A Walk on the Dry Side at Hinson Ford Cider & Mead
Over 400 years ago, the first Virginians struggled to turn grapes in wine. It was a lost cause.
Between the humidity, insects, unpalatable native grapes, and the recalcitrant European grapes, wine became a rare sight on a colonist’s dinner table.
Of course, beer and whiskey kept our hardworking early citizens happy, but hard cider was the drink of the masses.
Thomas Jefferson produced a champagne-style cider made with Hew’s Crabapples (check out Blue Bee Cider, Hewe’s Crabout cider). It was his “table drink” bespeaking volumes since the Sage of Monticello was the Nation’s first wine connoisseur.
Throughout the 19th century, growing and producing cider in Virginia was an integral part of our agrarian economy.
Over time, however, the potion largely faded as other adult beverages gained popularity.
Hinson Ford Cider & Mead
Today, hard cider is making a strong comeback in Virginia and nationwide. One of the newest producers is Hinson Ford Cider & Mead located in Rappahannock County, appropriately known for its sizeable apple production in the early 20th century.
But mead shares equal billing with cider at the Hinson Ford Cider & Mead establishment. Mead is the oldest known libation in the world dating to 11,000 years ago. Most bottlings of both at Hinson Ford are fermented to dryness, meaning little residual sugar is in the final product.
“New Tasty” could best describe what is unfolding at this small but artisanal business dedicated to the art of fermenting apples and honey.
As is typical in Virginia, history is linked to the name of the Hinson Ford Cider & Meadery itself. Hinson Ford Road, where the cidery is located, was named after Hinson’s Ford, a shallow crossing across the nearby Rappahannock River.
In August of 1862, Stonewall Jackson led a force of 77,000 men through the ford to position his troops for the looming Second Battle of Bull Run.
With a little imagination, one can picture the troops tramping past the future cidery; too bad they couldn’t have paused for a glass.
Red Orbs & Liquid Gold
The beauty of cider and mead is in their rural provenance. The art and science of their creation are embedded in a bucolic environment. Transforming the gifts of the orchard and the bee into flavorful social lubricants might be considered the highest and best use of both products.
So how did Hinson Ford Cider & Mead discover its calling? Co-owner Dennis Kelly explains the epiphany occurred during his daughter’s wedding.
“Our daughter got married in 2015 at our place in Amissville. As a long-time hobby producer of cider and mead, my wife Mary Graham and I made several batches of mead.
“Of course, we also served champagne, wine, and craft beer, but the mead kind of blew everything else away. We realized then we were on to something. It was very popular.”
It was Kelly’s good fortune that his neighbor Dave Shiff was a cider maker. A decision was made to join forces and build a cidery-meadery on Shiff’s 22-acre farm. It opened in 2018.
The ingredients finding a home in Hinson Ford Cider & Mead flavorful bottles all hail from Rappahannock County. The apple juice is procured from Thornton River Orchard that is managed by orchardist Allan Clark. “He’s a wonderful orchardist and a good guy to work with.
“Ironically Allan was considering producing cider too and said, “Now I don’t have to worry about it. I’ll sell you the juice, and you can make it,” said Kelly.
Most of the products are free from residual sugar and have a wine-like profile. Kelly is grateful for the large commercial cider producers because of the exposure they’ve created for the libation. But he eschews sweet cider like a farmer haying a wet field.
Out of his current 11 offerings at Hinson Ford Cider & Meadery one, a caramelized honey and maple syrup mead, is semi-sweet. Most of the others are dry and some lightly carbonated. When guests come looking for the sweet stuff, the owners explain dry is their game and proceed to educate them on the elegant and crisp nature of the delicate beverages.
To create an even closer connection with its cider production, Shiff planted some 60 apple trees on his land. The trees will start producing fruit next year and will find a home in their tasting room.
So, can any apples make quality cider? No. Similar to wine specific varietals is deemed best for producing cider.
“Winemakers would not use table grapes, and cidermakers would not generally use Red Delicious, as an example,” explains Kelly. “Cider is often a blend of several different apples. As a general rule, the better an apple is for eating, the less likely it will be used for cider production.”
