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Owner and cider-maker Courtney Mailey makes an equipment adjustment. Photo by Jay Paul
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Apples ready to be pressed Photo by Jay Paul
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Aragon 1904 and Charred Ordinary Photo by Jay Paul
Size doesn't matter at Blue Bee Cider. All of the equipment is on wheels or is stackable and, if need be, can be hoisted via pulleys to move somewhere else in the cidery. This is important; owner Courtney Mailey is a slight woman who doesn't look like she pumps iron. However, she needs to be able to make her cider, from whole apples to bottling, unaided.
"I don't want there to be something I can't do because I don't have the strength or height, and so I have to adapt," she says. Another useful thing she has in abundance that she doesn't mention is a quiet confidence that's helped her achieve her goals. Currently, two kinds of Blue Bee cider, Charred Ordinary, the drier of the two, and Aragon 1904, which has a fuller fruit flavor, are available in the simple wood-and-exposed-brick tasting room behind the Corrugated Box Building near Legend Brewery. On shelves along one wall are photos of the different varieties of apples Mailey uses, with names like Arkansas Black, Hewes Crab, Summer Rambo and — Thomas Jefferson's favorite — the Albemarle Pippin, or Newtown Pippin. And an urban orchard (or more accurately, a future orchard) lines the parking lot out front.
Although cider-making isn't growing at quite the crazy pace of craft beer, in Virginia, it's gone from just one cidery, Foggy Ridge, which opened in 2005, to eight producers in just as many years. That's remarkable growth for a small industry.
Like many new entrepreneurs in the exploding craft-beverage business, Mailey's path began in a very different place from the warehouse in Manchester where she now makes her cider.
"I first thought about doing something in agriculture in 2002. I was working in economic development and transitioning from an overseas assignment in Northern Ireland," Mailey says. She was about to turn 28 and was wondering if she'd missed an opportunity to take her life in a different direction. As she considered other choices, an uncle in the wine business — Myles Anderson, a well-known Washington state winemaker — proved inspiring, but ultimately, Mailey decided the wine business wasn't for her.
"I didn't want to do reds, and white wine in Virginia is a pretty crowded market," she says. "As a beginner, I wanted to see if there was something that had a lower barrier. At that time, there were a lot of wineries, but no cideries that I knew [of] — and a lot of apples."
However, the idea went on the back burner. It wasn't until 2010, after several years working at the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond, that Mailey decided it was time to make a change. And that's when the pace started to pick up. "I left the Fed on Friday and started cider school on Saturday." After completing the cider-making program at Cornell University, she apprenticed at Albemarle CiderWorks for a year, working under Chuck Shelton. When she left, her ideas about cider-making had shifted a little from her mentor's.
"He doesn't want to add anything [to the apple cider]; he has a very light touch," she says. "I'm more willing to add [other things]." She experimented with a dry-hopped cider she named Hopsap Shandy (not yet for sale) and is currently working with Agriberry to produce a berry-infused cider that should be ready later this fall. The latter isn't meant to taste like berries, but to add varied notes, sort of like a cider rosé. She's also partnering with Catoctin Creek to produce a brandy-fortified cider that will be available near Thanksgiving.
"I finished [the Albemarle CiderWorks apprenticeship] in December 2011," Mailey says. "I wrote my business plan over Christmas break; I had my first meetings with funders the first week of January and was shocked to be funded a week later. Then [I had] a whole Pandora's box of excellent problems to solve."
Orchards along the Blue Ridge Mountains were leased, the Manchester space was found, renovation was started and equipment was ordered. Production began when the 2012 apple crop came in, and by the spring of this year, Blue Bee opened for business. Bottles went into stores all over town at the end of May.
Right now, apples are moving from orchards by tractor-trailer load into cold storage. From there, Mailey will start juicing the different varietals and fermenting them in gigantic plastic bags held up by sturdy cardboard boxes that dominate one side of the building. When the different kinds of hard cider are ready, she'll carefully blend them together to create Blue Bee's spring cider release.
It's been a fast ride, but Mailey seems steady on her feet. "There's this [misconception] that cider is a girl's drink. ... We make some funky ciders, and beer drinkers are the ones who actually get more enthusiastic about them." What once might have been a hard sell — this dry, artisanal cider that bears almost no resemblance to the fruity, bubbly, alcohol-filled juice you can buy by the six-pack at the grocery store — is starting to gain a foothold with beer lovers, wine lovers and, most important, food lovers who are looking for an interesting alternative to complement their favorite dishes.