Cider Week Virginia — Meet Courtney Mailey, Blue Bee Cider

This is the first in a series of interviews with notable cidermakers as part of Cider Week Virginia 2019.Located in the historic Scott’s Addition area in northwest Richmond, Blue Bee Cider was founded in 2012 and is Virginia’s first urban cidery.  ‘Blue Bee’ cider is named after a native Virginia bee, Ostia lignaria, known as the Blue Orchard Bee.  
Mentoring is important to navigating the cider learning curve. I first met you as the ‘Cider Apprentice’ at Albemarle Cider Works. What role have mentors played in your cider career so far and how are you paying that forward?

Since I was a “non-industry” person, I knew that I would need mentors to help me navigate and get up to speed quickly in a new career. I had known Bill Shelton from my previous career and I knew that they were getting a cidery off the ground. So when the time came to make the change, he was the first person that I asked about next steps. That lead me to meet his daughter Anne, then his sister Charlotte and then his brother Chuck. Each member of the Shelton family contributes something unique and was a critical mentor in different ways. While I was an apprentice at Albemarle CiderWorks, it was and continues to be the cultural epicenter of Virginia cider. So from there I was able to meet other important industry leaders like Diane Flynt, Tom Burford, and Jocelyn Kuzelka.

After Blue Bee Cider got off the ground, I quickly realized that it was going to grow fast and I needed help in the cellar. I met my first apprentice, Matthew Mateo, when I was still at Albemarle CiderWorks when he was wrapping up a stint with a local cheesemaker. After he left, another one came and then another. In all, I guess we’ve averaged about one apprentice every year. Some have stayed on to become a part of the cellar team in a more formal role at Blue Bee cider and others have moved on to other cideries.

You and your team have built Blue Bee Cider into one of the most successful cider companies in the the Commonwealth. What are you most proud of?
Thanks for saying that! I still feel like I’m learning every day how to do this better. I am most proud of the people that have chosen to give their talent and time to this effort. I am proud to see them grow and mature in their work and lives. Sometimes that means moving on from our cidery, and sometimes that means growing into a new role in the company. But we are always changing and embracing change together.
What do you think is most understood about cider?

The most understood thing about cider is that it is made from apples. The rest takes conversation to clarify and level set. Even among the cideries, we have differences of opinion about what cider is and should be.

What wine/cider/beer is open in your fridge right now?
I have a bottle of Meritage waiting for me when I get home tonight.
What advice would you give to the next generation of cidermakers?
Taking time out to really learn from an industry veteran is worth the time and money it will save you in the end. Don’t shortcut your learning. Don’t think that a two-week course or the Internet can tell you everything. These are important places to begin learning what you do not know. But they will not give you all the answers for owning and operating a viable cider company.
From your perspective, what are the most notable opportunities and challenges ahead in the next 10-20 years for Blue Bee Cider and the cider industry?
I wish that I knew! Maybe Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball will start tracking the cider business. 😊 What I am watching in the next five to ten years:
  • Does cider follow a countercyclical business cycle?
  • How/Can growers find ways to bring down the cost of production for some difficult but delicious cider apple varieties?
  • How/Will consumers begin to recognize and coalesce around quality?

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