No one is more serious about cider than Kevin Kilpatrick, who produces fall’s quintessential beverage at The Apple Barn and Cider Mill, a virtual El Dorado of apples (including a winery, restaurant and sweet shop) over in the Tennessee Smokies.
At the height of apple season, the Cider Mill cranks out about 1,000 gallons of the stuff for its visitors each week, Kilpatrick revealed in a recent interview.
Unlike its second cousin, apple juice, cider contains no water, sugar or preservatives — just plain, pure, liquefied apple.
“That’s the biggest point of confusion [among visitors] — the difference between cider and juice,” says Kilpatrick. In practical terms, it’s cider’s brief shelf life (it starts to ferment in about two weeks) that ultimately sets it apart from its watered-down cousin.
At The Apple Barn, cider-making is an event. Tourists are encouraged to visit the mill, where apples grown on the premises are scrubbed, chopped, mashed and strained at various stops on a conveyor belt, before they’re finally pumped into refrigerated dairy tanks. But all this Sturm und Drang is preceded by a surprisingly meticulous selection process. To Kilpatrick’s way of thinking, good cider begins with good math.
“We combine several varieties of apples, both tart and sweet, within the same batch to achieve a specific mix,” he explains. “It’s the blend that’s important.”
Still, Ashevilleans don’t have to travel as far as Sevierville to enjoy fresh apple cider. Down south in Henderson County, a mere half hour away off I-26, farmers are busy growing 75 percent of North Carolina’s apples — the county ranks seventh in the country for apple production.
From now through late fall, you’ll find half-gallon jugs of Henderson County brands like Apple Wedge Cider in most big Asheville grocery stores, tucked among banks of ice in the produce section like so many underdressed penguins.
But perhaps you’d prefer to encounter the beast in its native habitat, so to speak. Grandad’s Apples, off Hwy. 64 East in Hendersonville, makes and sells its own cider from August through early November.
Leslie Lancaster, who owns the roadside market with her husband, Pat, warns that you can’t actually view the cider-making process here: “We do it after we close, at nighttime, because there’s less risk of being stung by yellow jackets,” she explains. Then again, their small-batch operation can’t match the assembly-line pomp of the larger cider mills anyway.
“[Cider-making] is really no big deal,” she says matter-of-factly, adding that it’s easy to make at home. The Lancasters use a hydraulic press in their store, producing their cider twice a week to ensure freshness.
An apple doesn’t have to be sexy to be selected for a batch of Grandad cider — in fact, the Lancasters’ m.o. (as is common among professional cider-makers) is to pick the ugly ducklings first.
“[We use] apples that are either too small [to sell] or have a bruise or a defect — but no rotten apples,” she stresses.
Bottom line: All apples look alike once the press has its way with them. But that doesn’t mean all cider tastes the same. “Most people [who come to Grandad’s] try an 8-ounce size first, then the next thing you know, they’re buying a gallon,” Lancaster reveals.
Die-hards regularly drive from the Greenville/Spartanburg area and even Charlotte specifically to get their cider here. And inevitably, a few folks work up the nerve to inquire about turning their purchase into something a little more stimulating: To make hard cider, “All you do is add a little bit of yeast,” Lancaster reveals tentatively.
But most customers crave a simpler fix. And simplicity seems to be the secret behind the popular Grandad product. In fact, Lancaster says that, after some experimenting, they now use nothing but honeycrisp apples in their cider-making.
“In three years [using honeycrisps], we’ve never had one complaint,” she boasts.
But there must be more to it — some core secret, some juicy trick of the trade that elevates one person’s cider above another’s? If so, the Lancasters are wisely keeping it to themselves.
“We’ve got our recipe down pat, and we’re sticking with it.”