Bee-coming A Cidermaker
There is a point in time where every high school student is required to take an aptitude test. When Courtney Mailey, owner and founder of Blue Bee Cider in Scott’s Addition, took her test in 11th grade, the test results were far from impressive.
“… I came out as a farmer, so I was like, ‘Well this test is stupid, it doesn’t know anything,’” Mailey said. “I didn’t have any exposure to farming really. So I didn’t understand that it’s a serious business just like everything else. No matter how big or small your farm is—it still has to make sense.”
For Mailey, the transition to becoming a cider maker and running her business wasn’t easy, and it still isn’t easy to this day. At 38 years old, she quit her job on a Friday and enrolled in cider school in Cornell, New York. While it was a beginner’s course, it didn’t cover the basics that Mailey would need to really be successful.
Mailey never missed a beat—she learned the nitty gritty details of cider making over the course of a year during her apprenticeship at Albemarle Ciderworks. Today, her and her team, made up of 15 people, strive to keep up with the demands of cider and operate the facility efficiently.
“I don’t think I would have started if I knew how hard it was going to be. So I’m glad I didn’t know that,” she said. “… I mean this is a very hard business. And there is never a point where you lay back and you say, ‘Oh we’ve made it.’”
Mailey knows one thing from her agriculture days—inventory for Blue Bee Cider must be managed properly and there can’t be any mistakes. One harvest must last Mailey for the entire year; if the company makes less than what was anticipated, Mailey could be shut down for a month.
The team at Blue Bee Cider values education, and Mailey believes it is important to their guests to be educated through flights of cider. The cidery offers tastings throughout the day and tours to its guests to enrich the educational experience for everyone.
Be sure to stop by Blue Bee Cider in the old city stables in Scott’s Addition at 1320 Summit Ave. in Richmond, VA. Learn more on their website.
Q & A
Q. You did not get your start in cider?
A. Correct. So in high school I took the career test like everybody else did in the 11th grade. And I came out as a farmer, so I was like well this test is stupid, it doesn’t know anything. I didn’t have any exposure to farming really. So I didn’t understand that it’s a serious business just like everything else. No matter how big or small your farm is, it still has to make sense.
Q. So how did you transition into cider?
A. I guess I was 38, and knew that I wanted to be in my own business by the time I was 40. Quit my job on Friday, and then the next day went to cider school in Cornell in New York. Cider school for beginners, they don’t really take you through the fermentation process. It’s theory, but it’s not hands on. And then I apprenticed at Albemarle Ciderworks for a year, and that’s really where I got more of the nitty gritty of what I didn’t know. The craft beer boom kind of changed the whole business plan. And the demand for our cider was outstripping our ability to make it. And then we relocated here, and learning how to operate a facility and four different buildings with a team of 15 people where we used to have 3. So we’ve been going through all kinds of growth as a company and I’m going through growth as a person trying to figure out how to make it work. Because the margins on agriculture are pretty slim, and how do people make a living at it?
Q. Isn't agriculture one of Virginia’s biggest industries?
A. Yes, it is. Yep. Agriculture, forestry, and tourism. Those are the biggies in Virginia, so we do them all here! We do them all. I don’t think I would have started if I knew how hard it was going to be. So I’m glad I didn’t know that. But it was certainly difficult, and it’s still difficult. I mean this is a very hard business. And there is never a point where you lay back and you say, oh we’ve made it. I mean I’m very jealous over my inventory, it’s not like a brewer where I can just turn around and make it again in 2 weeks. We have 1 harvest, and that’s what we live off of for 12 months out of the year. We have to manage it properly. There cannot be mistakes. But if we make just a little bit less than what we thought we needed, I could be shut down for a month--that’s crazy.
Q. How do you balance that nice meaningful interaction with your guests and a busy Saturday where the line might be out the door?
A. You know, I guess one of the good things about being a cidery is we’re never going to have the onslaught that breweries have. Flights have been one way that we’re able to get cider in their hands with some education. Because education is really important to us. But we still offer tastings, just at designated points throughout the day. And tours have been another way that we kind of make the educational component richer.