Hard cider made easy: Touring Mercier Orchards
Regina Cain pulls a sample of cider from the tap at Mercier Orchard in Blue Ridge. Photo courtesy Kirsten Rohrabaugh.

Tim Mercier’s orchard in Blue Ridge has been around since 1943. But Jalapeacho cider is new for him.

“I still hadn’t got my arms around Jalapeacho,” he told my small group. “I have a hard time even saying it, let alone getting the concept of jalapeno in my, whatever I’m drinking.”

He stands under blue skies between a sweet-smelling cooler, where crates of apples are stacked high, and the long line of families waiting to load a tractor headed for the you-pick apples. He muses about whether they should start growing hops; it’s a lot of hand labor he says, seeming to dismiss the idea for now.

The most recent cider they developed is A Cold Day in Hops, which lives somewhere in between the craft beer and craft cider market.

Cans of Cold Day in Hops hard cider sit at Mercier Orchard in Blue Ridge. The variety is the most recent addition to what's offered at Mercier. Photo courtesy Kirsten Rohrabaugh.

“It’s not too hoppy, but it’s not too sweet, which is good because I’m more of a beer person,” one customer said while sampling.

Mercier seems excited about the cider operation, which is in its fifth year at Mercier Orchard. That name, by the way, is pronounced with a hard r — this is the North Georgia mountains, not France.

Ian Flom leads the cider side of things, which involves a lot of experimentation with flavors.

Ian Flom leads a private tour of the cidery operation at Mercier Orchard. Tours are available to the public each fall weekend after the you-pick operation has ended. Photo courtesy Kirsten Rohrabaugh.

With the hops cider, for example, they made small batches to try out four different varieties, some dry, some cooked, before they arrived at their ideal taste.

The Jalapeacho, meanwhile, included roasted jalapenos in last year’s batch. This year, “they just threw them in there and boiled it with it, and it turned out a little hotter,” winery lead Regina Cain said while serving us cider samples in a crowded tasting room. “But then they realized it was still not as hot as they wanted it to be so they added a little bit of serrano peppers.”

The flavor of the pepper comes on strong, but it’s not overly spicy, if you like that kind of thing. My sister was a fan. I was not.

Most of the ciders start with apples grown there in the mountains. They’ve got about 58 varieties of the fruit, Flom said. They have about 14 varieties of cider, after starting with about six shortly after Fannin County began allowing alcohol sales.

The ingredients are usually simple: apples, maybe sweetened with more apples.

Adele’s Choice is made with apples picked early in the season, and it’s a light, crisp and not-too-sweet cider.

Just Peachy is made with peaches grown at the orchard. Other ingredients listed on the bottle are cane sugar and sulfites.

“I felt like I was eating a Gobstopper or something,” a member of our tour group told Flom. “Every couple of seconds it would change.”

Flom explained the cider was “back sweetened” and the sugars likely caramelized with heat pasteurization, creating the complex flavor.

The aftertaste is intriguing. One of my sisters described it as kettle corn. Others have described it as nutty.

Visitors can learn all about how the ciders come together at cidery tours held each weekend.

Flom learned what he knows from working at Mercier and visiting CiderCon — yes, there’s a convention for that.

Making cider begins with picking the fruit from the orchards. The prettiest apples get sold in their market. The not-as-pretty ones get pressed into juice, and some of that is processed into hard cider.

Sisters Kelly and Kirsten Rohrabaugh check out the machinery where apples are pressed into juice at Mercier Orchard in Blue Ridge. - photo by Shannon Casas

A small dose of sulfites are added and it’s flash pasteurized, steps that kill microbes that could stall fermentation. Then it’s fermented for seven to 10 days. It’s racked, which rids it of sediment, and chilled. Some are back sweetened. They’re carbonated and then bottled or canned, pasteurized one more time in bottle to ensure there’s no refermentation and then labeled and sold.

A certain percentage of the fruit has to be grown on site, Flom said, and the rest must be grown in the state. They have to hit a certain alcohol percentage, too, due to regulations that, like most regulations, aren’t very intuitive. That percentage is 6 percent to 7 percent, so don’t be fooled by the light, fruity tastes; these drinks have more alcohol than most beers.

The craft requires hitting those sweet spots as well as the drinkers’ sweet spots.

And it all goes back to the fruit.

“Every season is different, depending on how much rain, how much sunlight, the nutrient additions if there’s any necessary, how that creates that apple. Every apple, every season is going to taste different.”

Mercier Orchards cidery tours

When: Hourly 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 12:30 to 4 p.m. Sundays this fall, depending on weather; we strongly suggest you call ahead to ensure the tours are running before you make the drive

Where: 8660 Blue Ridge Drive, Blue Ridge

How much: $20

More info: 706-632-3411

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