INTERVIEW BY JOE FITZPATRICK
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY BRIAN AHNMARK AND ALISA LONG
Nestled in the heart of Richmond, Va.’s historic Old Manchester District, Blue Bee Cider has been hard at work bringing their unique, artisanal craft ciders to the people of Richmond and the surrounding areas. Since founding their headquarters at 212 West 6th Street, they have consistently been raising the bar in cider production and innovative recipes, working on experimental projects with other Virginia breweries and distilleries in the creation of their products. Using the highest quality products and apples not typically found or consumed by the average grocery store shopper, they have developed an exceptional line of ciders in both premium and super premium standards. In addition to releasing these unmatched products, they are also regular supporters of the local music scene and have bands perform the release parties of their latest ciders. We had the opportunity to talk to Brian Ahnmark, Blue Bee’s “cider evangelist,” about their collaborations with local Virginian businesses and the identity they have formed.
Being one of Virginia’s only urban cideries, how did you go about choosing your location?
First and foremost, our owner and cider maker Courtney Mailey was, essentially, the impetus for everything. She was seeking out sites. I think a big part of her background was her apprenticeship with Albemarle Cider Works, which outside of Charlottesville in the Blue Ridge Mountains area. Typically, you are going to see a cidery in apple country near orchards, which makes sense, but I think what was a big part of Courtney’s concept was locating ourselves near people and near a fan base. Her parents have lived in the Richmond area for many years, and Richmond is a tremendous community when it comes to supporting local craft beverages. We really have a booming craft beverage industry now, particularly with the breweries. So it definitely gave us a feeling of hometown advantage where having Richmond on the label has definitely been a critical part of our early success.
In terms of where we are, we are in the Old Manchester District of Richmond. So it’s right on the fall line kind of overlooking downtown. Our building, specifically, is called the Aragon Coffee Building. It was established in the early 1900s. Manchester was an old manufacturing district, and the buildings down in our area are beautiful, old brick. There’s a really rich history down here. Richmond has a history of being one of the early pioneers of electric streetcars, and a lot of the old railway lines are literally out in our parking lot. There is a really cool aura of history down here in Manchester, plus that beautiful view of downtown. When Courtney started looking at spots, Manchester was not in the best shape as a neighborhood as it has been in the past, but it is definitely changing a lot. Our next door neighbor is Legend Brewing Company, and they are the oldest microbrewery in Virginia. They have really been anchoring this neighborhood for a long time, but we have an amazing assortment of neighbors. … Belle Isle Moonshine Distillery just started distilling, I believe, January of this year , maybe four blocks away. I think Courtney saw the potential for the Manchester area to rebound and become that bustling manufacturing district that it once was.
What is the significance of the Blue Bee in your name and logo?
The blue orchard bee is our namesake and, I like to say, our partner in crime. It’s a native pollinator; it’s not a honey bee. What it does, particularly in the Blue Ridge Mountain area, is it comes out in the early spring, and it pollinates apple blossoms. So the blue orchard bee, also known as the blue mason bee, is a kind of iridescent blue. It’s dark colored, and it looks about the size of a honey bee. But from my understanding, it’s a solitary bee. It’s nonaggressive. It doesn’t report back to a queen; it just comes out and pollinates apple blossoms. I think it was a pretty easy pick as a partner in crime, as I said, to be part of our logo and our identity as well.
What is it about your ciders that make them “premium” and “super premium” compared to other cider brands?
The big thing about craft and artisanal ciders is the fact that water is not involved in our process. Our spot down here in Manchester is our retail space, our tasting room, our production facility, our warehouse; it’s our everything. In the fall, we press apples, and we take that raw juice and ferment it. We’re not using concentrate or anything like that, but we are fermenting the raw juice all the way to dry. So you’re gonna end up with a cider that has an ABV in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 percent. That’s pretty typical. It seems to stun some folks, but we are definitely blessed here in Virginia. Southern apples have a lot of sugar, and if you have a nice, long fermentation — and for us that can mean one to two months depending on the apple — it’s not atypical to get an ABV up there in that neighborhood.
But we’re not pressing Granny Smith or Golden Delicious. We are pressing kind of oddball Virginia heirloom apples. Some of the key apples for us are the Albemarle Pippen, the Winesap, and the Hewes Crab, and York and Stamen, and even some more rare apples than that. The concept is these are not necessarily the best of eating apples; they are going to be pretty tart. But the magic comes when you press those apples and ferment that juice. Since these are not commercial-scale apples that you would typically see in a grocery store, they are also hard to come by, and they are also kind of pricey. We spend a lot of money on apples, and then we create some very unique blends from these different apples. So the cider is pretty dissimilar to the sweeter ciders, cider beers, or “session ciders” you might see in a six-pack at the grocery store, not that there are anything wrong with those products. They are just completely different from what we are doing. We are more on the off-dry to dry side.
From our standard semi-sparking ciders, we go all the way up to 18 percent ABV with our
Harvest Ration. That’s our dessert cider. That’s actually a collaboration with Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in Purcellville, Va. where they take our first batch of cider each year, and they distill it for us into custom apple brandy. Ultimately, we age that brandy for eight months in oak barrels, and then we blend it with our cider. It’s a 12-month recipe. Part of what makes the product unique and special is the sheer amount of time. We are looking at a range of anywhere from five to 12 months to create a batch of our cider. For something like Harvest Ration, it also involves a distillery and a premium brandy and cider as well to create something spectacular.
