Ever had “cellar cider”? It’s not what you’re used to
A new duo of craft brewers are infusing the Greenbrier Valley with a set of spirits that harken back to a simpler time.
Hawk Knob Cider and Mead in Lewisburg makes real old-time local craft beverages, including mead made from West Virginia honey, and cider made from West Virginia heirloom apples.
But it’s sure not like the ciders and meads you’re used to— if you’re used to buying it at the store, anyway.
Cider was king in the 1700 and 1800s, when the unassuming apple used to grow in orchards across the rambling regions of Appalachia.
Those were the days of Johnny Appleseed, or John Chapman, who wasn’t a fictional character but rather a bona fide businessman. Johnny planted orchards across the American frontier and sold apples to settlers traveling through.
In a time when clean drinking water was hard to come by, settlers made cider, which they could enjoy without worrying about getting sick.
“It was America’s first real beverage,” said Josh Bennett, co-owner of Hawk Knob. “There was more cider drunk in the 1700 and 1800s per capita than all soda pop now.”
However, the temperance and prohibition movement took a large toll on the industry, and the beverage mainstay mysteriously faded in popularity as tastes for beer and soda grew.
Josh grew up roaming the abandoned orchards of old homesteads in Highland County, Va., picking and pressing wild apples among the mountains, where the craft had been passed down from generation to generation.
“It was pretty traditional in that region for everybody to have a cider barrel in their cellar,” Josh said.
Enter Will Lewis, a Lewisburg native, who brings the expertise of another time-honored brew: mead.
The oldest alcoholic beverage known to man, mead dates back to the Egyptians and was revered by ancient herbalists like Pliny the Elder and Hippocrates for its believed health benefits.
So the two partners began brainstorming ways to revive these 2 historically significant spirits.
Cider and mead are commonly known as a “sweet” spirits, but what’s brewing in the barrels and vats at Hawk Knob doesn’t have the sugary sweetness of its commercially made counterparts.
While well-known commercial hard ciders use juice concentrate pressed from grocery store apple varieties like Fuji or Granny Smith, Hawk Knob uses only West Virginia heirloom and heritage apples that were traditionally used in cider making.
“We don’t add sugar. We don’t add sulfites. We’re not adding fining agents. We’re not filtering,” Josh said. “We’re not doing a number of things that a lot of other commercial operations would do.”
3 of Hawk Knob’s 4 ciders go through a 10-month-long bourbon barrel aging cycle, while their flagship Appalachian Classic is aged in a steel vat.
The result? 4 dramatically different flavor profiles.
Building off of Appalachian Classic, a straight blend of heritage and heirloom apples, the Hawk Knob team also created a bourbon-barrel-aged variety and an elderberry-infused version, which they think will be a crowd favorite.
Staying true to his roots, Josh also created Wild Fermented, Hawk Knob’s take on the traditional hard cider enjoyed by our nation’s forefathers.
“The wild ferment uses only the natural yeast present on the skin of the apple for the fermentation process,” Josh said. “Other commercial cideries are afraid to do that because there’s so much variance from batch to batch, but this is what I grew up doing, so we knew we had to make it happen.”
After fermentation, the Wild Fermented flavor is aged in the bourbon barrels for 10 months, giving it a complex, rich flavor.
Josh said Hawk Knob’s cider pairs well with both savory and sweet dishes, because the higher alcohol content— ranging from 8% to 11% ABV— allows it to complement stronger flavors.
“Goat cheese salad, fish, lamb, a roast— I’ve had it with just about everything,” he laughed. “There’s not much it doesn’t go with.”
His only advice: drink it ice cold.
“Our style of mead making is really different from what you’ll find out there,” Will said.
Hawk Knob produces dry mead that’s not syrupy sweet by fermenting out the sugars… and resisting the urge to back-sweeten it. Like their cider, they don’t use fining agents or sulfites, just honey from West Virginia bees, water and yeast.
But the possibility for flavors is endless, because they can add any kind of fruit, spice or herb to the brew.
“People who like wine have really taken to meads, especially the drier ones,” Will said, comparing it to wines like chardonnay.
Also, much like grape wine, mead gets better with age.
“You want to wait at least a year before drinking mead,” Will said. “There’s a lot of major shifts in the flavor profile in the first year, and those shifts continue, though more subtle, in the following years.”
Hawk Knob ages their mead in bourbon barrels and on French and American oak with varying levels of char, which Josh said adds to the different flavor profiles.
“We have a mead with elderberry aged on oak, and it’s similar to a merlot or pinot noir,” he said.
Each paying homage to their respective areas of expertise, Josh and Will united their crafts to create the Hawk Knob “cyser,” a mead-cider hybrid.
“We press the fresh cider, then add the honey, ferment that out and get what’s called a cyser,” Josh explained.
The result is an infusion high in alcohol content with buttery notes from the oak aging process.
With about 8-10 apples into each bottle of Hawk Knob cider, pressing the apples is no easy task for the small startup.
The duo closed out the 2015 pressing season with nearly 4,000 gallons of cider. “We pressed 75 bins of apples. There were 18 bushels per bin, and about 135 apples per bushel,” Will said. “It was a lot of apples.”
More than 180,000, if you do the math.
“We’re still hand-pressing all of that,” Josh said. “We have a somewhat automatic system with an electric grinder, but we’re still dumping all the apples by hand and moving the pulp, so it’s a hands-on process.”
After pressing, fermenting and aging, the cider is bottled in 500 milliliters of amber glass. The label features work by West Virginia woodcut artist Mike Costello.
Josh and Will built a 5-head counter-pressure bottle filling system themselves, which is where the drinks pick up a bit of carbonation.
“We keep our carbonation levels really low,” Josh said. “We don’t like that high level of carbonation, but we like the crispness and effervescence you get from a little bit of CO2.”
Lastly, the freshly filled bottles are put through a water bath pasteurization process, and are ready to hit the shelves.
“Our main focus is to have a 100% West Virginia-grown product,” Josh said.
In order to achieve that goal, Hawk Knob is looking for West Virginia farmers and beekeepers to do business with.
While the more than 180,000 apples pressed by Hawk Knob in 2015 came from Morgan Orchard in Monroe County, Josh and Will know that their demand will soon outgrow the orchard’s supply. They planted extensive orchards at their farm in Pocahontas County to help keep up with production.
“Our goal is to eventually have estate-grown products coming from the farm, but we’re always going to need apples and honey from other farmers,” Will said.
They’re committed to keeping their supply local, even as the demand grows.
“I think agritourism and agriculture in general have a huge potential in the state of West Virginia to create a boom in the local and regional economy, but you can’t do it one farm at a time,” Josh said. “Everybody needs to get on the same page and network amongst themselves.”
This post was last updated on July 21, 2020