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Notes from the Cider Apprentice – Q&A with Courtney Mailey

Wikipedia defines laggards (late adopters) as ‘individuals that are the last to adopt an innovation.’  In many respects I am a late adopter – I still use a Blackberry with no near–term plan for an exponentially more functional Droid or iPhone, and I just setup a Facebook page for this blog last week, three years after starting Drink What You Like.  Not only am I slow to adopt technologically; I was slow to embrace one of the fastest growing segments of the alcoholic beverage market – hard apple cider.

It wasn’t until I started researching the drinking habits and preferences of our nation’s third President as part of the ’30 Days of Thomas Jefferson on Wine‘ series that I took serious notice of Virginia’s blossoming hard apple cider industry.

Although Jefferson was most noted for his love of wine, he was equally passionate about cider.  Unlike his inability to make wine from grapes he attempted to grow at Monticello, Jefferson was a successful cider maker.  One of the pioneers of the Virginia cider industry – Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider – educated me on Jefferson’s love of cider and about the finer points of hard apple cider in her Virginia Cider 101‘ piece.

There are currently three hard apple cider producers in Virginia – Foggy Ridge Cider, Albemarle Cider Works and Castle Hill Cider – with two or three more set to open in 2012.  The cider industry here is reminiscent of the Virginia wine industry just two decades ago – filled with passionate visionaries determined to put Virginia on the global cider map.

One of these passionate cider visionaries is Courtney Mailey, who currently serves as a cider apprentice at Albemarle Cider Works.

I first met Courtney in March during a gathering of Virginia wine bloggers at Albemarle Cider Works for a Virginia cider tasting and education day. (Be sure to read these recaps of the Virginia Wine Mafia’s visit to Albemarle Cider Works – Virginia Wine Time and at Swirl Sip Snark).

I recently had the chance to catch up with Virginia’s Cider Apprentice, to ask a few questions about her role in the Virginia cider industry.

DWYL:  So, you’re a Cider Apprentice. How, or why, did you develop an interest in cider?
CM:  I am often asked how I came up this idea. I honestly can’t remember exactly, other than some time in 2002, when I was living in or moving back from Belfast, Northern Ireland. My Uncle Myles, recently inducted into the Washington State Wine Hall of Fame, is definitely one of my inspirations for pursuing a career as a cider maker. Also included in the inspiration gallery are: my mother, the horticulturalist; my husband who comes from a family of pub owners and entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland; and Mr. Williams, my high school guidance counselor, who did not shy away from handing me my career test results in the 11th grade. When all the other kids had results like journalist, lawyer, doctor, engineer; I came out as a farmer.

Flash forward to 2010, when I started intensive career counseling. I took bunches of tests and analyzed all kinds of data about my preferences, strengths, values, etc.  At the end of it all, it was clear that I should give myself the chance to start my own business – in agriculture (!). It would be either the start of something big or it would flop, but it would be my vision. After settling in on cider making, I had to convince Charlotte Shelton (owner of Albemarle Cider Works) to take a chance on an apprentice – something Albemarle CiderWorks had never tried before – and I had to get ready for the transition financially.

A day after I left my old job, my dad and I went to cider school at Cornell University’s Food Science Lab. My dad provided an important extra pair of ears to catch what mine didn’t. Learning to make cider is very important to starting a cidery, but without sound business practices, it is a hobby. Dad’s background in business management and his military zip, make him a great thought and business partner for me.

Courtney planting her first nursery.

DWYL:  Aside from learning how to make hard apple cider, what has been your primary take–away/lesson learned during your cider apprenticeship?
CM:  The Shelton family is so supportive and generous. I am able to work through all kinds of questions about production and the business side of cider before I begin investing any significant capital. This exposure, along with additional training available through my connection with the cidery, has saved me untold amounts of grief and financial error.

While I have learned lots about making cider as an apprentice, and will likely learn more, just being at the cidery creates opportunities to meet random VIPs for my future cidery such as other cider makers, apple growers, critical suppliers, etc. I think I may be in business for a few years before I feel comfortable saying, “I am a cidermaker.” But as long as I have the right people in my orbit and the right plan in place, I think I will have as good a chance as anyone of being successful. Success being defined as earning a living by making a quality, Virginia–based product that supports our family and delights customers.

DWYL:  I’ve enjoyed reading the Cider Apprentice blog.  Why did you start blogging?
CM:  I started the Cider Apprentice blog in January this year. The blog complements my cider apprenticeship by forcing me to take pictures and assess what I’ve learned. It also creates a window into my new world as an aspiring cidermaker for people in my pre–cider life. I am amazed that the blog attracted anyone outside my immediate circle of friends, family or former colleagues in community economic development. (For the full run down on my previous work history, go to my somewhat dated and brief LinkedIn profile.) But I will not look a gift horse in the mouth! I really appreciate the support and encouragement of those folks that cider has brought into my life.

DWYL:  Have you settled on a name for your cidery? 
CM:  The name is settled, but that is just about the only thing that is. Before the big brand reveal, I want to make sure I have my ducks in a row. Ventures like this typically take about five years to turn a profit – and I haven’t even started trading yet! So keep an eye out via www.twitter.com/CiderApprentice and www.mailey.com/bog. My apprenticeship will end in a few months and, with the wind at my back, the New Year will bring a new cider company to Virginia!

I plan to follow up with Courtney later this year to get an update on the 2011 harvest at Albemarle and to get an update on her cider operation.

Thank you Courtney for taking time to answer a few questions and share your insights in to Virginia’s cider industry.

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