Chatham Cider Works hopes to put Southern hyperlocal ciders on the map

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PITTSBORO — Everyone in North Carolina knows the state’s seasons are volatile. But in just a few weeks, as temperatures drop and trees change from hues of green to shades of gold, brown and rust, the real transition from summer to fall begins.

As fall approaches, so do seasonal delights. Ahead of those chilly October nights, a Chatham County company hopes to shine a light on the distinctiveness of Southern apple-based hard ciders in its preparation of small-batch blends sourced from North Carolina.

A comforting drink

Chatham Cider Works is a family-owned, women-owned business operated out of The Plant, a 17-acre eco-industrial park on Lorax Lane in Pittsboro. Former Chatham County Commissioner Jim Crawford and his wife Maureen Ahmad established the award-winning cider house in 2008 and began operations in 2015 after a lengthy approval process. in recent years the couple have taken a step back, with the business now largely run by their daughter, Elise Crawford.

The company has its roots in the experiences of Jim Crawford growing up on a farm in north central Pennsylvania. Although cider was a regular agricultural product, it was not particularly popular commercially in the United States at the time, Elise said.

In the early 2000s, Jim and Maureen tasted a French cider that they both liked for its drier qualities and yeasty note, as well as being fruity.

“And that was the style that they liked, and they couldn’t find it anywhere here in the United States at the time,” Elise said. “And so they decided why not do it?”

Since then, Chatham Cider Works – the only cider house in the county – has won awards for its products in several competitions, from the New York International Cider Competition to the North Carolina Mead-Cider-Fruit Wine. Competition.

Elise, 25, a 2019 graduate of Appalachian State University, said taking charge of day-to-day operations has been a learning process. From fermentation and barrel aging to carbonation and bottling, all production processes except harvesting and juicing take place in the 1,020 square foot facility. by The Plant.

Chatham Cider Works products are available in bottles or kegs at companies across the county, such as bmc Brewing, Red Moose Brewing, and Fair Game Beverage Company, as well as other locations across the state such as Wild Dogs Brewing Company at Sanford and Blue Dogwood. Public Market in Chapel Hill.

Elise said she didn’t expect to get so deeply involved with Chatham Cider Works. When her parents started the business in 2015, she was not yet 21, so her involvement was limited to cutting apples or working on marketing. It was only in the wake of the pandemic, when her father needed more help at the cider house, that she quit her previous job planning corporate events to help with day-to-day operations. .

Now she splits her time between Chatham Cider Works and event management at The Plant.

“I wasn’t a cider maker by training,” Elise said. “But I’m learning and I have great teachers.”

The cider house sources its apples in-state, primarily from Hendersonville, and produces four main varieties: Carolina Crisp, made only from apples with champagne-style yeast; Highway 64, a barrel-aged version of Carolina Crisp; Pink Dogwood, also an offshoot of the Carolina Crisp with muscat grape and tart cherry; and Backyard Blend, a top-selling apple and pear product in the entire Triangle.

At the moment, Chatham Cider Works is in full swing – on Friday the cider house received a supply of 600 gallons of juice to ferment, the last of two shipments for the year.

Cider is most popular from fall through winter, Elise said.

“It’s kind of one of those comfort drinks,” she said.

Typically, apples used by Chatham Cider Works are harvested from orchards in western North Carolina from late July through September and are pressed by a single supplier in Henderson County. The cider house uses a variety of apples, including Stayman, Arkansas Black, Granny Smith, and McIntosh apples, as well as crabapples and pears to make its products.

Chatham Cider Works products typically contain between 7% and 11% alcohol by volume, although its flavor profiles and ABV levels are often dependent on a year’s particular harvest.

Cider is technically closer to a fruit wine, but is often marketed and treated more like a beer, Elise said. These distinctions proved interesting in navigating state regulations — part of the reason it took so long from incorporating the company to starting operations and producing beverages for sale, she said.

