I don’t have classic cider apples growing around me. I have found some wonderful American heirloom varieties but, even those aren’t considered true cider apples. Most people have access to a wonderful range of cooking apples like Granny Smith and Bramley or eating apples like Red Delicious, Fuji, and Gala. Unless you live in certain parts of the United Kingdom or France, you probably won’t find many orchards with Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Nehou, or Vilberie apples. So, can you make good hard cider from ordinary culinary and fresh eating apples? The simple answer is a most definite yes but, putting that answer into practice isn’t as simple. There are three key elements you must understand. Those elements are the types of apples you have, how to blend them, and how to maximize your apples.
First, there really are no cider apples. I know it’s sounds sacrilegious but, really, there are no cider apples. There are just apples. Repeat that sentence seven times so you will remember it. I mean even crabapples are just apples. They are just called crabs because their size is generally below 2 inches (5cm) but, they are still just apples. As cider makers, we need to throw away the concept of culinary apples, crabapples, dessert apples, eating apples, and cider apples. We just have apples. In the early 1900’s, the Long Ashton Research Station in England defined apples by the amount of tannins and acid they contained. This classification is really what we should be using. When pressed into juice, bitter apples have more than 2 grams per liter of tannic acids. Sharps have more than 4.5 grams per liter of malic acid. Sweet apples have less than 2 grams per liter tannic acid and less than 4.5 grams per liter malic acid. Using these definition, you can classify any apple as a Sweet, Bitter, Bittersweet, Sharp, or Bittersharp. This definition is critical because it allows us to define and use all apples to make great hard cider.
|Apple Type||Tannins |
(g/l Tannic Acid)
|Total Acids |
(g/l Malic Acid)
While our inner baker may want to think of a Granny Smith as a baking or culinary apple used for wonderful pies, we must suppress that thought when making cider. A Granny Smith apple with low tannins and high acid is a sharp. Just like a Red Delicious apple isn’t for fresh eating, it’s a sweet since it has low acid and low tannins. The main challenge is understanding the acid and tannin levels of your apples so you can categorize them. Total acid measurements are relatively easy to make and don’t cost much with a titration kit. Even pH will give you a relative idea about the amount of acids. Polyphenols or what we often think of as tannins are harder to measure but apples with high polyphenols are also the hardest type of apple to find. Most apples that are grown commercially were bred to be low in tannins. That is because most people don’t like bitter apples that turn brown when you eat or bake with them. You can collect apple data like I do, or you can search for data about apples on the internet and use that data as a guide. Ultimately, understanding the type of apples (sweets, bitters, sharps) you have is critical to blending those apples.
I want to acknowledge that not all sweets, bitters, or sharps are the same. Every apple variety has different compounds and different amounts. Those compounds create different organoleptic (taste, smell, mouthfeel) characteristics in your cider. Blending can be about these various compounds but, blending at its most fundamental level is about acids and tannins. The goal is to create balance in your cider. It’s important to remember that while sugar could be considered a key element, it will generally be gone once your cider is created, so you have to look past it. Sugar defines the potential alcohol level and some aspect of residual sweetness but, the yeast will process the sugar leaving you basically with acids and tannins. So, when you think of blending apples you should be thinking of what type of apples you have and how that will impact the final cider. I should mention that you can add “or pear” to anyplace I say apple because pears come in the same types (sweets, sharps, and bitters). It’s also good to remember that most pears have higher levels of sorbitol, which could make them a natural sweetener in your blend.
You may be thinking that you can use a yeast or lactic acid bacteria to convert acids like malic to weaker acids like lactic. This is true but, I would argue this is done because you lack the proper apple types for blending. Blending allows you to take sharps, mix them with sweets, and create a lower acidic cider. It’s not about whether the apples or yeast create aromas of leather, spice, fruit, or banana. Instead blending is about whether your final cider might have 7 grams per liter of acid or 3 grams per liter. Again, pH can be a guide but, remember that pH and total acid are not the same thing. If you have an apple with 13 grams per liter, like some Bramley apples, if you don’t blend it with an apple that has lower acids, you will probably wish your cider was sweeter. Polyphenols can provide some balance to acids but, they also need balance. You can create a cider where the tannin level is too high and without acids, it might be bitter and bland. Blending to create juice with a balance of tannins and acids should give you a great base cider but, there really is no right answer for how to create the perfect blend. Apples are all different but the following blending guide will give you a good starting point. The biggest challenge can be if you don’t have the right types of apples.
|Apple Type||% Blend|
Maximizing the Apple
Unfortunately, many of us don’t live in the Southwestern part of of the UK, the northern part of France, or the northern region of Spain. That means we don’t have an abundance of bitter apples. We have lots of sharps and even some good sweets but, finding bitter apples like Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Medaille d’Or, Nehou, or similar is just a dream. I have yet to actually hold a true bitter apple in my hand let alone use some in a cider. The Harrison trees I planted produced a single apple to ripeness this year but depending on the data, it may or may not be a true bitter. If you are like me, you only have a couple options if your goal is to use 100% apples or pears.
The first option is to be creative in your search for bitter apples. The most overlooked apples that are often bitters are crabapples. Often used as decorative trees in many landscapes, crabapples are just small apples but many have high polyphenols. Go look around your neighborhood or ask your orchard if they use crabapples for pollination. They may let you pick some for your cider. The other option is one I employ on every batch of cider I make but, it is usually overlooked. The apple peel has the highest level of phenolic compounds in the entire apple. But, it is never mentioned in most cider making information. Using the apple peel is the equivalent of making red wine. Red wine is initially fermented on the skins, which allows the yeast to extract the phenolic compounds. Adding apple peels to the primary fermentation does the same thing. You can add color and tannins just by maximizing the apple you are using. PricklyCider.com is full of information about how to process peels and the impact these peels can have on your cider. Search the site for “peel” to find all the available resources. If you don’t have access to bitter apples, harvest peels and add them to your fermenter to create a more balanced cider. I recommend 75-150 grams per gallon (20-40 grams per liter) as a good target dosage.
Remember, there are no cider, culinary, crab, or fresh eating apples. There are only sweet, bitter, and sharp apples. They can all be used for cider. It’s fundamentally a question of blending so you can create a balance in your cider. However, don’t forget to maximize the all parts of the apple, especially the peel. It will elevate your cider by giving you access to phenolic compounds you thought were only available with bitter apples.
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