Drink This: Blue Bee Cider

Words : Samantha Wittwer
Photos : Tag Christof

November 15 2015

It’s late morning, usually the time I need a second cup of coffee to ward off the mid-day lull, and I’m already taking a sip of my fourth glass of cider. It’s a Monday in early November, and Blue Bee Cider in Richmond is—forgive the very intentional pun—buzzing with energy.

I am a bit ashamed to say I’ve never had much of a personal penchant for cider. Compared to the variety of cocktails and craft beers on offer, the sweet fizziness I had encountered held no appeal. But admitting a problem is the first step to recovery, and it wasn’t long into our visit to Blue Bee that I realized how woefully wrong I was. I learned that many of the ciders I had known were hold overs from the industry boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s, when public tastes tended toward the sweet and uncomplicated.These days, cider makers are reveling in the complexity and sense of adventure that the public has developed, thanks in no small part to the craft beer movement.

On our tasting menu for the day were eight of Blue Bee’s current offerings. We began with a pour of the Charred Ordinary, a traditional tavern with unexpectedly pungent notes of mushroom, bruised apple, salt and charcoal. A bold introduction and a sharp contrast to the familiar sugary offerings of large scale cideries, the Charred Ordinary seems to be a bit of a mission statement for Blue Bee.

Cider of the kind that Blue Bee and many of their contemporaries are making was all too familiar to the colonists who settled this area. Known as the drink that founded America, cider has a storied history that harkens back to our native Virginia—Jefferson himself was known to have grown and served cider at Monticello. Blue Bee is currently working on a batch of cider produced in collaboration with a local seed library, who helped bring back the Hewes variety apple – one of George Washington’s noted favorites. The result will be one of the first times since the 18th century that anyone has tasted the variety which so enraptured our first president.

“I’m not calling it a trend anymore,” said Erin James, “it’s definitely a movement.” James, editor in chief of the Cidercraft Magazine, would be the one to know. Cidercraft Magazine, which she co-founded with partner and publisher Kristin Ackerman in 2011, is the first and only national publication dedicated solely to North American ciders. James, like many  Cider enthusiasts, was drawn in by the history. However, that history becomes very muddled around prohibition, a true death knell for America’s drink, which has been struggling to return to its former glory ever since. James suggests that the saving grace of the historic beverage may be found in the internet. Previously isolated enthusiasts are finding each other online, and “the consumer is just more educated,” she says “it’s lit a fire under people.”

It’s certainly a fire that can be felt at the cidery, “we want to throw down the cider gauntlet” says Brian Ahnmark of Blue Bee, and by all metrics it seems that they are doing just that (and if any other cideries wish to take up the gauntlet, we would be happy to offer our services as judge.) Joining their line up this season, along with the culmination of their four-year project developing and raising the heirloom Hewes variety, will be their first Perry, or pear cider. It’s their first venture into non-apple ciders, fermented from wild Virginia pears and eschewing the traditional practice of re-introducing unfermented juice at the end of the process, allowing the incredibly complex and sharp flavors to come through.

Our visit to Blue Bee Cider comes just ahead of a move to their new location in the historic city stables building in Scotts Addition. Purchased this year, the Cidery is beginning the process of renovations now, for what Ahnmark promises will be something akin to “the Disneyland of Cider.” In the meantime, this piece goes to press right in the middle of Virginia Cider Week – a celebration of all things cider that runs until November 22nd at locations across The Commonwealth. Blue Bee and others will be participating in workshops, tastings and dinners throughout the week. It reminds us of the immortal words of a young Will Hunting, “How do you like them apples?”

We like them very much, thank you.

Blue Bee Cider is currently in the Manchester neighborhood of Richmond, VA. Learn more about the events of Cider Week Virginia

Erin James is a freelance writer and editor in the Pacific Northwest. Focusing on food and drink, she co-founded CiderCraft Magazine in 2011.