Characteristics sought by cidermakers are a blend of sugar, acidity, and tannins.
The legendary Johnny Appleseed, who planted over 100,000 square miles of orchards, favored planting “spitters.” The apples were hard, small, and bitter but made great cider and applejack, which was Johnny’s objective. Smart guy.
Unfortunately, Prohibition wiped out much of his work. When the Nation went dry in 1920, there was little use for either sweet or bitter apples. Americans did not consume a lot of fruit back then, and most of the orchards were plowed under for other cultivation.
Until about 15 years ago cider and mead were as rare as snow in July. But the phenomenal growth of artisanal wine, beer and spirits triggered interest on the part of cider hobbyists to test consumer interest by going public.
Like the first couple up on the dance floor, it wasn’t long before the number of producers began to grow. And the public began taking notice.
Today there are 820 cideries in the U.S., and mead is quickly catching up. In 2003 there were a paltry 30 such establishments nationwide. In 2018 well over 500 meaderies were producing the drink of Vikings with an additional 350 planning to open their doors.
Here in Virginia, there are 31 cideries and 11 meaderies.
A guaranteed sign of success is when the Governor gets involved. Starting in 2012, Virginia became the first state to proclaim an official “Cider Week.” This year the celebration will occur November 15-24 and feature special tastings, pairings, dinners, events, and workshops.
Since Virginia is the sixth-largest apple producing state, it’s fitting the cider industry is being showcased with Richmond support.
To Your Health
Similar to many consumer food products today, cider and mead are gaining traction for their health profile. I think part of it is simply the younger generation looking for a new experience with. A certain portion is driven by people who are gluten intolerant and have similar health conditions.
“They can’t drink beer, and they want something they can enjoy and tolerate. That’s true for both cider and mead,” says Kelly.
Some claim the medical properties of honey convey to mead drinkers. Honey has long been used as a health tonic because of its probiotic traits. When consumed it can have a positive impact on immunity and intestinal health.
It’s also used as a topical treatment for skin wounds and infections or taken by mouth for coughs and sore throats.
Scientists have found evidence that cider conveys the benefits of health-enhancing antioxidants. A pint delivers the same amount of antioxidants as a glass of red wine.
As with many such health claims, there is often limited medical validation. So, imbibers need to enjoy the liquid refreshments’ responsibility and accept with gratitude any health benefits.
The Tasting Sheet
To set your palate watering here’s a list of the current offerings at Hinson Ford Cider & Mead. All are dry and lightly carbonated except one.
Brehon: Blend of eight Rappahannock County apples. 8% abv.
Ciderhouse: Blend of a dozen county varieties. 8.5% abv.
Ginger: Flavored with fresh ginger. 5.6% abv.
Hopyard: Dry hopped with Cascade and Amarillo hops. 8.5 % abv.
Scrumpy: Named for a traditional English cider. 7.2% abv.
Ruby: Blend of Baldwin apples, Montmorency cherries, and bittersweet cider apples. 9.8% abv.
Dark Skies Bochet: semi-sweet with caramelized honey fermented with maple syrup. 14% abv.
Elderberry: Fermented with Elderberry juice. 10% abv.
Orange Blossom: Made with orange blossom honey. 9.1% abv.
Goldenrod: Made with Goldenrod honey. 9% abv.
Strawberry: Fermented with strawberry puree. 8% abv.
Boutique in a special way
As with most immerging industries, both cideries and meaderies are unique in that large and fancy tasting rooms are the exception, not the rule. They are cozy and informal with the producers themselves often pouring the products with the same hands that created the beverages.
Such establishments are the polar opposite of a large, established winery. The seating may be limited, but the attention manifold. Since passion is the fuel that drives the producers, they are eager to share not only the nuances and flavors of their products but also the hows and whys of production.
During warmer months a tasting should be followed by a glass on the grounds. After all, it’s not just tasting cider or mead, it’s banking a memory that will draw you back for another visit to Hinson Ford Cider.