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Freelance Writing

"Abroad at Home"

Abroad at Home: The 600 Best International Travel Experiences in North America

As an author for the travel book Abroad at Home: The 600 Best International Travel Experiences in North America,” (available on Amazon), I interviewed fascinating people from all over the country, from Acadian Maine to Cajun Louisiana, and wrote about cultural enclaves in America’s Northeast and South.

Excerpt as printed by National Geographic Travel Books, 2015:

HENAGAR, ALABAMA, Sacred Harp Singing

Nothing prepares you for your first Sacred Harp singing. If you’re asked to lead “a lesson”—which you inevitably will be—you must stand in the center of the “hollow square” created by treble, alto, tenor, and bass singers seated on each side, all facing you to form the square. The singing starts, the voices rise until all four sections are equally powerful and you are engulfed in a sea of song. If the surge of endorphins moves you to tears, don’t fret. Your fellow singers have seen it all before.

IN THE KNOW: For many, Sacred Harp is a religious experience, historically tied to the church music of the British Isles. Much of the a cappella music comes from the poetry of 18th-century English hymns and, in the 19th century from the songs of the American South.

Lately there has been a surge in enthusiasm for Sacred Harp. “Its been spreading like wildfire in the last 20 years,” says David Ivey, chairman of Camp Fasola (get it? fa-so – la?), which offers weeklong immersions in Sacred Harp singing and culture in where? Alabama. “It’s even back in England, where it all started,” Ivey says.

WHERE TO GO: The Liberty Baptist Church in Henagar, Ala., never lost its way in its devotion to singing. All are welcome to their weekend singings, regardless of religious affiliation or ability to hold a tune. You can listen too, but that’s not nearly as much fun.


12108945_10153902115214415_6826792119039472365_nHard Cider in the Old Dominion: The Revival of a Colonial Favorite Taps into Virginia’s Heritage and Bears New Fruit

Article as printed in Albemarle magazine, October/November 2015:

The morning fog pools thick at the base of the orchard, enveloping the pickers as they gather Pomme Gris and Taliaferro apples from the trees and off the ground. It’s harvest season at the aptly named Foggy Ridge, the small craft cidery in hilly southwest Virginia. Orchardist Eliza Greenman and her crew of young pickers are climbing trees, shaking them, and gathering up the “drops”—the fruit that tumbles to the ground in a percussion of earthy thumps.

These apples are heirloom varieties, favored by Thomas Jefferson and grown in his orchards at Monticello. At Foggy Ridge they serve one purpose—to make blended, multi-varietal hard cider.

“People have been trained to eat unripe apples, with the starch content of a potato,” says Greenman as she bends to scoop up a tree-ripened Virginia Beauty off the ground. Beautiful as it sounds, this apple is splotchy with gray blemishes, the result of a harmless but unsightly fungus. She takes a hearty bite and hands it over to her crew of seasonal pickers. The fruit passes from lips to lips, the flavor eliciting descriptions like “tropical fruit,” “Red Hots aftertaste,” and “peach tea.”

These are some of the complex flavor profiles that craft cider makers are trying to harness: sharp, bittersharp, bittersweet. Yet the most widely produced apples today are “dessert” varieties, like Golden Delicious and Fuji, apples that make for fine snacking but rather bland cider.

Hard cider was the most widely consumed and available beverage in colonial America. Esteemed doctors like Benjamin Rush, personal physician to George Washington, touted it as a healthier alternative to water. Apples grew easily throughout the colonies, unlike the barley and hops necessary for beer, and trees could be found on homesteads of all sizes.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cider saw a steep decline. Industrialization, refrigeration, urbanization, the Temperance Movement, Prohibition, the rise of big agriculture, and the rise of soft drinks all took their toll on the cider market in the United States. The onset of a burgeoning microbrew and wine industry has piqued the American appetite for more varied beverages, and the rise in gluten-related illnesses like celiac disease has driven more consumers to this naturally gluten- free drink.

