the start of a great day.  

The Trading Post is a small gas station off Monacan Trail south of town. The Monacan’s have been here for a millennium. They greeted the settlers Jamestown. The history of this place speaks to you by saying nothing at all.  

The Trading Post is known for their breakfast sandwiches and roast beef. If you happen to need a 12” filet knife, breaded frozen pickles, or rain boots they’ve got you covered there too.   

Having gone to high school nearby I know of a few of these last bastion places in the state and this is a must stop. Coffee, sweet tarts, and a bacon egg and cheese biscuit in hand I jumped back in the truck.  

Two miles down the road I made a right into Albemarle Ciderworks orchard. Dust kicked up behind me and gravel rocks pinged off each other giving way to the weight of my tires. The road winded right and I could see the pressing barn, doors open. Rolling my window down I yelled to Chuck, “Good morning!” He nods and points to the orchard. “Park over there.” Backing up between two heirloom trees I’m greeted by Speck the orchard dog. Speck limps over and gives my leg a nudge. Clearly asking for any biscuit bits that may be left. Sadly, there are none.  

Making my way over to the pressing barn I’m surround by impressive stacks of full and empty bins. Lots of them. They’re beautiful in the early morning sun. I can see spray painted dates and names on some. 1998, Saunders Brothers, Earl Orchards... 

In the barn is Bill, Chucks brother and co-founder, Jose, long time orchard hand. Bill is wearing water proof gear and standing in front of an accordion press from Fruit Smart. Jose, about 5ft tall, shakes my hand with a firm capable grip. His teeth shine brightly against his tanned leathered skin. Behind me is a towering conveyor and catch bin. Hoses connect all the various equipment and move material to and from said locations. Bins of apples load in the conveyor bin and make their way up to the blender. Pulp falls below to another waiting bin and is pumped over to the press by a foot-controlled pump. Once pressed the juice collects below the press it is pumped into a waiting steel vessel in the temperature-controlled tank barn. I have always appreciated process and I’m loving this.  

Hello’s done we get to work finishing up a sulfate water down of the equipment we’ll be using today. Chuck had spent the prior day setting up shop so nearly all of the work was done. Cousin Ron, a retired steel worker, hopped on the JD 2200 and began methodically began the process of moving bin after bin to us. Guided by hand singles from Bill and Chuck he artfully raised and tilted the bins over the receiving bin beneath the conveyor. Some of the apples would begin to fall. The rest we would shovel out by hand. My job, pull dry rotted apples out and don’t let anything hit the ground. About an hour in and seeing we were understaffed we were joined by Bill’s daughter Anne and wife Cindy.  We were 4hrs into the project the team was working together like we’d done this twenty times. I lost count after the 10th or 11th bin came and went. A bee sting didn’t slow me down either. I was having a blast.  

I had earplugs so I barely heard Alex’s shout over all the equipment noise. “Stop, STOP.” Alex, the tasting room manager was snapping some social media photos noticed it first. I looked over and fresh cider was spraying out of the tote we were pumping into. All of our hard work was flowing across the floor, rapidly. I jumped down off and began pressing the hose against the tote. This did little to stop the hemorrhaging but I couldn’t stand there and do nothing. Bill and Jose jumped into action grabbing back up transfer hoses. Chuck spritely took off to grab a forklift and moved a replacement bin stacked against the barn into position. This all took about five minutes but it felt painfully longer as I watched cider pour out all over the floor.  

Twenty minutes later we had an empty broken tote and a mess to stare at. The plastic hole at the base of the tote had essentially sheared off and popped out the moment Bill tugged on it. They’d never seen this before. Likely cause, weathering of the tote due to a decade of temperature changes and cleanings. All said, and to my surprise, we only lost a few gallons of cider.  

Given the state of the press room from normal operations no cleanup was necessary. We re-engaged, everyone ready to reach our goal of 1,000 gallons. Prior to the spill we had filled a 2,200L tank and the spilled tote was the last of what we’d need. 45 minutes later the replacement tote was full. High fives all around.  

