The Growler’s Field Guide to Cider, Chapter 3: The Apples Behind The Cider

Photo by Michael Tallman

Photo by Michael Tallman

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Apples are the soul of cider—which, on its face, sounds fairly straightforward. We’ve all shopped for apples and are acquainted with the eight to 10 varieties available at most supermarkets.

Except, of course, it’s not even vaguely that straightforward. Apple varieties number into the thousands, including rare heirloom varieties that are just starting to come back to market— ones grown only sporadically and in small quantities. Taste your way through 30 or 40 or 50 such apples and you’ll understand what every cidermaker knows: apples vary wildly in size, shape, texture, flavor, acidity, and more.

The term “cider apple” is a bit misleading. It’s not that cider apples can’t be good for cooking and/or fresh eating. It’s just that the usual considerations that drive an apple’s popularity at retail don’t really hold sway when thinking about cider.

“With cider fruit, it’s all about anything interesting after it’s fermented and the crunch is gone, and the sugar is gone,” says Peter Gillitzer of Milk & Honey Ciders. “What do you have in there that’s going to make this beverage interesting? They’re not grown for looks or texture or even so much sugar content—it’s what you have for tannins, acidity, and secondary metabolites that’ll give you interesting mouthfeel.”

These considerations mean apples that get passed over as a quick snack option often make it into the cider press. Case in point: crab apples, which are otherwise used ornamentally in landscaping or for pollinating an orchard of fresh-eating or cooking apples.

“When you get a crab apple you get a lot of skin, you get a lot of kernel,” Gillitzer says. “Because they’re growing for pollination, they can have great tannin—both the soft tannin, that kind of cat tongue thing that you get, and the hard tannin, on back of your tongue—the ‘black tea’ compounds. They’re prolific and they’re hardy, and they have a lot of citric acid and malic acid, so a little bit of them goes a long way.”

Sharps (high acid, low tannin)
■ Sweets (low acid, low tannin)
■ Bittersharps (high acid, high tannin)
■ Bittersweets (low acid, high tannin)
Due to their tannin content, bittersweets and bittersharps are referred to as “spitters”
■ American Heirloom (high sugar, high acid, low tannin)
Also called Sweet-Sharps

Milk & Honey Ciders • 2017 Heirloom Cider

■ 15% Winesap
■ 15% Newtown Pippin
■ 15% Northern Spy
■ 15% Golden Russet
■ 15% Kingston Black
■ 10% Chestnut Crab
■ 5% Porter’s Perfection
■ 5% Harry Masters Jersey
■ 5% Dabinett

As per Peter Gillitzer at Milk & Honey Ciders, the breakdown for their current vintage.

Sapsucker Farms • Yellow Belly Cider

■ Haralson
■ Beacon
■ Fireside
■ Wealthy
■ Zestar
■ Wolf River
■ Dolgo Crab
■ Chestnut Crab

Debbie Morrison from Sapsucker Farms says their 2017 ciders were made from a combination of 40 varieties of apples, with these being the most prominent.

Sociable Cider Werks • Freewheeler Dry Apple

■ Honeycrisp
■ SweeTango
■ Haralson
Cane sorghum
Wine tannin

“That is the base blend that we use for all of our products,” says Sociable assistant brewer Charlie Goudreault. “Since we really only use dessert apples in our blend, we add in a wine tannin during our process.”

■ ■ ■

To understand what the cidermaker wrestles with, it helps to get a grower’s perspective. Dick Brown is the proprietor of Plum Crazy Orchard in Buffalo, Minnesota. The Honeycrisp craze of the early ’90s gave his business a rocket-fueled start, and while he mostly grows apples for retail, his Chestnut Crab Apples in particular have become beloved by local cidermakers, including the team at Milk & Honey.

Brown says that the rise of craft cidermaking in Minnesota has spurred the state’s growers to explore what’s possible. “We’re going to have a hard time competing with other regions of the country on pure volume, because Minnesota has a little more challenge on yields per acre—we can’t compare with Michigan or Washington State,” Brown says. “Even if we figure out what cider apples grow here, there’ll be an issue of price. It has to be a viable business for both ends—for the growers and the cidermakers, [who] have to be able to buy the juice or make the juice from the apples and make some money on their product. I think that’s going to be worked out in the next five to 10 years.”