Last Updated on August 31, 2023
Birdsong and bluegrass music provided the soundscape for an entertaining and informative afternoon at Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider, located less than four miles outside Lewisburg, WV’s charming downtown.
With picturesque mountain views as a backdrop, my husband and I luxuriated in on a covered patio as our congenial host, Josh Bennett, CEO/Founder of Hawk Knob, poured out generous cider samples.
As we sipped and nibbled on delicacies from an artistically arranged charcuterie board, Bennett told us about the company, Appalachian cider history, and his own personal history. Spoiler alert: he is a storyteller extraordinaire, so, if he’s onsite, allow plenty of time to enjoy his detailed narratives, laced with a generous splash of Southern humor.
Although cider has seen a recent rise in popularity, this refreshing beverage goes back a long way. In fact, until Prohibition reared its ugly head in 1920, it was the most popular beverage in the United States. Among other negative effects of this ill-conceived 18th amendment to the U.S. constitution, Prohibition completely destroyed the once thriving cider industry. Unlike other alcohol-based industries, cider didn’t make a comeback because most of the cider apple orchards had been chopped down.
Folks living deep in the West Virginia mountains, away from Uncle Sam’s eye, never stopped making cider, and in this part of the country, the beloved beverage existed on life support until 1931 when the 21st amendment repealed the 18th, giving state and local governments the right to decide to coddle the bottle or lose the booze.
Hawk Knob History
Born and raised in West Virginia, Bennett learned to make, as well as consume, cider when he was 12.
“If you were old enough to make it, you were old enough to drink it,” he recalled fondly.
Bennett took a number of detours on his way to producing cider commercially. From working on a Montana cattle ranch to training horses in Florida, and from driving a tractor trailer, to starting a business in disaster relief, Bennett developed skills that would serve him well later. After three years in Germany with the U.S. Navy, he took advantage of the GI Bill and studied agriculture and agronomy at the University of West Virginia.
Ending up a few counties from where he grew up, Bennett found his calling. In 2014, Hawk Knob, named after a nearby mountain, opened its hard cider operation. Appalachian culture and tradition, quality West Virginia produce, Bennett’s deep-rooted love of cider, and good old-fashioned know-how made for a thirst-killer combination. Hawk Knob’s tasting room opened in 2015 and the fledgling business took flight.
Today, Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider is a small, hands-on operation with a big reputation for producing dry, complex beverages full of character and flavor. Bennett and his team still hand-sort their heirloom and modern apples, then press, age, and blend them.
Cider Business Basics
Hawk Knob starts pressing apples in early November trying to complete the task by late February. I visited Hawk Knob in mid-March, and they were in the process of finishing up.
All the production takes place onsite. Hawk Knob relies on wild fermentation – natural spontaneous fermentation – which takes place in recycled bourbon barrels. At the end of the aging process, the cider is bottled, ready for locals and visitors to enjoy. In 2023, Hawk Knob produced 20,000 gallons of juicy, delectable cider.
Hawk Knob ciders are unfiltered with enough carbonation to act as a natural preservative and give the tongue a tiny tingle. Bennett grew up drinking still cider, which didn’t have a long shelf life.
“We had to drink it quickly, before it went flat,” he explained with a smile, “which wasn’t hard to do.”
Hawk Knob ciders are available statewide in West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. This is good news for cider lovers in those states, but a bureaucratic headache for Bennett. He described a dizzying number of alphabet soup state and federal agencies with which he has to deal and regulations with which he has to comply.
The cidery is licensed as a winery because, until recently, all of Hawk Knob’s products contained more than 7% alcohol. When Josh introduced his new Mountain Made line of modern ciders, which contains 4.8%, the cidery also fell under the jurisdiction of the FDA.
“It’s incredibly more complex to run a little business like this than people would ever imagine,” he admitted. “But it’s our passion, and we’re still at it.”
We started our tasting session with samples of Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider’s four traditional flagship ciders which are based on the farmhouse cider with which he grew up. Then he introduced us to the one cider that wasn’t made solely with West Virginia apples. The finale consisted of two modern ciders from Bennett’s new Mountain Made line, one of which was to be debuted on the day we left for home.
Appalachian Classic: This cider wasn’t barrel aged and was the lightest of the four with a crisp tart apple flavor. The aroma was sweeter than the taste, which was crisp, with a bit of natural sweetness from the apples. This cider would pair well with seafood, cheese, salad, and other lighter fare.
