Beer may still be the alcoholic beverage of choice for the majority of Asheville-area drinkers, but the rapid growth of the local cider scene has Bold Rock Hard Cider co-founder Brian Shanks and his industry colleagues in high spirits regarding its future.
“It’s very exciting times, really,” he says. “It’s neat to see all the expansion and the demand and the rise of popularity of cider. When I look at when John Washburn, my partner, and I first came [to Mills River] really looking at this in about 2010, there was only a very small amount of cider here, there and everywhere, and yet we sort of looked and saw the history of cider.”
“Two-hundred years ago, in and around all these parts, down the east coast of America, cider was probably the drink of choice,” Shanks continues. “John and I often look together and talk about it and think it’s kind of a neat thing to be part of the renaissance or revival of the cider industry. It’s a lot of fun, and we’re very conscious of the roots of where it’s come from.”
The uptick in interest is so sizable that for the category of Best Brewmaster in the 2016 Mountain Xpress Best of WNC readers poll, the top spot went to Josie Mielke of West Asheville’s Urban Orchard Cider Co. Jeff Anderson, marketing and creative director at Urban Orchard, credits the cidery’s strong local following for its continued success, but also points to the benefits of the local industry’s rising number of cider producers. With large businesses like Bold Rock — whose distribution footprint stretches from Pennsylvania to South Carolina and over into Tennessee — and others more modestly sized, he compares their collective growth and trickle-down effect to that of the local brewery industry.
“I believe whatever’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say. As long as the other cideries are popping up, that brings more attention to the fact that great cider is in this area,” Anderson says. “Maybe [visitors] don’t come to the area looking specifically for Urban Orchard, but they may find themselves at our cidery because they’re interested in cider in general. It’s the same kind of idea with the breweries. People come here looking for the Highlands or New Belgiums and find themselves at Burial and Hi-Wire and everywhere else.”
With apple season at its peak, fall is an especially active and invigorating time for Urban Orchard, which produces its entire year’s supply over the course of a few months. Anderson says the cidery eventually plans to experiment with single varietal batches, but for now all ciders derive from the same base blend of Hendersonville apples with specific yeast strains creating the range of flavors. STET ciders’ maturation phase lasts eight to 12 months, meaning that the beverages currently pouring in its taproom were made about a year ago.
Noble Cider in Leicester, which recently installed a new bottling line and filter and has expanded distribution to Nashville, Tenn., and into South Carolina down the I-26 corridor, produces year-round but focuses on specialty batches this time of year. Upcoming single varietals will be derived from the likes of local Arkansas Black and Pink Lady apples as well as European varieties grown in Virginia. “Just some ‘strange fruit,’ as I like to call it,” says Trevor Baker, general manager and co-founder of Noble.
Unlike crossovers at local breweries, collaborative cider-making has yet to occur, but the cideries have found other creative ways to work with area businesses outside of the beverage industry. Noble and Urban Orchard have both made treats with French Broad Chocolate Lounge and The Hop Ice Cream Café as well as local caramel makers. And with the first meeting of the North Carolina Cider Association in late September, more unified efforts among cideries are on the horizon.
One of Baker’s goals in using the newly formed network is to follow in the footsteps of New York and Virginia and develop a North Carolina Cider Week in 2017. He envisions days of activities similar to Asheville Beer Week, offering such opportunities as teaming with area restaurants for tastings, with events either starting or ending with CiderFest NC, an annual fundraiser for the WNC Green Building Council that takes place this year on Saturday, Oct. 15, at Salvage Station. The week could possibly be bookended by another comparably sized event, which could be an enjoyable means of sharing year-round and specialty offerings with cider drinkers while also gauging their interests.
“It’s a way for us of becoming involved in the community, becoming aware of what people really want and what they like to drink and their preferences and tastes,” Shanks says. “It’s a wonderful way for us as cidermakers to get feedback from people. You sell to a shop and the shop sells to the customer — you’re a little bit divorced from the customer. But when you go to these festivals where everybody’s having fun and you get to chat and talk to the people who are consuming your products, you learn a lot and you get to understand what it is they like and what it is they don’t like.”