Cider Series: Albemarle CiderWorks

Posted on December 16, 2013 by

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From one family to yours. 

Open for just over 4 years, Albemarle CiderWorks is filled with rich history — including family history. The Shelton family not only operates the cidery, but they even name their ciders after the family – such as the Pomme Mary, named after the matriarch of the Shelton family.

CiderWorks is proud of this once Colonial beverage, utilizing apples native to the area, such as the Albemarle Pippin, and even naming their ciders after the history behind Virginia cider, such as Jupiter’s Legacy, which was named after Jupiter Evans, Jefferson’s cider-maker and trust slave. After all, Queen Victoria herself said, “There is no Pippin like the Pippin of Albemarle.” With over 200 varietals of apples grown in their orchard, CiderWorks’ cider maker Chuck Shelton and orchard keeper Bill Shelton are in the business of preserving apple varietals, as well as experimenting to create the next great cider. Cider is growing, quickly becoming the number one adult beverage in terms of the growth of sales. And Virginia Cider is proclaiming a revival, from Charlottesville and beyond.

Albemarle CiderWorks is located just South of Charlottesville on Route 29, amid beautiful scenery, antique shops, wineries, and even a pizza joint. From live music and theater to their many festivals, there’s always a reason to make the quick, scenic drive for a cider tasting at CiderWorks. And with a range of ciders on their tasting list, one bottle is bound to find its way to your next holiday fête.

Anne Shelton and Thomas Unsworth of Albemarle CiderWorks

Give us a brief history of your cidery.

Anne: Albemarle CiderWorks is a family owned and operated enterprise that was started by siblings Charlotte, Chuck, Bill and Todd. In the mid-1990s, we started planting a specialty apple orchard of heirloom and distinctive apple varieties. In 2000, we started grafting and selling fruit trees from the farm as Vintage Virginia Apples. After Chuck retired in 2005, he moved back to Charlottesville to help with the small tree business. He started to ferment some of the fresh cider that was pressed for sale at the farm. After several inquiries from friends and customers on when he was going to be able to sell his cider, the family decided to launch Albemarle CiderWorks. The doors opened in July of 2009.

apples and cider

When and why did you decide to found a cidery here in Virginia? What about Cville and the surrounding area makes it ideal for cider-makers?

Anne: Bud and Mary, my grandparents, retired from jobs in Charlottesville and bought the farm in North Garden. Having been raised on farms, both were looking for a more rural setting for their retirement. It provided the perfect location, though, for their kids’ interest in fruit trees.

Charlottesville is great for cidermakers for a number of reasons. There is a thriving wine and beer industry in Albemarle and Nelson Counties that supports other alcohol production nicely. Apples are abundant in the area through orchards like Saunders Brothers and Silver Creek. Charlottesville residents tend to have a more exploratory palate and are willing to try new drinks and food.

thomas_cidermaker

In 10 words or less, describe your cider.

Thomas: We make a dry, crisp cider as refreshing as it is surprising.

What are 5 things people don’t know about the cider-making process?

Thomas: Well, cider is actually a fairly straight-forward process. Unlike beer-making, you don’t have to rely on complicated recipes or precise water composition. You start with good fruit, press it to juice and let it ferment. Of course that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but as our cider maker, Chuck, is prone to say “Cider just happens if you let it, the trick is guiding good cider into a bottle.” Good cider always starts with good fruit, and good fruit for cider isn’t necessarily good for anything else. We do use some varieties that you could eat out of hand or cook with, like the Albemarle Pippin or Winesap apples, but we also use a lot of apples that can just about turn your mouth inside-out with their tannin or acidity. Like with wine grapes, when you’re looking for good cider apples you want a different set of characteristics for fermentation than you would for a piece of fruit to put on the table.

With another Cider Week VA past us, how would you describe the hard cider revival?

