Once Home to Horses, This 1940 Complex in Richmond is Now an Artisanal Cidery
When I arrive at Blue Bee Cider in Richmond, Virginia, I find 43-year-old owner Courtney Mailey balancing five rungs up an 8-foot-tall ladder, trying to grab a dangling hose that two of her employees have lowered from a roof. After securing the hose and stepping back down, she runs off to maneuver a forklift, raising its prongs about 20 feet in order to lower the aforementioned workers from the roof.
Clearly, Mailey is a hands-on sort of business owner. If her display of forklift driving isn’t evidence enough, the puffy white vest she’s wearing—stained with not one but two shades of earth-toned foam insulation—surely is.
Mailey founded Blue Bee Cider in 2012 after ditching the 9-to-5 world, attending a cidermaking program at Cornell University, and apprenticing for a year at Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden, Virginia. Last October she moved her business to these former city-owned stables in the Scott’s Addition neighborhood of Richmond. She had already outgrown her previous location when growers of the heirloom apples she uses to brew her ciders overwhelmed her with a bumper crop. “I’m like Imelda [Marcos] with shoes when it comes to apples,” she quips. “I just can’t say no.”
Unlike the infamously high-maintenance Marcos, however, there’s no doubt that Mailey is willing to get her hands dirty. She certainly has done so since taking possession of the four-building complex in April of 2016. The long-neglected structures, built in 1940, had been used by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation since the 1990s as a sort of dumping ground for misfit office furniture and recreation equipment. The rooms were filled with three-legged desks, malfunctioning filing cabinets, beat-up Ping-Pong tables without nets, and deflated basketballs. Oddest of all were the sets of pink unicorn heads and rainbow tutus, likely used for some long-forgotten production at a nearby city-owned theater.
“It was basically floor to ceiling, wall to wall,” recalls Mailey, who says it took nine dumpsters to clear all the debris. “As we pulled things out, we realized why it was kept here. Everything was about 95 percent functional, but the extra 5 percent made all the difference, so nobody wanted it.”
Despite the chaos inside, the property met most of Mailey’s criteria: She had been looking for an industrially zoned property with high ceilings to accommodate the cidery’s fermentation tanks, a little bit of land to plant some heirloom apple trees, and appropriate indoor space for a tasting room. “I feel like I’ve developed an eye for being able to see past all the rust and cracks and know it’s possible to turn something like this around,” says Mailey, who studied historic preservation and classical civilization as an undergrad at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and later worked as an administrator for the Virginia Main Street Program.
The city first built stables here in the late 1910s, but the wooden buildings were damaged by fire in 1926. As part of the Works Progress Administration, workers constructed new stables and garages out of granite cobblestones, likely recycled from Richmond’s streets. Architectural historian Debra McClane, who served as a consultant on the Blue Bee project, says the pavers are a recognizable feature of many structures in Richmond’s public parks. They were also used in a similar stable complex, which the city still uses for storage, about a mile away.
“The property is really part of Richmond’s identity,” says McClane. “It’s part of the fabric of that neighborhood, and I think it would have left a big hole if that property had not been rehabbed. Around here, they say something is ‘very Richmond.’ And that building is very Richmond.”
After Mailey parks the forklift, she joins me at one of the cafe tables in the cidery’s courtyard and offers the grand tour. The four buildings that make up the complex form a loose U shape, with the courtyard and a small parking area in the middle. A repaired chain-link metal gate, original to the complex, occupies the open end of the U, and a big sliding gate on one side of the property serves as the main visitor entrance. When Mailey purchased the buildings, weeds sprouted from cracks in the cement pavement and razor wire covered the fences.
The two-story building that forms the base of the U originally housed mules, and then horses, on the first floor. The original pulleys, once employed to hoist bales of hay, still protrude from the exterior wall above the second floor. Now the space contains a potting room, a garage, a workshop, and a cider lab.
From the potting room, filled with gardening equipment, we head up a flight of sturdy pine stairs. Mailey points out a weathered sign in block letters attached to the stair post at the top: “Keep Fire Away.” The former hayloft currently holds several curled-up hoses. “If I can get my hose collection under control, this will eventually be my office,” she says.
Here in the hayloft, as in the rest of the complex, shiny silver HVAC ductwork and electrical conduits contrast with the muted gray of the granite walls, giving the space an industrial look. As part of the application for state and federal historic tax credits, which Mailey used to help offset the $1.2 million cost of the project, that look had to be preserved.
“Throughout all the work we did, it had to maintain the light-industrial feel, so we couldn’t decorate too much,” says architect Andy Scudder of Johannas Design Group. “The light fixtures had to have a certain look; there couldn’t be any flower boxes or training roses up the side of buildings. Even the trees had to be planted randomly, like they were growing up out of the cracks in the pavement or something. And we knew all the mechanicals would have to be exposed, but I think it looks great.”
