By Michael Curry
Joining the ever growing number of craft breweries in the region, Sly Clyde’s Ciderworks in Phoebus is totally unique, becoming the first brewery making only cider — not the juice to be found on the shelves of the grocery store but the delicious alcoholic beverage that has been a staple in such countries as the United Kingdom and France for centuries.
Sly Clyde comes about after a series of serendipitous events. It is located in a splendid late Victoria building on Mellen Street in the heart of the national historic district of Phoebus. For more than 100 years, this venerable old structure has been an integral part of the community and a cornerstone of the Smith family’s impressive business ventures which included a funeral home, flower shop and huge greenhouses on this tract that could well be called a compound. H. Clyde Smith was the original owner; he loved to tell a story or two and more often than not accompanied his tales with his signature sly smile. Hence the name Sly Clyde. He had a huge influence on the growth of Phoebus, helping establish (among other things) the Phoebus Bank and the Little League baseball field (which adjoins the cidery).He also instilled in his son, R. Hayden Smith and his grandsons Tim and Doug, the notion and belief in giving back to the community. The family still runs and directs the funeral home which relocated to Downtown Hampton in the 1950’s. With the renovation of this original property, the Smith family is indeed giving back and furthermore setting a fine and lasting example of conservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings.
Four or five years ago, the two Smith brothers (grandsons of H.Clyde), Tim and Doug were trying to decide what to do with the aged building after the florist shop next door closed down. Mulling the idea of a brewery, a mutual friend suggested that instead of brewing beer, they should go out on a limb, take a chance and start a ciderworks. The idea was born and it is now taking off.
Determined to do it all right, as they say, the owners did tons of research and training and finally made the momentous decision to use only Virginia grown apples in their new business. They are now enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship with a commercial orchard in Nelson County, Virginia which presses the apples and then ships them down to Phoebus in 4,000 gallon tanks.
Instead of opening the retail business to the public immediately, Tim and Doug, with the help of newly appointed Head Cidermaker, Brent Miles, decided to get the fledgling business up and running by actually producing cider, distributing it throughout the region. Now, after all the planning and dreaming, the retail side is opening.
THE HEAD CIDERMAKER
Once the idea was decided upon, Tim and Doug put out a “global” ad in order to recruit the best Cidermaker in the business. After a somewhat lukewarm response at the initial stages, they hit the jackpot when a young man by the name of Brent Miles answered the ad saying he was willing to relocate to Phoebus to fine tune the set up and eventual operation of the venture. Brent has overseen the design and construction of the cidery with all of the intricate details of planning meeting his exacting specifications. A 2,000-square-foot building was added and this is the guts of the operation — the cidery itself. Complete with six vast stainless steel tanks (four for fermentation and two for carbonation) and a garage door, this is the headquarters of the wholesale side of the business.
A winner of multiple gold medals and awards, Brent helped to establish the now legendary Seattle Cider Company. While working on his PhD in Mediaeval History, he was searching for jobs when he joined the brewery in Seattle, soon becoming its first Head Cidermaker. With an unusual passion for what he does, he actually taught himself the art of cider making. He led the development of the industry changing semi-sweet and dry ciders and he was soon recognized nationally and internationally, being named one of the top cider makers to watch by Serious Eats in 2014. He also found himself much in demand as a lecturer and workshop leader, specializing in Craft Cider start ups and cider company growth at national conferences and symposia. His signature ciders have won many of the industry’s top awards including gold medals at the nation’s largest and most prestigious competitions.
Commenting on the appointment of Head Cidermaker here at Sly Clyde, Doug Smith says with unabashed enthusiasm: “We are more than happy to have Brent join us. He has the drive and experience we were looking for to create amazing local craft ciders here in Hampton Roads and to build the foundation for a major East Coast craft beverage brand”.
Equally enthusiastic, Brent himself reflects: “I am so excited. I love every aspect of the start up process – recipe development, production planning, branding, etc and I am eagerly waiting for the Tasting Room to open so that everyone can now taste what we have been working on”. By all accounts, sales of the new products from Sly Clyde have been brisk and the cider is now being distributed across the region by the two leaders in the area – M. Price Distributing on the Peninsula and Hoffman Beverage Company on the Southside. Continuing, Brent adds: “What drew me to Tim and Doug was their total commitment to putting great cider into cans and their focus on creating a community-focused tasting room and gathering place”.