Only in the last few decades has this quintessential American beverage made a comeback, and with it the reemergence of cider apples. Though still only 1% of the nation’s alcohol market, cider production has tripled in the past three years. As the market for cider continues to grow, so too does the gulf between the supply of apples and the demand of cider.

In many ways Virginia has only just begun to reestablish its cider roots. New York, Michigan, and Washington already support dozens of cideries. New York leads the pack with 58 cider producers as of June 2015, according to a survey conducted by Cyder Market LLC. In the same survey, Virginia listed ten cideries, with a handful of wineries also adding cider to their production. These cider-curious wineries have a major advantage over cideries starting from scratch. Apples, like grapes, are macerated, pressed, and fermented, and processed through the same expensive machinery used by wineries. This close relationship has led many state cider makers to take a cue from Virginia winemakers in the realm of legislation as well.

“Rather than reinvent the wheel, cideries are riding the coattails of the wine lobby,” says Mary Beth Williams, a compliance lawyer who has many Virginia cideries as clients. “The success of wineries is why the cideries have been able to boom.”

Some cideries relish the natural association of cider with wine. At Foggy Ridge, not only is the cider bottled in 750ml wine bottles, but the level of care resembles that of a fine winery: small batch, fruit-forward, delicate blends. Restaurant menus list these ciders alongside sparkling wines, and critics speak of its complex flavor profiles. In 2013, The New York Times praised Foggy Ridge’s “Serious Cider”—a crisp, dry, Champagne-style cider—as the best in a blind tasting of ciders from around the country.

Proprietor Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge explains the three-point secret to her cider’s success. “We buy or grow good apples chosen for cider. We ferment carefully. And we blend. The picking, pressing, blending is tailored to the fruit. Honor the fruit and honor the variety.”

In their tasting room, pressing is in full swing as a batch of Ida Red apples transforms from fleshy fruit to liquid gold. The sweet, autumnal scent of macerated apples makes for a heady atmosphere. Even the bees seem to buzz around in an inebriated stupor.

Since apple crops can take anywhere from five to seven years to produce their first fruit, many cider makers are forced to seek out established and commercial growers. These Ida Reds were grown at a commercial orchard 141 miles from Foggy Ridge.

The consumer wants both local and delicious, says Flynt, and that’s not always possible. Though there is a proliferation of fresh fruit and processing apples in Virginia, cider makers must search farther afield for cider-specific varieties. Many turn to New England growers like Steve Wood of Poverty

Only in the last few decades has this quintessential American beverage made a comeback, and with it the reemergence of cider apples.

Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Ciders, who pioneered the cultivation of tannin-rich English cider varieties in America in the early 1990s. “Isn’t it better to buy the best apples from Steve Wood and ship them here from New Hampshire?” says Flynt. “In the alcoholic beverage world, fresh and local aren’t always the best for flavor.”

It is important to note Virginia cideries have a financial and legal incentive to use local fruit. In compliance with the “farm winery license”—a state statute which grants complying wineries and cideries the ability to serve and sell wine on the premises and receive agricultural tax credits, among other privileges—cider makers are required to use no less than 51% of their own apples in their production and no more than 25% of out-of-state apples. Exceptions are granted in case of crop failure.

Currently, every cidery in the state holds a farm winery license, and so the hunt for the local apple supply is competitive. “All these people want to be cider makers and there is not enough good fruit,” says Greenman. “I feel like American cider today is about how to make the best blends out of dessert apples.”

For brother and sister-duo Chuck and Charlotte Shelton of Albemarle CiderWorks, it wasn’t the cider that initially piqued their interest, but the apples. “We were into apple sales, tree sales, and fresh fruit sales, long before we ever made hard cider,” says Chuck Shelton, the cider maker of the operation.

Located just south of Charlottesville in Covesville, their family business began as an heirloom apple orchard, with many varieties sourced directly from Monticello, like the sprightly Hewes Crab Apple, a favorite of Thomas Jefferson for its cider-friendly tannins.

Often, the ciders at Albemarle CiderWorks showcase a single apple variety. “We’ve deviated a little from the mainstream with our single varieties,” says Shelton. In this office, as in many other farm cidery offices, snifters of cider often replace coffee mugs.

