Seated in the hollow bowl of a gently rolling Lewisburg hillside sits a tidy little red building with a front porch full of rocking chairs, not unlike the other tidy little red buildings tourists and visitors alike may stumble across while milling about in Greenbrier County. Yet through a casual swing of the front door, it’s anything but common. Here at Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead, a small farm winery, West Virginia fruit and honey are being slowly melded and channeled into ciders and meads, extending a long legacy of makers and doers in the Appalachian foothills while demonstrating the future of small business and sustainable agriculture in the Mountain State.Josh Bennett and Will Lewis, co-owners and founders of Hawk Knob, are friends who met while studying horticulture at West Virginia University. They initially bonded over their mutual love of fine beverages, sustainable agriculture and the yearning to make a living from farming. Shortly thereafter, they began discussing going into business together, and things really began to take shape when one of their professors in the horticulture program taught Lewis how to make mead. From there, they began experimenting with mead as well as other concoctions. “That was really the start of what became Hawk Knob,” Bennett says. “Even from that time, we talked and dreamed about taking our brewing to a commercial level.”
Different and Good
Their dreams could have taken them many places where cider and mead were more firmly established, but country roads inevitably led them home.
“I spent a lot of time in Pocahontas County growing up,” says Bennett, who was raised just over the state border in Highland County, VA. “There, and in many of the neighboring counties, cider making was still a tradition that hadn’t died. Those ciders were made from apples we gleaned from old mountainside homestead orchards or old wild apple trees. They were always different but always good.”
“Different” and “good” are two words you need to be familiar with if you’re going to talk about the products made at Hawk Knob because they’ll be uttered a lot between sips. “Cider is made from apples and is naturally gluten-free,” Bennett explains. “Our ciders are dry, and we do not add sulphites, sugars or fining agents. We don’t even filter. Mead, in its purest form, is just wine made from honey. It is the oldest known—or first intentionally fermented—beverage made by man, and it is experiencing its largest resurgence in brewing in recorded history.”
Hawk Knob makes its hard ciders and meads with locally sourced and produced honey, apples and other fruits. In fact, Bennett and Lewis recently planted their own orchard of rare, cider-specific apples to have estate-grown cider from renowned cider varieties. They have big plans for future meads with other locally sourced fruits, such as blueberries, raspberries and pears, and they’ve even ventured into beekeeping. This year, if all goes well, they expect to get their first crop of honey.
While you may have an inkling of what a hard cider tastes like, a mead may be less familiar. Hawk Knob produces a style of mead known as cyser, which is made by adding honey to apple juice. “We have two versions of this style,” says Lewis. “The first is our regular cyser, which is all local apples and local honey aged in French and American oak. The second is our reserve cyser, aged in bourbon barrels for one year. Both of these styles are dry, which surprises most people because most meads out there are really sweet. Our meads are great with meals and can stand up to other wines that would be served with meals.”
Challenges of a Budding Industry
As laws and regulations have only recently begun to change in West Virginia regarding the craft and sale of alcohol, getting started as a small business in the winemaking industry in the Mountain State can pose a few hurdles. The story of how Hawk Knob came into being is no different. Lewis and Bennett handled all their own licensing and mostly breezed through the federal licensing process. State licensing, however, was a bit more difficult.
“While we were on the hunt for equipment, we met Frank and Barbara Tuckwiller of Watts Roost Winery,” Bennett recalls of their journey. “They were retiring from the wine business and gave us the opportunity to lease their facility while they were phasing out. Under our federal license, it was annotated that we were an alternating proprietorship, which only meant that we operated in a facility where another winemaker also operated.” The only problem was that the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration (WVABCA) had never heard of this arrangement and told them that such a designation wasn’t allowed in West Virginia. Things quickly came to a standstill.
After several months and the help of three senators and, in particular, WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, they were able to work with the WVABCA and clear things up. “Fortunately, everyone involved was eventually able to come to the same determination,” says Bennett.
West Virginia Grown
Currently, Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead is the only cider producer of its kind in the entire state. Having a small, agriculturally and locally focused business in West Virginia is something both men are understandably proud of.
“I really try to drive it home to folks that these are the sorts of businesses we need to be focusing on,” says Bennett. “West Virginia has a climate and geography perfectly suited to the crafting of niche, value-added agriculture products. Cider is part of our cultural heritage. It is a true Appalachian tradition. Every legislative advantage should be given to drive these sorts of value-added, craft-focused small businesses and to streamline their creation and licensing processes.”
So how does one take a backyard pastime and turn it into a successful entrepreneurial venture in West Virginia? “Stay true to yourself and your dream,” says Bennett.
Lewis agrees that this determined mindset is key. “When you are passionate about something, you will do it well,” he says. “Josh and I have dreamed of this venture for about 10 years. We did a lot of market research, and the growth statistics were outstanding. Cider is undergoing a current boom, which is happening all across the country. The same thing, on a smaller scale, is happening for craft mead. We knew it was the time.”
The fact that this industry is experiencing a boom period of growth is undeniable. According to The Nielsen Company, which tracks off-premise, or non-restaurant, alcoholic beverage sales, 2013 saw an 89 percent increase in cider sales in the U.S., and 2014 saw a 71 percent increase. In 2015, the growth was markedly slower with only an 11 percent increase.
Amidst this boom, Hawk Knob won a $5,000 award from the Create West Virginia 2015 Conference to help grow its business, beating out several other local entrepreneurs. Bennett and Lewis are using the money they won to continue developing the self-distribution of their products and their networks across the state, as they are committed to being 100 percent West Virginia made. They have a tasting room at their facility that they expect to have functioning with expanded hours this summer as part of this plan.
There are a lot of other things Bennett and Lewis could have done with their knowledge of cider and mead other than start a small business in a state that had never seen one like it. Yet, people like them who are young and passionate about their craft, willing to take a risk to bring their dreams to fruition and keep business in West Virginia are an important piece of the fabric of modern life in Appalachia. Bennett passionately sums up his reasons for ultimately deciding to go with his gut and pursue this business with a quote by Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Apparently, life beyond the gray twilight tastes a bit like West Virginia apples and honey. If you’re lucky, you might even taste it on the front porch of a tidy little red building in Lewisburg.