Local canner: Spreading sweetness since 1828
Posted: March 2, 2013
The Winchester Star
CROSS JUNCTION — While the equipment has changed over the years, a local family-owned business continues to churn out apple butter that tastes close to homemade.
“We start with the whole apple,” said Lisa Johnson, one of the Shawnee Canning Co.’s owners. “We make it once a year, for the whole year.”
The company finished its 2013 apple butter production period on Friday.
Shawnee has been in the canning business since 1828. The company has occupied its current building — on Cross Junction Road just off North Frederick Pike (U.S. 522) northwest of Winchester — since the 1940s.
The business is very much a family affair, with all the apples used for apple butter coming directly from a 150-acre orchard owned by Johnson’s parents — William and Joan Whitacre — who also help with the canning operations.
Johnson said she could not think of any large-scale apple-processing businesses that start out using the entire apple. Most apple butter producers she is familiar with — whether a local organization making apple butter for a fundraiser or another canning company — use pre-sliced apples or applesauce to make their butter.
“[It’s] a completely different flavor and consistency than when you start with slices or sauce,” Johnson said. “[The taste] is much more intense and rich and thicker.”
In addition to starting the butter-making process with whole Golden Delicious and Jonathan apples, Shawnee uses only pure cane sugar and no artificial sweeteners, she said.
“Every time we go to a food show, I do feel that, hands-down, people do tell me that this apple butter is the closest they’ve ever had to what they used to get as a kid from their grandparents or whatever,” Johnson said. “It is still made in such an old-fashioned way that I think it does definitely take you back to what a lot of us don’t get any more.”
Bushels and bushels of apples
After the apples are harvested in the fall, the company will use as many apples as it needs to make cider and then places the rest of the crop in cold storage until the new year, usually January or early February, when it starts a three-week period of butter-making.
“That’s seven days a week,” Johnson said. “We don’t stop until we’re finished.”
David Omps, Johnson’s cousin, has been making apple butter with the company for about 26 years.
He said Shawnee uses about 4,000 bushels — as many as 1 million apples — to produce its apple butter each year. That amount of fruit can result in 10,000 gallons of apple butter that is divided into 4,000 pint jars and 3,000 half-pint jars.
The production line consists of a conveyor belt where apples are sent past workers who remove rotten fruit and those with various imperfections.
The fruit is then washed and sent to a large grinder that turns the apples into a pulp-like substance.
From there the future apple butter is piped into a holding tank and then begins to cook in several kettles. Along the way, apple seeds and skins are separated mechanically and discarded, Omps said.
Shawnee uses five kettles in the butter-making process, with each serving a specific purpose, such as cooking the product or adding sugar or spices.
“It’s still the same exact process that they’ve always used,” Johnson said.
It can take up to an hour and a half for the mixture in each kettle to be ready for bottling. Once the butter is ready for bottling, it is piped to the floor below the production line, where a machine squirts the still-hot product into jars on a conveyor belt.
The belt then carries the jars to the machine that puts lids on the containers. From there, the jars continue on the conveyor belt to workers at the end of the line, who place the filled, sealed and still-hot jars into boxes where they cool and wait to be stored and then shipped.
The jars’ lids “pop” when the apple butter cools, Johnson said.
“You hear the lids popping and when you’re working at night it’s really weird,” she joked. “Sometimes I’m here working at 11 o’clock and my kids swear everything’s haunted because all you hear is the pop, pop, pop from the lids.”
Apart from selling its apple butter locally, Shawnee ships its products to customers and distributors around the country, Johnson said.
However, she said, the products often are not identified as coming from the Cross Junction company.
“We are 95 percent private label; that’s why a lot of people don’t see us out there because it’s [our product], it’s just private label,” Johnson said.
Private label means that a store, farmers market or other business can order apple butter and other products from Shawnee to put on their shelves, only instead of having a Shawnee label, the container is labeled with that business’ name.
“We have our own label processors here ... where we print them in-house for them,” Johnson said.
Much of the company’s private label sales are to farm markets where the farmers might be short of time or fruit to make all of their own products.
“It’s hard to do everything, so they might grow the apples but they don’t have any way of processing the apples into apple butter,” Johnson said. “That’s what we cover for them. Private label is a huge thing because they’re selling their name and the experience of their farm or their farm market instead of our name.
“And of course, if you’re in New Jersey or Delaware, a lot of people want to buy product that reminds them of where they went in New Jersey or Delaware, not Virginia,” she added.
Shawnee produces four types of apple butter: regular, sugar-free, pecan apple butter and apple butter barbecue sauce.
“Apple butter’s our number-one seller, period,” Johnson said. “There’s a huge demand in the farm market industry for butters, period, but apple butter’s number one across the board, no matter where we’re selling.”
Brian Pellatt, a co-owner of Bonnie Blue Southern Market in Winchester, said the business has stocked Shawnee’s products — including different varieties of apple butter — since the market opened six months ago.
The apple butter has sold well at Bonnie Blue, and Pellatt said he and the other owners had several reasons for stocking Shawnee’s products.
“They’re local apples from a great, small company,” he said.
Pellatt added that Shawnee’s apple butter and other products tend to have more residual sugar tones that come from the fruit used in production.
The residual sugars help to give the apple butter a more rounded sweetness than other butters Pellatt has had, and he called the taste of Shawnee’s apple butter “richer and more developed” than other varieties he has tried.
Information about the Shawnee Canning Co. and its products is available online at www.shawneesprings.com.
— Contact Matt Armstrong firstname.lastname@example.org