In addition to what’s grown on Albemarle CiderWorks’ 75 acres, Shelton sources many of his apples from nearby Nelson County. “We’re not the only ones competing for these apples. All the orchards in Nelson County have retail outlets too,” he says. Not only do these commercial orchards sell the dessert fruit, they also sell apples for juicing and processing. Selling for cider, despite its high profit margin, simply isn’t on many growers’ radars.

Getting the word out about heirloom apples is a huge part of expanding the avail- able apple supply. To this end, Albemarle CiderWorks has retained the expert advice of seventh-generation “orchardman” and octogenarian Tom Burford. In the apple world, Burford is somewhat of a celebrity pomologist, and is routinely courted for ad- vice on everything from orchard design to obscure apple identification. “Occasionally I am approached to consult at abandoned orchards,” he says. “I may find a Winesap, but you don’t make good cider from just any old Winesap. There are dozens of cultivars. The larger and prettier are generally not as delicious.”

Like many people in the cider world, he likes to tell the story of John Adams drink- ing a tankard of cider for breakfast every morning. “That’s a little less than a liter, and probably around 10% alcohol back then,” says Burford, suggesting that our founding fathers were more than a little buzzed during business hours.

On an October weeknight in Richmond, the tasting room at Blue Bee Cider glows warm from its industrial belly. The former coffee warehouse is now home the state’s only urban cidery. Tonight 20 participants and one radio journalist have convened for a cider-making workshop led by proprietor Courtney Mailey. Youthful and kind, with blond hair and the inviting ask-me-anything disposition of a schoolteacher, Mailey instructs the group of home brewers, winemakers, and fermentation neophytes on how to turn fresh sweet cider into dry hard cider.

Each participant is paired with a “carboy” (cider speak for a fermentation jug) filled with unpasteurized, preservative-free fresh cider, a beaker, yeast, yeast nutrient, and a book on how to make both hard and sweet cider from author and cider hobbyist Ben Watson. The program feels like a third grade biology class as everyone gingerly measures out 150ml of warm water and two teaspoons of yeast into sanitized beakers. Once the yeast-water mixture settles, it is added to the carboy to begin fermenting.

While the carboys gurgle softly in the background, Mailey and Blue Bee cider maker Manuel Garcia field questions about the business. A workshop participant asks about adding raspberries or blueberries to cider. Blue Bee is famous for its use of non-apple infusions.

Garcia offers the example of a pomegranate-infused cider he was testing. “Is that still a cider? I think it is. Some people might disagree.”

There is a discrepancy between alcoholic labeling governances that has left many cider makers scratching their heads.

“The federal definition of cider is that it is 100% apple juice,” says Mailey. To the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), if any other fruit has been added to cider, it can no longer be called “cider,” but rather, “fruit wine.” However, to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), the term “wine” is reserved exclusively for fermented grape juice.

Greenwood Gourmet Grocery in Greenwood frequently hosts a pop-up cider tasting for Potter’s Craft Cider, a small operation run by Princeton University grads Dan Potter and Tim Edmond. Snifter glasses detailed with the woodblock-style Potter’s logo slosh with long pours of Farmhouse Dry, Oak Barrel Reserve, and Hop Cider.

At a recent tasting, Jill Parks swirls around a glass of Farmhouse Dry, her favorite. “Our friends know we have it on tap at home so they’ll come over and say ‘We need a Craft!’” As the head pharmacist at a local Kroger supermarket, Parks convinced the in-house wine steward to carry Potter’s Craft bottles and kegs at the store.

With a farm winery license cideries can host up to five satellite-tasting sites on any given day, as a way to connect rural cideries with residential areas. Edmond and Potter have plans to take the tasting room to the open road.

“We’re converting a 1965 airstream into a mobile tasting room,” says Edmond with a twinkle in his eye. Potter’s Craft is nothing if not grassroots. Until recently, the company didn’t even have a working web- site. As for advertising, Edmond says, “it’s just the two of us, so we cultivate relation- ships through charitable opportunities,” like sponsoring Jill Parks’ team for a local breast cancer awareness walk. This is a far cry from the television advertisements currently disseminated by national brand ciders, but it appears to be working: Potter’s Craft is now carried in Whole Foods across the state and in Washington DC.

