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Cider house will rule

Rapid Creek Cidery to showcase craft brews at Wilson’s Orchard
The new facility slated to open in November at Wilson’s Orchard will house an event center as well as the Rapid Creek Cidery. Paul Rasch stands in front of the event center located on the ground floor of the two-story building. (photo by Janet Nolte)

IOWA CITY– You might call him the Johnny Appleseed of Johnson County.
Spend a little time talking apples with Paul Rasch and you easily imagine him sitting down with that iconic apple evangelist of the 19th century, quaffing hard cider and striking up a spirited conversation on the relative merits of heritage fruit trees and the ripening schedules of various cultivars.
As anyone who has visited Wilson’s Orchard in the past seven years will attest, Rasch, 57, knows his apples: their history, the distinctive flavors and uses of over 120 varieties found in his orchard and the ever-increasing ways for the community to enjoy the versatility and culture of America’s favorite fruit.
Since 2009, the year he purchased Wilson’s Orchard from Robert “Chug” Wilson and his wife Joyce, Rasch has built upon what he describes as the “fantastically rich base” they established.
“First, they planted a test orchard with over a hundred varieties of apples, and then they did a very smart thing,” Rasch explained. “They waited until they produced, and tasted the apples, and said ‘which ones would people want?’ Those are the apple trees that they propagated all around the orchard.”
Next came Joyce’s bakery, where they made turnovers with very high attention to detail, said Rasch.
“Plus the fact that it’s just a beautiful piece of land. It’s those three cornerstones that kind of define Wilson’s Orchard in a lot of people’s minds,” he added.
In addition to the U-pick site on Dingleberry Road everyone knows as Wilson’s Orchard, Rasch owns and operates another more commercial orchard at Fox Ridge Farm, located a few miles away on Poplar Avenue. From the second orchard bounty , the business began to develop and sell an array of Wilson’s-branded products such as apple cider, apple cider donuts, vinegar, “take and bake” apple pies, apple butter and other fruit preserves.
Fox Ridge Farm is also the site where Wilson’s cider is produced.
“One of the biggest areas that we’ve expanded in the past couple years has been into sweet cider and then hard cider,” said Rasch. “We differentiate the two, sweet being unfermented apple juice with all the stuff left in it, all the soluble pectins and stuff that’s good for your gut. It’s just apples ground up and pressed. We add nothing to it, no preservatives, nothing.”
A local favorite found in many grocery stores, Wilson’s fresh sweet apple cider offers a level of quality and wholesomeness sought after by today’s health-conscious consumer. And though his orchards are not certified organic, Rasch said he is very committed to a growing program that minimizes the use of pesticides.
“Consumers have said over and over and over again, they do not want a lot of poisons sprayed on their orchard or in their environment. And I’m a consumer, too, so I agree with that,” Rasch said. “What I do is try to combine the best of the new technology of apple growing, which is by and large dwarf fruit trees, smaller scale fruit trees, and try and add to that varieties that are naturally resistant to diseases.”
The key benefit of those smaller trees comes from exposing the fruit to the sun, which deters both insects and disease.
Rasch employs other low-impact horticultural practices as well. Only as a last resort does he spray some trees. One newer technology Rasch uses, called mating disruption, confuses male insects attracted to the pheromones given off by females.
“We just basically employ canisters out in the orchard. They have photosensors, and at night when the temperature is a certain level, they will automatically put out little puffs of pheromone and flood the orchard with this pheromone,” Rasch explained. “And it works at least as good as spray.”
Central to Rasch’s vision for a sustainable orchard are his current efforts to “close the loop” both economically and environmentally. This includes raising heritage breeds of pork and sheep and deriving their feed, in part, from apple pumace, a nutrient-rich by-product of the cider press.
“This is the pulp with most of the juice pressed out,” explained Rasch. “We don’t get 100 percent of it pressed out. It’s the skin and the seeds, and that’s generally speaking a fantastic feed. It’s just under the food value of corn in terms of protein.”
Rasch closes the sustainability loop by implementing a system using every bit of the apples, one way or another.
“Use the apples for juice, let’s say, and then take the pumace out of that, run it through a livestock, and then that becomes composted quickly, right? That’s perfect compost,” he said. “And then put that back into the soil to feed the trees. That’s ultimately what we want.”
There’s another reason this fourth-generation apple farmer is excited about feeding by-products from cider production to the herd of Berkshire pigs he’s building up: a new two-story, 5,000-square-foot facility will house a cider-tasting room and restaurant on the top floor with an event center below. In keeping with the commitment to sustainable growing practices in the orchard, a geothermal heating and cooling system will reduce the new building’s carbon footprint.
On entering Wilson’s Orchard, visitors already see the century-old barn–reconstructed just as it stood originally on the property of Paul and Diane Hebl– destined to take on a new life as home to the Rapid Creek Cidery. The event center on the lower level will be run by Rasch’s daughter, Katie Goering, and will open in November as a space for private parties, such as weddings and other celebrations.
“We want this to be a social hub, a hub for people to gather and celebrate,” Rasch added.
Rasch plans to open the upstairs to the public for cider tasting and dining sometime next spring. The restaurant will feature seasonal menu items prepared from locally sourced produce and meats– all served with a generous side order of hospitality and fellowship.
“This will be an indoor space, out of the weather, something we’ve always wanted to have at Wilson’s Orchard,” he added. “We want a genuinely warm, friendly place where people can gather, enjoy good food and company with each other, and of course, enjoy good cider.”
Last September, Wilson’s Orchard began to produce and distribute four varieties of hard cider to local retailers and bars throughout the Corridor. With the new cidery, Rasch plans to augment the craft side of the business by bringing his brews directly to the customer.
“One of the things we’re super-excited about doing when we get it fully going, we want to be showcasing ciders that have particular apples in them,” Rasch said. “And they’ll have very different flavor profiles so there’ll be a lot of stuff that you’ll never get at a Hy-Vee or John’s Grocery, but will be just on tap at the cidery.”
The focus on distinctive ciders made from apples that deliver unique tastes has prompted Rasch to plant new trees specifically for the production of hard cider.
“A big project that we have going on right now is to actually plant cider orchards,” he said. Used only in fermented cider, the apples from these trees do not make for good eating. “They call them spitters, and they taste terrible,” Rasch explained. “But when you put them in cider they add tannins and complexity.”
In his 1862 essay “Wild Apples,” naturalist Henry David Thoreau had a more colorful way of describing spitters: “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.”
Interestingly, Rasch’s current project of planting a cider orchard is reminiscent of the cider heritage Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman sowed migrating throughout the antebellum Midwest with his ubiquitous sack of seeds. According to historians, early American apple orchards came from seeds (as opposed to grafted root stocks) planted specifically for the production of hard apple cider to replace water which was not reliably safe to drink due to primitive sanitation systems.
Wilson’s regular apple-picking season has ended, but the retail store will be open for holiday hours again this year, noon to 4 p.m., on the second and third weekends of November and December.