HOME GROWN

Local orchard’s hard cider business is brewing its way toward success

Story by Taylor Hudson

Photos by Michelle Lee and courtesy of Caroline Meyers

Showalter’s Orchard is mostly hidden. One can only find it  after driving 20 minutes off Interstate 81 into rural Timberville, Va.: a town that offers unwavering pride in the high school football team, a constant aroma of cow manure and roller-coaster hills.

As you approach the orchard, the family business’s success is obvious. Hundreds of apple trees pepper the horizon in army-straight lines, offering 20 varieties. A 38,000-square-foot greenhouse bestows life to purple and orange mums. In the distance, a parade of school kids prance over a hill with a freshly picked apple in each of their hands, completely engrossed by the tractor that is crossing their path. And directly in the middle of the gravel parking lot sits a farm store.

Inside, an elderly woman moves slowly among the shelves — her eyes darting up and down, back and forth, carefully inspecting every item. She keeps moving past the homemade honey, past the local lavender perfume, past the homemade apple butter. She only stops when she reaches a refrigerator in the corner; her forehead wrinkles.

A young woman standing at the cash register notices the confusion, emerges from behind the counter and says, “That’s our sweet cider!”

“May I try some?” the elderly woman asks, wrinkling her forehead again. “I don’t like stuff too sweet. So I just want to try it before I go and buy it. Just a sip?”

“Of course!” says the Showalter employee, as she pours a small sample. “You know we have hard cider too!”

“Hard cider? What’s that?” the elderly woman says.

 

Planting the seed

Although the old hill has grown apples since the early 1930s, Joe Showalter began cultivating his dream of owning an apple orchard when he purchased the land in 1965. Since its planting 40 years ago, Showalter’s Orchard has grown into a multi-faceted business.

Hidden behind the Showalter’s farmhouse, an old barn holds the seed to the most unique part of Showalter’s Orchard — a seed that was planted years ago and is now just coming into full bloom. From the outside, it looks like an average barn: weathered wood panels, high beams and large, creaky doors. But on the inside, stainless steel tubes line the walls and extend toward the ceiling. Mechanical arms systematically move back and forth, up and down. Conveyor belts transport hundreds of apples into an abyss of stainless steel. Meanwhile, employees shout jokes to each other over deafening clicks and clacks, as they whack a batch of stubborn apples with a stick that got stuck in a riff of a moving conveyer belt.  Willy Wonka would be impressed.

This is the apple press.

In 1971, Joe decided to install a cider press on the property. Ever since, homemade sweet cider has been a customer favorite of Showalter’s orchard.

After Joe’s son, Shannon Showalter, and his wife, Sarah, purchased the farm in 2002, a new business venture was being tilled. Since its installation, the apple press sparked the Showalter’s family hobby of hard-cider making. At first, it was just a family tradition — passed on to Shannon and Sarah — and didn’t go beyond family functions or taste testing with friends.

“We are foodies,” Sarah says. “We love anything like craft beer, wine or hard cider. It’s just something we’ve always enjoyed.”

As time went on and the Showalters became more involved in their hobby, they couldn’t help but notice the growth of the hard cider industry in the region. It was then that Shannon and Sarah realized that cider could be a good addition to their orchard.

 

Ripening, harvesting and cleaning

Once Shannon and Sarah officially decided to pursue hard cider production, they underwent an extensive preparation process to ensure that their new business was perfectly ripened and ready for the market.

In 2010, they created a business plan and underwent the necessary licensure processes. Although they are informally known as a cidery, they are officially classified as a “farm winery.”

Once all of the logistics were secured, the focus turned toward creating the perfect product.

Shannon is known as the “mad scientist” behind it all. In a room lined test tubes, beakers, and hydrometers, it looks as if he works in a chemistry lab — not apple orchard.

“There are infinite ways to combine the types of apples, seasonings and yeast that go into a hard cider; therefore, it is difficult to find the perfect taste,” Sarah explains.

The Showalters relied on personal experimentation, friends and fellow business owners for advice. Shannon even took cider-making classes at Cornell University. Whenever the Showalters doubted a new flavor or simply wanted a second opinion, they gave samples to all of their friends and family.

Three flavors were initially decided on: Yesteryear, Betwixt and Cidermaker’s Barrel. Each was strategically crafted. Yesteryear is made from champagne yeast, so it is dry, fizzy and offers a classic “POP” when you open it. Heritage is similar, but creamier. It has a honey-almond under taste and pairs well with salty foods such as ham or oysters. Cidermaker’s Barrel mimics the hard cider the Showalter family made as a hobby by using the wild yeast produced from their orchard. Unlike the other two flavors, Cidermaker’s Barrel is fermented in bourbon barrels to give it an earthy and bourbon flavor.