Central Virginia, as I’ve always experienced, is a humble and welcoming place. Albemarle Ciderworks holds true to that reputation. Cindy, who on this day, had prepared a crew lunch invited me to join them in the staff room. Folks lined up buffet style and spooned goodness out of crockpots. After a quick hand wash I sat down at a table and hungrily stared at a plate of steaming BBQ and handmade coleslaw. Dirty fingernails grabbed handfuls of kettle chips as a bag circled the table. Different conversations about apple varieties and how other orchards were fairing took place. Chuck and I sipped on a perfectly fermented bottle of Arkansas Black from 2016. To my left was Tom Burford, a 7th generation cider maker, and reluctant Virginian legend. What a treat to get to spend some time with Tom who, in his nineties, is still full of spunk and good stories. Tom’s an old family friend but for history’s sake he’s family. These people are family. They’re tight. I enjoyed lunch immensely.  

A quick clean up and Chuck led me around the farm on a tour of sorts. He explained the history of the buildings on the property and the changes his family had made to the orchard over the decades since his father put in the trees. Too many to list here. The main cold storage barn was stuffed, impressively so, with bottled product dating back to 2015 where it gets better and better with age. Bins of heirloom apples awaiting the press sit silent in a separate barn. Chuck and Bill will press into May some years. It all depends on what nature allows and what demand exists. It is a privilege to see the inner workings of an operation like this. One that is filled with passion by a desire to create fine art in a bottle. And many say that’s what the Albemarle folks are doing. The cider is close to perfection.  

Tour done I headed back to the press barn and get my clean up instructions. Perhaps the smartest thing I may have done in the prior 24hrs was waterproof my Timberlands. Spray hose and flat shovel in hand I go to work. A few years ago, as Bobby and I cleaned up after a day of operations at Seattle Cider he said, “Cidermakers are janitors who make alcohol.” Truth.  

A few hours later the press barn was looking reasonably clean. Chuck still needed to pressure wash all the equipment and floors however and began setting up the Hotsy. The sun was falling behind the trees and I’d promised Katie I’d be home to help with bed times so my day was over. I wanted to stay though and wake up and do it all over again.  

A highlight, Chuck asked me to sign the press barn office door.  There’s great industry company on that door. I frankly don’t belong there yet but I signed anyway. “Retirement never looked so sweet. Stay Lost!” 

I said my goodbyes to the good folks who gave me a special experience and hopped back in my truck. The bottle of 2016 Harrison and a small pippin apple Chuck gave me as a thank you tucked safely away in my bag.  

I had left my house at 5:30AM. Katie had managed the kids all day for us so I took Bill up on his suggestion and grabbed a “Parsh” from Dr. Ho’s. Some of the best pizza on earth and began the 2hr trek home. I hoped Katie would enjoy it as a small thank you for allowing me to have this free day. 

On the ride back, I didn’t turn on the radio or listen to a pod. I wanted to relive the day in silence. It was a quiet pleasant ride home and Katie enjoyed the pizza I brought to her. 

Click on the photo gallery below to see more.

The lease.

After making a painful business decision to walk away from our last location I wasn’t sure what the future looked like. I did know that I had just created a serious delay in my timeline to launch Lost Boy. I had agreements in place with vendors, a cider maker, and momentum on my side. In one conversation that all went away and new questions about what lay ahead arose.

Well, the day has finally arrived. I am pleased to announce we have found a home, signed a lease, and are moving forward with construction on a space in Old Town Alexandria. I never doubted we would find something. The timing of it all coming together in a reasonable period of time was in doubt. Relieved, I move on to the next task at hand. The city is reviewing my special use permit request and will decide on that on December 4th. Once done, we start construction in January and will shoot to launch in the Spring.

Staying vigilant,

Tristan

GLINTCAP 2018

GLINTCAP: Great Lakes International Cider and Perry competition 

Each year Grand Rapids Michigan hosts the annual industry organized event where fellow cider makers judge cider, perry, and meads by individual category. GLINTCAP is an opportunity to network and enjoy cider friends as much as it is an experience to come close to true cider perfection. It did not disappoint. 