Barrel Heritage: This cider was identical to the Appalachian except that it had been barrel aged eight to ten months. What a difference that made! The aroma wasn’t nearly as sweet and the flavor was more complex. The buttery notes and hint of cherry in the finish was a result of the barrel aging, which gives cider more body from the micro-oxidation.
This cider would pair well with steaks or just about anything else. We weren’t at all surprised to learn that Barrel Heritage had the distinction of being a two-time international gold medal winner in the largest cider competition in the world. In fact, no Hawk Knob cider has ever placed lower than bronze.
Elderberry Infused: This beautiful, deep rose-colored cider presented hints of pipe tobacco, dates, plums, vanilla, and chocolate. After fermenting almost as long as the Barrel Heritage, the cider was poured into tanks and infused with organic elderberries, which were later removed.
“When we first made this one,” Bennett recalled, “the idea of adding the elderberry was not to make Kool-Aid, or a fruit bomb. It was to add complexity to the cider.”
Which it definitely did, opening up and intensifying as I sipped. Elderberry is Hawk Knob’s biggest seller over-all, and the most versatile when it comes to pairing with food. Serve it with dishes that go well with red wine.
Traditional: Winner of two international silver medals, this cider has no added yeast and the most variability. This is because yeast is present on apples and Bennett uses a variety of apples.
“This cider, I make exactly like the ciders I grew up making,” he explained. “Instead of going into stainless steel when we press the juice, the juice goes immediately into bourbon barrels and then we just wait for a spontaneous wild fermentation in the barrels.”
This was one of those tastes I couldn’t dissect. I can tell you it was good, but can’t tell you why. Traditional is Hawk Knob’s most popular cider with the locals.
The Apple Outlier
Bennett has used only West Virginia apples to make all his ciders with the exception of one he calls Confluence. The methodology was the same, but he used different apples, different wood, and different processes. The apple content was one-third each of two apple varieties from England, and one-third of the apple blend used in all his ciders.
Bennett then aged half the resulting juice in French oak Chardonnay casks and half in Spanish sherry barrels. The two aged ciders are then blended together. Instead of forced carbonation in tanks, Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider uses in-bottle carbonation like the method used to give Champagne its bubbles. The result is a cloudy cider that was bitter-sweet, full-bodied, with more tannin than most ciders, giving it a pleasant pucker.
As if we hadn’t consumed enough cider, we capped off the afternoon, which was rapidly approaching evening, by sharing two of Hawk Knob’s fruity, low alcohol Mountain Made ciders. Bloody Session was sweet/tart and flavored with blood orange, orange and tangerine.
It is called a Session cider because of its 4.8% alcohol level. This would make a delightful brunch cider, reminiscent of the classic mimosa. Bloody Session is one of Hawk Knob’s sweetest ciders.
Our last tasting was Salty Beach. It had all the best characteristics of a margarita without the salt and crushed ice. Since I drink margaritas mostly for their flavor, this cider slipped down easy with no worries of a hangover.
A Southern Cidery Welcome
Located amongst the verdant rolling hills of Greenbrier County, visitors can enjoy stunning views from the covered patio, stay warm next to the fire pit, or relax indoors at a high table in the small, but cozy tasting room. Hawk Knob serves its award-winning hard ciders by the bottle, on tap, or in flights, where you can sample several ciders.
In addition to Hawk Knob’s delightful hard ciders and excellent food offerings, the cidery hosts a number of events throughout the year.
I can’t say that my husband and I have suddenly become hard cider experts, but we know what we like, and what we like is what Hawk Knob produces and represents. Cider production is not only Bennett’s livelihood, it’s a tangible link to the culture and traditions he treasures, and I warn you, his reverence and enthusiasm are highly contagious.
If You Go
Ample parking accommodates RVs, boats, and trailers. Children and leashed dogs are welcome. Kid-friendly foods and beverages are available, as is a pond where visitors can fish for bass, blue gill, and catfish.
Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider tasting room is open Thursday and Friday: 3 to 9 pm, Saturday: 12 to 9 pm, and Sunday: 10 to 7 pm.
Location: 2245 Blue Sulphur Pike, Lewisburg, WV 24901
Josh Bennett purchased Greenbriar Valley Brewing Company in summer 2023 and I am confident he will utilize the dedication and skills he has brought to Hawk Knob Appalachian Hard Cider to revive the brewery’s excellent reputation for quality beer.spirits