NATURAL BRIDGE — The apple trees at Halcyon Days Cider Co. aren’t planted in classic straight rows. Instead, they wind around a small hill in an elaborate labyrinth.
Come Friday, Halcyon Days Cider will see its first visitors wandering through its 11-acre property. The cidery, celebrating its opening this weekend, is the first in Rockbridge County and one of few in Southwest Virginia.
Owner Larry Krietemeyer based the orchard’s labyrinthine design on one set into the stone floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. The Chartres labyrinth is one of the most famous in the world, drawing visitors to pray and meditate as they walk the path.
Krietemeyer hopes visitors can enjoy a similar experience at Halcyon Days, a phrase that refers to tranquil and simple times.
“All you have to do is maintain your path to get to where you need to be,” he said. “That’s kind of like a life lesson. If you just work hard, don’t get distracted, you can meet your goals.”
Krietemeyer chose the name to serve as not only the basis of the visitor experience, but to demonstrate his philosophy of making hard cider.
“We wanted to revive the lost cider trees that were in the area and the lost art of old-fashioned cider-making,” Krietemeyer said.
He and his brother Andy, who also owns the cidery, wanted to craft cider out of heirloom apples, varieties that date back centuries. These older varieties have sharper and more bitter flavors that are specifically grown to make cider.
The brothers have planted more than 50 varieties in their labyrinth, which is made up of about 2,000 dwarf apple trees. These apples are combined in different ways to create sweet and sharp flavors. Krietemeyer said one of his blends has a taste similar to that of sipping a glass of bourbon. Others are sweet and easy to drink. They range in alcohol content from 7.1 percent to 11.5 percent by volume.
The entire cider-making production is housed in a wooden barn that was on the property when the Krietemeyers purchased the land in 2015.
The barn was in disrepair, but they decided to strip it down and rebuild it with as much of the original structure as possible. They used the original layout of the barn, which had once been used to feed cattle.
The barn was constructed in three parts: a center door where cattle would be brought in, and on either side were rows of feed stalls. Now, the cidery uses the center to press the apples and bottle the cider. On either side, where the old feed stalls stood, are the fermentation and maturation rooms.
The ciders spend about three weeks fermenting before being left to mature for two to six months. Once the cider is matured, they carbonate, bottle and label each batch by hand.
“It’s not an industrial scale production,” Krietemeyer said. “It’s a labor of love.”
Neither of the brothers knew how to make cider when they first started. They attended workshops in Washington state and in Virginia and talked with other cider makers and breweries in the state.
After that, it was just trial and error, Krietemeyer said.
“I think we’re still learning and every year we’re going to get better,” he said. “Some of our prime apple varieties are only just now producing, so hopefully we’ll have some really good apples to blend.”
The Krietemeyer brothers, Larry’s wife, Martha, and one employee have worked around the clock to make sure there is enough cider for opening day. They expect a large crowd for the holiday weekend, and there’s a chance they could run out.
For now, the cidery will only be open on weekends. Eventually, Krietemeyer said they might increase those hours when they start making more cider.
Halcyon Days will be open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Monday. After Labor Day weekend, they’ll be open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday.
This weekend, they will have about 10 different blends to try in their tasting room and bottles available for purchase.
Krietemeyer said he’s looking forward to the future they have planned for the cidery — hosting musical acts, bringing in storytellers or even starting a charity run through the labyrinth. But after six years of planning, planting and brewing cider, the Krietemeyers’ are just happy, and nervous, that their dream is now a reality.
Sitting in the pavilion at the center of the labyrinth, visitors can hear the sounds of vehicles passing by on Interstate 81 and U.S. 11. But it doesn’t bother Krietemeyer. He said it serves as a reminder that instead of out driving, someone can be sitting in a beautiful orchard, sipping cider.
“Hopefully you can come and sit down and pour a glass of cider and relax and step away from the fast-paced world,” Krietemeyer said. “That’s the feeling we try to give our customers.”