December 12, 2003

Cider Mill closing in Virginia

from TV station WHSV, Harrisonburg, VA:

The Sheets Cider Mill has brewed its final gallon. After 75 years, the Sheets family is getting out of the cider business.

“I am sad to see it go,” said Rosemary Eyler, Weyers Cave, a frequent customer and former employee at the mill. “But I know it's awful hard, a lot of hard work for the Sheets'.”

“It is hard to close it down,” admitted Curtis Sheets. “You know, it's a third generation business, fourth if you count Lauren, who capped the last bottle today.

“So it's been a long time, a long run.”

The Department of Agriculture requires the pasteurization of apple cider.

“We just have a few customers over the years that we were still making cider for,” said Sheets. “We didn't really have enough business to justify the expense of going to pasteurization.”

The family also disapproved of the taste of the pasteurized cider.

“We think the taste is pretty good when it comes straight off the apple like this,” Sheets said. “And that's something that everybody has always liked about our product, and we didn't want to change that.

“We've always been 100 percent pure, and we chose not to comply with that.”

So now customers will have to find a new place to get their cider. But Eyler, who stocked up on several gallons, says she'll worry about that next year.

“It freezes really well,” she laughed, “so I'll have cider right up until springtime.”

more on their website…

There is a more detailed article from November 13, 2003 in The Charlottesville, VA Hook:

Leon Sheets didn't plan on leaving the apple industry. “I was born into it,” says Sheets, who operates a cider press in Augusta County. “My father started our press 75 years ago.”

In its heyday, the family press produced over 80,000 gallons of cider a year, Sheets says, but as big apple-processing firms have snapped up much of the best fruit, annual production has slipped to just 10,000 gallons.

In the end, however, it wasn't corporate America that dealt the final blow to his operations. An inspector recently informed Sheets that FDA rules, enacted in the wake of a horrific out-of-state E. coli outbreak, could cost bottlers— even tiny ones like the Sheets family mill— $14,000 for new equipment. The days of wholesaling fresh untreated cider end in January.

“So we decided this would be our last year,” says Sheets. “We who play by the rules have been punished.”

“It's overkill,” says Charlotte Shelton, whose family operates several hand-cranked apple presses in North Garden. “The cider made with good sanitary practices is perfectly safe.”

It's a glorious fall day on Apple Cider Road in Mt. Sidney. A tiny hamlet just past Fort Defiance, Mt. Sidney is the kind of place where, if you pull into the wrong driveway (as a reporter did), you may be greeted with a smile and cordially informed that the cider mill lies “just right over there— it's in hollerin' distance.”

“I like the tart stuff,” says Catherine Strickler, who first discovered Sheets Cider Mill 23 years ago when she was being courted by a Mt. Sidney boy. Now married and living in Harrisonburg, she has returned with her children— and her camera— after hearing the mill was closing.

“I'm going to take some pictures,” says Strickler. “This is such a shame.”

With no orchard of its own, the Sheets family has plied its cider trade by buying apples from independent orchards and by letting small growers bring their own apples. It's also one of the last places that opens its press to folks like Brett Wilson.

A general contractor living in Keswick, Wilson journeys over Afton Mountain to the historic mill each fall. This is his final trip, and Wilson is feeling stung— and not just by that yellow jacket that got him on the hand as he boxed apples earlier in the day.

“Damn bureaucrats,” says Wilson.

“It's a sad day,” he says, as the fruit for his 2003 vintage tumbles from a hopper onto a conveyor belt. Less than an hour later, he'll be filling a borrowed van with gallon jugs containing one of Virginia's most celebrated products.

“I'd much rather make cider than wine,” says Wilson, as he unloads four apple varieties (along with two kinds of pears). “It's so interesting.”

But, if the rules aren't followed, it can also be dangerous.

Until recently, it was common practice to make cider from already-fallen apples, which industry insiders call “drops.” After all, why waste food? What the industry now knows is that drops, if they land on animal feces, can pick up pathogens such as the E. coli bacteria. Sheets says no drops are allowed at the Sheets Cider Mill.

“They do it clean; they do it right,” says Strickler. She says her children, now ages 4 and 6, have been drinking cider from the Sheets Cider Mill since they were six months old.

However, some microbiologists and lawyers might not endorse the practice; they could point to a massive outbreak that killed a toddler in Colorado and sickened 66 others.

Very dificult issue here.

Posted by DaveH at December 12, 2003 09:20 PM