Continuing the Cider Week Virginia theme with an introduction to Liza and Eric Cioffi, founders of Courthouse Creek Cider.  

Based on Maidens, VA, about 30 miles northwest of Richmond, Courthouse Creek was established in 2014. Eric and Liza recently setup a second location in the historic Scott’s Addition district of Richmond, home of one of the most vibrant drinks communities in Virginia. Today the Cioffi’s farm 4.5 acres of apples (with plans for two to three more acres) using organic and permaculture practices. 
Liza, you were an educator and Eric, you are an attorney.  How did you make the transition from education and law to growing apples and making cider in Virginia?
Before we moved from California, we wrote down our dreams on a big piece of construction paper. When we stepped back and took a look at the paper, we saw the ideal home: a living, breathing, healthy environment for our kids to explore and grow up. We wanted a place where we could plant an orchard and produce an honest product made from the land.  And this ideal place had a creek running through it. We were willing to move anywhere where we could make our dream of running an agri-biz a reality. 
 
Eric got an offer to go back to a big firm job in Richmond, which landed us in Virginia. Liza started a small private tutoring business. We slowly transitioned away from these things.  Liza stopped tutoring after our house fire (she lost all of her teaching materials, and we needed her to manage the cidery full time). Eric stopped working at the firm, and took a term attorney advisor position at the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. He then stopped actively practicing in January 2019. 
 
There was no one deciding factor, but an amalgamation of things. Desire to own our own business. Desire to raise our kids in a great environment. Love of gardening. Love of food. Tired of chasing billable hours. Crazy idea that small, sustainable family businesses are, well, still sustainable. Also, prior to the move, Eric had run his own private chef biz, and opened a small cafe for a spell. During this time, he worked closely with lots of wine makers. We thought we were likely going to do grapes. But then, when we got here to Virginia and tasted proper cider, and all that changed.

Natural wine is a popular and controversial topic in the wine world.  You focus on making ‘natural’ cider.  What does that mean? 
Cider is wine. The fermentation process is identical, you are just using apples instead of grapes. Thus, when one uses the term natural wine, it includes cider (or it very well should!). There is no set definition of natural wine, or exact standards of producing it. For us, our natural method includes fermenting and/or aging everything in wooden vessels (foeder or barrel). We do not use sulfites or any other preservatives. We do not add anything to adjust the color, acid level, etc.  We do not filter or fine our cider. We allow for native or wild yeast fermentation, however, we do also use some cultured yeasts. When we do choose to use cultured yeast — a decision that is fast becoming the exception —we will use multiple yeast strains, including non-Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeasts, to mimic what occurs in the wild, so to speak.

There is no deep philosophical reason for adhering to a natural approach — it simply fits our decision to grow fruit using a minimal intervention and organic approach. It didn’t make sense to treat our orchard and farm as such, and then dump a bunch of crap into our cider. Our methods are also informed by concepts such as slow food, farm to fork, the importance of taste, and the attempt to reconnect cider to food. Cider is an extension of the table — just as any beverage — and we think there should be a better connection between cider and food. Natural cider/wine shares a deep affinity with the foods with which it is consumed. And for us, this is what matters —  not whether you can session a bunch of pints. Actually, we don’t serve our cider in pints. First, our ciders are moderately high in alcohol, so it would be irresponsible to do so. And second, respect the fruit, respect the grower, respect the producer . . . put it in a wine glass and revere it!

What is most misunderstood about cider?
Cider is not beer. Cider is wine. Just as there are many types of grape wine (dry, semi-dry, sweet, dessert style, etc), there are many types of cider. Not all cider is sweet. Not all cider comes in a six pack. So, we tell the consumer to get out there and explore cider! Go to tasting rooms, try different ciders!

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?
Fortunately, Virginia has a close-knit cider community, for the most part. Everyone still plays fairly well together in the sandbox. For us, a few stand out as having been extremely helpful and supportive from our inception. The entire Shelton family of Albemarle Cider Works has been amazing. From putting on informative seminars, to always encouraging us to push on, they’ve just been tremendous. Love them all. Great people. Indeed, we were convinced we would plant grapes in Virginia — until we tried Chuck Shelton’s cider. It was an epiphany: cider could be something so much more than a pint glass of sweet stuff. We decided right there, standing in their tasting room, to make cider and not grape wine. Courtney Mailey of Blue Bee Cider has also really helped us a lot. We have a ton of respect for her, and Liza, in particular, has really learned a lot from her. We also are fortunate to know Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge. Diane is such a huge figure in the Virginia cider world, and she continues to influence it. She is brilliant, and we feel like we’ve earned her respect with our commitment to our approach. It is certainly different than what she used to produce, but the common ground is a core belief that taste matters, as does dedication and expression of who you are as a cider maker.

Boy, how have we paid it forward? We’ve started to field the same “wide-eyed” emails and queries from neophytes that we used to send! Currenlty, we’ve got a part-time employee who wants to open his own cidery. We hope to help him on his path. We also may be taking on an intern over the summer to assist us with the implementation of permaculture practices. Though, the intern likely will have far more knowledge than us! We also partner with a ton of non-profits, constantly giving back to our community, which is incredibly important to us. It’s basically part of our internal culture.

What advice would you give to the next generation of cidermakers?

Easy. Figure out who you are as a person. Let that guide you in developing your cider making style, your brand — basically, who you will be as a company. The easiest thing in the world to market is the truth — imagine that. If you know who you are, you know the WHY behind everything you do. Oh, and whatever you think need for space? Triple it.

From your perspective, what are the most notable opportunities and challenges ahead in the next 10-20 years for Courthouse Creek Cider and the cider industry?
For us, our focus is to build a sustainable business. We live and work on our property. We want our kids to come home, here, for years to come, and see the value in what we’ve built together. Success, to us, includes raising four kids that are grounded, rooted if you will — and to have that manifested within themselves every time they are home. This is our greatest challenge.

Regarding the industry: Well, the groundswell is to put everything in a can and max-out distribution. We will see what happens. I like turtles. Slow and steady. Life is good.

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