By Daniel Lee, Office of Historic Alexandria
ALEXANDRIA,VA- As fall envelops us, the apple is the fruit most commonly found seen at grocery stores and farmer’s markets. As multicolored as the leaves on the trees, apples came to Virginia principally to be made into cider. In fact, there were only two crabapple varieties native to North America before English colonists began bringing apple seedlings across the ocean.
Unlike coffee, tea, and wine grapes, apples from England grew easily in Virginia’s climate. While most of the early varieties were too sour for eating, they were fermented and squeezed into cider.
Alexandrians from previous centuries consumed cider regularly, as evidenced by advertisements in newspapers, such as the Alexandria Gazette. For example, during the middle of Civil War on Dec. 5, 1863, R.H. Gemeny advertised that he just received 20 barrels of pure apple cider. Others, such as George H. Robinson, advertised a crab apple cider that probably combined methods and materials from the New and Old Worlds.
An 1858 Gazette article included a how-to guide for fermenting one’s own cider. The article portrayed high-quality cider as suitable in cases of sickness, perpetuating the urban legend of alcohol as a cure-all tonic:
The apples should be well ripened but not in the least decayed. Every apple with the least speck of rot in it should be removed…The grinding process should be performed two days before pressing, and the pomace be permitted to stand and mellow in the vat, until it assumes a deep red color.
A contributor in 1869 wrote:
Any good apple will make cider, but more generally, an apple full of juice, and not the best to Eat will make the best. The Virginia crab perhaps excels all other apples for cider making.
An October 10, 1870 article compared cider with champagne, saying, “the champagne usually sold in this country is so inferior to good bottled cider, unadulterated and used in its right name that we wonder people do not use it in preference.”
Part of cider’s problem, according to the newspaper, was a perception about class: “cider is such a vulgar drink, you know, and only costs five dollars for a case of the finest. Champagne is immensely high-toned and retails for ten times that.”
What caused cider’s decline? According to Virginia Cider Week, the Industrial Revolution and changing tastes influenced by a growing immigrant population that preferred beer to cider was the first blow to cider production and consumption. Prohibition dealt a fatal blow to many orchards and cideries in the 20th century.
Virginia Cider Week Is Coming!
Cider is making a comeback! In order to highlight its renaissance, and to draw attention to Virginia’s long history with the drink, the Virginia General Assembly established Virginia Cider Week, designating the full week before Thanksgiving as Virginia Cider Week not just in 2012, but in each succeeding year. The bill recognized cider’s role in early Virginia, its favor in the eyes of Thomas Jefferson, its decline due to industrialization and Prohibition, and its rebirth in this century. In fact, the cider industry has rebounded nationwide, growing 60 percent since 2012. And here in Alexandria, the Lost Boy Cider brewery opened in June.
During Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration, multiple cideries won grants from the Agriculture and Forestry Industry Development Fund. Recipients of this grant included Coyote Hole Cider Works near Mineral and Farmhouse Cidery near Virginia Beach. While announcing the grant award to Farmhouse Cidery, McAuliffe touted the benefit to Virginia’s economy noting that cideries provided jobs, diversified Virginia’s agricultural industry, and brought agritourism to the state.
Alexandria’s sister city Caen, France also has a vibrant cider tradition. Normandy, the region of which Caen is the capitol, includes the only “Route du Cidre,” a 40-kilometer loop clearly marked on sign with an apple. Cider producers in Normandy often also often produce calvados, an apple brandy which is cider distilled for two years in oak casks.
Coming Up: The Office of Historic Alexandria is holding its 5th annual Alexandria Cider Festival on Saturday, November 23rd from 1 to 5 p.m. As an official Virginia Week event, the Alexandria Cider Festival has grown over the years from 50 to more than 350 people attending and enjoying a range of Virginia hard ciders. This year, the event will be held in the garden of the Lloyd House at 220 N. Washington Street. Guests will receive a commemorative glass, get to hear live music, and sample ciders from the now 10 participating cideries. Early tickets can be purchased online at shop.alexandriava.gov for $45 or at the door for $55 per person.