Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Anthony Harden
With an expansion into a huge second location nearing completion and their fifth anniversary coming up, family-owned Asheville business Urban Orchard Cider Co. clearly has reason to celebrate.
It’s practically impossible to liken Urban Orchard Cider Co.’s new location to their first—in fact, one might even say it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
The cidery’s inaugural taproom and production facilities are perched on Haywood’s two corners where the road’s slope descends from West Asheville into the River Arts District. Today, it sits in the heart of a gastronomic hub, steps from Westside favorites like Old World Levain and Taco Billy and a stone’s throw from tourist mecca New Belgium. But when they poured their first crystalline glass of cider in 2013, their neighbors were vacant storefronts, not bustling eateries.
On a Friday night—or any night, for that matter—the aluminum barstools fill with locals and regulars sidling up to the wooden bar for a glass of their favorite cider, served with a side of familiar banter from the bartenders. And just below them, in the basement of the taproom, lies Urban Orchard’s current production facilities, nearly 2,000 square feet filled with vats and bins, juice and yeast, with narrow channels for navigating and duck-your-head height ceilings.
Urban Orchard’s second location, set to open in late October, is the Ashevillian antithesis. The cidery swooped in to claim the last large chunk of real estate in a vastly expanding South Slope where acreage is conspicuously finite. The former home of Eagle Nest Outfitters (the cidery leases the space from the outdoor gearsmen), the new 19,000-sq.-ft. facility holds four 2,400-gallon fermentation tanks, a hulking, elephantine refrigerator, and a 4,000-sq.-ft. tasting room with one of the longest bars in Asheville. The massive expansion of their facilities will allow the cidery to quadruple their production in the future, and the taproom, outfitted with thoughtful, handcrafted details, will hold a series of spaces for quick drinks and long events.
Sandwiched between the rebelliously cool Burial Beer Co. and old-time-draw Green Man Brewery, the nearly block-long building—decked in a bubbly blue mural by celebrated local artists Ian Wilkinson and Ishmael—will surely attract gaggles of beer aficionados carving their own beer trail through the South Slope.
Alike, they are not. But as a business that has intentionally and consistently bucked the system with panache, perhaps it’s no surprise, after all, that their second location is such a striking departure from their first. And, with addresses on two of Asheville’s most notable thoroughfares, Haywood and Buxton, the two spots are testament not just to the cidery’s growth, but a study in Asheville’s multifarious craft culture.
Awake, Arise or Be Forever Fall’n
Asheville is no employment hub, but in 2011, a sluggish economy and dregs of the recession made for a downright barren job market. That was the Asheville that Urban Orchard’s future president/operations director/co-owner Josie Mielke found when she returned to her hometown that August.
After an exhausting stint with Alabama-based Pilot Catastrophe working 7-to-7, seven days a week in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mielke had retired her intentions of studying law, and of ever working in a traditional office or firm again. That resolution led her through a variety of relevant odd jobs over the years—one in a dental office, a period establishing Quickbooks for companies, a position with then-husband Shiloh Mielke’s company, First Aid Auto—and, eventually, back to Asheville, where pickings were decidedly slim.
“I think I probably put out 50 job applications for starting pay at ten bucks an hour to a lot of different places, and there were just so many applicants that it was essentially impossible,” she remembers with an emphatic head shake, her long hair draped over her shoulders. Mielke, who radiates youth and laughs with quick, honest chuckles, hardly looks old enough to have barreled through such a recession, but even if it’s not evident in her bearing, it shaped her approach to business.
Even her parents, whose construction company, the RB Miller Corporation, had been a fixture in the community for nearly 30 years (1988-2016), continued to experience the negative impact of the recession.
But invention is, as they say, the fruit of necessity, and Asheville’s stagnant job market does seem to spur its own brand of entrepreneurship and unique, pertinent endeavors—entrepreneurs like Mielke and endeavors like Urban Orchard Cider Co.
