Sage Bird Ciderworks jumps in stride with Virginia’s cider renaissance
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Virginia cider is experiencing a renaissance.
Once a ubiquitous drink, it disappeared from daily life during Prohibition. Zach Carlson, co-founder of Sage Bird Ciderworks, notes that cider was the original American alcoholic beverage, with colonists imbibing on a regular basis.
Carlson and his wife, Amberlee, recently joined the small, but growing ranks of niche craft cideries.
The Carlsons met while they were students at James Madison University, and decided to settle in Harrisonburg.
As they began to explore the world of home fermentation, they became enamored of the cider industry, and the history of apples in Virginia.
He said he thinks cider is where craft beer was 10 years ago, with lots of buzz and lots of opportunity and unexplored territory.
Making cider for the Carlsons meant bringing together many interests and passions. His background is in graphic design, and his wife, a sixth-grade English teacher, is artistic as well.
“There is an art to creating beverages. We enjoy having the finished tangible product, having a bottle to share; it’s very satisfying,” Zach Carlson said.
The cidery received much needed support from the Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund.
The grant, which is matched by the City of Harrisonburg, was announced in late January. This fund offers incentives specifically for agriculture and forestry value-added or processing projects.
“The grant is based on how much money the startup will invest, how many jobs it will create, and how much Virginia-grown agriculture you will use.” Zach said.
Supporting Virginia’s Apple Industry
The cidery, although small, will support the Virginia apple industry.
“We are a small startup,” Zach said. “We don’t have massive impact. The renaissance of the cider industry is a big boost for the apple industry, especially in niche apples.
“Most people know of about 10 apple varieties, while there are literally thousands of different varieties.” He added that the cidery will use exclusively Virginia apples and old school fruits such as persimmons and mulberries that are grown in the area.
Niche cideries create a demand for heirloom apples, which were grown years ago. Thanks to Prohibition and other factors, lots of these varieties were abandoned. Since cider became illegal during that era, apple orchards were cut down to make room for other crops. An orchard takes about 10 years to grow, so many former growers didn’t want to jump back into the apple-growing industry.
The resurgence of cideries using traditional apples gives apple growers new opportunities for expanding what varieties they grow, and bringing history back to life.
Virginia ranks sixth in apple production in the nation. “We are proud to be using Virginia apples. We are excited to begin experimenting with different varieties,” Zach said. “Although the process is identical, each batch using a different variety will have a flavor and texture that is completely unique. Using different apples will result in different flavors, much like using different grapes results in strikingly different wine taste profiles, such as the difference between a Riesling and a Pinot Grigio.”
Glaize Apples in Winchester, Virginia, is one of Sage Bird’s primary suppliers.
“We developed a relationship with Glaize when we made our home brew,” Zach said. “After we acquired an old 1870s press, we began experimenting with many different older apple varieties that we purchased from Glaize. Last year they opened a pressing facility to support ciders. They will press and deliver according to our specs, which takes lots of space, time and logistics off me.”
Sage Bird Ciderworks will use flavor profiles that can naturally be grown in Virginia, like mulberry, persimmon, and rose hips.
“While we love flavors like guava and grapefruit, those just aren’t a part of our brand of making cider with local flavors,” Zach said.
The Carlsons own a small orchard north of Harrisonburg, where they are growing Grimes Golden apples. Grimes Golden was discovered by Thomas Grimes in Brooke County, W. Va., in 1804, near the town of Wellsburg, where Zach Carlson’s ancestors hail from. And, interestingly enough, Wellsburg was home to John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.
Along the way in building their own orchard and cidery, Zach said he got a lot of encourgment and help from people already established in the industry.
“Tim Brady, founder of Pale Fire Brewing in Harrisonburg gave me great guidance in running a craft beverage operation. His most helpful advice was that I was going to need more money. He was right! I was thankful to learn that earlier rather than later,” Carlson said.
He added Blue Bee Cider in Richmond was also very helpful. “I was able to do a short internship with them. Owner Courtney Mailey taught me what really happens behind the scenes at a cidery.”
In addition to gleaning useful information from folks working in the cider industry, Carlson took online classes from Portland State University to learn the ins and outs of the craft beverage industry.
He says, “That’s where I wrote our business plan, which was a game changer for deciding to move forward with the cidery.”
Zach has one piece of advice for would-be entrepreneurs — take the leap!
“I’m conservative with my own finances, and very risk-averse,” he said. “You have to take risks to start a new business. If you can’t square with that, it isn’t for you. When you take the risk, you might feel like you’re alone, but your community is behind you.”
He added that if the business is in the agricultural sector, apply for a grant; even if it’s denied, valuable relationships in that sector will have been established.
Zach said future plans include hiring a manager to help with scheduling and inventory, hiring bartenders to serve and educate the customers, and hiring sales and marketing employees. Carlson will continue to be the primary production employee.
The cidery plans to produce over 3,000 gallons this year. Zach said they are starting small, with plans to grow.
“We are dedicated to the local community, and are focusing on Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley now,” he said. “Eventually, we would love to distribute product throughout Virginia.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a date for the grand opening has not been finalized.
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