Gold Rush apples from Mercier Orchards sold at Thomas Orchards in Watkinsville, Georgia, on Nov. 9, 2020. Thomas Orchards has been sourcing apples from Mercier for 24 years, said owner Jerry Thomas, because apples are only grown in the northern part of the state.

Traditionally just three months long, apple season is coming to a close. This humble fruit attracts thousands of visitors to the rolling mountains of North Georgia between August and late October, where traditions of apple picking, pig races and sticky, fried, baked goods run as deep as the roots of knotted apple trees lining the landscape.

At Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Georgia, the largest orchard in the state, people roll out shopping carts filled with apples and apple products on the first Sunday of November. At first glance, you get two choices: red or green. But Mercier actually grows over 45 varieties of apples on its 300 acres of land, from the recognized Red Delicious and Arkansas Black to the lesser known varieties like Braeburns.

Mercier orchard manager David Lillard estimates that Mercier exports about 20% of its apples for wholesale, and the remaining 80% is sold by the orchard or to smaller retailers. Some of those apples end up in Athens, baked into cakes or brewed into medieval-style beers.

For our series, “Athens à la carte,” The Red & Black tracked down the apples preferred by local chefs, brewers and retailers. From mountain towns to the Classic City, apples are key to many Southern traditions. With such a variety in flavors and usages, apples have also been reimagined.

Humble beginnings

Mercier Orchards was established in 1943. In addition to growing apples, there’s also blueberries, strawberries, peaches, blackberries and nectarines during their respective seasons. But apples are king in Blue Ridge. In Fannin County and neighboring Gilmer County, apples account for a combined value of $5.04 million in agriculture commodities, according to the University of Georgia’s 2018 Farm Gate Value Report.

Apple trees are distinct in their demeanor, with dark, gnarled bodies that yield round, bright fruits. There’s over 100,000 of these trees at Mercier Orchards, the birthplace of the apples in this story.

The climate in Blue Ridge offers what the trees need to thrive, as moderate summers give way to cold winters with a consistent level of humidity. Lillard said higher temperatures and little rain have the potential to be detrimental to the orchards.

According to Lillard, harvesting will come to a close the second week of November.

“We've picked seven days a week, and we're filling our coolers,” Lillard said. “And then what we'll do is we'll just sell those till they run out, which is next March, maybe.”

Apples have long shelf lives if preserved under temperature-controlled conditions, lasting up to six months. Refrigeration slows the production of ethylene, a gaseous compound that ultimately leads to rotting.

Many of Mercier’s apple products defy shelf life, however. Jams and jellies line rustic shelves, and there’s a selection of hard cider and fruit wines. The hot, sugar-coated donuts that sell out quickly probably won't last the car ride home.

To take advantage of apple season before it's over, Jerry Thomas makes multiple trips to Mercier Orchards in search of different apple varieties as they go in and out of season. Thomas owns Thomas Orchards in Watkinsville, Georgia. At the orchard and garden center, Thomas sells buckets and bags of Mercier apples.

Thomas has been getting apples from Mercier for 24 years, he said, making early morning drives about two hours up to Blue Ridge to beat traffic and crowds. He said people call his shop “Mercier South,” on account for his sizable stock of apples and Mercier cider.

Thomas can list off what each variety is good for — Cameos are great for eating raw and Rome apples are better for cooking, for example. Thomas’s favorite variety are Gold Rush apples. He thinks they’re “historically one of the ugliest,” with dull, pale yellow skin, but says they’re excellent for making apple sauce.

Mountains to the menu

Thomas Orchards represents a nearby stop for a distant commodity. Jessica Rothacker, co-owner of Heirloom Café and Fresh Market on North Chase Street, buys apple varieties from the orchard whenever Thomas comes back with something new.

“We source as much as we can locally,” Rothacker said. “Even though it is a little further away, we like to keep the money in the state.”

This fall, Heirloom Café is spotlighting the Mutsu apple variety on its menu in three separate dishes. Introduced in 1949 in Japan, Mutsu apples are light green in color with a sweeter flavor than Granny Smith apples and a soft, creamy consistency. Rothacker called Mutsus “perfect” for cooking with, on account of their tight flesh and mild acidity.

Heirloom’s Autumn Salad ($9) features a sliced Mutsu aside roasted butternut squash, feta cheese, smoked pecans and a mustard vinaigrette over local lettuces. For a fattier option, get the Pulled Pork Hash, made with pork shoulder, a duck egg and sweet potato hash, topped with pan-fried Mutsu slices. The cedar sage gravy is a mix of apple cider, sage and flour with dripping fat from the pork shoulder. This dish costs $18.

“It still highlights their juicy sweetness, but it's more of a savory way of doing it,” Rothacker said about the dish.

Sweet toothers, batter up. Heirloom also uses Mutsu apples for its apple spice cake, layered with homemade apple butter, iced with Italian meringue buttercream and topped with roasted apples.

In addition to the Mutsu variety — which came into season in September but keeps well — Rome and Arkansas Black apples are considered by Thomas to be “excellent” varieties for baking.

“They stand up to anything that you could get from a bulk producer so, so, well,” Rothacker said about Mercier’s varieties. “They're just really just lovely apples.”

A brew to remember

A few streets away on Park Avenue, Athentic Brewing Company is also taking advantage of apple season. Head brewer Chris Willis, co-owner Paul Skinner and assistant brewer Derek Heersink are working on perfecting the brewery’s first graff, an apple-based beer that isn’t quite cider, but isn’t all beer, either, using Mercier Orchards cider.

“We're just trying to put everything in balance. We don't want anything to be too abrasive,” Willis said.

Graffs gained popularity from Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic “The Dark Tower” series. In the series, characters drink “graf,” a fruity, malty beverage described as having deceptively high alcohol contents by fan sites. Graffs have gained popularity among homebrewers but haven’t quite burst into the mainstream.

Mercier Orchards cider is sticky sweet, but it has a lingering warm flavor that sets it apart from straight-up juice. Any apples that aren’t sold in the market are turned into cider, so the drink can vary in flavor profile slightly. To make the graff, cider is added to the brewed wort — essentially beer without yeast — and the combination is fermented together.

Skinner emphasized locality as the main reason the brewery uses Mercier cider, in addition to its “great aroma” that compliments the toasty flavor of the beer. The graff, named “Wind Through the Keyhole,” for another King reference, doesn’t have a set release date yet.