According to Ahmad, Elise’s mother, the company’s commitment to local suppliers and products is a signature of their cider house.

When Chatham Cider Works started, Ahmad said she thought it was North Carolina’s ninth cider works.

“I think every cider maker brings their own signature to things,” she said. “I would say our signature is that we exclusively use North Carolina apples. We therefore do not purchase juice from commercial sources on the open market.

Plus, being a small-batch cider house allows the family to try different varieties. Occasionally, they’ll make hyperlocal custom blends that include other fruits like blackberries, strawberries, and even passion flowers.

“We can be very experimental because we don’t have to produce large quantities of the same flavor,” Ahmad said.

Southern-based, female-owned

Having the chance to work alongside her daughter — which she also didn’t expect — was a “fun” experience, Ahmad said.

Both Ahmad and Elise noted that being connected to other female-owned cider houses has been important, particularly in a male-dominated industry – a recent survey by the Brewers Association found that men Brewery owners were three times more numerous than female owners.

Still, the owners of Chatham Cider Works say they find the cider business fares slightly better in their personal experiences.

“We have a number of North Carolina cider colleagues who are women,” Ahmad said, pointing to women in the local craft beverage industry like Chatham neighbors Becky Starr of Starrlight Mead and Carmen Rice of bmc Brewing. Cider Works at The Plant.

“And it was wonderful to have this community of people and to know that there are women who run their own operations very independently,” Ahmad continued.

Both Ahmad and Crawford said they were proud of the direction Elise has taken in the business, highlighting her unique blends and use of flavors like coffee and hot cider. In particular, Crawford said he felt it was better for the cidery’s product profile for someone younger and more in tune with a growing market to take the lead.

“I’m very proud that the company is up and running and able to take care of this,” he said.

When it comes to Southern ciders, Elise wants to help put the region’s drinks on the map.

“It’s interesting that for so long cider hasn’t necessarily been part of Southern beverage culture,” she said. “It was kind of an overlooked product.”

The Backyard Blend is one of the cider house’s most popular drinks, Elise said. The apples are usually sourced from neighboring counties, the small family orchard in Crawford, and even donations from people who don’t know what they want to do with their own backyard apples but don’t want them wasted.

She sees the Backyard Blend as a way for people to “pay homage to the fruits that are found in our backyards,” as the cider house often uses “ugly” apples that would not typically be sold in stores due to their appearance.

“[Making the Backyard Blend is] a bit of a labor of love, but I think it really speaks to what we’re trying to do,” she said. “And the message that we’re kind of trying to convey about the apples that come from here – that they’re delicious and they make great cider.”

Val Villanueva is the bar manager of Fair Game Beverage Company, a distillery and tasting room located next to Chatham Cider Works at The Plant. Fair Game is usually the only company to get kegs from the Backyard Blend; there are usually only 10 to 15 gallons produced per year.

Villanueva estimates that approximately 20% of Fair Game’s foot traffic comes from Chatham Cider Works products. The Backyard Blend is particularly popular among their customers, she said.

“Sometimes we have people who come just for their cider,” Villanueva said. “I would say [Chatham Cider Works’ products are] probably the most popular cider we sell.

One aspect of being located in Chatham’s beverage district that Elise particularly enjoys is the community network that exists at The Plant, whether it’s businesses selling each other’s products or sharing resources and Staff.

The cider house is currently run by Elise, her parents and the occasional helper (often an employee of a business neighboring The Plant), but she hopes to hire a team to help with operations and production over the next year.

Chatham Cider Works is also looking to begin canning its products and have more varieties approved for commercial sale by the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade and the Carolina Liquor Control Commission. North. As the weather gets colder, the cider house may soon have a spiced cider in its seasonal lineup, pending recipe approval.

“Right now we’re kind of sustainable, which is fantastic for a small business,” Elise said. “It’s never a bad thing, but hopefully we can develop it a bit more in the years to come.”

Journalist Maydha Devarajan can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.

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