Asheville is well known as a Beer City USA, but is quickly gaining a reputation as a place to learn about how hard apple cider and is made, and experience its consumption.

North Carolina is the seventh largest producer of apples in the US, and Henderson County accounts for two thirds of the state’s apples. There are about 33 cideries spread out across WNC. Leap Frog Tours’ four-hour Asheville Urban Cider Tour visits three of them; Urban Orchard, Noble Cider, and Tree Rock Social Cider House.

In his presentation, tour guide Joey Azzolino informs his audience that the formula is simple.

“Apples are crushed, and pressed into juice, and the juice is fermented with yeast. Within the cider community, the ideal apple blend and a balanced cider are thought to contain the winning trifecta of acid, tannin, sugar, and fruit.”

He said that while the rest of the world calls fermented apple juice “cider,” we are the only country that refers to it as “hard cider.”

Apples are said to have originated in the Kazakhstan Alps, the area some believe to be the home of the biblical Garden of Eden. The first recorded mention of cider was that Julius Caesar enjoyed the beverage around 55 B.C. Because of the limited quality of water in earlier times, cider was a preferred beverage and even used to baptize babies in medieval times.

“Benjamin Franklin once said that it is bad to eat apples, but better to turn them into cider. He was probably referring to the fact that most apples grown at that time were bittersweet and bittersharps developed for cider, and not the sweets and sharps that we grow today for eating. The apple tree first arrived in the US from England in 1623,” Azzolino said. While our founding fathers were cider fans, it fell out of favor in the 1800s with the popularization of beer by the Irish and German immigrants.

Cider is naturally sweet, but when yeast is added it eats the natural sugar and the resulting cider is dry. It may then be sweetened with any natural or artificial sweetener to any level from very dry to very sweet.

“Today, cider makers try to achieve a balance between the sweetness and the bitterness, caused by both the acid level (bitterness tasted on the top of the tongue) and the tannic level (bitterness felt on the sides of the tongue and mouth). A simple rule of thumb is to pair cider with foods that go well with apples such as cheese, poultry, pork and fish,” Azzolino said.

Azzolino said Urban Orchard began when brewer Josie Mielke’s gluten free diet gave her the idea to make cider with her family. They produce a blend that is used as a base for all of its subsequent ciders and has made over 100 varieties from this base blend. “Urban Orchard claims not to filter their cider but instead lets it sit for about eight months so the solids settle to the bottom, greatly clarifying the cider. Since their recent expansion to the South Slope location, production has grown to 10,000 gallons of fermented base cider every four to six weeks.

Outside, a massive mural by local artists Ian Wilkinson and Ishmael, greets visitors. The 4,000 square foot Urban Orchard tasting room, with its clean, modern look, highlights addition murals by local artists,” he said. The tasting room has 30 taps, 20 offering Urban Orchard cider, and 10 for local beers. Their ciders range from dry to medium sweet.

In 2012, friends Lief Stevens and Trevor Baker were out drinking cider after Baker lost his job and wondered out loud what he should do with his life. “His wife Joanna joked that he liked cider so much that they should make cider for a living. They loved the idea and began Asheville’s first craft cidery, Noble Cider.

In their first year, in a 750 square foot building they pressed 2,000 gallons with a homemade hand press, but quickly ran out of space and formed a partnership with a local orchard. they later opened a more comfortable 9,000 square foot building with machinery and put out 500 gallons per hour. The new space allowed them to bottle their cider and widen distribution, so Noble Cider opened a tap room with the tanks and production clearly in view.” Azzolino said. Their ciders have very low residual sugar content as compared to other brands.

Tree Rock Social Cider House began with the vision for a taproom in Asheville, focused on cider but not tied to a specific brand. That vision quickly incorporated mead as well. Azzolino said they currently stock 30 or more meads to serve and for off-premise consumption. They are Asheville’s first and largest Mead Bar.

“Mead has a much higher sugar and alcohol content than cider. The mead industry grew from 30 commercial sites in 2003 to nearly 300 in 2016, yet the honey-based alcoholic beverage still remains unfamiliar to many. Because of its high sugar and alcohol content, mead makes an especially nice after-dinner refreshment,” he said.

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