Appalachia has a long history with hard cider.
When prohibition leveled apple orchards and halted production of alcoholic beverages across the country, it didn’t stop many folks in West Virginia.
“Just like with moonshine, when anything was illegal, we were still doing it up here in the hills,” said Josh Bennett, co-owner of Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead in Lewisburg. “It was a just a farmstead practice, and if you weren’t in the city where they really had their eyes on you, farmers were going to keep doing what they traditionally did for hundreds of years. It’s just that simple. People were still gonna grow their orchards and make their hard cider.”
Bennett, along with Will Lewis, opened Hawk Knob — the state’s first hard cidery — in 2014, where they specialize in dry traditional, heirloom hard cider.
“Hard cider is the American beverage, in general; before prohibition, there was more cider drank per capita in this country than any other soda pop today. That’s a lot of hard cider,” Bennett said. “It’s a good beverage. It was a commodity at the time. And people didn’t always have access to clean potable water around every municipality, so people were drinking cider like it was water.”
Prohibition saw many orchards cut down and the end of production of hard cider in many areas — with the exception of some renegade farmers in the mountains — and once that time period ended, beer made more of a comeback.
“Beer is pretty easy to make with the grains, which have a long shelf life. You don’t have to plant an apple tree and wait seven years to harvest the fruit from it, and so many orchards had been lost at the time — and apples are perishable. If you’re making a true traditional cider, it’s a seasonal product,” Bennett said. “But, we’re in an apple-growing region, and it makes sense to get back to our roots with hard cider.”
This piece of cultural heritage has endured in small, family pockets around the region, and now, Bennett and Lewis are bringing that Appalachian tradition to the forefront again.
And they’re doing it in a way that pays homage to cultural heritage.
“I grew up near Seneca Rocks, and all my neighbors had cider barrels in their cellar, and we made three or five or eight barrels every season growing up. It is something that has been passed down from generation to generation,” Bennett said. “Around here, I can’t tell you how many people say ‘Oh, well, my grandfather made hard cider.’ And many of the old-timers want to try it and see if it is like what they used to have, and it’s not quite the same, but it’s about as close as we can get.”
Hawk Knob currently has five hard ciders in production: Appalachian Classic, Appalachian Classic Bourbon Barrel Aged, Elderberry Infused, Wild Fermented Traditional and Cherry — which was released just a few weeks ago. And there are more on the horizon — maybe a dry-hopped cider or a British bittersweet.
Hard cider, which has persevered through tough times, is intrinsically Appalachian and something we should embrace and invest in to help contribute to a thriving economy.
In neighboring Virginia, there are nearly two dozen cideries. For the past few years, the cider market has been the fastest growing sector of the alcohol market — growing at about 75 percent each year, Bennett said.
The farmers, the producers and the network of people between them each contribute to, and benefit from, this lucrative industry, Lewis said. That’s a lot of opportunity for West Virginia.
“And we have just as much — if not more — potential than our neighbors. There’s a lot we can do in our climate. The higher altitude and climate lend themselves to more creativity,” he said.
After paving the way for this industry, Bennett and Lewis are encouraging others to follow in their steps.
“We’ve heard tell there are maybe five other cideries possibly in the works, and hopefully in the next three years, we’ll see more open up,” Lewis said.
“We would love to see more cideries open up — which is better for the state. The more we get in here, the more tourism we’ll get. More people are going to come here to visit three cideries than they will for just one,” Bennett added.
As Bennett and Lewis revive this overlooked part of cultural history in West Virginia, they are laying the groundwork for other cideries to open. And, considering the fast growth and opportunity for success, this industry could be more than just a deeply rooted part of our history. It could have a strong future in Appalachia, too.
Candace Nelson is a marketing and public relations professional living in Morgantown. In her free time, Nelson blogs about West Virginia food culture at CandaceLately.com.
Follow @Candace07 on Twitter or email Candace127@gmail.com.
Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead Collard Greens
bunch of collard greens
bottle of Appalachian Classic or Appalachian Classic Barrel Aged Hard Cider
Dice up bacon really fine and fry until almost crispy.
Dice up onions and fry alongside the bacon.
Throw in a handful of white raisins just before bacon is crispy.
Transfer everything — grease and all — to a pot and throw in chopped collard greens once the raisins are soft and swelling.
Add one whole bottle of Appalachian Classic or Barrel Aged Appalachian Classic Hard Cider.
Top the rest of the pot off by filling with water or fresh cider just to cover the collards and simmer for about four hours.
“Sooo good,” Josh Bennett said.
Want more hard cider pairings?
“Pork roasts are absolutely excellent when cooked in any of the ciders. And the Elderberry Infused Hard Cider pairs very well with chocolate of any kind,” Bennett added.
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