Nelson Good starts sorting harvested Golden Delicious apples at Showalter’s Orchard and Greenhouse Tuesday morning. The orchard has started to make hard cider, the popular new branch of its business called Old Hill Hard Cider. (Photo by Nikki Fox)
When, in the spring, the Showalters of Showalter’s Orchard and Greenhouse cautiously started to share a beloved family tradition with the world, they had no idea what they were getting into.
For as long as Sarah Showalter has been a part of the family — she married original owners’ son, Shannon, and the couple took over the business in 2002 — a barrel of homemade hard cider has been brewing on the farm.
For years, the cider was only shared among family and friends. But in May, the couple officially opened a new branch of their business, Old Hill Hard Cider, the central Valley’s own contribution to a growing national trend.
The owners had no idea how potential customers would respond to the cider, so they produced 200 cases, each full of twelve 750-ml bottles of juice.
That clearly wasn’t enough.
They’ve already had to cut back on shipments to local restaurants to keep enough to supply their own tasting room. They’re scared they might not have enough cider for the first Virginia Cider Week, declared by Gov. Bob McDonnell to be held the week before Thanksgiving, let alone enough for a planned spring celebration with officials from the state agriculture department.
“We way underestimated how much cider to make,” Sarah Showalter said while walking around the orchard Tuesday, surrounded by workers sorting, grading and harvesting apples. “Now, we’re having to ration it.”
They’re working on producing 800 cases for next year.
Old Hill Hard Cider is one of only six so-called “cideries” in the state. The oldest one is only 7 years old, and two more are preparing to open, according to Showalter.
Cider, which was always “hard” in colonial days, was a staple of society, according to Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office. At the time, Americans weren’t too successful at growing grapes, and the varieties that would grow in the states didn’t make for good-tasting wine. But apples grew well in the relatively new nation, so hard cider quickly became a prevalent beverage choice for Americans.
“Virginia has a very strong heritage in cider,” Boyd said. “But it all died during Prohibition. It’s just now coming back.”
The resurgence across the nation, and especially in Virginia, probably has to do with a mixture of factors, Boyd said.
One: “People want to know where their food comes from and they want to know where their beverages come from,” she said. “The big, corporate processed foods, they’re still the bulk of the market, but there’s this wide-open niche for people who are looking for locally-grown quality products.”
Also, Virginia apple growers have a hard time competing quantity-wise with the Pacific Northwest states and China, so they’ve started to find creative ways to make their apples more profitable.
More retirees leaving unrelated professions have also started to get into niche farming, Boyd pointed out.
Showalter characterized the situation this way: “It’s like the perfect storm.”
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