Vine Line: The Cider House

Lindsey Butler of Sky Top Orchard.

Lindsey Butler of Sky Top Orchard.

Most of us know the story of Johnny Appleseed. The eccentric woodsman introduced apple trees to large parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and became a legend in his own time.

What most of us “nature challenged urbanites” do not know is that apples planted from those seeds were quite bitter. According to Henry David Thoreau, these apples were “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” They were not our sweet Henderson County modern varietals — these were cider makin’ apples. Thus, the unintended consequence: Appleseed was actually providing a source for the most easily produced alcoholic beverage of the time, hard cider.

Traditional cider is made from a blend of bitter sweet and bitter sharp apples with a little crab apple thrown in. The tannin from these apples gives some twang to the beverage just like red wine. Since the German immigrants had not arrived in large enough numbers to make beer for us, and the civilized activity of planting vineyards for wine had not been established, hard cider was our national adult beverage of necessity until the mid 1800s.

Brent Wilkie in the Terry’s Gap area of Henderson County is cultivating some of the bittersweet old English apples such as Limbertwig, Sheep’s Nose, Chenengo Strawberry, Cox Orange Pippin and Thomas Jefferson favorite cider apple, Spitzenberg (I love the names of some of the others from the old country — Slack My Girdle, Chibles Wilding and Foxwhelp). Wilkie plans to make some cider for personal use but has no plan to go commercial.

Lindsey and David Butler of Sky Top Orchard are successfully capturing the nostalgia for old-fashioned non-alcoholic sweet cider. Sky Top, situated at 2,800 feet, just south of Flat Rock on Hwy 25, started in 1981 in a tent. A summer storm blew the tent across the road so the next year they built a small wooden shed. Today the 2,000-square-foot shed houses bins for retail apple sales, an apple processing facility, a cider mill, a 700-gallon cider storage tank and a 500-bin fruit storage cooler. David manages the 55-acre orchard with 22 varieties of apples (and peaches and Asian pears, a new venture). Starting around the third week of August, you can normally expect to pick Gala, followed by the popular Honey Crisp and 20 other types of apples until the middle of October when the heirloom Arkansas Black comes in.

Sky Top Orchard produces a fresh, non-pasteurized cider from a blend of ten different apple varieties. The Butlers say that just the smell of fresh cider causes a rush of nostalgia for many adults and a visit to Sky Top is more than just buying apples. It summons up memories of grandma’s pies and the experience of home grown food. For the children it will provide memories of hayrides, chickens, farm animals and a pumpkin patch.

According to Marvin Owings, County Extension Agent, no one is producing commercial hard cider in Henderson County. In Wilkes County, however, McRitchie Vineyards and Cider Works located in the Brushy Mountains produces a hard cider along with their wines. They produce an effervescent dry and sweet cider from North Carolina heirloom apples, much in the style of the Brittany ciders of France. Wine and cider maker Sean McRitchie was trained in Oregon and in France before settling in Wilkes County to produce North Carolina’s first commercial hard cider.

I sat down with a few friends recently to sample a bottle of McRitchie dry cider. We opened a clear glass bottle with crown cap. The fizzy light yellow colored brew was pretty in the glass. We sniffed, swirled and summarized. The outcome was very positive. Matt said, “Well, it meets the dry test!” Frank chimed in, “It would be great with cheese before dinner.” Charles said, “I could have this with a meal.”

Given a choice, however, they would still rather drink beer in a pub. But you must understand these are old guys, it’s hard to teach them new tricks. Overall, it was light on the palate, had a faint apple aroma and was complex enough to keep your interest. The low alcohol was another plus for those who want to sip it at a picnic or for a middle of the day accompaniment to lunch or brunch.

A cider a day will keep the doctor away. John Adams, our second president, thought so and Johnny Appleseed followed behind spreading good health and cheer.

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