This year I was honored to be invited by the coordinator and take part in judging ciders from around the world. (shout out to my friend Ron Sansone from Cider Culture and Spoke and Spy Cider for making it possible)  

The competition is organized by Eric West of Ciderguide.com and let me tell you it is quite the show. 2018 saw the most cider entries in its history, nearly 1,500. Each entry is recorded, labeled, boxed, and categorized by style. The ciders began arriving at VanderMill's production floor about two weeks prior to the start of the event and continue up until the night before judging begins.

I only briefly saw the process unfolding and could immediately tell it involves a tremendous amount of work. My hat is off to Eric and his team for their commitment to this and for pulling off such a smooth event.  

I arrived in Grand Rapids Tuesday afternoon, very excited, and a little anxious. I had never formally judged a cider competition. Some of my fellow judges have written books on the subject. Needless to say I viewed the entire event as a huge opportunity to grow my base understanding of all things cider.  The judges experience questionnaire I was asked to fill out 2 months ago was 10 pages long and detailed. I found it humbling. I know little about keeving, wild ferments, etc... 

After landing I Uber'd straight to VanderMill and met up with my pal Monte from 2 Fools Cidery outside of Chicago. VanderMill Cider was founded by Paul Vander Heide, current President of the USCMA and legit host. How would I describe VanderMill? Holy shit! It's awesome. My photos don't do it justice. To start, the tasting room overlooks 14 fermentation tanks totaling over 100,000 gallons of juice. There's also a HUGE 1960's Cadillac just hanging out on the production floor space. I have no idea why a car is sitting in the middle of production but I didn't ask questions because it's badass. And of course I did take the opportunity to test out the drivers seat. Monte and I enjoyed the ciders and the staff comped our flights which was awesome of them. A special thanks to Paul for his hospitality. The event centered around his cidery and his space handles the ciders as they come in and get organized.

Next stop, downtown Grand Rapids to meet my best pal Scott Katsma from Seattle Cider. Scott was an early advocate of mine and he's had a huge influence on me. From there the night becomes a little bit of a blur. What I can confirm is that I know that I smiled and laughed a lot and stayed out too late! 

The official judges schedule started Wednesday morning at 7:30AM with the most rad bus ride out to what Michigonians call "the ridge." About 40 of us joined the tour where we stopped at People's Cider, Robinette's Apple Haus, VanderMill, Ridge Cider, and Pux Cider.  The trip was amazingly informative. We could not have asked for a more beautiful day with blue sky's and 75 degrees.  Each stop include a tour of the property, cider, and oddly donuts. Lot's of donuts which unfortunately I could not part take in with my allergy. They looked amazing!  Does Michigan have a thing for donuts? Cideries there apparently do.

My favorite part of the day may have been talking with the orchard owners and learning more about the apple varieties that they're using, planting, and managing. Cider apples are so special I get goosebumps thinking about all those little guys hanging on the trees. This time of year the orchards are in bloom. As we drove through the ridge we were surrounded by rolling hills of blooming trees with white flowers. They continued, seemingly forever. Speckled amongst the white fields were pink flowering trees. Perhaps one per one hundred. These are important pollinating trees used by the bee population to strengthen the crop. It was breathtaking.  

The bus dropped us off back in town at 5pm with little time to spare for judges training and "calibration".  The training was immensely helpful. Conveniently there was a Starbucks downstairs in the hotel but sadly coffee was off the menu due to it's stringent qualities and the effects it has on your taste buds. I honored this rule until Friday morning when I started to crack under the sleep deprivation and wild ferments I'd been tasting for three days. No one told be about the coffee thing prior to arriving. But now I know what to be prepared for next year!  No coffee, no bueno!!! 

After training a group of us (2 Fools, Seattle Cider, Blakes, Two Towns, Angry Orchard) walked up to Founders Brewery for dinner.  The evening was a blast. I was on fairly good behavior and ready for judging the next morning which started promptly at 7:30AM (Eric, can we discuss this?)  

After shaking off the cobwebs I sat down at my first table of the day across from my fellow judges Emilie Sharboneau from Orginal Sin and Ben Watson author of several cider related books and official cider wizard. Gulp.  Drinking at 8AM?

