When we yanks think about British cider, if we think about it at all, we generally think of cider from the western counties found near the border with Wales, cider rich in complex tannins from what many think of as “proper cider apples”. There’s another style of cider in Britain, though, one traditionally made from the excess dessert and culinary fruit grown on the east side of the country in the orchards that fed the growing population of London. Ciders from the east are typically tarter and brighter and much less likely to have the astringency found in their western cousins. It’s the eastern style that cider maker Stephan Schuurman was thinking about when he founded Winchester Ciderworks with apple grower Diane Kearns and master brewer John Hovermale in 2012.
Virginia is one of the largest apple producing states in the union, most of them grown in the verdant Shenandoah valley in the northwest corner of the state. But apples weren’t on his mind when Stephen landed in Winchester in 2004. An engineer at the time, he was there for a 3 month assignment away from his home in the UK to set up a plastics facility. Something in the area must have called to him, though, since 3 months have turned into more than a decade.
Cider wasn’t actually the first idea for his next career. The original plan was to plant grapes and make wine, so he spent some time studying winemaking at the University of California, Davis before returning to his new Virginia home. By then the area had experienced an explosion of wineries – from 13 in 2005 to 30 by 2011 – and he rightly began rethinking the idea of being just one more in a crowd. At the same time, he found himself really missing the cider he grew up drinking at the local pubs back home. (Stephen is originally from Suffolk, growing up only 20 miles from Aspall Hall where the Chevalier family has been making cider commercially since 1728.) So he did what any enterprising young man would do. He bought himself a little press and a garden shredder with stainless steel blades and began fermenting cider of his own using interesting apples he could source from local famer’s markets. They worked out “rather well” so he was ready to head in another direction once he met Diane, a 4th generation orchardist who was looking for a way to diversify the product mix from her family’s 3600 acre apple orchard. Now they not only produce their own ciders but supply juice to a number other Virginia cideries.
Wichester Ciderworks’ signature cider is Malice, who’s name is a clever play on the genus of the apple, Malus. It has decidedly more in commmon with its homonym than its acutal name. Made from a blend of 5 dessert apples, it is a light gold with a pleasant fruity nose. Semi-dry (back sweetened with flash-pasturized fresh juice, not sugar) and sparkling, it is occasionally a bit hazy from apple pectins as neither the original juice or finished cider is ever filtered. The flavor is crisp, bright and a bit sweet, rich with the flavor of apples, though it finishes suprizingly dry. It pairs spendidly with nutty, buttery cheeses and classic pork dishes such as the snitzle served at the Village Market Bistro in Winchester. It is also packaged in cans, which while controversial in some circles does have its merits. Cans are recycled at a significantly greater rate than bottles, for one thing, and are light enough that the carbon footprint savings from transporting them can be fairly significant.
There is an interesting duality in those who forsake their native land for different climes, some ability to retain aspects of the old country while embracing something entirely new. One sees this duality in Stephen’s approach to cider making, a mix of by-the-book-scientist and cavalier bevarage-artist, a willingness to explore the different flavors that can be had from aging cider in used distilled spirits barrels while rejecting the addition of some popular adjuncts (hops are for beer, adding them to cider is just wrong). Though trained as a wine maker, he thinks of cider as its own category, not a substitute for either beer or wine, and in true Bristish fashion rejects the notion of cider cocktails except for the classic mixing with a good stout. In the end his goal is to make a cider he’s proud of, that reflects both his roots and his new soil. He has sold out first at both the 2013 and 2014 Richmond Cider Celebration events, so clearly he’s doing something right.