America’s history is really a history of the apple and for most of that history, it was not just the apple but cider. Not cider as most American’s would define it today but, cider as its defined in Europe and many other countries around the world. What many Americans now call hard cider, which simply means it has been fermented into an alcoholic beverage. These histories are linked because as America grew as a country, so to did the varieties of apples grown in it. In his books, Dan Bussey lists over 16,000 known varieties that have been grown and marketed during America’s history. This excludes the 9,700 duplicated names for the same variety. The growth in apple propagation was driven by the expansion and growth of the country. Settlers planted apple trees as they moved westward because they helped to meet homesteading requirements and they produced a product that could be stored and used over extended periods of time. Cider was one of those key products. Given this, you would think that America would be full of cider apple varieties like England, France, or Spain. Unfortunately, what beer and industrialization started, prohibition in the early 20th century killed. Cider was almost lost and along with it, so many of those wonderfully unique varieties.
That’s why when I was doing some research on heirloom apples, I was inspired to write about some of the American cider apples, or at least potential cider apples as they are still being evaluated. There are several universities around the US with programs and research focusing on cider and cider apples. I’ve previously referenced works from Cornell University but, Washington State University (WSU) is also doing a lot of great research on cider and cider apples. They have been evaluating 73 different cider apple cultivars, which can be reviewed on their website(1). I decided to focus and summarize some of the key data for American cider apples. 15 of the 73 varieties they are assessing are believed to have originated in America.
These includes heirloom apples like Roxbury Russet, one of America’s first named varieties. It also includes newer cultivars like Puget Spice. The list includes many historically important cider apples some that were thought to have been lost and extinct. Apples like Harrison, which made what some considered to be America’s premier cider, are included. This apple was rediscovered by Paul Gidez in the late 1970’s before being more widely propagated by Tom Burford. Another historically significant American cider apple is the Taliaferro. Grown at Monticello and described by Thomas Jefferson as his favorite cider apple, the Taliaferro was thought forever lost until Conley Colaw sent some red-fleshed apples from his farm in Virginia to Monticello for assessment(2). They were deemed to most likely be the long lost Taliaferro apples so loved by Jefferson for his cider production. Let’s check out some of the data the WSU has collected on these American cider apples. Here is a table where I summarize this information.
Washington State University – American Cider Apple Data
|Variety||Tannin %Tannic||Acid %Malic||pH||SG||Harvest Month||%Yield (v/w)||Pollination Group|
|2||Golden Russet||0.10||0.66||3.58||1.061||Early Oct||48.18%||2|
|4||Grimes Golden||0.07||0.61||3.45||1.052||Mid Oct||44.44%||3|
|7||Hewe’s Crab||0.19||0.91||3.29||1.060||Late Aug||62.04%||3|
|8||Mott Pink||0.05||0.76||3.18||1.043||Early Sep||66.22%||3|
|9||Puget Spice||0.13||0.96||3.28||1.057||Mid Oct||NA||3|
|10||Roxbury Russet||0.08||0.61||3.50||1.061||Late Sep||44.44%||4|
|11||Russet King||0.05||0.71||3.48||1.053||Late Sep||61.38%||3|
|12||Smith’s Cider||0.08||0.55||3.39||1.050||Early Oct||57.64%||3|
|14||Track Zero||0.10||0.18||4.13||1.053||Early Oct||46.64%||3|
If you do research on apples, it is hard to find data like the above table. Often this is because that data has not always been easy to collect. While that has improved with new technological advances, not all data is still easily assessable. Tannins is an example where even today, there isn‘t an easy method for home cider makers and even many commercial operations. The other issue with data is that it often varies. This goes back to the terroir and vintage of the apples. WSU indicates that the Harrison apple has an acid level of 0.64% malic acid or 6.4g/l, while research on Harrison apples in Virginia indicate it has almost double that at 1.106% or 11.06g/l of malic acid. Other articles describe the Harrison apple as a bittersweet, without providing details about the amount of tannins or acid in it. This is another reason I value data about an apple versus just descriptions. The ripening time, the sun hours, temperatures, the rootstock and the soil type can all impact the characteristics of an apple. Ultimately, this influences the cider.
I must say that I‘m saddened by the lack of American cider apples that are available in the market. You would think that with over 16,000 vanities in our history that America would have more options. The good news is that the latest renaissance of cider in America is relatively young and more apples are finding their way into the market. Unfortunately, if you look at the list from Washington State’s website, none of the 15 apples would qualify as a bitter. The closest one is Hewe’s and even it is below the 0.2% threshold for a bittersweet or bittersharp variety. While the slow food movement and interest in discovering and propagating heirloom American apples are growing, they are still small. Most Americans still think cider is a sweet cloudy juice that you buy at an orchard with doughnuts. They have probably never heard of a Roxbury Russet apple, let alone eaten one. With the efforts of universities and private citizens, like those of The Lost Apple Project, hopefully more apples can be found and identified. Even more important, I hope more American cider apples will be identified. With over 16,000 varieties grown over hundreds of years, there has to be some awesome American cider apples just waiting to be rediscovered. So, get out there and explore. Seek old apples and try new and different apples for your next cider batch. You never know what you might find. Maybe it will be like a Super Yellow.
Have you never made cider? Check out my book, it not only has useful tips and detailed methods for making cider but I have also included data for many of the apple varieties that I have used. It will explain everything from making hard cider to pairing cider with food. I even include my favorite food recipes along with the recipes for making your own hard cider. You can find it as an ebook and a 7×10 paperback at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Vigo Presses in the UK. Click on these links to check them out.
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