One of the most interesting things about your cider is how often you experiment with different ingredients and work with local businesses, in addition to Catoctin Creek Distilling Company, as well as Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. Can you tell us about these projects you are working on?
We’re in a unique spot. I am happy to acknowledge we are kind of an odd middle child between beer and wine, even in terms of ABV and flavor, and I think we are very fortunate in that most people have had craft beers; most people have had wines; but most people have not had artisanal craft ciders before. So we have the opportunity to hopefully pleasantly surprise people and potentially even blow their minds, and one of the things we are really proud of here is that all of us really enjoy wine and beers as well. As you are probably aware, a lot of people think of cider as a girl’s drink. We hear that a lot (laughs). Sometimes people come through and say, “I’m not a cider guy. I don’t really want to try it.” A big part of our mindset is that you don’t need to be a “beer guy,” or a “wine girl,” or a “wine guy,” or a “beer girl.” You can be an all of the above guy or girl; I know I certainly am. I started with craft beer, and I love it to death. I worked with a brewery in the past. I moved onto wine, and now I’ve found a completely different thing to enjoy.
As I mentioned, Richmond has a really great, booming craft beer community, and even though we don’t fit into the winery or brewery mold, we are kind of a little bit of both. As a result, we’ve been able to make some great friends. We are quite close with the folks at James River Cellars. They feature our ciders in a lot of their events. They actually just had us at their Valentine’s [Day] event. But as far as the breweries, that’s the kind of stuff I like to do on my days off. It all happened very organically where we made a lot of friends, and we are always inviting our brewery folks to come by the cidery and to help us press.
In a couple of these situations, it led to collaborations. Isley Brewing Company did the Apple Brown Betty, which was a spiced winter warmer brown ale that actually featured juice that they helped press. Hardywood is going to do a sour, I believe, which is the same kind of general concept. Nick from Hardywood helped us press juice, and he is working on that project to come out later in the spring. Catoctin Creek — we can’t say enough about them — really took a chance on us when we had no product and no reputation. That was when Courtney was just getting the business of the ground, and they were willing to help out with the brandy. It’s actually hard to believe. When they create the brandy, the keep half for themselves, and then we get half. Our recipe is 12 months, and their recipe is in the neighborhood of two to three years. So we are currently working on the third varietal of Harvest Ration, but they have yet to put out the first version of theirs. … I believe it’s coming out this year, which I am thrilled about. We are going to be first in line, but it’s so rewarding and exciting to see these friendships blossom into a working relationship too where we actually have products that we can share and enjoy.
How often does Blue Bee Cider have local bands or solo musicians come perform at the tasting room?
When we do live music stuff, it’s usually for release parties. Any time we release a cider, we try to have an event with some live music. We had a Valentine’s Day event with live music.
Who are some of the bands that have played there?
Some of the bands include CLAY SPOKES, THE GREEN BOYS, and FLIGHT OF SALT. I’m also in a band so I absolutely live music, and we absolutely love having live music down here at the cidery as well.
Do you feel like the integration of live music at your events has helped to build your brand?
Absolutely, without a doubt. There is a certain party-like atmosphere when you have a little bit of music, even if it’s just background. As a longtime musician myself, it pains me to think of music as being in the background. It’s an important part of my life, and I think it is an important part of entertainment and giving people an experience that is memorable. The first real release party we had, we had a group come in that we sort of members of THE BEER TECHS, who have played numerous shows around town at Hardywood and such. … They did a one-off show as THE CIDER SIPPERS, and I love the spirit of a band saying, “We are going to adopt an identity specifically for this show.” During that show, they were calling out requests and playing music for the joy of playing music. It’s great to see these bands bring followers. We always make sure that the band members get to enjoy some cider as well so they get to have some fun and enjoy the product. There’s a whole bunch of people we have met through the bands, and we have actually seen band members come back. … It’s definitely a big part of where we see our future.
When we started, to be honest, whenever we released a cider, we had a panic moment where we were like, “Do we have enough bottles? Do we have labels? Great, this cider comes out tomorrow.” There wasn’t a whole lot of planning involved, but last February is when we really started to get our stuff together and organize events where we had food trucks come out, where we had music come out, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes to create an atmosphere that is a little more party-like. So far, we tend to stick to folk rock, mountain music, the occasional electric rock band. I enjoy that for sure. But we definitely love to kick things up a notch.
We would love to do more themed events with music, and I have been talking about it forever of doing Vinyl Fridays where we spin some vinyl in here and have listening parties as a way of getting to enjoy music at work. I can build little perks in for the customers where music is always a part of the experience. I think that would be meaningful.
What is your next event which will feature live local music?
The next event is going to be on March 14. March 14 is going to be the official release date for Smokey Winesap; we nicknamed it Smokestack. It is literally a cider made of smoked Winesap apples. … It almost has the aroma of scotch. It’s very smoky in the aroma and in that first sip, but it kind of dissipates away and the apple really takes over. That’s gonna be noon to 7 p.m., and the band we are having is DIGGITY BALL, which is a side project of one of THE GREEN BOYS. They are a Richmond-based band. It’s gonna be largely instrumental with mandolin, fiddle, stand-up bass, etc. They will be playing 3-6 p.m., I would say, in the heart of the afternoon.
For more updates on Blue Bee Cider, be sure to visit their website, “like” their Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.