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. For the next few weeks, we're going to look at the apples that make up the ciders we love.
From a strictly traditional standardpoint, everything I am going to tell you today about cider apples is completely wrong. See, in most parts of the world, cider is made with completely different apple varieties than those available at your local grocery store. Cider apples can be tart, tannic, or downright inedible in their natural form. While these characteristics would ruin grandma's apple pie, they provide the complexity and depth to make world class ciders. In general, the rule is that you would never make a cider from supermarket apples in the same way you would never make wine from supermarket grapes.
But American cider is in a bit of a tight spot. Unlike in Europe, producers stateside mostly lack the hundred-year-old, cider-specific fruit trees available in France, Spain, or England. Most of our cider-fruit bearing trees were replaced with table apples during Prohibition. As a result, America has thousands of acres of apple trees that produce some of the worst fruit for making cider.
Thankfully, America's recent cider boom has revitalized an interest in traditional cider varieties, and cider makers are planting hundreds of acres of cider fruit trees each year. But these trees won't bear a significant amount of fruit for several years, and American cider growth is far outreaching the rate of orchard growth.
As a result, our cider makers are often forced to use the fruit they have available rather than the fruit they want. That means that the same varieties you see at your local grocery story—favorites such as Gala, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith—provide the base for most American cider today. Thankfully, when blended with more structured cider fruits, these apples can still make a fine cider.
Categorizing Cider Fruit
Every cider-making region has its own terminology and classification for fruit. In general, though, they're talking about the same basic characteristics. Apples are classified by three traits: sugar content, acidity, and tannins. For our purposes, we are going to group our apples into five different categories: sweets, sharps, sharp-sweets, bittersweets, and bittersharps. Today, we'll look at the first three.
Characteristics: High sugar, low acid, low tannins. Eating a sweet apple is like sucking on a sugar cube.
Most of the apples in your local grocery store fall into the 'sweets' category. When Americans think 'apple,' they are probably thinking of sweets. The sheer availability and low cost of this fruit makes it ideal for providing the bulk of a cider's fermentable sugar and its apple-y aromas. When blending fruit for cider, sweets can provide up to 50% of the juice for a batch and enough sugar to ferment a healthy 6% to 9% ABV cider.
Common varieties include: Golden Delicious, Johngold, Macoun, Gala, Fuji, Braeburn, and Honeycrisp.
Characteristics: Low sugar, high acid, low tannins Eating a sharp apple is like sucking on a slice of lemon.
Sharps are the yang to a sweet apple's yin. With their pronounced, puckering acidity, sharp apples provide tartness to a cider. In some cases, sharps can be very juicy, but often, they are harder and mealier than sweet apples. Sharps can make up anywhere from 25% to 33% of a cider's juice.
The acidity in sharp apples serves two purposes for the cider maker. The obvious benefit is the tart character that—like in cooking—balances a cider's sweetness. The other benefit is that the acidity inhibits bacterial growth and helps to prevent spoilage. Combined with alcohol, acidity is the reason that cider can age in your cellar for years while apple juice can not.
The Granny Smith is America's ubiquitous sharp apple, and these apples are used by most large and medium-sized American producers as a source of acid. In fact, it is difficult to drink a cider from the Pacific Northwest that doesn't have at least some Granny Smith juice in the blend.
But Grannies are not the only sharp apple out there. Heirloom varieties such as the Rhode Island Greening may not be available at your nearest Whole Foods but can sometimes be found at your local farmers' market. These sharp apples provide a depth far beyond the Granny Smith and are worth seeking out if you are a fan of sharp apples.
Characteristics: High sugar, high acidity, low tannin Eating a sharp-sweet is like sucking on lemon slice covered in sugar.
Sharp-sweet apples are not a traditional apple category. In Europe, where there is an abundance of cider-specific fruit, acidic apples that also provide a good amount of tannin fall into the category of bittersharp apples. But the American colonists grew several new breeds of apple from seed—or pippin—with acidity but little tannin. Thus, sharp-sweet apples were born.
Sharp-sweet apples are often referred to as American Heirlooms due to their historical ties to many of the colonial cider makers. New England favorites such as the Newtown Pippin, McIntosh, Baldwin, Cortland, and Esopus Spitzenburg (a personal favorite) fall into this category. In Michigan, the Jonathan is probably the most widely-available sharp-sweet while Gravensteins are the classic example on the West coast.
Tasting Ciders with Sharps and Sweets
Recognizing sharp or sweet apples in cider is a bit of a fool's errand. For the most part, the flavors in these apples are hidden behind the more dominant cider fruit that we will look at in the weeks to come. Still, there are a few ciders that demonstrate the use of sharp and sweet apples more noticeably, and these can be a great way to familiarize yourself with these apples.
Reach for a Canned Cider
In general, cider makers who produce canned or 12-ounce bottles of cider need access to large volumes of juice year-round. For the most part, that means sharps and sweets. Jack's Hard Cider, Seattle Cider Co., and Vandermill Cider are all fine ciders produced using commercially available fruit, available in a can, and very drinkable by the pint.
Seek Out Single-Varietal Ciders
There are a few single-varietal ciders made with sweets and sharps. Jack's Hard Cider makes a single varietal Granny Smith cider that definitely tastes like its namesake fruit. In Maine, the Urban Farm Fermentory's Arlo has shown impressive results by slowly fermenting Golden Delicious juice using wild yeast. When it comes to sharp-sweets, you can find half a dozen single-varietal ciders made from Newtown Pippin alone. Personally, I find many of these ciders to be a bit one-dimensional for drinking...but instrumental in learning an apple's nuances. Drink these ciders and train your taste buds!
Look for American Heirloom Varieties
For the most part, when someone mentions "American heirloom varieties" in their cider, they are talking about sharp-sweet apples. On the West coast, both Montana Ciderworks Northfork Traditional and Whitewood Cider Co.'s Old Fangled are good introductions to this fruit. And in the Northeast, just about every cider, such as Slyboro's Hidden Star, West County Cider's Baldwin or Bellweather's No. 4 contain Northern Spy, Baldwin, or other heirloom apples. These varieties define American cider and are unique to our terroir.
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