In the world of alcohol, Virginia is often associated with its burgeoning wine industry. However, the city of Richmond is undeniably one of beer drinkers, with local preferences tending toward ales and lagers brewed in Richmond’s very own urban craft breweries. Many of the city’s restaurants proudly feature exclusively or near-exclusively Virginian beers on tap. Warm summer afternoons find smiling “Richmond-ers” throwing back pints of brown ale on the rooftop bar of Legend Brewery or listening to live jazz at Hardywood Park, while enjoying the brewery’s frequently rotating selection of artisanal cream ales, stouts, pilsners and bourbon DIPAs. Richmond’s craft beer scene is indeed in full bloom, and worth delving into while visiting the city. But those who don’t enjoy craft beer shouldn’t despair. The city is also home to top-notch Blue Bee Cidery — a company that represents a small but growing trend of urban craft cideries that have been popping up all over the country.
Visitors looking to experience Richmond’s craft beverage scene for themselves, should consider booking a tour with RVA Brewery Tours. The tours start at Capital Ale House, where guests meet their charismatic guide and, after completing their first tasting, board the brew bus to two or three local breweries. These range from award-winning favorites to up-and-coming newbies. Private tours are available for groups who prefer a more customized experience.
On my recent visit to Richmond, I took a public tour that stopped at Capital Ale House, Blue Bee Cidery, and Hardywood Park Brewery. While I enjoyed the various craft beers I tasted along the way, it was the hard cider at Blue Bee that stood out as the true highlight of the afternoon. The city’s first and only urban cidery, Blue Bee is off the beaten path, in the Old Manchester neighborhood of downtown Richmond. The building housing the tasting room and production facility, once home to the Aragon Coffee warehouse, dates back to 1904 and was originally constructed alongside the James River to easily transport coffee down to the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. The cidery pays tribute to its historic home by naming one of its best selling products after Aragon.
Based on ciders I’ve tried in the past, I admit to not being a huge fan of the stuff. On hot summer days when I crave something cold and carbonated but not as heavy as beer, I consider ordering apple cider until I recall one common feature of most commercial ciders — their overwhelming sweetness. It is the sticky, fruity, processed sweetness that ultimately changes my mind, and I settle instead for a dainty flute of sparkling white wine.
At Blue Bee, the semi-sparkling cider is surprisingly dry and tart, sometimes mineral, other times musky even. The four varietals are made with different blends of exclusively local Virginia apples and highly specific strains of yeast. Though it is now available by bottle and draft at many of Richmond’s bars, restaurants and markets, Blue Bee’s cider is produced in relatively small batches by a handful of employees who pay very close attention to maintaining its quality. Our visit included a tasting of all four labels, each with its own personality. The Charred Ordinary is an old-fashioned Virginia cider slightly on the sweeter side, while the Mill Race Bramble is a rounder, fruitier version flavored with raspberries and blackberries. The hop-infused Hopsap Shandy is unlike anything I’ve tasted before — a cross between a tart cider and a grassy, funky wheat bear. Easily my favorite varietal was the Aragon 1904, which reminded me more of a crisp, clean prosecco than a cider. The tasting notes running through my mind as the cider brushed my palate were those I’ve only previously used with wine: pale blonde, off-dry, fine carbonation, full fruit flavor with a hint of wet limestone.
In fact, all of Blue Bee’s ciders seemed to drink more like dry wine than fermented fruit juice. Far from the one-dimensional juice-box sweetness of the ciders I’ve grown accustomed to, the flavor profile of each of Blue Bee’s varietals is complex enough to require thoughtful sipping to entangle it. According to founder and cider maker Courtney Mailey, it’s something about the flavor of Virginia apples that makes the difference. I say her passion and dedication to changing the way people think about apple cider has something to do with it as well. The ciders come in 500-milliliter or 750-milliliter corked glass bottles with elegant labels reminiscent of champagne bottles. The tasting itself is conducted much like a tasting at a winery, with Mailey guiding guests through each pour. She also leads tours through the production facility free of charge, eagerly explaining the processes that give rise to her beloved product.
As we set out from the cidery to our third destination, my only regret was not having spent enough time to savor my glass of Aragon 1904. Fortunately, Blue Bee products are not difficult to find around Richmond these days. If you’re in the area, their surprising ciders are a must-try.
Lili Kocsis is a self-proclaimed gastronome. She graduated from Harvard University in 2011 with a BA in linguistics. She dedicates her spare time to purposeful travel, food photography, and writing about regional cuisine under the penname MyAmusedBouche.