Tom McMullen picks apples. Photo courtesy of Tom McMullen.
Tom McMullen picks apples. Courtesy of Tom McMullen.

Following the back roads that wind through Old Saltworks Road in Washington County uncovers a landscape of clustering apple trees that line the open pastures.

Welcome to Tumbling Creek Cider Company, a grassroots business operating on Kelly Ridge Farms between Hayter’s Gap and Meadowview, surrounded by the rolling hills of Southwest Virginia. The company was affectionately named for the creek that curves through nearby Clinch Mountain.  

Celebrating the land and what it has to offer is a small partnership of local cider-making friends who are returning to their Appalachian roots. The friends have spent the past five years revitalizing a beverage that traditionally toasts the arrival of autumn.

But hard cider isn’t just for fall anymore. 

While Tumbling Creek is among few cideries in Southwest Virginia, if not the only one, the numbers continue to grow in the Central Virginia region and throughout the commonwealth. (A map on Virginiacider.org shows only one cidery west of Natural Bridge, and that one is now closed; it also doesn’t list Tumbling Creek.)

According to Pat Kane, public relations specialist for Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control, by code, all cideries in Virginia are licensed as either a winery or farm winery for the purposes of producing hard cider. There are a total of 504 wineries and farm wineries combined in the commonwealth.

From July 2021 to June 2022, 2.3 million liters of Virginia cider were produced for retail. From July 2022 to June 2023, that increased to almost 2.5 million liters.

“There’s a rebirth of the cider industry and we’re smack dab in the middle of it,” said Tom McMullen, one of the four owners of Tumbling Creek.

Laura Hall pressing apples. Courtesy of Tom McMullen.
Laura Hall pressing apples. Photo courtesy of Tom McMullen.

Tapping an emerging market

The story of Tumbling Creek Cider Company begins in 2018 when four friends — McMullen, Jerry Bresowar, Justen Dick and Mark Finney — became business partners, realizing that hard cider production was an emergent market. 

Bresowar, a former assistant professor in biology at Emory & Henry College, is now a full-time cider maker.

Eli Andis helps pick apples at Tumbling Creek. Courtesy of Tom McMullen.
Eli Andis helps pick apples at Tumbling Creek. Photo courtesy of Tom McMullen.

Dick is a hydrogeologist and an owner of Kelly Ridge Farms, where he grows hops and raises pigs and sheep. He works full time at the Department of Environmental Quality as a hazardous waste inspector. 

Finney is an associate professor in mass communications at Emory & Henry. 

McMullen, a former science professor at Virginia Intermont College, is the orchard manager for the business.

They have spent countless hours figuring how they could turn their hobby into a lucrative business that benefits the community. In 2019, the partners won a $5,000 award during the Washington County Business Challenge. It recognized the company’s goals to foster economic and community development in the region.

“My wife, Sarah, and I moved with our children to the farm in 2012 to reestablish our family roots to the land, rather than retiring here,” said Dick. “The last Kelly born and raised here was my grandfather’s grandfather. However, I knew it would be a challenge to find employment for myself, and that my kids would likely have similar challenges in staying close to the farm here in Appalachia.

Twyla Bremner picks apples. Courtesy of Tom McMullen.
Twyla Bremner picks apples. Photo courtesy of Tom McMullen.

“That is one of the reasons my cidery partners and I have worked so hard building new enterprises here. We feel strongly that for Appalachia and Southwest Virginia to thrive as a viable home, we have to have people making and growing things here.”

Tumbling Creek produced 5,000 gallons of cider last year. Many of the apples were grown throughout the region and pressed in house; the partners’ goal is to build a sustainable hard cider business by growing most of their heirloom apples on 3 acres of orchards at Kelly Ridge Farms. 

Using artisan traditions, the cider makers are focusing on the whole production from apple to glass, producing hard cider from regionally sourced apples, many of which dominated the Appalachian region generations ago.

McMullen has been a man on a mission, tracking down apple varieties that grow well in the Appalachian region but are rarely produced commercially in Virginia. Old=fashioned favorites like Virginia Beauty, Newtown Pippin and Virginia Hewes Crab now grow on the farm.

