Sometimes I take a break from craft beer to enjoy craft cider. Also, as hard as it can be for me to believe sometimes, not everyone I know is a fan of beer and thus does not want to wile away hours in breweries and bottle shops or at other beer-centric activities. Thus, a visit to Windy Hill Orchard and Cider Mill was in order. Also, there aren't a lot of other things that say “autumn” quite like fresh-picked apples, with their promise of becoming desserts and ciders.
Windy Hill Orchard & Cider Mill is located in York, South Carolina. For the Fall 2016 season, they are open Thursdays through Sundays. Windy Hill Orchard is a family-owned orchard that offers hard ciders (which you can also buy in bottles around the Charlotte area), pick your own apples, fresh-pressed cider, and fresh apple products, such as apple cider donuts (more on those below).
We went on a sunny, ninety-three degree Saturday in September. Nothing quite says “autumn in the South” like baking outside in ninety degree weather on the last weekend in September, which also happened to be the first weekend of fall. We arrived a little after noon and the parking lot was already packed and bustling. Judging by the amount of children who were there, it looks like a pretty cool place to bring your entire family as there is a lot of room to run around and a lot of fallen apples to pick up and throw at other apples on the ground, which seemed to be the most popular activity among the toddler crowd.
If you want to pick your own apples in Windy Hill’s orchard, you’ll need to buy a bag before going into the orchard, which you buy at their Farm Stand when you arrive. The bags come in three sizes: ¼ peck (4-6 lbs), ½ peck (6-8 lbs), and ½ bushel (25-30 lbs). The line to buy bags winds tantalizingly through all the other apple products you can buy, such as donuts (which are being made right next to the Farm Stand), pies, ciders, and caramel apples. You’ll want to make sure to check Windy Hill’s Facebook page before heading out to pick your own apples as the orchards are open based on fruit availability and a couple of busy weekends can wipe out the available apples. If you do get to pick apples, there is an orchard employee at the orchard’s entrance to show you what types of apples to pick based on their color. Windy Hill grows Stayman Winesap apples, which are sweet with a hint of tartness. According to Windy Hill’s website, Stayman Winesap apples are good for cooking or eating, but are an excellent choice for making both hard and sweet cider.
Once we were turned loose in the orchard, we had to find the right apples to pick. As it was busy the day we were there, we had to walk a ways to find a row that didn’t already have people in it. You can certainly pick apples in the same row as other people, but you may have to fight to the death for the choicest apples. Just kidding – you can probably just pelt them with apples on the ground until they run away and cede to your superior apple-defending skills. Speaking of apples on the ground, you will want to watch your step as this is an orchard after all and there are apples in various stages of decomposition on the ground, which also lends the air a sweet (sometimes sickly sweet) aroma of apples. There are fruit picker tools available to reach the apples that are a little higher up, but I brought my own fruit picker in the form of my 6-foot tall husband, who was able to spot and reach apples far above my head. It didn’t take long to fill up our bags with apples, so we headed back to the Cider Bar to reward ourselves with too many apple cider donuts and some of Windy Hill’s outstanding hard cider.
An aside about the apple cider donuts: Geez Louise, are they good. So so so so good. They’re so moist that they fall apart when you eat them. I got a half dozen of the cinnamon sugar kind and had to debate how many was too many to shove into my mouth without bringing shame on my family and/or causing parents to pull their children close and cover their eyes with their hands. I would almost make the drive back to York just to buy all the donuts and swim around in them like Scrooge McDuck swimming in his money.
I have had Windy Hill’s cider before and have always enjoyed it. The six ciders they had on tap that day were Ginger Gold, Rusty Gold, Hoppin Johnny, Gala Peach, Strawberry Pippin, and their seasonal cider, which was a pumpkin cider. I got a flight to start, which is something I’ve started doing when I visit new places. It gives me an opportunity to taste everything a place has to offer without me having to drink six full pours. It also affords me the opportunity to go back to order a full pour of my favorite. I was the most surprised about the pumpkin cider, as I am always a wary of pumpkin flavored products. Are they actually good or is it just what people order? This pumpkin cider was well done, with nice pumpkin pie spices that blended well with the cider.
My favorite cider was the Strawberry Pippin, of which I got a full pour after we finished our flight. Strawberries – like cucumbers – are something that I absolutely LOVE when they are done well in a beer (note: I don’t think cucumbers would taste good in a cider); however, it seems to be a difficult task to get the flavors just right as most strawberry beers I’ve tasted either have zero strawberry flavor or way too much artificial flavor. That problem doesn’t seem to exist for Windy Hill’s Strawberry Pippin. The strawberries were prominent in the most pleasant way and were complemented by the apples in the cider. When I tasted it, I said the flavor tastes exactly like something else that I could vaguely remember but couldn’t quite name, which may be one of the most frustrating experiences. My mother-in-law saved the day by figuring it out: Strawberry Pippin tastes exactly like the filling in Brach’s Strawberry-Filled Hard Candy. Like, exactly like that filling. I loved those as a kid, so maybe that’s why I enjoyed Strawberry Pippin so much.
With our bags filled with apples and our stomachs with donuts and cider, we called it a day at Windy Hill. If you’ve got a few hours free, I highly recommend making the drive out to York to visit Windy Hill. In the meantime, I will be figuring out what to do with the 10 pounds of apples we picked.