Mielke, who’s been gluten-free for over 10 years, turned from beer to cider, swapping barley for apples, long ago. But it was Shiloh’s idea to capitalize on the evolving craft culture in Asheville.
“He kind of is the innovator,” she reflects. “He grew up in Hendersonville where [Henderson] county produces 80-85% of the state’s apples. And I think he saw the craft beer movement at the time and picked up on the fact that cider might be one of the next things. We had been home brewing some cider for a little while before that, but once we thought that it was a viable business opportunity, we went to England and studied at the Cider and Perry Academy and learned the production science and sanitation and all of that aspect.”
Opening the cidery was—and running the cidery continues to be—a family affair. Six members of the family, including Josie and Shiloh, her parents Thom and Lori Miller, and her brothers Brody and Zach, pooled their resources to open Urban Orchard Cider Co. Mielke turned to SCORE, a national nonprofit resource for entrepreneurs, to help craft their business plan; then to her family, who merged their savings; then to the banks, who loaned them the remaining capital to launch Urban Orchard.
In September of 2012, they purchased a long, low building on the quiet corner of Haywood, formerly home to the Communications Workers of America Union, and, using Thom’s contracting expertise, refitted it into a taproom and cidery. Josie and Shiloh attended the Cider Academy in October of that year and returned to begin experimenting with combinations of fresh-pressed apple juice and yeast that would eventually lead them to their three flagships: Sweet English, Ginger Campaign, and Dry Ridge.
Despite the scope of the project, Mielke argues that the outset required a relatively low monetary investment. “We did have to buy, obviously, equipment, but other than that, the financial investment I would say was not quite as large as you would imagine,” she says. The family kept expenses low by using their in-house, or rather in-family, resources: Thom completed all of the construction work, Josie played the role of lead cider maker, and the business began to take shape.
From the beginning, Urban Orchard’s approach was untraditional. Whereas big-box cideries and even most of their craft peers begin with distribution and packaging, then open a taproom following initial success, the Urban Orchard family reversed the American cider narrative and opened their taproom on October 30, 2013, introducing the public to their new brews in their own pint glasses.
Through Eden Took Their Solitary Way
Urban Orchard’s decision to depart from the course of their peers is far from an anomaly; in fact, dismantling tradition seems to be definitive of the cidery. From their ingredients, to their flavors, to their process, to their alcohol by volume (ABV), Urban Orchard tends to do things differently and, notably, exceptionally.
Take, for example, the ingredients in their ciders. In the United States, ciders only need 51% juice to warrant the name, leading many of those big box producers—which sales/marketing/creative director Jeff Anderson refers to as “Alcho-pop”—to sweeten their ciders with corn syrup. “Instead of using high fructose corn syrup, we use fresh-pressed juice to sweeten with,” explains Anderson, who was the company’s first hire outside the family. “[Other cideries are] using fructose to then get the ABV super high, so then they can cut it with water to get that 6% [ABV] and make it go further, and then at that point it may not smell or taste like apples, so they use apple essence.” Instead, Urban Orchard uses apples, and only apples, to sweeten their cider. The result? Ciders like Sweet English, which contains 98 to 99% juice. Other ciders tout two apples per glass; Urban Orchard claims 8 – 10.
It’s an expensive approach, and their other ingredients, like fresh produce and herbs for infusions and a variety of yeast strains, including some from White Labs’ production facility in Asheville, also drive up the cost of production. The produce is locally sourced when possible (which is the majority of the time, thanks to relationships the cidery has cultivated with local farmers), and when not, the best products are chosen from the best distributors.
Time is money, and Urban Orchard spends a lot more of that on their ciders, too. Whereas most of their peers take apples from tree to keg in just 2.5 to 3.5 weeks, the cidery finishes their cider on a similar timeline, and then ages it for eight months to a year. It’s in those months that Urban Orchard accomplishes a process called self-racking, during which natural impurities—like pectin, or small pieces of apples—drift to the bottom of the container. When the cider has finished aging, they simply siphon from the top, eliminating the filtering step altogether but still providing a crystal-clear product.