“Presidents Washington and Jefferson grew Virginia Hewes Crab trees on their plantations for their own cider-making,” said McMullen.

Grafting, the process of propagating new trees, requires an abundance of patience from the grower.

The scion wood, a piece of vegetative material taken from a fruit tree, is connected onto the rootstock, the bottom of the new tree. This process allows the grower to reproduce favorite varieties of apples with consistent characteristics.

McMullen’s travels took him around the region in search of scion wood from heirloom apple trees. 

“I met interesting people like Larry Hobbs from Jim’s Apples up near Duffield, Virginia,” he said. “I collected Myers Royal Limbertwig scion wood from their orchard and met a fellow heirloom apple lover.”

Closer to home, he collected scion wood from Tal Stanley, who grows heirloom apples on his property in Emory. 

McMullen also collected scion wood from the orchard of James “Bo” Bonham in Chilhowie, the great-grandson of the original owner of Bonham Orchards, which operated for many decades.

Apples at Tumbling Creek. Courtesy of Tom McMullen.
Apples at Tumbling Creek. Photo courtesy of Tom McMullen.

For the first time this fall, apple varieties from trees that were hand-grafted five years ago have produced fruit that will be used for the cider operation.

During the first year of grafting, around 70% of the 625 trees survived. That was particularly exciting for McMullen, whose job was to expand the farm’s orchards with the heirloom apples.

Only two weeks ago, cider was pressed from their very first harvest of Newtown Pippin, Myers Royal Limbertwig and Mammoth Black Twig, all heirloom varieties that grow well in Southwest Virginia.

“The amount of cider we got this year is a small amount of juice compared to what will be produced when the trees mature in years to come,” said McMullen.

The business partners combine modern ingenuity with historic grafting and pressing methods. 

They use a high-density trellised management system to grow apple trees on the farm. “It’s a modern way commercial orchards like to grow apples,” said McMullen. “It’s similar to growing grapes, allowing our grafted apples to grow faster.” 

Some of the products at Tumbling Creek. Courtesy of Tom McMullen.
Some of the products at Tumbling Creek. Photo courtesy of Tom McMullen.

A growing business

Five years since its beginning, Tumbling Creek Cider Company is seeing growth as it makes strides in building orchards, harvesting apples and playing around with flavors. 

Ciders including Moonshot and Hellbender Hopped are for sale in local restaurants and retail stores and at a temporary taproom near the Abingdon Farmers Market. The business eventually will move its taproom into the Abingdon Commons, a new artisan food center set to open next month on Main Street.

Tumbling Creek’s best-selling hard cider, Hellbender Hopped — named for the native salamander — is among the top 20 nominees in the 2023 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards sponsored by USA Today. Hellbender Hopped uses hops cultivated and harvested at Kelly Ridge Farms, producing a semi-sweet cider that has tart, fruity and floral flavors.

The business partners have developed ciders with blueberries, cherries, peaches, spruce sprigs, and even smoked jalapenos.

“Regular sweet cider is turned into hard cider by using yeast to ferment the cider, exactly the same way you make wine out of grape juice,” McMullen said. “There’s no brewing involved. We essentially are making wine out of apples instead of grapes. Our typical alcohol content is 7 to 7.5% alcohol.”

Fresh-pressed apple cider is added to a fermentation tank and sulfited to remove native yeast, he explained. Cider-specific yeast is added and the cider is fermented for weeks in a temperature-controlled cooler before being put into an aging container or barrel. The cider is aged for at least three months, blended into a unitank, back-sweetened, carbonated, bottled and lastly pasteurized. 

Dick said he is amazed at the progress they have made in the past five years.

“We have held true to the namesake of our first cider, Moonshot. It takes entrepreneurs willing to take that brave leap into the unknown. We still are excited to see where we will land,” he said.

Follow Tumbling Creek Cider Company on Facebook or visit www.tumblingcreekcider.com.

A native of Washington County, Carolyn lives on her family farm in Glade Spring, where she enjoys gardening...