Brent also had the opportunity of touring and exploring numerous long established cideries in the United Kingdom as his wife Kali Wagner earned her Master’s Degree at the University of Belfast in Northern Ireland. After living there for two years, they are now proud owners of an historic home in Phoebus, just a short walk from work!
Under Brent’s expert direction, Sly Clyde ciders begin with fermented fruit juice. The production process actually shares more with wine making than with beer making. While creating fun and unique beverages, Brent and the owners are aiming to change consumers’ preconceptions about what cider actually is and what is actually can be.
Planning on introducing new hard ciders each season, Sly Clyde is already making a name for itself with its three signature brands – sold in cans and kegs. If you are looking for a clean apple taste, then their Submersive Cider is the one for you. Brent has also introduced a deliciously refreshing Cut and Run. Bold and off-dry, this has a combined taste of ginger and lemon. Then there is the Inkjet Cider which is fermented on fresh mint and finished with a hint of blackberry- this one deftly combines sweet, savory and tart. All three of these flavors or types of cider have a 6.7% alcoholic content. All are gluten free and never made from concentrate.
THE ORIGINS OF HARD CIDER
No one knows for sure when cider was first introduced or created but certainly by the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, cider drinking was a well established custom throughout Europe. It was around that time that orchards started being developed and planted specifically with cider apples and even the monasteries got into the burgeoning industry by making and selling cider to the public, thereby helping to support their institutions of learning. By the time the 17th and 18th centuries rolled around, cider making had reached its peak in Great Britain. And even here in the United States, Thomas Jefferson is said to have enjoyed his “table drink” of a champagne-like cider that he made from Hewe’s Crabapples on his vast estate at Monticello. In Colonial America, cider was one of the (if not the) most popular beverages. Early English settlers brought cider apple seeds with them and began successfully planting and cultivating huge orchards. During the prohibition years in the early 20th century, cider production saw a huge decrease but, thankfully, recently, cider making is enjoying a grand resurgence in popularity. The United Kingdom still boasts the highest consumption of cider (with approx. 15% of all alcoholic sales), closely followed by France and, of course, many of the Commonwealth countries including Canada and New Zealand. Currently, in the United States only about 1% of alcoholic sales are accounted for by cider…but that is changing rapidly thanks to craft breweries such as Sly Clyde.
THE CIDERY IN PHOEBUS
Assisting Tim, Doug and Brent in the complicated process of restoring and bringing back to life this wonderful Victorian building is Anne Doop, Tim’s partner. As a team they have made certain that most if not all of the original details and pieces of history have been saved. Not just saved but re-purposed. For example, the original tin ceiling panels now adorn the front of the long bar in the Tasting Room. The bar rail is from an ancient mahogany beam. The table tops are re-crafted from the original hard pine floors and the early metal radiators have now become stands/legs for the tables. And the impressive list goes on. An inviting large patio and deck have been added on the back of the building. Future plans call for the renovation and reuse of the large greenhouse and Anne is currently working on partnerships with local restaurants to provide food services for the cidery. The idea being that, offering a limited menu, local dining establishments will deliver your order once it is called in by Sly Clyde! In the meantime, food trucks will be on site.
And in keeping with the whole new life that the property is taking on as a ciderworks, Anne has planted a row of Virginia apple trees – so in a couple of years, it is very likely that Cidermaster Brent will come up with a special Phoebus grown concoction.
The Tasting Room bar features 10 different ciders on tap and of course there will be changes and seasonal additions. Sly Clyde as a venue will also be available for receptions and gatherings
In conclusion and in great anticipation of the opening, Tim Smith says: We are local guys who are now creating amazing ciders that we hope will inspire our friends, neighbors and customers to come share a pint and share a funny story with one another”. Just like Sly Clyde did.
Pick up a Sly Clyde and enjoy… you will be very pleasantly surprised!