by Eric J. Wallace
It’s a brisk October morning. A trio of the Shenandoah Valley’s most respected small-scale farmers has converged on the home of a Bath County friend to make experimental batches of hard cider. Together, 20- and 30-somethings Ryan Blosser, Trevor Piersol, and Nick Faircloth unload a pickup truck containing more than half-a-ton of locally grown dessert apples.
The men spend the day soaking the fruit in outdoor bathtubs; dumping baskets of apples into a man-sized crusher; feeding the pulp into a presser to extract juice; pouring the juice into 5-gallon jugs; adding yeast and liquified mashes replete with weird ingredients like pawpaws, cherry tomatoes, and holy basil.
Though technically the first official activity of their new company, Soul Valley Cider, with a soundtrack of jazz and fiddle tunes bopping on the radio, a cooler full of craft brews, and restaurant-quality farm-to-table meals, it feels more like a party than a relatively high-stakes business endeavor. At some point, I can’t help pointing out that, for a group of small-scale farmers who make their living squeezing as much saleable product as possible out of what – compared to most commercial agricultural operations – amount to tiny plots of land, sinking thousands of dollars into a trial-and-error experiment of this scope seems a bit, well, risky.
“It’s only a risk if you accept the possibility of failure,” Blosser says. At 6-foot-2-inches, 225 pounds, the 39-year-old has the chiseled, grizzly physique of a former NCAA Division I basketball star. He has spent the past decade transforming acres of overgrown fields into thriving organic vegetable farms capable of producing upward of 100,000 pounds of produce a year. His shoulder-length hair and laidback surfer demeanor masks an ambition that can be almost frighteningly intense. “Like every other farm-business I’ve helped launch, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to be successful,” he says. “If it requires smashing through a brick wall with my bare hands, that’s exactly what I’ll do.”
The force of Blosser’s surety makes Soul Valley’s mission statement seem less wishful thinking, more fatalistic reality: The company aims to restore the Shenandoah Valley’s title as the cradle of East Coast cider. What’s more, they want to do it organically, sans the use of GMOs, synthetic pesticides, or environmentally harmful fertilizers.
According to Muskingum University’s distinguished professor of American history William Kerrigan in Ohio, from the late-18th to mid-19th century, the Shenandoah Valley was the apple growing capital of the U.S. The bulk of those apples were used to make hard cider.
“Hot, humid summers and a rich, deep soil nurtured by consistently rainy winters made the (area’s) climate ideal for growing apples for cider production,” he writes in his book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard. Due to the hardships of importing wine and native pests that made growing European grapes impossible, early Americans turned to cider as their alcoholic beverage of choice. During the 1800s, “the vast majority of apples were being used for cider production,” Kerrigan writes. “Nearly every farm on the East Coast had an apple orchard, and about one in 10 owned apple presses.”
According to a 1905 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, American farmers had developed an astounding 14,000 different varieties of apples by 1900. At the turn of the 20th century, Shenandoah Valley orchards featured hundreds of varieties of heirloom apples – each with their own unique flavors and characteristics. But then came prohibition, which was followed by industrial farming models in the 1950s and ‘60s that decimated apple diversity. As a result, Kerrigan says U.S. farmers now grow just 90 varieties for commercial purposes. The majority of the valley’s heirlooms were lost.
“Most of the farmers switched to the largescale production of monocultures like soybeans and corn,” says Blosser. Orchardists who stuck with apples ditched heirlooms in favor of a handful of high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties bred by agronomists. “The big problem with the heirlooms is, while they taste great, they’re not as easy to grow, and they’re not as pretty as the stuff you buy in the store,” Blosser says. “And that’s especially true if you’re trying to grow them organically.”
But an apple’s appearance is not really a consideration in cider. Taste is what matters. Soul Valley hopes to exploit this fact to reintroduce rare, mostly forgotten apples to Shenandoah Valley orchards.AdvertisementPauseUnmuteLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%Remaining Time-0:54Fullscreen
“We’ve earned our reputations selling to foodies in farmers markets and CSAs, and we see this as an extension of that market,” Blosser says.
The group’s resume is impressive. He launched his own Dancing Star Farm in 2011, helped establish the groundbreaking nonprofit, Project Grows, around 2012 and co-founded the Shenandoah Permacultural Institute in 2013. Piersol was an agricultural fellow at the Alleghany Mountain Institute and launched the award-winning Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind Educational Urban Farm in the mid-2010s.
“As farmers, we know our customers love horticultural diversity, heirloom crops that taste great and have an awesome story, and environmental sustainability,” says Blosser. “And Soul Valley checks all those boxes. First off, cider is the most sustainable alcoholic beverage you can produce – and we do sustainability as well as anyone in the world. Second, as we incorporate more and more heirloom varieties, we’re going to be introducing customers to historical tastes that are either brand new, or that haven’t been experienced in over a century.”
One such taste is the Albemarle Pippin, a sweet, greenish apple beloved by Thomas Jefferson. He and other 19th century connoisseurs claimed the it was the best dessert apple in the Western World. According to Kerrigan, when Queen Victoria was introduced to the variety in 1838, the English began importing them in droves.
Soul Valley has been tweaking its product line for the past year and plans to release limited batches at select Virginia locations in early 2019. Come spring, Blosser says the company will launch with a few flagship, beer-style options at an accessible price point.
“We’re basically looking to the Dogfish Head Brewery as a model,” says Piersol. “We plan to start with some great, refreshing staples, and push the envelope with small-batch releases. However, the more we establish ourselves, the more things are going to get weird. You have to remember, we’re nerdy, farmer-intellectual types with refined palates and a love for agricultural experimentation. That means we’re going to be getting crazy with this and having a lot of fun.”
In the beginning, a small tasting room will likely be located at Blosser’s Dancing Star Farm in Churchville. An additional satellite location is in the works at Piersol’s Wild Rose Orchard in Mount Sidney. There, visitors will be encouraged to tour what Blosser expects to become “the company’s experimental laboratory of heirloom madness.”
The group is currently looking for an additional orchard property in the vicinity of Staunton, where they say they plan to open “a big, beautiful tasting room by the close of 2019.”
“Our goal is to grow Soul Valley to the point where we can influence what regional farmers are growing,” says Blosser. “We want to be able to sign contracts with growers and get them planting heirloom apple trees. Basically, we won’t be satisfied until we’ve affected a full-on revolution.”