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At their core, some Virginia cidermakers are wild

Virginia, a state known for its rich history and diverse landscapes, is now gaining recognition for its artisanal cider-making industry. Craft cider producers in the region are exploring vintage cider, a style that draws inspiration from natural wine and emphasizes wild fermentation and foraged fruit over mass-produced, commercial ciders.

One such cider maker is Kirk Billingsley, owner of Wild Meadow Cider and Big Fish Cider. Billingsley harvests wild apples on the slopes of Monterey Mountain in Highland County, Virginia. These apples, grown at high altitudes and exposed to temperature fluctuations, develop a unique acidity that imparts a distinctive character to his ciders. Wild Meadow Cider, exclusively crafted from foraged apples, has received acclaim for its exceptional quality.

Billingsley is part of a growing movement of regional craft cider producers across the United States who are championing the vintage cider trend. These dedicated cider makers prioritize small-batch production, experimentation with wild fermentation, and the use of foraged fruits, reminiscent of natural winemaking practices. Their efforts have carved out a significant niche in the cider market, appealing to enthusiasts seeking distinctive and authentic flavors.

Virginia, with its historical roots in apple cultivation dating back to European settlers at Jamestown in 1614, has played a vital role in the resurgence of craft cider. While cider was once a predominant alcoholic beverage in the United States, it gradually lost favor as the nation urbanized and shifted away from its English heritage.

Diane Flynt, a pioneer of Virginia’s craft cider revival and the founder of Foggy Ridge Cider, was inspired by cider makers in the Northeast and Northwest U.S. who treated cider as a fine wine. Her approach involved annual cider production, with fruit harvested in late summer and fall and a slow fermentation process, resulting in a refined product. Although Foggy Ridge Cider ceased operations in 2017, it left an indelible mark on the craft cider movement.

Flynt’s exploration of cider in the South, documented in her book “Wild, Tamed, Lost, Revived: The Surprising Story of Apples in the South,” revealed that cider’s influence extended well beyond Appalachia. Enslaved individuals, Native Americans, and city dwellers throughout the U.S. all contributed to the cultural tapestry of cider production. Over generations, different apple varieties were cultivated, with each chosen for its unique qualities and characteristics.

Kirk Billingsley’s journey into cider making is deeply rooted in his childhood memories. His family’s apple trees in Monterey served as the source of an annual nonalcoholic apple brew that left a lasting impression. Today, Billingsley remains passionate about cider making, emphasizing the use of apples from unsprayed orchards and wild trees.

While foraging for apples presents unique challenges, including encounters with wildlife, Billingsley’s commitment to crafting exceptional cider from foraged fruit remains unwavering. His work takes him through picturesque countryside fields, offering breathtaking views of tree-lined ridges and the Blue Grass Valley below.

Though it may seem unlikely that small-batch, foraged fruit cider makers could rival large-scale industrial producers, artisanal cider makers like Patrick Collins and Danielle LeCompte are embracing the unpredictability of their craft. Operating under the brand Patois, they experiment with wild apples and bottle fermentation, occasionally drawing inspiration from champagne production techniques. For them, foraged fruit, including contributions from Diane Flynt’s property, provides an essential foundation for their creative and unique ciders.

For Collins and LeCompte, the unpredictability and challenges of foraging are integral to the allure of their craft. They recognize the importance of genetic diversity in wild apple trees, especially as they seek varieties that can thrive in a changing climate. By incorporating foraged apples into their ciders, they contribute to the preservation of cider traditions and the exploration of cider’s future in a world influenced by climate change.

In a region renowned for its history, Virginia’s artisanal cider makers are forging a path that honors the past while embracing the innovative and sustainable possibilities of the future. Their dedication to vintage cider and the use of foraged fruits exemplifies the rich tapestry of American cider-making traditions, reimagined for a new generation of cider enthusiasts.

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