Branching out: WNC cider scene continues to grow with help from apple country

APPLES TO APPLES: Urban Orchard cidermaker Josie Mielke sources all the cidery’s apples from Hendersonville growers, even though it means she can only brew seasonally.
APPLES TO APPLES: Urban Orchard cidermaker Josie Mielke sources all the cidery’s apples from Hendersonville growers, even though it means she can only brew seasonally. Photo by Cindy Kunst

ASHEVILLE, N.C.— Western North Carolina is quickly becoming a cider hub thanks in part to Henderson County’s rank as the top apple-producing county in North Carolina and the seventh-largest in the United States overall. About 150 orchards call the Hendersonville area home, and the abundance and variety of apples in the area feed the growth of the local cider industry.

WNC cideries, as any responsible agribusiness should, prefer to source their ingredients locally whenever possible. Yet during the months of April through August, it can be especially difficult to secure enough local apples to meet production demands. Also, some unique cider flavors call for apple varieties and ingredients that are not available in WNC.

Small to large

Urban Orchard Cider Co. in West Asheville has the advantage of being able to forage straight from the cidery’s garden for ingredients like herbs, spices, muscadines and persimmons. Owner and head cidermaker Josie Mielke also relies exclusively on apples from Hendersonville — mostly juice from Apple Wedge — but this decision does come with drawbacks.

“This means that we have to make as much as we can each season in order to have enough in store for the coming year’s sales. We usually age all of our ciders for eight to 12 months,” she says. “Essentially, we are always drinking the previous year’s crop, which means we spend all of our capital on juice for those six to eight months out of the year and then sit on inventory for a long time before we sell it. We like this format, though, because it allows the cider to age and mature before we drink it — just like wine.”

Mielke almost exclusively uses North Carolina vendors for the rest of her needs, including Cedar Grove Blueberry Farm, Asheville Bee Charmer, French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Smokin’ J’s Fiery Foods, Rayburn Farms and Mountain Foods. She also peruses several local farmers markets for peaches, watermelons and other fruits as needed.

For Halloween (see sidebar), Smokin’ J’s will take center stage in the cidery’s Fire Flight, a flight of six ciders that starts with a mild jalapeño variety and escalates to one made with the hottest scorpion peppers. “I honestly haven’t come across an ingredient that we can grow locally that I couldn’t source from somewhere nearby. However, we are still small, and so the quantities that we need are not too overwhelming for other small producers,” she says.

Up-and-coming cidermaker Chris Heagney of Daidala Ciders focuses on creating rare, unconventional ciders that start with Hendersonville apples. Heagney defines his company as nomadic, meaning he collaborates with other cideries such as Botanist and Barrel, which is part of Cedar Grove Blackberry Farm and supplies Daidala with blackberries and blueberries.

“I’ve also contacted local produce markets and had them source ingredients like citrus or lemongrass, which aren’t usually grown locally,” he says. To create Daidala’s Mandarina Sangria cider, he teamed up with Red Clay Ciderworks out of Charlotte. They also worked together to create Barrel Bruiser, set to release in November. “It’s the most unique cider I’ve ever created to date. It’s blackberry/blueberry aged cider in bourbon barrels.”

Speaking of barrels, Heagney says it’s been challenging sourcing barrels to age his cider in and urges anyone with contacts to secure whiskey, rum, wine, brandy or gin barrels to get in touch.

For the largest cidery in WNC, Bold Rock, sourcing takes on a whole new challenge. Bold Rock is the sixth-largest hard cider company in America and the nation’s largest independently owned cidery. “The same concepts that underpin our approach to apples guide our methods for sourcing other input ingredients,” explains Lindsay Dorrier III, Bold Rock’s vice president of retail operations. “We look for the very best in quality locally and then must assess whether the vendor can provide a scalable source as we continue to grow our business. Right now we need a large amount of hops for our India Pressed Apple and high volumes of blood orange juice for our Blood Orange Cider, so that search can take us far and wide.” Two of Bold Rock’s ciders, Carolina Apple and Carolina Draft, rely on Henderson County and North Carolina apples.

From the orchard

Several area cideries got their start as orchards, like Appalachian Ridge Artisan Cider and Flat Rock Ciderworks in Hendersonville. “We get about 95 percent of our apples from our orchards, and what doesn’t come from ours, we’ll source from local apple farmers for varieties we don’t currently grow,” explains Robert Pitt, Flat Rock’s cidermaker. The base for all Flat Rock’s ciders is composed of four varieties: Goldens, Reds, Jonagolds and Galas, and they’ve made a commitment to source every ingredient from the U.S. Pitt also uses 100 percent of his own mountain-grown blackberries for Ciderworks’ Blackberry Gold cider.

Appalachian Ridge grew out of St. Paul Mountain Vineyards, a winery and orchard that began serving hard cider in 2013. Today, Appalachian Ridge is working to get its line of apple adult beverages to include its own take on calvados (apple brandy) and French pommeau. “We finally secured our permit to begin growing Normandy apples in the U.S. — the first orchard to be able to do so,” explains owner Alan Ward.

Normandy, France, is considered the premier cidermaking region in the world, and Ward has studied the operations of some of the best international cidermakers during several visits to the area. Not having to ship apples from France will obviously help reduce costs and make it easier for Appalachian Ridge to produce its drier, more Champagne-like ciders.

Black Mountain Ciderworks owner, ciderist and mazer Jessica Puzzo Bowman has a local-only approach to sourcing. “We started a cidery because the apples are grown here,” she says. “We add other local ingredients because they also grow here. We focus on what is local and do not wish for what is not and choose to appreciate how the specific terroir of Henderson County shapes the complexities of our cider as a finished product.”

Bowman also has an on-site garden where she grows many of the ingredients used to make cider varieties, including lavender, pineapple sage, lemon balm, rosemary, mint, rhubarb, strawberries and pumpkin. She’s also partnered with Dobra Tea for spices and Dynamite Coffee for flavoring the cidery’s coffee mead.

“Basically, it’s like anything else — you get to know the people you work with and you develop both a friendship and a business partnership,” says Noble Cider co-owner Trevor Baker. He’s willing to venture outside the state to secure the best quality possible for the other types of fruits used in Noble’s hard ciders, like getting peaches from South Carolina and Georgia and blueberries from Maine.

“We get our tart cherry juice from the lake coast of Michigan, which is by far the best quality tart cherry grown on the planet,” he says. Noble Cider also uses Mountain Foods for ingredients such as organic ginger root, oranges and habaneros, and for the company’s Spice Merchant cider, Baker partners with local chai company AppalaChai!

 

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