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The Virginia cider renaissance has come to the city of Richmond

Published: September 17, 2013, 3:58 pm ET
Brennan Long The Collegean
Courtney Mailey of Blue Bee Cider is bringing cider brewing back to Richmond.
Features Editor

In 18th century Virginia, alcoholic cider, the everyday drink of the colonists, was made primarily by the women of the household. Today, Courtney Mailey of Blue Bee Cider is continuing that tradition.

This past April, Mailey began making and selling alcoholic cider in a renovated coffee warehouse in Richmond’s Manchester neighborhood. Blue Bee Cider qualifies as Virginia’s first urban cidery because it is located closer to its market than it is to its raw materials.

Mailey, a former economic developer who found her career unsatisfying, said that she decided to start her cider business in the city because her husband worked in Richmond and they had both developed a life there. Rather than being closer to the apples she uses for her cider, Mailey decided to be closer to her customers.

“I knew Richmond was a right market for cider,” Mailey said, “so locating the production here I thought, and still think, would be a good idea.”

Most of Blue Bee’s apples come from an orchard that Mailey leases in Nelson County, which is about two hours outside of Richmond, she said.

Cider has a strong history in the state. Virginia housewives were making cider regularly by 1660, said Sarah Meacham, a VCU history professor who specializes in alcohol in colonial America.

Cider kept the Virginia colonists alive, providing a healthy alternative to the bacteria-ridden water of the time, Meacham said. Many colonists in the North relied on ale or beer, but it was too hot to brew ale or beer in Virginia.

“It was sort of women’s contributions to the call of survival,” Meacham said.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Virginians drank alcohol throughout the day and children drank cider with their breakfasts, Meacham said. These ciders were about five percent alcohol and by 1770, the average adult drank the equivalent of seven shots of rum per day, she said.

Since it is difficult to grow an apple tree directly from a seed, colonists used to import seedlings from England to start their crop.

Today, Virginia is the sixth largest apple producing state by acreage in the United States, according to a press release from Gov. Bob McDonnell.

“Anytime you can take a product and add value to it, it’s a good thing,” said David Robishaw, the sales and market development director for Virginia apples. “I think [cider] will be a very positive thing for the industry.”

There has been a 40 percent increase in cideries in Virginia in the past year, bringing the state’s total to eight, including Blue Bee, Robishaw said.

“Cider is sort of exploding right now,” Mailey said. “It’s an emerging market.”

Mailey said she had decided to pursue cider because she felt that the Virginia white wine industry was a crowded marketplace for a person who was new in the field of alcohol production, and her uncle is already a skilled producer of red wines.

“If you think about where Virginia wine was at 30 years ago, that’s where cider’s at right now,” Mailey said.

This past August, McDonnell announced that Virginia had more than 230 wineries and ranked fifth nationally in the number of wineries per state. The New York Times reported that in 1990, Virginia had fewer than 50 wineries.

Mailey said that even though Blue Bee is Virginia’s only urban cidery, she believes there will be at least one more urban cidery in Virginia by the end of the year, and probably a dozen on the east coast by next fall.

Blue Bee currently sells two types of cider: Charred Ordinary and Aragon 1904. To make Charred Ordinary, Mailey uses heirloom variety apples that were used to make cider almost 300 years ago. Charred Ordinary is very similar to historic Virginia cider and is meant to accompany salty, smoky cuisine, similar to that of the colonial era. Aragon 1904 is made from a combination of modern-day and heirloom apples. It is light and dry, similar to a white wine.

Mailey said she planned to produce five or six different types of cider by next year. Blue Bee Cider is currently available at 27 stores and restaurants in the Richmond area, including Blue Bee’s tasting room in Manchester, a 20-minute drive from the University of Richmond.

Contact staff writer Brennan Long at

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