Anne: Hard cider used to be a common table drink in colonial times, much like beer and wine are today. After prohibition, the popularity of cider was greatly diminished. While a cider culture still thrives in Europe and other parts of the world, it is a fledgling industry in the US. As drinkers are looking for new flavors to satisfy curious palates, cider has become something unique to try.

Hopefully soon, just as you have people who identify as a “beer drinker” or “wine drinker”, there will be “cider drinkers.”

How have you seen Cider Week VA grow, and the overall following of local cider makers?

Anne: The popularity, as well as the number, of local cider makers has been steadily growing for the past four years. At Albemarle CiderWorks, we’ve started seeing repeat customers as well as frequent customers. It’s the same for Cider Week. People who attended events last year came out for repeat and new events this year. As new cider makers start producing cider, they will add in their ideas and creativity making Cider Week a new experience every year.

tasting menuWhat is your most popular cider? What do you think makes this particular cider so appealing to your customers?

Thomas: This past year we released a new single-varietal cider made from a Gold Rush apple. For a few years now this has been one of the most popular apples that we’ve had to sell to the public, and we’ve been using it to ferment into our Ragged Mountain blend since we first opened. But we always thought it would hold up well all on its own as a single varietal and we were finally able to press enough juice to find out. It’s still a relatively dry cider, but it has this amazing acidity that tastes a bit like grapefruit with a hint of honey. It’s a really unique glass of cider that has been a big hit since we first started pouring it.

Share a recipe or favorite dish to pair with one of your ciders.

Thomas: My absolute favorite is a glass of Jupiter’s Legacy with a bowl of potato leek soup. Start by taking off the dark green portions of the leeks, slice them into 2” sections and wash thoroughly – then drop those in a pot with your chicken or vegetable stock and let them steep while you’re cutting the rest of the leeks and potatoes. Once you’re ready, pour the stock out into a big bowl and set it aside with the leek greens in to continue to steep. Sauté the rest of the leeks in butter with some thyme until they’re soft, then add the potatoes and pour your broth back into the soup pot. Bring it up to a boil and then simmer until the potatoes are soft. Finally, blend until the soup is a desire consistency and add a dash of cream and season. The soup is simple, rich and creamy with a really warm, earthy flavor. The bright acidity of Jupiter’s Legacy will lift right through a heavy soup like this and offer a truly refreshing compliment.

What variety of apples do you use in your cider? How do varieties affect the end product (from sweet to dry hard cider)?

Thomas: We grow over 200 varieties of apples here, though not every one of those is ideal for cider making. I’d say we probably end up using 40 or more varieties of apples every year to make all of our ciders. On one end of the spectrum we make a classic blend, Jupiter’s Legacy, which uses approximately 30 varieties from Ashmead’s Kernel to White Winter Pearmain. And on the other end we experiment with a number of single varietals, like our Royal Pippin, Gold Rush, or Winesap ciders.

Sugar is always the easiest element of any apple’s juice to taste. When you ferment that juice you’re removing all the sugars and replacing it with alcohol. This allows those secondary aromas and flavors that may have been drowned out by the high sugar content of an apple to take center stage. And so in addition to just dictating how acidic or tannic your cider is, each variety of apple that you use is going to bring a distinct flavor profile to the table. Think of a very dry, red wine. It may taste more like currants or peppercorn or even tobacco than it does like grapes. The same principle is true of a dry hard cider.

xmasapples

Suggest one of your ciders for the holiday season ahead. What makes it perfect for the holidays?

Thomas: Personally, I’m always a fan of our Royal Pippin cider. It has a great balance, is just a dash of sweetness away from being totally dry, and pairs well with just about anything. In particular, pick up a glass if you’re having oysters or fish around the holidays.

On the other hand, if you’re having a big gathering our Pomme Mary can appeal to a wide range of palates and goes very nicely with that Christmas ham.

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Words by Linnea White
Interview by Darren Sweeney
Photography by Katerina Diplas

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Posted in: cheers, Cider Series