This building had suffered some water damage, and general contractor Matt Scott of J.M. Scott Construction had to replace several of the thick yellow-pine floorboards, but overall the property had held up remarkably well. Mailey brought in a structural engineer to inspect it before placing her final bid. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t buying a big fat lemon,” she says. “There were some key pieces that needed to be repaired, but all in all it was pretty sound.”
The most challenging aspect of the rehabilitation was cleaning and then repairing the heavy granite cobblestones. Because the stone was considered a character-defining feature for historic tax-credit purposes, the team had to restore the mortar to as close to its original shade as possible. The only problem was, after 75 years, no one knew the original color.
“The mason would mix up some mortar colors and start putting it in, and we’d wait for it to dry to see what it looked like,” says McClane. “It was a matter of looking at different mortar mixes, testing different densities, and a lot of trial and error.”
In a neighborhood filled with mostly one- and two-story redbrick warehouses, Blue Bee’s imposing granite walls stand out. Scott’s Addition, which sits five minutes off Interstate 95 and about 3.5 miles northwest of the Virginia state capitol, was named for 19th-century general Winfield Scott, who acquired the land as part of a dowry in 1817 when he married Maria Mayo, daughter of a prominent landowner.
In the early 20th century, the city of Richmond annexed the parcel, railroad companies built train tracks, and Scott’s Addition thrived as a hub of light industry. The roughly 45-block area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and still boasts its share of small manufacturers, but in recent years, developers have been converting the warehouses to loft apartments.
However, the area is best known for its burgeoning craft alcohol scene. In addition to Blue Bee, there’s another cidery, a meadery, a whiskey distillery, and five microbreweries. Scudder, who has worked on several buildings in the neighborhood, says that 10 years ago you could buy an old warehouse for $20 to $30 per square foot. Today they’re going for between $60 and $80.
Mailey and I continue to the other side of the U, a 5,150 square-foot building divided into three rooms. One contains a library of previously bottled ciders. Another houses dozens of white cardboard boxes filled with cider ready for sale. And then there’s the tank room, with its five 1,500-plus-gallon tanks used to ferment and blend, and two smaller tanks for chilling and carbonation. This is the lair of cidermaker Manuel Garcia, who at 28 has already been coaxing sublime flavors from apples for four years.
“What’s unique about working back here is that you’re surrounded by stainless steel tanks and modern equipment, but you look at the walls and there’s a character, a history to it you don’t find anywhere else,” he says. “You get the feeling you’re not in Richmond anymore. It transports you to a completely different place in time.”
Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this building, which was originally used as a garage for horse-drawn carts and later automobiles, is its series of oversize doors. General contractor Scott moved three of the original wooden doors to another location in the complex, replacing them with glass-and-metal versions so visitors can see the activity going on inside the tank room. The relocated doors and the building’s other four garage doors were meticulously reconstructed, using the original hinges and rollers. Scott and his crew had to replace dozens of panels, employing a custom router bit to cut and then mate the edges of the tongue-and-groove-style boards.
Dealing with the complex’s 40-plus windows, many of which were broken, proved to be another major undertaking. Five of the windows used a type of chicken-wire glass, which has wire embedded within the glass panels, that wasn’t produced anymore. But after a few calls, Scott tracked down a salvaged-glass vendor in Philadelphia who supplied the exact same type of glass from the same era. “These were frosted chicken-glass windows that would have been way too expensive to have custom built,” he says. “We got really lucky.”
Mailey and I cross the courtyard to visit the complex’s final two buildings. One, a rectangular garage, was full of motor oil drippings—and a litter of kittens—when Mailey took possession of it. Now, the rehabbed 563-square-foot space accommodates tastings and special events.
A small hallway leads to the final building, which holds the main tasting room and the cidery’s store. Half of this pitched-roof structure had served as a washroom for laborers, and its frosted windows still conceal its interior from passersby along Summit Avenue. The tasting room once contained showers, and its floor slopes slightly toward an old drain, now cemented over. Planks of yellow pine, reclaimed from saddle racks in one of the haylofts, form the base of the bar, which is topped with a polished slab of cherry.
Here I meet tasting room manager Amy Shumaker, who says she often meets retired city workers who tell her they once worked at the complex and can’t believe its transformation. Like Garcia, she appreciates the history within. “This is our little cider fortress,” she says. “The metal gates, the heavy stone walls. It’s unbreakable. This is where you want to be when the apocalypse hits.”
Garcia explains that much of what he and Mailey do is look back in time, researching and sourcing long-forgotten heirloom apple varieties, several of which were grown by the country’s founding fathers. He thinks Blue Bee’s historic buildings are the perfect setting for such work. “There are these weird moments when I’m walking down from the office and I’ll smell hay and manure, and I’ll ask people, ‘Are you smelling that?’ And they’ll confirm it. I always like to imagine there’s something still lingering here of what once was.”