And then there are the flavors, over 100 of them, from the nose-tickling Sidra Del Diablo with habanero and vanilla, to spring’s herbaceous April Skies with pineapple and lavender, to the yule-themed Kalikimaka, a bold cranberry cider. “There were all these flavor combinations that go great with apples that had never been done,” says Anderson. “So, we had the opportunity to completely change the way cider was made, not just in Asheville, but nationwide.” He leans back in his chair and raises his arms in a gesture meant to encompass the vastness of their potential.
That opportunity is a reality in the production rooms of the cidery. Mielke works with Anderson, who has a background as a chef, and production director Greg Hill, the cidery’s second hire, to devise new, unique flavors. Regular collaborations with local businesses lead them to even more palate exploration and innovation, like the upcoming BeeBiscus, a partnership with the Asheville Bee Charmer (profiled in the May 2015 issue of this magazine) with dried hibiscus flowers and orange blossom honey.
The impressive variety of flavors, which rotate based on the season and are divided into eight series—flagships, berry, lager, fruit and herb, dry hopped, specialty, chili, and apples and yeast—are untraditional. “Where I studied in the UK, we had a whole conversation about flavored ciders, and [my teacher’s] opinion was that they would never be popular and that Americans were crazy,” Mielke says with a shrug and a smile. Maybe she is crazy, but the result is a legion of ardent drinkers who eagerly await their seasonal favorites, and more than a few copycats from cideries around the country.
It’s all of these elements that make Urban Orchard’s ciders special to drink and, simultaneously, pricey to make. Add to their costly methods the hefty excise tax charged on ciders, which is considerably more than beer—federal rates changed with the PATH act in 2017 to $0.162–$3.30 per gallon depending on the ingredients, carbonation levels, and how many gallons you produce per year; North Carolina State Excise for cider sits at about $1.02/gallon—and a luxury tax, for the carbonation, and producing this cider costs a pretty penny, indeed.
Yet the cider makers have been dedicated to their superlative interpretation of the craft since the beginning. “We knew it was a gamble because we’re making it in an expensive way, but at the same time, we feel like it’s going to be worth it, especially in Asheville, where people recognize that and they’re okay to pay for something that’s a better quality,” Anderson says.
Long Is the Way and Hard
It was a gamble that clearly paid off, but not without its challenges. When Urban Orchard opened in 2013, the craft beer movement was still fairly novel. And the craft cider movement? Nonexistent. So, the business had to carve a name not just for itself, but for all of cider, a beverage steeped in misconceptions. (To this day, a sizable percentage of the public probably still thinks that cider is simply hangover-inducing apple juice that’s been spiked.)
Behind the scenes, the family had to learn the ins-and-outs of both a manufacturing and retail business. Mielke was able to apply some of her experience from previous positions (all those Quickbooks accounts came in handy), and her parents had owned a business, but a cidery and taproom are a far cry from a construction business. They brought in a consulting firm, Blue Wing Business Strategies, to help iron out the internal kinks.
“They have been key for us to organize our finances and to learn certain things about the industry,” Mielke explains and offers an example. “We’re seasonal producers, which means all of our money goes out towards inventory from September until April. And then from May until August, we’re not necessarily purchasing inventory because we’ve already fermented it all, it’s cellaring, but we’re sitting on stuff for eight months to a year a lot of the time before we even sell it. And that’s a huge monetary investment. So just learning the tricks of the trade—like having a rotating line of credit where you buy your inventory and pay it off as you sell it—that the consulting firm taught us about manufacturing, has been instrumental in us being able to afford to scale.” With Blue Wing Business Strategies’ assistance and, Mielke is quick to point out, a very strict annual budget, the backstage gears of Urban Orchard run smoothly.
