Cider Apple Guide: Bittersharps

Note from the Author: You've probably noticed that cider—we mean the fermented, alcoholic stuff—is on the rise. Want to brush up on the basics? We're taking a look at the apples that make up the ciders we love. We started with sharps, sweets, and sharp-sweets, and followed up with some notes on the more tannic bittersweets. This week, we look at the mother of all cider apple varieties: the bittersharp.

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[Photo: Poverty Lane Orchards / Farnum Hill Cider]

When I first learned there were more—many more—apples than I could find at my local Shoprite, I went on a mission to try every one of them. But I didn't want to try them in the delicious, fermented form for which they were intended. I wanted to pull each cider apple off the tree and take a big ol' bite out of it. Because if you are really into cider, then you can handle the coarse, papery fruit that's often referred to as 'inedible?' Right? Isn't that what Michael Pollan would do? I was sure that once I got past that first bite—like spitting out that first sip of hard liquor—there would be a world of wonder beneath.

Well, I was wrong. (It was a bit like the time I thought I could eat a raw quince.) The first time I tried to eat a bittersharp cider apple, bite one was okay. Bite two was a bit off, but really, no big deal. But after half a fruit... well... that's why they call them 'spitters.' In essence, eating a bittersharp apple is a bit like sucking on a black tea bag soaked in lemon juice.

But while undesirable at the dinner table, bittersharp fruit—that small subsection of apples high in both acidity and tannins—are a prize for cidermakers. They're pretty much the only cider apples that contain all of the necessary components of cider: sugar, acidity, tannins. These apple varieties have been a staple of British cidermaking since the 17th century, and have now found favor with cidermakers in the US.

Bittersharp Apples in the US

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Foxwhelp apples [Photo: Poverty Lane Orchards]

Like bittersweets, cultivated bittersharp apples didn't originate on American soil. There are, however, loads of bittersharp apples growing wild and there may even be a few in your front yard. In fact, many of the trees we refer to as 'crabapple' trees are really bittersharps. (Many actual crabapples provide both tannins and acid, but often lack the necessary sugar to produce quality booze.) American cidermakers looked to the old world to find ideal varieties to plant. Here are a few English varieties that have found favor stateside:

Kingston Black
Perhaps the epitome of all cider apples, Kingston Black is the most sought-after bittersharp variety in the States. This West Country English apple provides an ideal balance of sugar, tannin, and tartness without blending, and is considered to be the finest choice for making a single varietal cider.

Foxwhelp
Originating in Gloucester, England during the 17th century, Foxwhelp is one of the oldest English cider apples still used today. Powerfully aromatic and as musky as the fox hole by which it was discovered, Foxwhelp has a long tradition of bulking up weak ciders with its assertive acidity and tannins.

Herefordshire Redstreak
There are a few Redstreak apples, but the most interesting is the Herefordshire Redstreak, which first appeared in the 17th century and made Herefordshire cider famous throughout England. With their high sugar content, Redstreaks could produce a cider with as much as 11% alcohol—another reason, perhaps, that the cider was so revered?

Porter's Perfection
Porter's Perfection originated in Somerset, England during the 19th century. While both acidic and tannic, this apple is known for its low astringency and has fallen out of favor a bit over the past century. Still, many cidermakers consider it a fine bittersharp variety.

Tasting Bittersharp Apples in American Ciders

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[Photo: Chris Lehault]

Bittersharp apples can serve to balance out the bland character of sweet apples found in the US (Yeah, I am looking at you, Gala). Traditionally, though, bittersharps are used to balance the low acidity of tannic bittersweets, essentially balancing tannic apples with other tannic apples. The result? Powerful, austere ciders with long, drawn out finishes lingering on your tongue.

Want to taste what a bittersharp apple can do? Bittersharp usage is rare in America, but there are a few domestic examples true to the fruit.

Farnum Hill Kingston Black
If you have a cider-drinking bucket list, then Farnum Hill Kingston Black should be on it. Kingston Black is only produced in years with ideal conditions, but it's in the market now. Still, earthy, and almost spice-like at times, Farnum Hill Kingston Black's vinous complexity and lingering finish are the benchmark example of this prized fruit.

Distillery Lane Ciderworks Kingston Black
Further south, Maryland's Distillery Lane also produce an impressive Kingston Black single varietal cider. Softer than Farnum Hill's, the Distillary Lane Kingston Black drinks a bit like a bowl of summer fruit, with a few wet pebbles thrown in. This sparkling cider is tart and fresh, and will easily win over fans of fruity white wine.

Tilted Shed Ciderworks Lost Orchard Dry Cider
Out in Sonoma County, California's Tilted Shed Ciderworks use a variety of traditional, English bittersharp apples in their Lost Orchard Dry Cider including Foxwhelp, Porter's Perfection, and Kingston Black. Blending these apples with traditional bittersweets results in a tannic, powerfully earthy cider that still retains some apple-y character.

Alpenfire Flame Brut Cider
Further north, Washington's Alpenfire puts their natural fermentation stamp on English bittersharp fruit by blending Foxwhelp apples with Muscadet de Dieppe, a French bittersweet apple variety. Austere though slightly less acidic than the other ciders, Flame is a bit like drinking a glass of cold morning air layered over flint stone and barnyard funk. This cider is of our favorites for starting a meal with adventurous friends.

About the author: Christopher Lehault is a New Jersey-based cider journalist, craft beer documentarian, and home brewer. Follow his cider adventures on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

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