Cider making, for the most part, is a blender's art. There are very few types of apples that provide the right amount of tannins, flavor, and acidity to make an enjoyable cider on their own. As a result, most of the ciders we drink today are a blend of base apples (affordable and full of juice), aromatic apples (great for flavor nuances) and cider or crab apples (not what you'd want to eat out of hand, but full of acidity and tannins for structure and tartness). But just as there are a variety of wines produced from a single type of grapes, there are a handful of apples that can hold their own in the glass.
For an apple to work in a single varietal cider, in needs the right balance of tannins, acidity and sugar. We recently checked in with some of America's leading cideries to find out which types of apples work best (and which bottles you should seek out.)
The Baldwin is an apple native to American soil. It was identified around the 18th century in the Boston area and was, at one time, the most widely planted apple in the Northeast. Baldwins have a long history as both an eating and a cider apple. While their popularity in the supermarket has dwindled over the years, they're still popular cider apples, both blended and on their own.
Two top examples of Baldwin-based ciders are West County Cider's Dry Baldwin Cider from Massachusetts and Michigan's Uncle John's Fruit House Winery Baldwin Cider. Both are completely dry with with austere, mineral qualities not unlike Champagne. While there are slate-like, chalky flavors and a fresh-apple character in both, the Uncle John's is a bit more subtle and nearly saline. Serve either example as a pre-meal aperitif.
The Newtown Pippin, also known as the Albermarle Pippin, originated in Queens, New York during the early 18th century and was planted on the personal estates of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There is documentation of its use as a cider apple in pre-prohibition bar menus and in scientific papers as far back as the late 1800s.
Original Sin has recently revived the apple's status in their Newtown Pippin Single Heirloom Varietal cider. This off-dry cider is driven by an edgy, apple skin character with earthy undertones and hints of tangerine. The mild acidity in this apple makes it a mellow partner for roast vegetables (and would work well at Thanksgiving.)
Another native New York apple, Golden Russets are thought to be seedlings of an English russet apple and date back to the mid-19th century. The "russet" part refers to the coarse, brownish skin that develops around the apple as it ripens—the antithesis of those shiny, smooth-skinned, honeycrisps found in your local supermarket—and is a reference to the scratchy wool cloth that was commonly worn by England's poor.
Golden Russets have fallen out of fashion lately as an eating apple but that has not stopped Oregon's Wandering Aengus Ciderworks from sourcing a few hundred bushels from local farms for their Golden Russet Single Varietal cider. This powerful cider is deceptively drinkable with its combination of big, sweet flavors and dry finish. The nose is everything that you are hoping for on the first day of autumn; aromas of honey, caramel and freshly baked apples. But the taste is earthy and grassy, with apple-skin tannins, and a long, tart finish.
The Hidden Rose is a rare, late fall Oregon apple with a distinctly pink flesh. The red hue results in a pinkish juice when pressed, making for naturally rosé-colored cider. The Hidden Rose was discovered in the 1960s, and has been one of the Pacific Northwest's hidden secrets ever since. Thankfully, Alpinefire Cider in Port Townsend, Washington has discovered this gem and is using it for Glow, their summer cider.
Glow is an aromatic cider with big, sweet strawberry-like flavors. Unlike most American ciders, Glow is bottle conditioned which result in natural carbonation and rich yeasty characteristics. The final product is complex and luscious.
The Gravenstein apple has enough sweetness for snacking but also offers a distinct tartness that's ideal for cider making. While many West coast cideries are using Gravensteins as part of a blend, Blue Mountain Cider Company has made an outstanding single varietal cider from this apple.
The Blue Mountain Estate Gravenstein cider, fermented from apples grown on the cidery's own orchards—is more rounded than most blended ciders. This citrusy-tasting cider reminded us of summer stone fruit and homemade lemonade, with a touch of floral character. This approachable cider is great with a simple piece of grilled fish.
Often considered the single varietal cider apple, Kingston Black is an English apple praised for its perfect balance of acidity, tannins, and sweetness. Kingston Black is a temperamental apple and historically difficult to grow, but there are two American orchards producing outstanding ciders using soley Kingston Black apples.
New Hampshire's Farnum Hill has long been a leader of the American cider revival and their Kingston Black Reserve is prized as their only single varietal cider. This austere, complex cider is still, dry, and drinks more like a white wine than a traditional cider. There is enough acidity and tannin to compensate for the lack of carbonation and the final cider has a wonderful mineral character. This is one of the few ciders we recommend decanting to let the flavors fully develop before drinking.
Maryland's Distillery Lane Ciderworks produce a sparkling Kingston Black Cider, which softens the mineral qualities of the apples with hints of peach and papaya. It's a cider to seek out, for sure.
All ciders were provided as press samples for review consideration.