On the ground, their first obstacle was to convince imbibers that it was bad cider that causes the headaches, hangovers, and hard flavor, not just cider. They pitched their tent at events, festivals, and fundraisers, offering a taste of something new. Local folks began to frequent the new taproom. Quarterly fundraisers raised funds for their community, as well as awareness of their brand.
Meanwhile, the cider industry began to escalate, first by steps, then leaps. Today, cider controls .4% of the alcoholic beverage category, which may not seem like much, but compared to 15 years ago, when it was just .06%, it’s grown astronomically. Here in Western North Carolina, perhaps no better testament to the increased awareness of, and appreciation for, cider is the annual CiderFest NC (www.ciderfestnc.com). Now in its sixth year, the 2018 event will take place on October 13 at the Salvage Station in Asheville and will feature more than a dozen cider and mead makers demonstrating their wares. Anderson notes that when Urban Orchard appears as a vendor at beer-related events, they have to essentially convince people that cider is good, but that “the cider event specifically draws a crowd of folks that are already interested in learning more about cider or are already enthusiasts, so we’re able to have more one-on-one time with our customers and talk about what separates us from other ciders instead of educating them on cider in general. We go to it every year, always sells out—it’s a good way for us to gauge the interest in the cider interest because of its growth.”
All the while, Urban Orchard’s growth has echoed, or perhaps even led, the industry’s. “I would like to say we’re leading the industry in America,” Anderson argues with casual confidence. “We’re just not afraid to take chances.”
That is, admittedly, a hubristic claim, but one that’s been validated by the local community, the nation, and the industry. Locally, they’ve dominated Mountain Xpress’ Best of WNC Cider category for years. Food & Wine named the cidery the best place to drink cider in America in 2017, and USA Today, Lonely Planet, Travel Channel, and Bon Appétit have all offered nods and accolades. But according to Anderson, the most gratifying recognition came from within the industry: The United States Association of Cider Makers named Urban Orchard Best Cider Establishment in Southeast 2017.
The proof is also in the numbers. Since 2013, Urban Orchard has increased production from less than 10,000 gallons to between 30,000 and 36,000 annually. With the emigration of the cidery to the new Buxton location, Mielke estimates that number will double to 60,000 to 75,000 in the 2018-2019 season. When they opened, the cidery employed less than 10 people; on the eve of their expansion, they have a staff of 28 (full-time and part-time) and expect to add another six to 10 this year.
It’s a trajectory of growth that’s been methodical and, Mielke argues, intentional. “Growth-wise, I would say that it’s been my motto from the very beginning to not grow too fast because that’s how you get into trouble,” she says. “If you over-promise and under-produce, you’re going to lose customers. And so holding ourselves back has been a huge challenge.” Urban Orchard achieved the growth they wanted at a sustainable pace with precision, and the leap they’re preparing to take is one that’s well-planned and long-awaited.
For So I Created Them Free
and Free They Must Remain
Even as Urban Orchard prepares for drastic change, they haven’t changed much at all.
The internal structure of the company remains much the same as when it was established: Mielke works as operations director, president, and co-owner; her father, Thom, claims the title of vice president, as well as sales and co-owner, and her mother, Lori, continues to be CFO, with responsibilities as treasurer, secretary, co-owner, and in finance; brothers Zach and Brody Miller, both co-owners, lend a hand when they visit Asheville, as does Josie’s ex-husband, Shiloh Mielke, who also remains a co-owner.
Employee retention is a constant theme for Urban Orchard, and much of their team has remained with the cidery since its earliest days—quite the feat in an itinerant town like Asheville. There’s Hill and Anderson, the first hires, as well as Mielke’s cousin, Katy Luquire, who’s managed the taproom since it opened, and a host of long-term bartenders. “I’ve got a huge, close-knit family here, and it’s really nice having all these people that you know you can rely on,” Mielke says with a grin; as if on cue, bartender Jocelin Rosas, who’s been with the cidery for four-and-a-half years, peeks around the corner to ask if we’d like coffee. “We’ve got all these people that are like really invested in our company that aren’t even necessarily owners, and they want to see it grow.”
