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. 

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