A Taste of Tradition

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Imagine your great-great-great-grandpa rambling down some cobblestone street, out on the town with his buddies. They bust through swinging doors into a dark saloon, step past the tables and brass spittoons, and belly up to the bar. What do they order? Whiskey or bourbon or rum, maybe, but beer—probably not. More than likely, the barkeep serves up big mugs of hard apple cider.

“It was the quintessential American beverage,” says Josh Bennet, co-owner of Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead, located just outside Lewisburg. “There was more cider drunk in the 1700s and  1800s, per capita, than all soda pop now.” This is difficult for us to imagine, in a time when hard cider commands about as much respect among serious drinkers as a strawberry daiquiri. But that’s why Bennet and his friend Will Lewis started Hawk Knob last year. They wanted to create a product—available soon in stores and restaurants around the state—that would remind Americans of this forgotten chapter of our palliative past.

Cider began to fall out of fashion in the 1800s but it was Prohibition that really struck the industry to its core. When the 21st Amendment made it illegal to produce or sell alcohol in the United States, apple  growers suddenly had lots of fruit and no one to sell it to. All the apple pies in the world couldn’t replace the demand lost when cideries closed. Many of the nation’s orchards were razed as farmers were forced to find other, more profitable crops.

Prohibition was lifted 13 years later but the cider business has never fully recovered—until recently. Sales of cider increased by more than 75 percent between November 2013 and November 2014, raking in $366.4 million according to a January report by FiveThirtyEight, the website run by statistics guru Nate Silver. The vast majority of those sales went to large cideries like Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, Johnny Cider, and Strongbow. But the guys at Hawk Knob are quick to point out their products are very different from—much more in line with tradition than—those grocery store brands.

“What we do and what Angry Orchard does is not the same thing,” Bennet says. He says big commercial cideries use newer apple varieties like Fuji, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith for their products or, in some cases, pre-made concentrate. Hawk Knob uses heirloom apple breeds like Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black, varieties traditionally used for cider production.

For their first commercial pressing last year, Bennet and Lewis purchased their apples from Morgan Orchard in Monroe County—they’re committed to having an entirely West Virginia-grown product. They plan to grow some of their own apples, too. Last year, Lewis grafted 175 apple trees at Bennet’s farm in Pocahontas County, although it will be several years before those trees are fully productive.

Bennet and Lewis also hope to convince local farmers to plant apple trees on their farms. “This region of Appalachia is a perfect apple-growing region. We want to create a network of farmers that work with us. There’s plenty of opportunity,” Bennet says. “We can guarantee we’ll be there every year to get them.” He says West Virginia should seize this opportunity to boost its agricultural output. With enough commitment from farmers and cider makers, the state could become a leader in the growing hard cider movement.

Great-great-great-grandpa would be proud.