Hard Cider Apples

A pile of apples, each different from the other

News flash for some folks: you can make apple juice from any apple, but you can’t make good hard cider – I mean the fermented stuff – from just anything.  If you buy all your apples at an American grocery store, you’ve probably forgotten what an apple can really taste like.  Delicious, Honeycrisp, Jazz, most of the apples they sell in big stores don’t have a lot of flavor; they’re bred as much for being able to withstand shipping, looking large and sumptuous, and ripening when it’s wanted, as they are for flavor.  Too, apple cider fermentation is kind of hard on apple juice, so you really need some pretty flavorful apples to withstand what the yeast is going to do to their juice.

Don’t get me wrong – I haven’t met an apple I don’t like in some form or other.  Granny Smiths are too tart for me to eat by themselves, but I can make a wicked pie with them.  Pretty much any apple is good with a little peanut butter.  I don’t mind the textures others get all wrung up about – mealy is fine, super crisp is fine, I just plain like apples.

Nine spring and summer apple varieties
Spring and summer apple varieties. Check out the McIntosh that look purple!

I’m not going to discuss processing apples for cider here (I remind myself), nor am I going into how to buy good apple juice from the store and what to do with it.  At least not today.  Today it’s all about the apples themselves (focus, Elspeth!).I keep forgetting which cider apple varieties I mean to look for when I’m at farmers’ markets.  When the conversation about fermenting cider comes up again, I slap my forehead and think, I gotta make a list.  So, here I am making a list.  This is as much from secondary sources as it is from my own experience, so if you’ve had really great results from fermenting the juice of particular varieties of apple please chime in.  A lot of the really good cidering apples are, not surprisingly, older English varieties.  It can take some noodling to find an orchard in the U.S. that has a few trees.  The apples tend to look blotched and/or scabby, being pretty closely related still to the wild crab apple, but the juice has sweetness, acidity, and a high level of tannin that makes the great cider balance.  Those three characteristics is what makes a really good cider. It doesn’t matter if the apples are windfalls, bruised (you can cut that bit away), or somehow visually flawed – none of these apples are raised for their grocery-store looks – what you want is the very ripest apples you can get, because that will get you the richest and most alcoholic cider.

One autumn long ago, at the home of one serious cidermaker I met long before I was brewing myself, I remember a great plastic tarp in the yard, covered with another tarp that was weighted down with bricks.  In between was this great pile of apples.  He gathered purchase tramadol online them as they fell from his few trees, or as he was able to visit a local heritage apple orchard to pick up a bushel of the variety he wanted.  He was collecting them until he had enough, and had the time to press them all at one go (but before they began to rot).  As the apples sat between the tarps – the top tarp was just to keep out birds and the worst of the weather, he said – they continued to ripen.  The smell when I lifted a corner of the tarp was heady and sweet.  He said he kept an eye on them and turned them once in a while – I had an image of a giant paddle carefully stirring this great pile of rolling apples – because they’d go bad if you left them to sit.

Foxwhelp apple
Foxwhelp. I’d love to know how it got its name!

Cider apples are divided into flavor categories:  bittersweets and bittersharps.  Bittersweets are preferred for cidermaking in Britain these days.  Sweets and sharps are further low-tannin categorizations.  If it’s not classified as a one of these, it’s not a cider apple, though you can certainly press juice from it.  Among cider apples, the very best are called vintage quality.   If you don’t mind making your cider from a blend of different kinds of apples, Ken Schramm recommends shooting for a combination that is made of about 40% sweet or dessert apples, 40% tart, 10% aromatic and 10% highly flavored apples.  Single sourcing your apple variety can be tougher, having to find an apple that does it all, but Ken reports having had very pleasing ciders made from Gravenstein, Northern Spy, or Wolf River.Let’s take a moment to honor our county extension agents of the Agriculture Department (their numbers diminished by budget cuts, of course).  Those folks know everything, including the local heritage apple varieties.

Wittenham Hill has the chart from the Long Ashton Research Station, listing helpful features including category, but also including their brix, acid, and tannin levels.  Wittenham Hill’s cider portal has loads of helpful information on how to process your cider.

Oh, if your resulting cider doesn’t quite have the degree of astringency it should, you can always add a small ration of actual crab apples, which will supply the tannin you need.  Like wine, you need some tannin to balance the sweetness.

Kingston Black apple
Kingston Black

Some of the vintage cider cultivars:Pure Sweet: Sweet Coppin, Sweet Alford

Mild bittersweet: Sercombes Natural, Somerset Redstreak

Medium bittersweet: Kingston Black (see picture right), Stoke Red, Broxwood Foxwhelp (another great name!  See the picture above.)

Full bittersweet:  Ashton Brown Jersey, Dabinett, Major

Pure Sharp: Browns Apple, Fair Maid of Devon (see picture right)

Some other really good cider varieties (I’m not sure whether they’re heritage varieties):

Fair Maid of Devon apple
Fair Maid of Devon

Medaille d’OrHarry Master’s Jersey

Tom Putt

Slack Ma Girdle (what a great name! It’s an old Devon variety)

Yarlington Mill

Chisel Jersey

If you find ’em, email me or comment here and let me know where you found them and how the cidering goes.  It’d be fun to hear!

 

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