Bins of apples ready for pressing

Apple Pressing

Hinson Ford Cider & Mead pressed our inaugural batch of cider! Saturday dawned frosty–in the low twenties–and we did our best to stay warm as we demolished a flatbed trailer’s worth of Rappahannock County apples…one milk crate load at a time.

By early Sunday afternoon, the apples were done and we’re ready to step aside to let our specially selected strain of yeast work it’s magic for the next few weeks.

Big thank-yous to “Friends of the Brand” Jim Manwaring and Tom Kelly…without your help, the HFCM production crew would still be sobbing in our morning bowls of ibuprofen. Slainte, gentlemen, SLAINTE!

Washing, grinding and pressing apples for cider

Washing, grinding and pressing apples for cider

Apples getting washed

Apples are washed before pressing

Cider flows from the press

Cider flows from the press

Mead and Beowulf

It’s inevitable once you start poking around in the mead world that you will run up against Beowulf.

In case you’ve forgotten, Beowulf is a Geat, which roughly corresponds to a modern Swede. Beowulf is a hero of the Geats, and when he gets word of the trouble befalling Hrothgar, the King in nearby Denmark, he decides to sail to Denmark with some of his buddies to see how they can help.

Eating, drinking, merriment, et cetera follow. Now, the actual connection to mead here is a little tenuous. Just a small fraction of the events in ‘Beowulf’ occur in a mead hall. Hrothgar’s mead-hall, technically, called ‘Heorot.’ Seriously…the mead-hall is closed for something like TWELVE YEARS.

There’s a couple of nights where Grendel (the villainous monster) attacks, and then Grendel’s mom attack, and the place is pretty much trashed. And beer and wine are mentioned about as frequently as mead in the actual text, so why doesn’t ‘Beowulf’ come up when you’re out drinking beer? It’s kind of like bringing up “The Caine Mutiny” anytime someone mentions strawberries.

And there’s another thing about our hero Beowulf. He is just about as dumb as a post. First, he decides to battle Grendel–the monstrous spawn of Cain who has been causing trouble and murdering fully armed and armored warriors–bare handed. Because ‘honor.’ Okay, whatever; Beowulf prevails and mortally wounds Grendel almost as soon as Grendel comes lurking and smashes the mead-hall door in.

Next, Grendel’s mom comes looking for some justice, and Beowulf chases her back to her underwater lair…where he decides NOW it’s a good idea to wear all his armor and mail and swords and stuff. Amazingly, he prevails again, becomes the big hero, yadda yadda. Feasting, drinking, merriment, sail back to Geatland.

FIFTY YEARS LATER, he decides he PERSONALLY needs to fight the newly awoken gold-hoard guarding dragon BY HIMSELF. Does anyone else see a pattern of poor decision making with our hero? Guess what–with the help of his buddy Wiglaf, who comes to his aid at the last moment, he slays the dragon…but is mortally wounded and dies, leaving his people leaderless and dragonless but with much more gold than they had before.

Really, the best telling of the tale might be John Gardner’s 1971 re-imagining in “Grendel.” So yeah, if ‘Beowulf’ is the only thing that comes to mind when mead is the topic, it might be time to re-read it. Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation is an easy and engaging read, but Burton Raffel’s 1963 translation still stands up nicely.

PS: If you want to see what what Heorot probably looked like in real life, check out one of the great halls at L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland; that’s much more likely than Meduseld in Edoras.

The Poetry of the Forgotten Orchard

Rappahannock County, Virginia produced nearly a million bushels of apples in its peak year. But what kinds of apples did we once grow? Here’s a partial listing…and some are still available, if you know where to look!

Albemarle Pippin, Arkansas Black, Baldwin, Ben Davis, Black Twig, Bonum, Cheese, Crab, Early Harvest, Early Red June, Early Ripe, Fall Rambo, Fallowater, Fink, Gano, Genitan, Golden Delicious, Greening, Grimes Golden, Huntsman’s Favorite, Jonathan, Kentucky Sweet, King David, Lady, Leather Coat, Macintosh, Maiden’s Blush, Milam, Mother, Paradise Sweet, Pearmain, Pilot, Pound Apple, Pound Pippin, Queen, Rambo, Rappahannock Beauty, Rebel, Red Delicious, Robinson, Rome Beauty, Russet, Smith Cider, Snow, Stayman, Striped June, Sweet Annet, Transparent (now known as Lodi), Waggoner, Wealthy, Winesap, Wolf River, Yellow Transparent and York (also known as Johnson’s Fine Winter and York Imperial)…just to name a few!

And in 1871, a nursery in nearby Rockbridge County stocked 193 varieties of apples.

Apples Past, Present and Future

From time to time, we look across the Piedmont and mourn the slowly disappearing orchards, displaced by development, suburban sprawl and changing trends in agriculture. We recognize the homely apple as an American staple, and Cider as our National Beverage. But it may come as a surprise to find that while homestead orchards have a long history, commercial apple growing in Rappahannock County only appeared following the Civil War. Following the war, Mr. C.B. Wood founded a nursery in the county, and eventually sent a barrel (3 bushels) of ‘Albemarle Pippins’ to Queen Victoria. They met with the Queen’s favor, and thus an international market for Rappahannock apples was born.

Within just a few decades, there were reported to be nearly 200,000 apple trees in the county, and a local industry sprang up to get them to market. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, Rappahannock County ranked third in the state for apple production, and in its peak year, produced nearly a million bushels. But by the 1970s, the apple industry began its decline, and since then, many old orchards have been torn up or abandoned to their native state. As you travel the county, you can still see the remnants of that industry in the large cold storage buildings and packing sheds which have been repurposed to other commercial uses. As Virginians, we treasure the bloom of the apples in spring, the taste of the first apple in summer, and the first draft of cider in the autumn. We promise to do our part to keep Rappahannock County’s apple heritage alive for the foreseeable future. Source: “Rappahannock County, Virginia: A History” Johnson, (1981)

We are fortunate to live in an area with a rich history of family-run orchards, many of which are still in business after generations. When we press cider, we think of those long-ago optimists who planted their trees and pressed their cider when the leaves had turned red and gold and the air was getting crisp — kind of like the apples…

Every Single Time

As soon as we start talking about MEAD, folks are all like: ““þæt him his winemágas georne hýrdon oðð þæt séo geogoð; gewéox magodriht micel…him on mód bearn þæt healreced hátan wolde medoærn micel…” And we’re like, “…nah, man, it ain’t gotta be like that. Just try a sip…”