From there it was off to the races. The next 6 hours we tasted, tested, and judged the most amazing ciders I've ever been around. That said, there were a few, uh hmm, interesting ciders submitted. During training the prior night our coordinator emphasized being kind. I reminded myself of this several times as I completed my judges scorecard.  In all honesty this process was teaching. With each cider I tried to be honest and respectful all the while being thoughtful of what the cider maker was attempting to do. Four 1.5hr sessions later...

The goal of the competition is to reward the entries on aroma, appearance, mouth feel, and over all design, not to be a jerk. At the end of the day the cider maker takes our feedback home and hopefully finds it useful on future ferments and recipes.  I'm looking forward to receiving my score cards in the mail next year and reading the feedback from my peers. And I'll try my best not to significantly offend anyone with my ciders.

Even though some of the ciders didn't hit the mark I have to take my hat off to the cider maker for pushing the envelope and pursuing the goal of creating something unique. Without their efforts cider doesn't advance. And I certainly wouldn't stay interested. Creating is so much of what we are doing here.   

Thursday night was another fantastic time. I love my cider friends very much. We all come from different places and backgrounds. That said, we share the same interests and goals. Make great cider and learn as much as we can about the process. The conversation is a chatter land of questions, statements, laughter, stories, etc... all good stuff.  Perhaps most valuable is my appreciation for their willingness to share. Share about life, and share about cider. I can think of few things of more value than knowledge. 

The details of Thursday evening are boozy and filled with positive vibes. I spent dinner with my inner crew at a pizza/beer joint. After grabbing a bite and gluten free beer I went outside and caught up with my Canadian friends who had a table outside. I sat down as the group was going around the table on each of their biggest fears. I was next. Mine was not to waste my time here doing something I didn't enjoy doing and to be fulfilled. Pretty basic I guess. I was, am, and probably always will be grateful that apples came in to my life when they did. I blinked and two hours passed.  

I ended up in a hotel room with the Canadian's at a cider share that my friend Ryan Monkman hosted. Ryan is a cider maker, consultant, and friendly Canadian whom I met while in class at Cornell. He's quite the guy and he too is chasing a similar dream. His cider, named Field Bird is crazy good. The northern spy single varietal was ridiculous. Ryan puts a personal poem on each bottle about his frame of mind during the making process. The poems are touching. 

Great cider and more laughter. I decided to leave as Dave from Two Towns was taking things to the "next level." I'll leave it at that. It was 1AM. I crossed paths with the Canadians in the morning at breakfast. The party went on past 3AM. Yikes.  

Friday came early, again, and it too was amazing. More cider from around the world. On my final judging table I sat with Helen of Weston's Cider in Herefordshire England. We were justing the final class of modern sweet ciders. They were amazing. We have our gold, silver, and bronze medal together after agreeing on eliminating eight on the eleven ciders sitting in front of us. Helen is a 5th generation cider maker. Her English cidery dates back to 1880.  As we chatted about the royal wedding she pulled out several letters from her bag.  The letters were over one hundred years old and from her great grandfather who had exchanged trade with apple growers in New York and Ohio in his search for new relationships. Fascinating. I'm so glad we met and look forward to seeing Helen again one day in England on her family land.   

The highlight of my trip may have been visiting Lake Michigan with Scott and crew. Friday after judging Scott, Ben, Bobby, Christine and I took off in the jeep and drove one hour west, ending up on a beautiful beach with fifty foot high sand dunes behind us. Not exactly what I think of when I think of Michigan for some reason. We cracked a few cans of VanderMill and talked about life. Walking out to the pier was so much fun. Scott came to this beach as a kid. He was jazzed to show it to us and I'm grateful that he did.  

The remainder of the night was a blast. Everyone was hungry so we headed back out to VanderMill where I found my way back to the Cadillac for an epic photo op. Folks sorted through the remaining ciders and took away what they wanted. From there the evening continued on, and on.  So much so that when I got home at 3AM I was quick to set my alarm for 6:45 in order to catch a 9AM flight out.  

That, um, didn't exactly happen and I made it to the ticketing desk at 9:37. Oops.  

