Story and photos by Kaitlin Hill
The Madaj family brings Wild Hare Cider to Middleburg’s Washington Street following the success of their Leesburg and Warrenton locations. The Middleburg Cider Pub offers a cozy atmosphere and an extensive list of creative ciders.
As natives of the Midwest, Jim and Joan Madaj initially came east to pursue career opportunities in the business administration and economics management sector.
“I was an IT guy back in the mid-eighties, and in Michigan, there weren’t a lot of opportunities,” Jim says. “I had job offers, but we were really ready to get out of there … and we landed in Virginia.”
The young couple, already married with a daughter, landed in Rosslyn, where Jim worked as a systems analyst for CACI. During his 12 years there, Jim climbed the corporate ladder quickly, eventually becoming vice president. At home, he and Joan expanded their family from three to eight. In 1996, Jim left CACI to start an e-commerce company, where his wife and three oldest children would join him.
With contracts coming to an end, the family was ready for a change. “That all came to an end at some point in 2017, and we were looking at what to do next,” Jim says. “Do we want to continue to work together in a family environment, or do we want to do our own thing? We decided, let’s do this again. The kids were like, ‘Can we do something we like to do? We’re done with this thing, let’s do something fun.’”
Jim and Joan behind the bar
The initial idea was a brewery, but Jim advocated for something a little different. “I thought the [brewery] market was already saturated, and I wanted to do something a little more niche-oriented,” Jim says. “And that’s how we came across cider.”
“I had done some brewing in the past and my son, Justin, was big into that,” he says. “We had some experience with alcohol but not specifically with cider or wine. We thought we could jumpstart by buying into something that had already been launched.”
In 2018, they bought Wild Hare Cider from Jay Clement, who had started the business in 2014. After purchasing the Leesburg-based business, the Madaj family had to learn the ins and outs of cider before shifting their focus to strategic expansion.
“The plan right from the beginning was to expand and grow the brand pretty quickly,” Jim says. “Though, the first year we didn’t grow the brand at all. In 2018, we wanted to learn and make sure we knew what we were doing first. We learned how to make cider, how to package it, and how to sell it.”
With a few first-year lessons under their belts, the Madajs turned to expansion and opened their Warrenton spot in May 2019. A few months later, opportunity knocked again, and the Madaj crew landed their Middleburg hub in November.
“Our son Patrick – he does most of the hunting for the real estate – he came across the place in Middleburg, and we liked where it was positioned geographically,” Jim says. “It was in the middle of everything we already had.”
While their son Justin focused on making cider and Patrick handled the retail operations, Joan managed the Middleburg location.
In addition to physical expansion, the list of offered ciders grew too. Jim credits Wild Hare’s distinctive list of ciders to Justin’s imagination and his willingness to listen to customer suggestions. “The cider is one hundred percent on Justin,” Jim says. “He has gotten better and better at this. And, all along the way, we are listening to our customers, and we just felt they needed something, not sweet, but not so dry, and that’s where the flavoring ideas started to come in. Justin really picked up on that.”
From a Valentine’s Day inspired chocolate-covered strawberry flavor to hot pepper-infused ciders, Jim believes cider making is a blank canvas.
“The goal is to always be able to tell it’s a cider first,” he says. “I can tell that there is an apple there somehow, someway. The flavorings are done in such a way that you can still tell that it is a cider, but we add something that reminds you of something else. There is practically nothing you can add to cider that changes the character of the drink. That’s where the real craftsmanship comes in. That’s the way we look at it, and that’s the way Justin looks at it. There are no limits on anything he can put in.”
Left: Wild Hare Cider sign on Washington Street. Right: Joan in front of the bar.
Wild Hare Cider’s menu includes a mix of off-dry and dry selections, like “Chute,” which is flavored with Michigan cherries and vanilla beans, and “Hatch,” a dry cider made entirely with apples from Shenandoah. They offer small batch ciders, too. These change weekly and highlight the intersection of Justin’s imagination and customer requests.
Inventive ciders, creativity, and willingness to adjust were all crucial aspects of Wild Hare’s business model at the onset of COVID-19 when Middleburg shut down.
“We had to switch quickly to canning all of the cider versus selling it by the glass,” Jim says. “We had to switch quickly to selling to-go, curbside pick-up, and we had to do that practically overnight … we are fortunate that we were able to. Coming from an e-commerce background and knowing how to sell things online, take orders online, we are really lucky we had those skills. We were lucky that we had the ability to do that so quickly and respond to this crisis. We did it, and I’m really proud of how we have reacted. We just all had a good attitude, and we refused to fail.”
Now, newly re-opened, Wild Hare Cider’s Middleburg location offers outdoor seating, cans to-go, and perks for members of their cider club, like free “small batch” weekly tastings and free monthly refills in a stainless-steel growler.
Visiting the Washington Street pub is a perfect opportunity to chat with Joan, who is happy to walk newcomers through the extensive cider menu and share why she is glad to be in Middleburg. “I find it extremely welcoming and enabling for small businesses,” Joan says. “I’ve gotten to know all the neighbors … and we have become friendly. We truly have been welcomed here.”
With their excellent ciders, endless imagination, and warm hospitality, members of the Madaj family are certainly welcome neighbors in Middleburg and will be for years to come. ML
Find Wild Hare Hard Cider’s Middleburg location at 17 East Washington St., Middleburg. For more details, visit wildharecider.com.