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Cider Apple Guide: Bittersweets

We've been telling you that cider—we mean the fermented, alcoholic stuff—is on the rise. Now we're going to get back to basics a bit. We're taking a look at the apples that make up the ciders we love. Last week we covered sharps, sweets, and sharp-sweets. This week, we're looking at bittersweet apple varieties.

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Yarlington Mill apples at Poverty Lane Orchards [Photograph courtesy Farnum Hill Ciders]

If there is one style of apple prized above all others by American cider makers, it's the bittersweet apple. Affectionately referred to as a "spitter," these apples are low in acid, high in tannin, and impart the classic flavor of finer French and English ciders. At first bite, most would consider bittersweet fruit inedible. But what is ill suited for the fruit bowl is ideal for the cider press.

For the most part, America's high acid, high sugar apple crop provides all the fuel for fermentation and puckering power necessary for a great cider. But what that fruit lacks is tannin—the molecules that impart astringency and provide a cider's texture—and bittersweet apples fill this void.

Tannins can provide a drying effect or make your teeth feel "fuzzy." Steep a cup of black tea for ten minutes and take a sip. Feel it dry out your mouth a bit? Is the texture scratchy? You're feeling the tannins.

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A bin of Tremlett's Bitter [Photograph courtesy of Foggy Ridge Cider]

Bittersweet Apples in the US

With tens of thousands of wild apple varieties growing in America, I am certain that some bear fruit that meets the low acid, high tannin criteria for a bittersweet apple. But none of these have ever been widely cultivated. Instead, American cider makers have looked to Europe for bittersweet varieties to plant in American soil. Some of the more widely planted types include:

Dabinett
One of the easier bittersweet apples to grow, Dabinett is favored for its reliability to yield fruit annually. This 18th century English bittersweet is now planted with success on both the East and West coasts.

Yarlington Mill
This late season English bittersweet was found growing in Somerset county in the late 19th century. While harder to grow than the Dabinette, Yarlington Mill tends to produce a vigorous yield and making it a good choice for experienced orchardists with smaller farms.

Tremlett's Bitter
Another 19th century english bittersweet, Tramlett's Bitter is praised for its high astringency and high sugar levels. Tremlett's Bitter is one of the more common English bittersweets and defines English cider.

Nehou
A fruity astringent apple, Nehou has been used for decades in French cider making. A heavy bearer, Nehou fruit bruises quite easily and requires great care in the orchard. As a result, many cider makers have looked to more sturdy fruit as an alternative.

Tasting Bittersweet Apples in American Ciders

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[Photograph: Christopher Lehault]

When bittersweet apples are pressed, their low-acid juice can be a breeding ground for the bacteria that causes spoilage. As a result, their juice needs to be blended with sharper, more acidic apples to create a balance that is favorable for fermentation. Traditionally, bittersweet apples made up about 1/3 of a cider blend, but I have a feeling that this percentage was based mostly on the availability of fruit. In fact, many cider makers have found favorable results using significantly more, and the French have a history of creating ciders using predominantly bittersweet fruit.

If you want to get a taste of bittersweet apples, here are a few of our favorite American ciders to try.

EZ Orchards Cidre
At Oregon's EZ Orchards, bittersweet apple varieties provide as much as 85% of the juice for cider maker Kevin Zielinski's Cidre. The remainder is high acid fruit, which offers just enough acidity to balance the dominant tannins and prevent spoilage. Through a slow fermentation using naturally occurring yeast, Cidre develops a rich apple aroma and long, lingering finish. EZ Orchard's Cidre is America's benchmark representation of bittersweet fruit.

Alpenfire Ember
Further up the coast, Washington's Alpenfire produces Ember, another naturally fermented cider using late season, estate-grown French and English bittersweet apples. Slightly sweeter than Zielinski's Cidre, Ember balances its bracing bitterness with with a touch of caramel-apple sweetness.

Eve's Cidery Bittersweet
In New York's Finger Lakes, where the older orchards are dominated by American heirloom apples, cider makers are using bittersweet fruit to balance local fruit's acidic backbone. Eve's Cidery's Bittersweet is the region's finest blend of acidic heirloom apples and European bittersweets. Bold in both tannins and acid, this is a more English-style expression of bittersweet fruit.

Foggy Ridge Cider Serious Cider
In Virginia, Diane Flynt's Foggy Ridge Cider has been cultivating estate-grown, English bittersweets such as Tremlett's Bitter and Dabinett for her Serious Cider A long time favorite here at Serious Eats—and not just for the name—Serious Cider's refined, crisp flavor and dry finish is an excellent start to any celebratory meal.

Farnum Hill Semi-Dry
We can't discuss bittersweet apples without mentioning New Hampshire's Farnum Hill Ciders. Decades ago, when every other apple farmer in America was betting on pick-your-own apples to pay the rent, Farnum Hill's Steve Wood was planting rows and rows of English and French bittersweets. We still stand by his Semi-Dry Cider as America's best cider for beginners—a pristine example of the flavor of bittersweet apples.

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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