Drinking the apple: Noble vies to be the first company to bring hard cider to Asheville

Image 1. Brewer: Meda Thurston. Favorite apple: Blushing Gold. “The Blushing Gold is soft and smooth like a Gold Delicious but with just enough of the tartness and the perfume that the Pink Lady has,” she says. “The Blushing Gold's got that subtlety.” Max Cooper
Image 2. Brewer: Trevor Baker. Spirit apple: Arkansas Black. “I like it because nobody else likes it on some level,” he says. “Arkansas Black has got a little astringent quality to it, this really heavy skin. It's almost waxy. It's naturally a tough old fruit.” Max Cooper
Image 3. Brewer: Lief Stevens. Favorite apple: Gold Rush. “Some apples just kind of have one flavor; this one has a whole lot of stuff covered,” he says. “Kind of a complex, sweet, tart. I haven't eaten a whole lot of them. I only tried my first one yesterday.” Max Cooper

Trevor Baker's shoes are sticky. His rain boots make a swishing sound as they peel from the floor whenever he takes a step in the warehouse-cidery where he works with his three partners. Stickiness happens when you're covered in apple juice, he explains.

“You get the apple fever,” Baker says with a laugh. He's bitten the apple, so to speak. The project began as a week-long course in Washington state with the UK-based Cider and Perry Academy. Now it’s a full-out quest to know everything there is to know about “the noblest of fruits,” as writer Henry David Thoreau called the apple. With a team of four, Baker wants to create Asheville's first commercial cider company, Noble Cider.

Baker's partners are his wife, Joanna, and their friends, Lief Stevens and Meda Thurston. As part of the family who owns and operates Mountain Food Products at the WNC Farmers Market and The Fresh Quarter in the Grove Arcade, Thurston is already Asheville-produce royalty.

Their fledgling enterprise appears mostly held together by doggedness. This fall, the quartet produced 2,000 gallons of apple juice to ferment in the coming months. Their tools: a hand-cranked press they built themselves based on 19th-century designs and an assortment of commercial kitchen equipment scraped together with personal investments.

To be clear: By cider, the brewers do not mean unfiltered or spiced apple juice. They're talking about the alcoholic variety, known in the U.S. as “hard cider” and throughout Europe simply as cider or scrumpy.

“We question our sanity a little bit,” says Stevens, also covered in juice and lounging in a bean bag chair in Noble's Fletcher facility. “We're the type of people who just jump in and do it.” In that immersive spirit, Baker and Thurman left their full-time jobs earlier this year to give their all to cider. Stevens gigs with his popular local wedding band, Orange Krush, while putting in eight-hour days at the cidery. Joanna, who is also the lead singer for Orange Krush, continues to work full time at an alternative energy company while pitching in at the cidery on the weekends.

It's easy to get excited about cider talking to the Noble crew. They're so inspired by the recent national rise of cider that there's a sense of urgency to their project.  “We just wanted to get there first,” Baker says. “Somebody's going to do this, and they're probably sitting in their basement trying to hash it out right now.”

Craft cider-making seems like craft beer-brewing's long-lost twin, Thurston adds. “We're in apple country,” she says incredulously. “We're in Beer City, USA. And there's no cidery? Come on.”

Of course, just because there's no commercial cidery doesn't mean others aren't already brewing the drink. Baker says he's met a number of long-time apple growers who enthusiastically make the brew for their own pleasure.

But while homebrewers are common, the Noble group has had trouble finding nearby commercial cider makers. They've checked out McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks in Thurmond, but their most helpful contacts reside on the West Coast, so they can't really drop in to visit and get advice.

Cider used to be easier to find in this region, but prohibition caused a nationwide downturn in alcohol production. Cider was America’s “alcohol of choice” in the 19th century, according to the Wall Street Journal. “I could give you a thesis on the downfall of hard cider,” Baker says.

Even though cider has a long history, Thurmond says she sometimes feels like they're starting from scratch. “There's a lot of apples that we're getting that there hasn't been any research done on,” she says. “You have to work with what you can get, so we're experimenting and finding out what our favorites are.”

Because of the particular apples, Noble's cider promises to be uniquely North Carolinian. If all goes as planned, it will be available on tap in local bars and restaurants in spring and summer of 2013. The group's goal is to produce a potent, tangy brew. They're shooting for about 7 percent alcohol by volume.

With their newfound financial strength — they just received a $40,000 loan from AdvantageWest — the four friends hope the cidery will grow quickly. But for now, they appreciate their small operation. “It's kind of exciting to start a business this way,” Stevens says. “I mean, we don't have a choice.”

“We're taking it one step at a time within our means,” Thurmond says.

As they squeeze the apples, they note the increase in juice with a permanent marker on the side of the tank. “It's very satisfying work,” Baker says. “Here, you've got this fruit, these bins of apples. And over on the other side, you've got juice. You go home, and you did something.”

Emily Patrick can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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