With a handful of craft breweries recently opening in Richmond, our city is gaining a reputation as a destination for craft beer lovers. In addition to craft beer, Richmond now is home to another craft beverage, cider. Despite only opening their tasting room a few months ago, Blue Bee Cider has quickly become a staple of craft beverage stores and the cider of choice for those who have tried it. Fitting for the upcoming season, we caught up with Courtney Mailey, Blue Bee’s Founder and CEO, to find out more about Richmond’s first and only artisanal hard cidery.
How did you develop your interest in cider making?
My previous career was in economic development. It was an office job, but before that, I always had outdoor jobs, even through graduate school. I still love economic development and solving those kinds of problems but I wanted to to be outside. I need to be working with my hands and being part of teams that are working with their hands as well. For me, this is an important part of being creative.
So why did you decide to go with cider, instead of wine or any other beverage?
I have an uncle who is a winemaker in Washington State and it wasn’t too much of a stretch to start thinking down that line. He’s excellent with reds so I didn’t want to do red wine, and there were already so many great white wine makers in Virginia — I didn’t want to go into a crowded field. I first had this idea 10-12 years ago. At the time, there were no cideries in Virginia that I knew of. A few years ago, I reached a point when I said to myself – I’m getting older so I better hurry up and do this or I’m going to regret it – so I quit my job and started pursuing cider making.
In Virginia, the majority of cideries are located in the mountains. Why did you decide to base Blue Bee in Richmond?
One of the common models of economic development is for businesses to locate next to its raw materials — ex: wood mills next to forests. An alternative model is to locate closer to market or near the customer. Everything is done here — we bring the apples here, crush them, ferment and bottle them. We have a few apple trees across from the cidery that we just harvested last week. Each year they will have more and more fruit and we’ll be able to put more of their apples into our ciders.
How has the response been from the Richmond community?
I think very well. For those who have heard about us, we get a lot of enthusiastic response. We are still finding a large swath of Richmond who has never heard about us before. We’re a small company, much smaller than the breweries that have been starting up around town. A few of our customers are on the local brewery circuit and they think we’re following a beer model but we are not. Cider is regulated as a wine and the process is actually a wine making process. After we press the apples and have the juice, everything from that point forward is conducted in the same way as a winemaker.
What different varieties of cider do you sell here?
Right now we have two. Our Aragon 1904 is a standard cider, more like a dry champagne, with some fruit flavor but is not overly sweet. The Charred Ordinary is more of an old fashioned, tavern-style cider — very dry, very sour. There’s some bitterness, saltiness and gaminess. The Charred Ordinary’s taste is similar to how Virginia ciders tasted back in the day. We have three seasonal releases coming up at the end of October and early November. We’ll have a dry hopped-infused Stayman Winesap cider, a raspberry-blackberry infused cider, and a dessert cider that will be fortified with brandy. We haven’t finalized the ABV for the brandy cider but it will be between 16-18%.
Are there any particular foods that pair best with ciders?
Think of cider as you would a wine — each apple has different flavors, like each grape does. The taste varies year-to-year depending on the location and weather patterns. The Aragon 1904 is good by itself, because it’s lighter, but will pair well with a fresh salad, spicy Thai or Indian food, as well as a rich Thanksgiving poultry. The Charred Ordinary is great with anything that is salty, smoky, or gamey – like a salty Virginia ham, smoked oyster, a rich blue cheese or wild game.
What has been the greatest reward of owning a cidery so far?
The greatest reward is making things and doing creative work with people who you enjoy working with. I’ve trained all of the people who work here and we’re all learning together. Another reward is, of course, the customers. I try to work in the tasting room as much as I can.
Are the majority of visitors expecting sweeter ciders?
Guests are often expecting sweeter and lighter ciders, but we have a different process of making ours than what they may be used to. We don’t add water at any point in the process, so it’s going to be more of a concentrated flavor. We’re also work with rare and heirloom variety apples so this also contributes to price differentiation.
Blue Bee is still very young, where do you see the company going in the next few years?
For the next year, we’re going to try and produce about the same volume, maybe a little bit more than we did last year, but work at doing it better. After that, I’m going to look at how big I can grow and how big I want to grow. I had never thought about Blue Bee getting any larger than what it is now, but there’s greater demand out there than what we could meet under my original plan. I’m going to re-evaluate my expansion plans, being mindful that we can only expand so far before we have to get new equipment. First, I need to test the limits of what I can do with what I have now and figure out the next step after that. Taking all of this into consideration, I’m in no rush to get huge.
Blue Bee Cidery is located at 212 W. 6th Street and their tasting room is opened Friday-Sunday. Feel free top stop by for great cider if you happen to find yourself in the area. For more information on Blue Bee Cider, visit their website and ‘Like’ them on Facebook.
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