“It’s like a perfect balance between art and science,” Sarah says.

Once they felt their plan was polished and unbruised, Showalter Orchard officially launched its new sub-business: Old Hill Cider.

 

Adding pressure

Starting a new business is not without risks, resulting in pressure that could rival even the cider press itself.

Up until 2010, Sarah worked as a teacher full time. But in order to fully commit to the family’s new hard cider business, Sarah decided to take a risk and quit her job.

As Sarah thinks back to the beginning stages of Old Hill Cider, she covers her face and says, “Oh my gosh, we were so scared!”

Their initial business plan was, as Sarah puts it, a combination of estimating the potential of the business and balancing the risks if it were to fail.

“We didn’t know what to do at first. We didn’t have anything to base our plan off of. We didn’t want to make too much, but we didn’t want to make too little either. It was a shot in the dark!” Sarah exclaims.

Old Hill Cider’s official launch date was in May 2012 and, almost immediately, the Showalters realized that they had seriously underestimated their business. They completely, and quickly, ran out of product in approximately five months. They look at their first launch date as a success.

Smiling, Sarah says, “Sure, we didn’t correctly estimate the quantity. But overall, the product sold and was received positively.”

After re-evaluating and updating their business plan, they re-launched Old Hill Cider in fall 2013.

Fermenting and carbonating the business

When Showalters realized their hard-cider was brewing its way toward success, they started adding more features to the cider business in an attempt to add more value.

The ultimate goal is to engage the community and introduce customers to the world of hard cider. To peak interest, they host events such as hard cider making workshops and cider tastings. There is even a “Build Your Own Picnic” option, where customers select food to put in a picnic basket — a few locally made cheeses, crackers and a bottle of cider — and then grab a blanket to enjoy a picnic among the apple trees

Packaging and selling

In order to sell their cider, the Showalters had to jump right into assembly line that is the resurging trend of hard cider.

Hard cider is not a new concept — it has existed since the American Revolution. Colonists imported and grew apple trees, not to eat but to make hard cider. Because of the poor water quality, hard cider was one of the few drinks available that was sanitary enough to consume.

Hard cider is currently the smallest facet of the alcohol industry but is growing fast. According to Sarah, it has increased over 60 percent in the last year. In fact, hard cider has become so popular that Virginia has declared an official “Cider Week” during the month of November.

Old Hill Cider is one of eight cideries in Virginia and was the first in the Shenandoah Valley. And although it is not the most recently established cidery in Virginia, it boasts the title of the “newest cidery using apples from the oldest orchard.”

According to Cari Sinnett, the sales and marketing manager, the relaunch was a success because cider’s popularit during the autumn months.

“When people think of autumn, they think of apples and cider,” Sinnett says.

Sinnett also takes a hands-on approach by going door-to-door to local businesses offering tastings. Generally, they are unfamiliar with hard cider, especially Old Hill Cider.

“Many people assume that it just tastes like our sweet cider with a kick, but we don’t put back-sweetener in our hard cider, at least not yet. So they are surprised,” Sinnett says.

But many, especially chefs, have welcomed Old Hill Cider with open arms because it is much more diverse than mainstream cider and pairs well with many foods.

“The chef at Local Chop and Grill House planned and executed an amazing five course dinner during Cider Week in November pairing each cider with a course,” exlaims Sarah. “It was unbelievable!”

 

Repeating the process

Just as Joe Showalter passed the business down to his son Shannon back in 2002,  Shannon and Sarah desire to pass on the business to their own kids. After all of the growth and preparation, they’re hoping they can just repeat the cycle and keep Showalter’s Orchard and Old Hill Cider thriving.

The couple has two children, Ava is 13 years old and Ben is 17 years old. According to Sarah, they are still young and don’t have much of an idea about their future. But Sarah smiles and shrugs.“I don’t know if it is something they want to do when they are older, but we hope it is. Adding value is what makes a small farm sustainable and that’s what we are trying to do now, if that’s what our kids decided they want to do one day.”

Back in the orchard store, the elderly woman ultimately decides to just buy the regular sweet cider. But, on her way out after, she picks up the advertisement for Virginia’s Hard Cider week. She stuffs it inside her Mary Poppins-esque purse, winks and says, “Oh don’t worry sweetie, I’ll be back. I like my apple juice with a kick.”