To Edmond, sharing shelf space with other local ciders actually helps Potter’s Craft get its name out. “Having other Virginia cideries out there means that there is a special place on the shelf. We’re no longer stuffed next to the bottle of white wine or the large format craft beer. I think we’re five to ten years out until we reach real critical mass in the market,” he says. “Right now it’s catch-as-catch-can.”

Virginia, with its abundant apple population, is perfect for hard cider production, which, along with the rise in hard cider’s popularity, has allowed companies such as Bold Rock to flourish in the Virginia region. Of the cideries in business in Virginia, Bold Rock is the largest. Though still marketed as craft cider, Bold Rock targets the mainstream consumer by pegging itself as a beer-alternative.

Founders John Washburn and Brian Shanks recently completed a $6 million tasting room at their flagship cidery in Nellysford, and have opened a second cidery in North Carolina. The main tasting room and restaurant sits next to the Bold Rock bottling facility, separated only by a huge glass window, which allows guests to view the cider-making process. “We don’t want to hide the production,” says Shanks. “We want people to see how cider is made, warts and all.”

The first sip of Bold Rock’s Virginia Draft makes it clear how seamlessly this beverage crosses into the beer-drinking populace. The light carbonation, low alcohol by volume (around 4% compared to fine cider’s 7% and white wine’s 10%) and sweet apple flavor make for easy drinking. Bold Rock is able to stay local by sourcing all its apples from commercial orchardists within a 20-mile radius of the cidery.

Outside Winchester in the heart of Virginia’s apple country lies the possible future of the state’s apple production. The Virginia Tech Tree Fruit Extension and Outreach is ground zero for apple science and Greg Peck is its scientist in residence.

Peck’s gray-flecked hair and thick- rimmed glasses lend him a professorial gravitas, but his office suggests more mudroom than study. On his desk amidst scattered papers and pomology tomes sits a small mailer, the contents of which appear to be decaying. “People send in samples all the time for identification. I think I’ve figured this one out,” he rolls the specimen over in his hand while leafing through the Lee Calhoun’s Old Southern Apples, a botanical bible for apple growers. “It’s a Parmer, used for distillation.”

To conduct his fieldwork Peck hops in a Gator, a golf-cart sized SUV, and cruises through the rows and rows of experimental orchards. Some rows reach straight up on orderly trellises like a well-groomed hedge. Other rows burst with so much fruit that the trees buckle under their own weight. Each experiment serves a purpose. Is it more profitable to grow apples on trellises? How will crop overload affect the quality of the fruit on the tree?

For farmers, growing a cider orchard is still a major commitment of time and resources, and one that precludes other agricultural options. “You’re bidding your land away,” says Peck. “You could grow sheep, you could sell your land to a developer, or you could grow cider apples.”

If the crowd at the Richmond Cider Celebration is any indication, the demand for cider is steadily rising. In only its second year, the festival is teeming with over 400 people, a jovial mob spilling out from a great teal and white striped tent. The attendees swill glasses of cider as they queue up for their next tasting. Food trucks hawking cider-braised pork and cider-spiked donuts rim the crowd like a wagon circle.

The cider gang’s all here. At the Blue Bee booth, Courtney Mailey is serving up a rosé-like raspberry blend. At the end of the tent, Diane Flynt is leading a lecture on the differences between French, English, Spanish, and American ciders like her own Foggy Ridge. Over at Winchester CiderWorks, word has spread about the generous pours and suddenly an extra long line materializes.

Over the following week dozens of such cider-themed events will crop up across the state, celebrating everything from cider-infused cocktails to cider and cheese pairings. Even Governor Terry McAuliffe has jumped on the bandwagon, issuing a certificate of recognition for “Cider Week Virginia” in honor of the drink’s historical significance and its future impact on the state’s economy.

From Charlottesville to Timberville, Richmond to Floyd, the message is clear: Virginia cider has arrived.

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