Univ. of Minn. awarded $100k grant to research apples for state’s cidermakers

Apples, such as these grown at Minnesota Harvest orchard in Jordan, Minnesota, are going to be the subject of a new research grant administered by the University of Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Davidson

This May, University of Minnesota researchers, in collaboration with a collection of local cider producers and apple growers, were awarded a $100,000 grant to explore the production of cider and cider apples in Minnesota.

The Speciality Crop Block Grant, which enables state agricultural agencies to administer federal funds for specialty crop research, will provide funding to researchers and cidermakers over the next three years to conduct research on the quality of juice and cider from Minnesota apple varieties, as well as the viability of introducing traditional European cider apples to Minnesota. The research comes at a time when the production—and popularity—of cider is rapidly increasing in the state, and it will inform the development of a set of guidelines outlining which cider apple varieties can successfully be grown in Minnesota and what qualities they contribute to cider.

The project will occur in three phases. In the first phase, university researchers will monitor the growth and cold hardiness of “Old World” cider apples—those traditionally used to produce cider in Europe—that are currently growing in Minnesota orchards. Then, apples from these trees along with some classic Minnesota varieties (think Honeycrisp and SweeTango™) will undergo testing for yield and juice quality, including levels of tannins, sugar content, and acid. Finally, the juice will be fermented to test its character and caliber as cider.

Multiple facilities across the state will be utilized throughout the process. Apples will be sourced from five orchards and transported to Sweetland Orchard in Webster, Minnesota, for pressing. From there, they’ll go to the Horticultural Research Center in Excelsior for juice analysis and fermentation.

Gretchen Perbix, co-owner of Sweetland Orchard, says she hopes the research will lead to a new chapter in Minnesota’s relationship with apples. Minnesota’s love of, and renown for, apples is fierce and unabashed, Perbix says, but up until now has largely been focused on dessert or eating apples. “We take so much pride in our apples in our state,” Perbix says. “That hasn’t transferred to cider yet. I feel like it’s imminent.”

A collection of cider and table apples used at Milk & Honey in St. Joseph, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

A collection of cider and table apples used at Milk & Honey in St. Joseph, Minnesota // Photo by Aaron Job

Cider apples differ from dessert apples in that the apple’s acid and tannin levels are what determine their quality, not their texture like eating apples. While current Minnesota varieties have acid “in spades,” according to Perbix, they’re still lacking in tannins—a key part of complex cider. Perbix hopes the research will widen the lens of Minnesota-grown apples to the point where the appreciation for the cider they produce is as strong as it currently is for the whole fruit.

The project, whose official title is “Evaluating Minnesota-adapted and European Cider Apple Cultivars for Use in Minnesota Cider Production,” builds on two previous grants also aimed at further developing Minnesota’s cider industry and also funded through the same type of Speciality Crop Block Grant. The first grant involved a three-year survey that ended in 2016 and collected empirical evidence from local cidermakers about their interest in sourcing locally grown apples for their cider. The second grant began in late 2016 and funded the planting of 12 European apple tree varieties across seven Minnesota orchards. This third grant supports university researchers to continue field trials on these plantings.

According to Perbix, the identification of Minnesota-hardy apple varieties is key. By identifying and potentially increasing the number of cider apple varieties that grow well in Minnesota, existing orchards will have more resources and options for dedicating space to these varieties. Cidermakers will also be able to rely more heavily, or even exclusively, on Minnesota-grown apples. The research will be compiled in a guide that records the apple varieties’ sugar, acid, and tannin levels, empowering orchardists and cidermakers to contrast varieties and select the type or combination of types best suited to their needs.

Nate Watters, co-owner of Keepsake Cidery and president of the Minnesota Cider Guild, says the grant will help focus and streamline the planting efforts he and other cidermakers currently oversee. “We have been planting cider specific and heritage apples since 2014,” he says. ”This grant, however, mitigates the risk we have been taking and adds a more organized and scientific evaluation of the viability of these apples in our region.”

Related Post: The Growler’s Field Guide to Cider

Cider production in Minnesota has soared from 2,203 liters per year in 2012 to 901,340 liters in 2017—the result not only of an increase in cideries solely dedicated to producing cider but also in wineries dipping their toes into cidermaking. The increase has forced some Minnesota cidermakers to source apples from other states as far away as New Hampshire. Complementing cidermakers’ desire to develop a wider variety of cider made from local apples is a marked increase in consumer interest in cider over the past seven years.

Securing the University of Minnesota’s involvement in the project was a major milestone, says Perbix. She had unsuccessfully reached out to researchers at the apple breeding program to request collaborations before, but this is the first grant they agreed to participate in. The program has roots in a need to develop apple varieties sturdy enough to withstand the state’s harsh temperatures and has largely maintained this focus since its founding at the beginning of the 20th century. According to David Bedford, who oversees the university’s apple-growing program, the United States’ history of growing apples has always had close ties with hard cider—both as a preservation method and for its social benefits—but the priority of the university is to develop apple varieties that can reliably survive Minnesota winters and produce multi-purpose fruit for eating, baking, and preserving.

Cider being pressed on Milk & Honey’s rack and cloth apple press // Photo courtesy Milk & Honey

The 2019 proposal came at an opportune moment for two reasons, according to Annie Klodd, an assistant extension professor in the Department of Horticultural Studies. First, Perbix was armed with results from the cidermakers’ survey and plantings from the second grant ready for testing, which demonstrated an interest in the project from cidermakers and provided foundational research to build from. Klodd is supporting field data collection and outreach and education efforts. She explained the proposal also came at an opportune time for her, as she and several colleagues had already been in conversation with each other and with orchardists about the potential impact of cider apple research. Perbix originally proposed additional field trials and testing solely on the Old World apple varieties, but after university researcher and grant collaborator Jack Tillman shared that orchards had been asking about the potential to use the varieties they already grow for cider, the grant proposal expanded to include testing Minnesota varieties at the same time.

The proposal, which is set to wrap up in April 2022, has the potential to impact a total of 277  Minnesota cider and wine producers and apple growers. With a definitive, research-backed rubric for what different apple varieties can contribute to cider, the landscape of cider made from Minnesota-grown apples will only widen—hopefully alongside a boost in economic, collaborative, and creative gain for apple growers and cidermakers.

“Bringing in more cider-specific and heritage apples to our orchards will truly elevate Minnesota and the surrounding states as a world-class cider-producing region,” Watters says. “I look at it the same way an artist might look at the palette. The more colors an artist has on their palette, the more choices and creativity the artist will have to create. The same holds true for me. The more varieties of apples with unique flavors I can use during harvest and press time, the more depth and flavor I can bring out in our cider.”