An Apple a Day Can Be Sipped

01 Oct 2021

Heirloom varieties create ciders with a sense of place


A wish. A dream. A cidery. Be creative, plan effectively, hold your breath, and persevere — then watch as your wish and dream come true.

The journey of Ann Marie and David Thornton, owners of James Creek Cider House, in farming and cider-making is one of the intriguing stories so characteristic of the Sandhills. More than a decade ago they planted 60 Southern heirloom apples on their farm in Moore County.

Then in 2016 they were licensed to make and sell cider. Now they grow more than 75 varieties of heirlooms plus cider apples from England, France, and Spain. In addition, peaches, blueberries, pears, persimmon, and muscadines round out
their crops.

“First, we had to figure out what would grow here,” Ann Marie says. “We have apples ripening from mid-June through November. People once would have apples every day — all for different purposes and for so many uses."

As Michael Pollan, an American food writer, observes, “Until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than wind up in a barrel of cider.” James Creek has returned us to the old tradition of enjoying an apple harvest as a spirited beverage.

The Thorntons benefited from the research of the late Lee Calhoun of Pittsboro who saved and documented apple varieties grown across the South from the colonial era to World War II.

“We heard about his work, and he had collected cuttings of over 400 varieties grown in the South. We really got into apples and planning,” Ann Marie says.

“The old varieties have thicker skins and more tannins. That’s what creates more flavor,” she adds. (If you’re old enough, you may remember how as kids we would want skins peeled because they were thick.)

Southern heirloom apples are harvested each year to produce ciders “with a sense of place.” Old favorites include Stayman-Winesap, Arkansas Black, Grimes Golden, King David, Buckingham, Smokehouse, and American Golden Russet. They are primarily multi-purpose apples with great flavor and are wonderful to eat fresh or press for cider.

The more the Thorntons read about apples, the more they thought that making cider would be an amazing adventure. Having lived in the Sandhills now for about 19 years, the Thorntons can look back on their journey with pride.

The biggest surprise is “how good our cider is and how good it stands across the country. It’s had a nice critical success. That’s extremely gratifying,” Ann Marie says.

For example, The Art of Eating magazine, recently cited the Thorntons for producing “exceptional ciders that achieve all that thinking drinkers seek from a well-made wine: a seductive combination of soft tannin, bright acid, and distinctive fruit, plus complexity that inspires a second glass.”

Enjoy tasting cider in the James Creek tasting room, or on the covered porch, or in the cider garden. Seating indoors and outdoors is available, and tables are spaced to promote
social distancing.

The tasting room, which opened in 2019 and seats about 40 people inside, is a showcase with a custom black walnut bar, hand-finished tabletops, and window perches.

Cider is enjoyed outside throughout the year, even as temperatures begin to drop with fall weather. Propane space heaters, a firepit table, and several chimeneas with wood-burning fires provide all the comfort needed.

Food trucks are usually on site on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and the most popular ones in the Sandhills are invited. The schedule is always online at the special events page. When food trucks are on the scene, many regulars know to bring chairs so that they can spread out on the lawn by the picnic tables. In addition, live music and special open-mic evenings are often on the schedule.

Children are welcome. They can enjoy sweet non-alcoholic cider and sodas as well as several games. Leashed, well-behaved dogs are welcome, too. On Thursday, a “Dogs Night-Out” social time is held.

The ciders are branded as James Creek or Stargazer. Identifying one as the most popular is difficult, Ann Marie says, because they are produced in limited quantities. For example, Gemini, a Stargazer cider with strawberry and rhubarb, is “a cult favorite. People ask for it all year long,” she says, although it’s only available a few weeks mid-year.

James Creek is a selection of traditional, harvest-based estate-grown ciders that vary from dry and semi-dry to medium sweet.

Stargazer, named for the beautiful night skies over the orchard, is a line of modern year-round, seasonal and small-batch, and barrel-aged ciders. The year-rounds include lightly sweet, semi-dry, and dry-hopped as well as one with honey and ginger.

The popular seasonals are enhanced by the fruit flavors of strawberry-rhubarb, blueberry, peach, muscadine, and cane fruits. Some palates enjoy the fruitiness of all of the Stargazer seasonals, but the blueberry ranks slightly ahead of all the others.

“All the fruits are what we’ve grown or sourced from local family farms,” Ann Marie says, as she mentions strawberries from C.V. Pilson and Karefree Produce, blueberries from Cameron Blueberry Farm, and rhubarb from McAdams. In addition, almost all apple varieties are grown in James Creek orchards in Moore County and other family farms within 125 miles of the cider house. “It’s so special to serve something grown and harvested here,” she says.

Each of the barrel-aged ciders has its own personality. Some are aged in bourbon barrels, others in brandy barrels. For example, Starstruck is aged in Wild Turkey bourbon barrels for up to nine months that gives it classic barrel notes of toffee and vanilla. A favorite is Winter Solstice, a cider with cinnamon and nutmeg.

Another popular one is Estrella Fugaz, a Spanish-style cider that is the first cider the Thorntons are making in homage to other cultures. It’s created in a three-step process that includes six months of barrel-aging that produces a dry, slightly acidic cider with no carbonation. Another enticing choice is Etoile, a French-style cider crafted from bittersweet French apple varieties.

The Thorntons also ship cider to customers throughout the state as well as in 38 other states. With only 21 cider makers in North Carolina, James Creek is unique as the first orchard-based cidery and has quickly risen to the top as a respected maker with many tourists as well as locals visiting the cider house. To-go orders of cider, beer, cheese, and salami are popular. Orders for pickup at the cider house can be called in to 910-245-9901 or placed online at their website. On Mondays through Wednesdays, curbside pickup is available by appointment only. On other days, pickup is available when the cider house is open. It is open until 9pm on Thursday through Saturday and closes at 7pm on Sunday. Opening hours also vary by day, 4pm on Thursday and 1pm on Friday through Sunday.

Although Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “Never praise your cider or your horse,” we disagree. James Creek ciders are praiseworthy.

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