By: Nan McCreary
A driving force in the craft beverage market today is to create unique tastes and products—and even tasting rooms— not found anyplace else. One cider maker, Jerry Thornton, is trying to do just that with Bryant’s Small Batch Ciders in the heart of Virginia’s cider country.
Thornton’s journey began when he inherited his family’s sixth-generation farm and orchard, Edgewood, located near the Route 151 beverage corridor in Nelson County. Thornton had a successful career in corporate finance at the time but saw an opportunity in the property, where the family had been growing apples since 1865 (except for a brief time after hurricane Camille destroyed the orchard). Bitten by the cider bug, he attended a cidermaking course through Cornell University in Geneva, New York, and returned home determined to make the farm (replanted in 1998) sustainable. He immediately converted the 40s era garage built by his grandfather into the cidery, and a nearby building into a tasting room. The tasting room opened in May 2018.
Thornton’s goal then—and now—was to “produce authentic farm-to-table hard ciders using traditional methods while creating an organic and always evolving consumer experience.” With its rustic charm, the cidery is a throwback to pre-prohibition days when cider ruled. But there is nothing rustic about the ciders.
Unlike the sweet ciders of yore, Thornton produces 100% sugar-free, naturally carbonated ciders with fresh, organic ingredients. Call it champagne with flavorings, or, more officially, call it a brut cider, a style growing in popularity today.
Bryant’s apples are sourced from his “backyard,” the 45-acre orchard on the original homestead that has traditionally produced table apples for commercial use.
“These are quality, multi-use apples—like Pink Lady and Stayman—that make good cider,” Thornton told Beverage Master Magazine. “They have good acidity and good sugar content, and they’re not too tannic. They fit in with the style we make. We want our cider to have a neutral flavor, so we can have more leeway to make funkier stuff.”
Bryant’s Small Batch Ciders are hand-crafted from picking to packaging. Unlike many cideries that opt for short fermentation, Thornton ferments his juice for two months to produce a totally dry cider. He then adds flavoring ingredients—always natural or organic—and lets the flavors steep for three days. To avoid spoilage, after straining and racking the juice, he quickly packages the product, be it in a bottle, can or keg. After packaging, he adds the “magic potion”—champagne yeast and priming sugar—that initiates a second fermentation. This process takes three weeks to a month, or until all the sugars are consumed. The second fermentation adds a small amount of carbonation to the product as well as character and body. Thornton does not disgorge or filter after fermentation.
“We leave it in the package,” he said. “Most people are comfortable with lees in the bottle, and in the cans, you can’t even tell. Besides, people in the craft market appreciate a little haze.” The finished product, a brut cider, is bone dry with an elegant finish.
Bryant’s Small Batch Ciders fall in the mid-tier price level, costing $12 for a four-pack of cans or a limited release 750 ml bottle. “We’re going for quality, not profits,” Thornton said. Currently, he produces 1500 gallons or 45 barrels of cider per month.
What makes Bryant’s Ciders particularly unique is the flavors. His mainstays include Unicorn Fuel, a brut cider with rose hips and hibiscus; Brite Good, the flagship Brut cider, which incorporates French oak tannins to enhance mouthfeel while leaving a true cider aroma and flavor profile; Sumthin Juicy, styled after a New England IPA and dry-hopped three times with six different hop varieties; and Red Eye, a cold-brewed coffee cider with locally-sourced beans brewed directly in the juice. Bryant’s also sells seasonal and limited release ciders, including a Star Sign Line named for signs of the Zodiac. Typically, the ciders’ alcohol by volume is 8%.
While Bryant’s ciders are all-natural, sugar-free and in the brut style, Thornton is always on the lookout for new “funky” flavors. “Our mindset favors craft beer profiles and ideas as opposed to historic, simple cider profiles,” he said. “If we can get an ingredient, we’ll try it. We don’t make test batches; we just go for it. So far, most have gone pretty well, and we haven’t had any complete disasters.”
One recent experiment that turned out positive results is Bryant’s line of ciders fermented and aged in used stout beer barrels. These include Satan’s Heaven, a slightly bitter cider aged in Blue Mountain Barrel House American oak bourbon barrels with cocoa nibs and cayenne pepper, and Dark Unicorn, a smooth cider featuring Bryant’s cult favorite, Unicorn Fuel, aged in Blue Mountain’s bourbon barrels with rose hips and hibiscus. “I get barrels from local distilleries and breweries for aging ciders,” Thornton said. “If I have fresh juice, I will ferment it in the barrel too.”
While fermenting and aging in bourbon barrels are relatively new trends among cider makers, the processes harken back to American cider’s origins in New England when all ciders were fermented, aged and transported in barrels. Today’s cidermakers are seeing that oak-aging adds tannins, complexities and flavors to the juice.
While Thornton continues his innovative approach to ciders, he is expanding his
operations to include a new tasting room near downtown Richmond. The new space, which opened this spring in Shockoe Bottom, offers seven ciders on tap and cider cocktails. The historic 1850’s building also includes a second cidery in the back, which allows Thornton to double production.
Whether offering cider in an 1850s sheep barn on a quiet orchard or in a cozy bar close to a population center, Thornton has his local bases covered. The farm is an ideal, family and pet-friendly getaway, 45 miles from Richmond, where customers can enjoy quality cider in an isolated, mountainous setting. The Richmond location has a unique vibe of its own, with its 1850s building located in a historic part of the city with cobblestone streets and trendy stores. Thornton also distributes his ciders to high-end craft beer stores throughout the state of Virginia and is hoping to expand to North Carolina and the Washington D.C. area. With a broad range of ciders packaged in cans, bottles and kegs, Thornton’s products are designed for customers who are seeking sustainable, natural and sugar-free quality drinks. The canned ciders are a special boon for those with an active lifestyle who favor cans over glass while hiking, boating or picnicking.
As Thornton looks to the future, he plans to maintain the legacy of the sixth-generation farm using sustainable agriculture to preserve the natural resources. He also wants to move forward by building a larger cidery and developing the property into an event space to host weddings, meetings and private parties. Currently, the farm and the Richmond location offer light snacks and grilled cheese options. Product-wise, Thornton has planted 13 acres of cider-specific apples and is launching a cider-style hard seltzer with minimal calories and 4% ABV this summer.
While Thornton sees growth ahead for the cider industry, he recognizes that there are challenges ahead, as there are for any craft beverage. “Our biggest challenge,” he said, “is that people refer to the beverage as being sugary, but they really don’t recognize its range. Cider can be a drink that is just like a fine wine, or it can be a sugar bomb with apple juice. Here in Virginia, I think people understand that there are different niches, just like in craft beers. As people start experiencing cider, especially in bars, I think the brut styles will help grow the market. People are really into 100% sugar-free drinks.”
While hard cider—the dominant drink in American before prohibition—is having what Thornton calls “it’s second coming,” industry projections predict more consumers will jump on its bandwagon. Thornton plans to be there for them, offering drinks that are innovative and health-conscious. “We’d like to grow, but our team is content right now to make stuff that is unique and gives a different vibe. We’re just going to go with the flow.”
For more information on Bryant’s Ciders, visit… bryantscider.com