Albemarle Cider Works, Cider, Courtney Mailey, Foggy Ridge Cider, Hard Apple Cider, Hard Cider, VaCider, Virginia Cider
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.
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.
Questions, Comments, Complaints, Random Observations? Contact Me Here
With Irene bound for Virginia the risks to vineyards is clear. What about rain risk to apple orchards? How does 6-12″ of rain over the course of a day or two impact apple crop?
Hi Jeff – (apologies on the slow approval on this – been offline most of the day). Good question, and one that Courtney and I traded emails on this morning. I will defer the answer to the cider experts/orchardists. However, most mature apple trees are self supporting with no trellising needed and unripe apples are hard so I’m not sure a lot of rain negatively affects the fruit quality. Although I do suspect that a lot of rain increases likelihood of rot. Again, I defer to the cider experts on this one.
I am by no means an expert on wine, but I think that part of the concern for vintners is that they must harvest and then immediately press the grapes because they are a soft fruit. Rainwater on the grapes can dilute the juice and thus negatively impact the wine. Apples are a pomme fruit and can withstand a significant holding period in cold storage between harvest and press, if necessary. Also lots of rain can cause the skins to burst on grapes. As far as I know, this generally does not happen with apples.
Heavy winds will knock some fruit off the trees, but that, and the kind of damage that can happen to any tree, are usually the extent of the damage to semi-dwarf and standard trees.
Courtney – Thanks for your time and information shared in this piece. Sending some good vibes to the Albemarle Cider Works orchards (and to your personal nursery as well!)
Jason Phelps said:
The other affects are outright flooding that wash crops away, droppage from wind and or vine damage and the hydrological system in the vineyard or orchard. Weeks of high water table from flooding will impact fruit ripening with sun and heat.
It really can be a disaster and some crops through luck and hardiness will survive, other might not. A real shame and a farmer’s worse nightmare. And am not one, thankfully in this sense.
Thanks for your input on this Jason. I assume those orchards on at higher elevations on hill sides are less susceptible to flooding, yet more open to wind damage (fruit droppage)? Not sure how high water table can impact ripening?
Jason Phelps said:
Plants are active cycling systems for water and CO2 amongst other things, so when there’s lots of water around and then you get the sun and warmth again the plants tend to take on what they can to feed themselves. When it comes to fruit plants you really want to manage their water cycling rather than just figure more is better. Ballooning grapes will split and then open the door for rot and other active organisms. The soil in different places can legitimately take on a certain amount of water and so many things go into how that works in any one location, so the breaking point for how long and how much the soil stays saturated isn’t universal. When a lot of rain is in the forecast any farmer has a cause to be concerned.