If you want to make really good hard cider, you need to use vintage apples. But where do you find these superb cider-making apples?
I live smack in the middle of prime apple-growing country here in Maryland; Virginia, our next door neighbor, is one of the top five apple-producing states in the U.S., along with California, Michigan (where the apple blossom is the state flower), New York and Pennsylvania. Virginia produces 5-6 million bushels of apples each year in 100 commercial orchards. Maryland produces close to another million bushels (hey, it’s a small but doughty state). But almost none of them are what cider makers call vintage apples, which you occasionally see called “heritage” apples. Where can we look to get these cidermakers?
I looked for a fairly small sample of cider apples, though the UK’s National Association of Cider Makers says there are hundreds (but don’t tell you which they are). Well, your very best bet around here is to grow vintage apple trees. I found a number of farm nurseries that would be happy to send you scions (the bit that’s grafted onto root stock) or graft them for you and send you a young tree. I only found a few orchards that grow vintage apples in the U.S. and might – might – be coaxed into sending you some apples.
The best guide I’ve found to locating orchards by apple variety is Orange Pippin. Granted, orchards pay to be listed here, so I’m sure it’s nowhere near complete. Their site is easy to navigate if you’re looking for specific varieties. You can look up apples by name, which will give you a nice if brief description and picture, and then follow their link to find out which orchards produce it. Orange Pippin says that you can get Kingston Black apples in Kansas, Michigan, and England (of course); Dabinett is available in the UK and Michigan; and Yarlington Mill is grown in Kansas, Michigan, and Canada. Can’t find Slack Ma Girdle apples anywhere, but there is hope for the cidermaker.
Another good source of descriptions for vintage apples is Big Horse Creek Farm’s website – but they don’t sell apples.
Treemendus Fruit in Michigan (gar, Michiganders, there’s a reason we all laugh at you) grows Dabinett, Kingston Black, and Medaille d’Or. They were the only orchard I could find in the US who grow the marvellous Medaille.
In our area, many of the orchards have pick-your-own sections or days. There’s a national register of pick-your-own farms, and you can drill down to each state. In fact, they have international listings as well. American Towns also has a national directory of pick-your-owns, but they don’t tell you a thing about what varieties there are.
Want to plant a vintage apple tree on your property? There’s lots more help there. In Virginia, Vintage Virgina Apples can tell you where to find Kingston Black or Medaille d’Or trees for sale. Satyr Fen Farm has Dabinett grafting stock (and will tell you how they got their name).