Cider is the fastest growing segment in the alcohol industry — and, let’s be honest, one of the most delicious. And few know more about the cider world than Diane Flynt, owner of Virginia’s Foggy Ridge Cider and a 2015 James Beard Foundation nominee. We talked with Flynt about the cidermaking process and how her line of ciders stands out.
How did you first get interested in cider, and when did you make the leap to making cider professionally? Blame it on my Dad—I was raised in a small Georgia town, just down the road from my Grandfather’s farm. My father was a true plantsman; I grew up saving seeds, digging trees and observing the natural world around me at close range. I always wanted to have an agricultural career, but just couldn’t figure out how to forge this path. After business careers, my husband, Chuck, and I found our farm in the Southern Appalachians with the goal of growing cider apples and making fine cider.
This corner of Virginia is in what’s called the “apple belt”, a range of high Southern mountains that has incredible wild apple diversity. We planted our first orchard in 1997, a test orchard of over 30 cider apple varieties, many American heirloom cider apples but also traditional English bitter apples, known for making the finest cider in the world. This was a real leap of faith—no one was making fine cider south of Massachusetts. I joined a consulting firm so I would have the flexibility to work in the orchard, take enology classes and apprentice from experienced cidermakers in other parts of the US. We sold our first cider commercially in 2005.
There are quite a number of cider producers in the US these days; what makes Foggy Ridge unique? Cider is the fastest growing segment in the alcohol industry and new cideries are popping up everywhere to chase this growth. Several things are unique about Foggy Ridge: we are an orchard based cidery, what I like to call “grower cider”. We make our cider from carefully selected cider apples, just like a fine winemaker makes wine from great grapes. Rather than relying on cheap dessert apples (like the ones sold in grocery stores) or using shortcuts like concentrated or sweetened and diluted apple juice, we use 100% cider apples in all our blends.
Second, we are totally focused on expressing the fruit characteristics of cider. It’s hard (and expensive) to grow great cider apples and the last thing we want to do is add flavorings like hops or bourbon barrels. There has been a real “beerification” in the cider world, with flavored ciders sold on tap, and we are not that.
Finally, we know what we are doing! We’ve been making fine cider for 10 years and have solid fermentation skills in the cellar. For the last several years, Jocelyn Kuzelka, who has degrees in Enology and Microbiology, has been the cidermaker at Foggy Ridge and architect of our blends.
What are some interesting cider and food pairings that most casual cider drinkers might not think of? So many! I learn everyday from the fine chefs and talented sommeliers who serve our cider. The tasting menu at McCrady’s in Charleston, SC, pairs Foggy Ridge Stayman Winesap with beef tartare. I recently had seared fois gras with Foggy Ridge Pippin Gold dessert cider, which was amazing. Our Handmade cider pairs well with North Carolina vinegar-based BBQ. Chuck likes cider and pizza—I think the spicy tomato sauce and mellow cheese goes well with First Fruit Cider.
You make a number of different ciders at Foggy Ridge — could you take one of those ciders and tell us what makes it distinctive? One cider I’m especially proud of is Foggy Ridge First Fruit. Though it’s not quite as acclaimed as our Serious Cider, it is our most popular blend. What I like most about First Fruit is the apples—they are so full of flavor and character. We use early season apples, including lots of the Hewe’s Crabapple which we begin picking in late August. There is a reason Thomas Jefferson used this apple for his cider at Monticello: the juice is syrupy and rich with deep spicy flavors and soft tannin. We combine this apple with other early fruit like Parmer, and old brandy apple, and Harrison, an Colonial American cider apple. The Cider House always smells delicious when we’re pressing these apples and fermenting First Fruit cider. Cheese experts tell me this cider pairs well with a good quality cloth-bound cheddar, but I like cider with almost any cheese!