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May 17, 2013

By Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services 
Contact: Elaine J. Lidholm, 804.786.7686

One of the marvels of the human race is that we were able to make a transition from eating what we could hunt or gather to a systemized method of producing food at will. We call that agriculture.

Agriculture has made some amazing strides in the years since it caught on, due to the creative spirit and sheer determination of the world’s farmers. Often this creativity manifests itself in dramatic ways; other times it is smaller and quieter. In both cases, it changes the landscape of the industry of agriculture and, more importantly, it gives people new ways to make a living within that industry.

The example I want to highlight today is our craft breweries and operations that produce hard cider or mead. These agribusinesses are somewhat unique in that they do not require a huge outlay of capital for land, equipment, livestock (with the exception of honey bees for mead) and other infrastructure. These folks are not only providing diversity within the industry of agriculture, they also are changing the way that many people quench their thirst and socialize with each other. I think it is a particularly exciting trend because the people connect directly with their end consumers and they support today’s popular Buy Local phenomenon.

Producing alcoholic beverages is nothing new in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson was a big proponent of Virginia wine and he made hard cider as well. Today we have nearly 230 wineries dotting the landscape and are counted among the Top Five states for production. Our wines are winning awards regionally, nationally and internationally and our wineries have boosted tourism in the state and probably are our leading segment for agritourism.

What’s not to love? You can go for a drive in any part of the state, take in the beautiful views and meet the local wine makers. This goes way beyond going out for a drink. It is a soul-satisfying experience as people connect with the farm, our working lands and the farmer. And the experience is no longer limited to wine alone but now includes hard cider, local beer and even mead.

I’m going to start by highlighting mead, a drink made from fermented honey, simply because it is the oldest of these beverages. Up until recently, I associated mead with a Renaissance Fair, but it has burst out of that relatively small circle onto a bigger stage.  While wine can trace its beginnings back about 6,000 years, the history of mead goes back 20,000 to 40,000 years. Mead making began in Africa and later migrated to Europe, India and China.

Then it died out, about 1,700 years ago in India, 1,500 years ago in China and finally about 500 years ago in Europe. We can thank Marco Polo for that. The inexpensive source of sugar he introduced became dominant and honey went underground - almost. The tradition of mead was sustained in the monasteries of Europe, and there are monasteries in Great Britain today with more than a 400-year tradition of mead making. I guess we can thank them that, today, we can drive to a meadery in Virginia to experience this ancient tradition. We have several mead producers around the Commonwealth, and if their growth is anything like Virginia wine and craft beer, we’ll be seeing many more.

We have been able to assist some of our hard cider makers and apple producers with grant funding through our Specialty Crop Competitive Grants program. Nelson County used them to fund an economic feasibility study for artisanal hard cider producers using an economic model very similar to our farm wineries. The study showed that this was feasible and the goal was to convince apple producers that they could grow these specialty apples profitably. We also worked with Virginia Tech to develop an enterprise budget for orchardists growing these specialized apple varieties and to create a website of technical assistance resources for growing these apples.

The grant’s goal was to demonstrate to existing and prospective growers that a robust and growing market existed for the special varieties. We also wanted to provide growers with basic technical resources to grow these varieties successfully.

A second grant provided cost share funds to growers willing to plant these specialized hard cider apple varieties. The project’s goal is to increase the plantings of specialized hard-cider apple varieties in Virginia, giving our artisanal hard cider producers access to the raw material they need. This also creates new opportunities for our apple producers. Due to recent efforts on the part of several localities, VDACS and Virginia Tech, Virginia now boasts seven hard cideries, in Richmond, Albemarle County, Nellysford, Keswick, Dugspur, Timberville and Free Union.

Diane Flynt, owner of Foggy Ridge, Virginia’s first cidery in modern times, says that the types of apples needed for cider are “ugly and hard to grow”  but are full of the tannin, acid and aroma needed for fine cider. She blends more than 30 varieties of American, English and French apples to create a traditional hard cider crafted with modern techniques. Apparently producing hard cider is not for the faint of heart.

VDACS also has provided funding for hops and barley research for our craft breweries. The breweries are popping up everywhere, but right now, they have to import their hops. We need to change that. This year Virginia Tech is conducting commercialization research to determine the best varieties for Virginia’ climate and to develop how-to publications for both crops. Private small-scale research is on-going for hops and growing and malting brewer’s barley, as well.

Growing two-row brewer’s barley in Virginia is tricky because our mild, wet winters create disease issues. The good news here is that Virginia Tech has the best barley breeders on the East Coast, as well as the right farmers to do it – and the market for locally produced and malted barley is growing. It is a fledgling industry, but it has energy and supporters. Right now demand far exceeds the supply. We are making inroads, and I am confident our farmers will rise to the challenge. We knew we were gaining momentum when our state Tourism Office announced its “Love on Tap” campaign.

I invite all our readers to try something new this spring and summer by including a trip to a craft brewery, a cidery or a mead production facility on your must do list.

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