$371 later I was back on track and set to be home at 5pm, just in time to link back up with Katie and head to Mount Vernon for a wine festival. Yay, more wine!!! My mouth was burning and my tongue felt like it was gone at this point but the Rose was very good. And it was very good to see my wife after being away.  

Well, that's GLINTCAP in a nutshell. Feeling jazzed and thankful.  

Undeniable

I fell in love with cider the day I discovered her. Like meeting a beautiful person from an unfamiliar culture and immediately recognizing an instant connection. Like WHOA, this feels really good connection. You don't need to know anything about Japan or Italy for that to occur.

The learning curve has been fun, challenging, and vertical. This is what keeps me so interested in my pursuit of becoming a recognized and respected cider brand. I imagine the rest of my life this way, learning about cider, apples, yeast, and fermentation.  I am energized by it!  

Our space negotiations continue and we expect issuance of permits by November. Which means fresh craft cider in your hands by Q1 2018 :) I am excited about several partnerships and collaborations we have in planning and I think you will be too.

Peace, Tristan

Lead Up

So we're at the end of April and there's a lot going on. This week brings some potentially interesting milestones. We're zeroing in on a locations and finalizing logos. More to come on that soon. With so much to do I'm wondering how it will all get done. But then my instincts kick back in and take over. At this point what I do know is this has been so much fun and the energy around the project is contagious. It's truly been a new feeling to experience.  Once the location is locked down I'll be entering execution mode. One of the best things that's taken place was crossing paths with Nick Gunn while in class at Oregon State who is advising me on the cidery. Nick founded and ran Wandering Aengus for 12 years, Oregon's 2nd largest cidery. He's an all around solid guy and I'm glad to have him on board. 

Tug Boat Attitude

Progress around the cidery is steady. I'm constantly reminded that I'm on other peoples schedules. Patience appears to be the name of the game.  Industrial space is few and far between so we've expanded our search to DC and other parts of Northern Virginia to find to optimal location. 

Having been in discovery mode around recipe development for the next few weeks I'll post about a specific apple varietal that we'll be using to make Lost Boy Cider. This weeks apple is the Golden Russet. It's amazing how complex the process can become when parting specific yeasts with apple variants. Very fun!

Golden Russet. (aroma/richness)

This apple adds a very distinct set of aroma characteristics as well as beautiful richness. As a single variety it lacks structure, but we find at about 30%-50% of the blend the cider will retain the aromatics of Golden Russet, specifically ripe melon and stone fruit. Sometimes peach, unripe peach, white peach, ripe peach or sometimes apricot. In addition to stone fruit, GR has a distinctive beeswax/tar/petrol quality.

Pacific Northwest and Seattle Cider

Last week my friend Scott invited me out to his shop, Seattle Cider. Scott's a humble guy so you wouldn't know he's the head cider maker there, you wouldn't know he's a serious pro at problem solving, and you wouldn't know he's surrounded himself with a team as solid as granite unless you spend a few days with them. What an experience. I owe a very special thank you to Scott and the good folks at Seattle Cider. If you ever have a chance to try their stuff, please do. It's amazingly smooth and tasty. 

I love the pacific Northwest. Each time I arrive the lure of the ocean air and the fresh scent of evergreen fill me up with positive energy and give me sense of belonging. It's one of the truest feelings I have in life.  

It was a short trip but a necessary one. Early mornings and late nights led to a truly awesome experience. I didn't do much sightseeing but I did take a quick hike to the coast after work one day to feel that salty fresh air I mentioned. Soooo goooood!

I'm back now and armed with more knowledge than I know what to do with. Highlights of the trip included solving some serious problems like having an Italian made pump get eaten by caustic and cider during peak production hours, moving very large, heavy, and dangerous tanks, receiving and pumping out 8,500 gallons of fresh PNW apple juice, and of course trying some excellent cider.  

If you do find yourself in Seattle surely go to Seattle Cider's tap room. I would also recommend a music filled evening at Capitol Cider and Colin Shilling's tap room in Fremont is worth a stop with 30 ciders on tap from around the country.