BY KELLIE HONAKER
Standing amid gurgling barrels of cider, I’m greeted by a man in a cowboy hat.
He shakes my hand firmly and introduces himself as Josh Bennett, then introduces his partner Will Lewis, who offers a friendly, lop-sided grin. The pair met in 2006 while they were studying horticulture and agriculture at West Virginia University. Lewis harbored a keen interest in brewing his own beer, but after a Belgian professor suggested mead (which was cheaper and required less equipment), he fell in love with man’s first fermented beverage—otherwise known as “honey wine.”
Bennett may very well have the love of cider in his blood (he made his first batch at twelve years old). Growing up in Highland County, Virginia, having a barrel of cider in the cellar was the norm.
Each man soon discovered that they had their own personal knack and passion for these beverages. So, they joined forces and carried a decade long dream of owning their own business. They tinkered, experimented, taste-tested, and brewed their own nectar of the gods until they created what exists today at Hawk Knob Cider and Mead in Lewisburg, WV.
Hawk Knob is the only cidery in the state and is one of three meaderies. Their cider is made from heritage and heirloom variety apples from Morgan County and from Bennett’s farm in Pocahontas County. To maintain their license, they’re required to grow 25% of their own product, and 50% must come from West Virginia. Honey has proven a little harder to come by, and Hawk Knob is actively seeking beekeepers/farmers, no matter how small scale they may be. They’re striving to create a 100% West Virginia made product.
Tucked away from the bubbling barrels is a quaint little tasting room filled with natural light. It won’t be open to the public until spring, but it already whispers of promise. Wine glasses gleam in the afternoon sun, proudly sporting the Hawk Knob logo.
Before Bennett pops the cork on a few 17oz. bottles, he warns jokingly that anyone with a “Kool-Aid palate” need not apply. Their product is dry, non-filtered, with no added sugars, sulfites, fining agents, or concentrate. Everything is naturally gluten free. In a world of super-sweetened, artificial beverages, they strive to keep their products as pure and close to nature as possible. Hawk Knob clings firmly to the roots of tradition.
Bennett starts us out with a Cyser (mead). It is served chilled, like wine, and would stand up to a strong chardonnay. It is a smooth, straight combination of apples and honey. Aged for a year with 14% ABV (alcohol by volume). This will end up being my personal favorite (which earns me another hearty grin from Lewis).
Next is the Appalachian Classic, served ice cold and aged for ten months in a stainless steel vat. At 8% ABV it has a nice clean taste and a soft, apple bouquet.
There is also an Appalachian Classic aged in a bourbon barrel. 11% ABV. It’s mellow, with a slight earthy flavor. All of the ciders are versatile, but I could drink this one with an expensive steak just as I could a cheap hamburger. The cider is good regardless.
Elderberry Infused Bourbon Barrel Aged Hard Cider stands apart from the other ciders with it’s pretty, pinkish-purple color and pleasant aroma. It is crisp, smooth, and tender on the palate. 11% ABV.
The shift in Bennett’s body language lets me know that this next one is his favorite. He pours a generous glass and presents the drink like a gift to a friend. The fact that this cider even exists has relied on a gamble—a gamble that most major companies wouldn’t make. Instead of adding yeast or sulfites, Hawk Knob has allowed the naturally occurring yeast on the apples to ferment organically—resulting in what they call their Wild Fermented Bourbon Barrel Aged Cider (or simply, The Traditional). Allowing Mother Nature to do her thing can be risky business, sometimes resulting in a ruined batch and the loss of time and money. But that’s the thing with being passionate about what you do, you’re willing to take a gamble on something you believe in.
Hawk Knob products can be found at The Irish Pub in Lewisburg, Hill and Holler, the Wine and Spirit stores north and south of town, and in Fayetteville, and Slatyfork, West Virginia.
When asked for a photo, they requested that their tin type photograph be used and that the photographer (Lisa Elmaleh) be listed. What struck me as most respectable in these men is that they humbly gave credit where credit was due and asked that the following be mentioned in this article: Nat West, owner of Reverend Nat Hard Cider of Oregon who took them under his wing when they were first learning the ropes, The Natural Capitol Investment Fund that issued the loan and was willing to work with a start-up company, the woodcut artwork by Mike Costello that the label was designed from, and the digitalization of the logo by Sara Brown of Questionable Press. Not only do they fully stand behind their product, but they want to give back to the community and support those that had their own special part in the process.
There’s no bad apples at Hawk Knob, neither literally nor figuratively. They’re the sort of folks you’d like to share a drink with. The fact that they actually make the drink is a bonus.