When Fritz and Catherine Gusmer left New Jersey behind for life in South Carolina, there was one tradition they couldn’t go without. “Growing up, as with most people from the North, they went to apple orchards and cider mills every fall for fresh cider, apple cider doughnuts, and apple pies. It was a family tradition. They moved down here and that didn’t exist,” said the couple’s youngest son, Matthew Gusmer. Read on the see how Fritz and his family shared their apple orchard tradition with their community and passersby.
So back in the late 80s, Fritz took matters into his own hands and planted an apple orchard on some land in York, South Carolina. It was his attempt at giving his children a tradition he had grown up with, all while getting the family involved in a joint business. As it turns out, it was a tradition that a lot of folks wanted to introduce their children to. Visitors brought their families to the orchard for a day of apple picking and enjoyed the delectable experience of a fresh-pressed cider and hot apple cider doughnut. Before long, the Gusmer’s grassroots business grew and Windy Hill Orchard expanded with agritourism, hosting hundreds of school children each year to pick apples, enjoy hayrides and learn about the process of cider making.
Today, the orchard’s latest focus is on hard cider. In a way, it seems the business was destined to become a craft cidery. “The very first batch of fresh cider they pressed here was when Hurricane Hugo blew through and knocked out all of the power for 10 days,” explained Gusmer. “It was kind of the reason we got into hard cider in the first place. At the end of the season when you have a lot of fresh cider left over, the only way to really preserve it—and the best way to preserve it—is to turn it into hard cider.” So that’s what they did.
Hurricane Hugo inspired Fritz Gusmer to get the permits to become a bonded winery in the mid-90s. This decision would end up working really well for Matthew, who went off to college only to graduate during the economic downfall of 2008. His plan to for work for a big bank didn’t pan out, and when his parents needed help with the orchard, things just kind of fell into place.
Today, the original farm stand where fresh-picked apples, jars of apple butter and doughnuts were sold from now serves as the hard cider bar. Several tap handles pour award-winning craft varieties ranging from the crisp English-style “Ginger Gold” to the fruit-forward “Gala Peach,” a slightly sweet blend of hard cider with local peach juice. “Hoppin Johnny,” a popular pick oozing with floral aromas and citrus, is the first commercially dry-hopped hard cider on the East Coast. Currently, many of these hard ciders can be found on tap throughout bars and restaurants in North and South Carolina.
Though hard ciders are seeing a resurgence, it isn’t a new fad. Deeply rooted in American tradition, cider was perhaps the most popular alcoholic beverage during colonial times. In apple-growing regions, it wasn’t a rarity to drink a pint or more a day starting as early as breakfast. The mildly alcoholic beverage is resistant to bacteria, unlike the often-dangerous water supply at the time. As an added bonus, cider was thought to have several healing properties, especially for soothing an upset stomach.
Ciders are typically listed alongside beers on tap, interestingly, hard cider is actually produced like wine. “It’s the fermented juice of an apple rather than the fermented juice of a grape,” explained Gusmer. “There is no brewing. So that’s really the main difference as far as production. But it drinks a lot more like beer because it’s lower in alcohol and has a little bit of carbonation to it.”
Though it sounds simple, cider is a time and labor intensive process that starts with growing quality apples, harvesting during fall, fermenting and blending for several months, and finally bottling the finished product. Every year from mid-August to Christmas, Windy Hill greets curious visitors looking to taste the hard-earned fruits of this tough labor. During peak time, from late September through October, two to three thousand people might stop in for a cup of cider and a sweet treat on any given day during the weekend. On certain Saturdays, there can be up to an hour wait for donuts, which are made on-site on old-fashioned donut machines. Children especially enjoy feeding the resident pigs and chickens, taking hayrides and picking apples, while adults sit back at communal picnic tables with a pint or flight of Windy Hill’s crisp ciders, passing on one family’s tradition to another.