That kind of employee loyalty necessitates employer loyalty, too, a responsibility Mielke certainly feels. She and the other owners have long prioritized their employees; like so many small business owners, she conveys the weight of her position: “You’ve got to keep the company going because you’re responsible for more than yourself.”
They’ve also prioritized the growth of the business over their own salaries, another common sentiment for entrepreneurs. “We’re at a point now where we’re able to take a salary for actual work that we’re doing, not the investors, but the people that are on the ground level,” she says.“But that’s definitely a challenge because you just feel so invested in the company that if you need money, it’s hard to take money out of it. But at the same time, you can’t keep your business if you can’t leave.”
Except for growth, the employees and roles remain much unchanged at Urban Orchard, as does their loyal base of regular customers. “We have like a local base that’s been established that’s definitely responsible for keeping us in business,” Mielke attests. “That’s one thing that I think is so cool about this taproom: It’s small and we have had people who have been here for so long so that if you are a regular customer, everyone knows your name. We banter back and forth, it’s such a friendly environment, and I’m really proud of it what we’ve created in that regard.”
Urban Orchard’s investment in the community extends beyond their own customers. Mielke hails the business as a platform to help the Asheville community, which they do through quarterly fundraisers. The cidery also partners frequently with other breweries, most recently Highland Brewing, who incorporated Anderson’s apple molasses into an Apple Molasses Brown Beer.
These collaborations are strengthened by Anderson’s position on the Asheville Brewer’s Alliance Board. “We have a very strong relationship with breweries—I would be willing to say the best out of all cideries,” he says. “We feel like we’ve learned a lot from the brewing industry. Everyone is super helpful brewery to brewery, because they understand, you know, ‘Great, you got more attention than I did? No big deal. People are going to come see you, and while they’re here they’re going to come see me.’ You know, rising tides. And we promote that within our industry, especially locally, and really that’s what we are trying to achieve.”
With their new location on the South Slope, Asheville’s beeriest ‘hood, that sense of community and collaboration will only heighten, especially as Urban Orchard uses the expansion as a launching pad for new endeavors, new collaborations, and new potential. A concert series, for example, will turn the loading dock into an occasional stage next year; that stage will be the focal point of the cidery’s big fifth anniversary celebration at the end of October. Bottling and a larger range of distribution is also in their future, likely within the next year, though Mielke is quick to point out national domination of the industry never was, and never will be, their intention. “Retail is actually better for us. Why are we going to bring on more equipment and package it and send it out to places where people don’t even know who we are, when we can sell it here locally?” she says. “We like that kind of small, boutique feel, and I feel like when you’re making a really good product, sometimes when you get to that massive size it’s hard to retain.”
Urban Orchard Cider Co. is, in many ways, a harbinger of contradictions. They embrace and cultivate their divergence from other American cideries, but hold fast to their own traditions. They’ve grown exponentially, but with fettered and intentional strides. Even their two locations are antithetical, one an expansive tourist destination, the other a local watering hole.
But perhaps it’s not a series of contradictions, but a propogation of balance. It’s intentionality and the pursuit of craft, accented by precision and moderation, that’s always defined Urban Orchard. The result is a dedicated and passionate community of makers and imbibers. Production manager Hill said it best; when asked “Why cider?” his answer was magnanimous:
“I think a better question to ask is, ‘Why the alcohol production industry?’ Because anyone that gets into the craft alcoholic beverage industry does it due to their immense passion to create a product that complete strangers will use to celebrate love, life, milestones—their highs, but also their defeats, their lows, and the loss of love and life. These strangers will never meet us, never know who we are and have no idea of the blood, sweat, and tears that we shed and the hardships we endure to give them a glass to raise in triumph, to drown out their fears with, or to help them deal with loss. We’re not here to make a ton of money; we’re here because we are deeply passionate about helping people celebrate life, love, and loss.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…