Over the river and through the woods, I traveled to the tiny mountain town of Monterey (the seat of Highland County with a population of under 200) to try some of the purest cider around. Kirk Billingsley, owner of the newly opened Big Fish Cider Company, has been making cider at home for over twenty years, but it was only within the last year that he finally decided to take it to the next level. With full support from his community and the help of Operations Manager Aaron Burkholder (currently the only full-time employee), Kirk was able to transform a lifelong hobby into a flourishing business.
When I arrived, not a soul was in sight, but it gave me a moment to admire the gorgeous wall of reclaimed wormy chestnut that frames the modest tasting room. From behind a closed door, Aaron emerged to greet me, then rushed to wash his hands. As I would discover later, he was in the midst of grafting trees from their orchard and prepping for a bottle of cider that would not be released until 2023!
I've been to quite a few vineyards, breweries, and distilleries in Virginia, but haven't run into many cider makers. Where does Big Fish fall into the mix?
Aaron Burkholder: We are classified as a Farm Winery because we either own or lease our orchards and the alcohol content of our cider is lower than wine. This classification requires that at least 51% of our apples be used for production. However, last year was an incredible apple year and 78% of the apples we used were from our orchards in Highland County. It's not something we expect every year due to many variables, but it would certainly be ideal! This also allows us to support other producers in the area. For example, the raspberries that go into our Church Hill Blush and the maple in the Monterey Maple are also sourced from Highland County.
Aaron explained that cider production is most similar to making white wine, except with apples of course. The apples come from unkempt orchards that use no pesticide sprays or fertilizers. Instead, they rely solely on the terroir, environmental factors that contribute to a crop’s success in a particular region. He guided me through the home-style kitchen and lab, then opened the door to the cidery floor, engulfing us in a wave of cool, crisp apple aromas.
AB: You guys are actually in luck! We just picked these apples up today. We're starting a batch of our spiced holiday cider, Wassail. We have stuff to illustrate just about every step of the process. It wouldn't have smelled like this a few days ago, or even yesterday.
From apple to bottle, how long is the process to make cider?
AB: Short answer: if we were to press these apples right now, maybe five months. Long answer: it depends. We grind the apples, press the apples, filter the apples, add yeast, and put them in fermenters to sit for a few months. We check them and maybe they need another month or so – each batch varies and we don't rush things around here. When the batch is ready, it’s then transferred, carbonated, bottled, pasteurized, and labeled.
True to the style, and with a considerable knowledge in agriculture studies, Aaron and Kirk use a long, slow, cold fermentation process. This allows the complexity of the flavors to develop and shine through, without rushing the yeast. This method limits production, but derives the most delicate flavors of the apples, both of which are important to highlighting Highland County's freshest ingredients.
What got you into cider? Why Monterey?
Kirk Billingsley: It’s been a fun process. My whole history is in fresh cider. I squeezed fresh apple juice with my dad, have always loved exploring for new varieties, and it’s always been all about the apples. When I first came back to the county, my wife bought me a press and I loved making cider. I got pretty good and my friends seemed to like it, so I thought, “Why not try to sell it?” I’m from here and I’ve been all over, but I like the small town and I’ve always been apple-centric – which is a perk of working in an apple-abundant area.
Why the name Big Fish?
KB: Well, did you see the big fish on top of the building? This used to be a theater and next door was The Maple Restaurant. They got a contract with a local trout hatchery, so they put a neon sign with this big fish and the name Maple Restaurant on top of the building back in 1954. When my wife got sick of me fermenting cider at the house, I started using the building to make cider. I’d refer to it as “going up to the big fish.” So naturally, calling the place “Big Fish” was my first instinct and a landmark to the town – plus, we’re kind of a big fish in a small town.
In April, Big Fish Cider took Best in Class for their “highly recommended” Allegheny Gold at the Great Lakes International Cider & Perry Competition (GLINTCAP). After my visit, I can say with confidence that the title is accurate.
Learn more about Big Fish Cider at bigfishcider.com.
Photography by Mike Lesnick