Kingston Black

One of the things that I hoped to accomplish with my exploration of single variety ciders was to get a handle on how terroir – climate, soil, and what have you – plays out with apples and cider, or at least make a start on it. The role that place plays in a cider’s flavor and structure is a largely unexplored idea in the American cider world, and mores the pity. The concept is well established in the wine industry, and if, as fermentation specialist and yeast whisperer Shea Comfort says, cider is wine from trees, then all those environmental factors should be just as important to the flavor of apples as they are to grapes.

When trying to assess the impact of terroir it, is useful to have many examples from both similar and different places. There are only a handful of cider-specific varieties that are that widely grown, although when it comes to cider widely will still probably mean in limited amounts compared to a fresh market apple like Red Delicious, for example. One apple that does fit the bill, though, is the classic Kingston Black.

It would be fair to say that if a cider enthusiast knows the name of only one apple that is, and always has been, grown specifically to make cider it is Kingston Black. It’s an English apple, small, dark red, with some russeting where stem meets fruit. Exactly where and exactly when it was planted and then discovered, and by whom, seems to have been lost to the mists of time. The place can be narrowed down to Somerset, and many writers cite the small village of Kingston St. Mary, about six and a half kilometers north of Taunton, though another possibility is the 18th century Kingston Farm located 22 kilometers to the southwest. The time was probably in the middle of the 18th century, for Kingston Black had developed quite a reputation outside its home area by the 1820s. It was included in the varieties grown by the Horticultural Society of London by 1826, and cider made from it sold by name (Taunton Black, one of its synonyms) in Bristol in 1828.

Pomologist Robert Hogg in his The Apples and Pears as Vintage Fruits (1886) wrote that Kingston Black was first introduced into Herefordshire circa 1820 by George Palmer of Bollitree Castle near Ross-on-Wye. By the end of the 19thcentury it was one of the most widely planted varieties in the shire. Most ciders were, and still are, blends, but Kingston Black was valued as having enough acid, tannin, and sugar to make a good, well-balanced cider all on its own, which may account for some of its popularity. It was one of the apples brought to the U.S. by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist William Allwood after his late 1890s research tour of the chief cidermaking areas of Europe, though it didn’t really catch on until the 1990s when a new generation of cider enthusiasts began to revive America’s cider industry. Today you can find pockets of Kingston Black in orchards across the country.

The idea that where and how an apple was grown could have a profound impact on the cider made from it first hit me in 2015. I found myself in possession of 15 Kingston Black ciders from around the world and thought it would be fun to invite a group of friends over to try them blind. The variations in both color and flavor came as quite a shock, so much so that we began to wonder if some of the apples involved weren’t actually Kingston Black. Comparative DNA testing of apples from orchards that had yielded two of the most divergent ciders–Farnum Hill Cider in Lebanon, NH and Tilted Shed Ciderworks in Windsor, CA (the apples were grown nearby)–proved that the apples were in fact the same and matched the already established DNA profile of Kingston Black.

Kingston Black cider tasting, 2015

Next came chemical analysis comparing Kingston Black ciders from the northeast with those from the west, averaging samples over several years to take into account the known phenomena of season to season variation in the orchard. To keep it simple, let’s just look at total tannin levels. The amount of tannin in Kingston Black apples grown in England is generally reported to be in the neighborhood of 2 g/L. As you can see in the chart below, the tannin levels in the samples taken from orchards in New Hampshire, Vermont, and the Finger Lakes are pretty similar. The ones from the west coast are considerably higher, sometimes almost double! 

There are differences in the glass as well. The ciders I tasted recently, mostly with fan of all things fermented Brandon Buza (@the_fermented_life), were similar yet different. They all exhibited some level of baking spice, clove in particular (consistent with many descriptions of Kingston Black) and all had some sort of citrus component. In the west coast ciders the citrus was orange, sometimes more like fresh juice and at others orange marmalade, and the other flavors were generally riper. In all the other examples, the ciders were tarter and the citrus read more like lemon, either juice or rind, and the other primary fruit flavors zippier. What in the west coast terroirs, for there are many, might account for these differences is open to speculation, although the general aridity leading to water stress in the summer months might be a good guess.

It’ll take more years, more ciders, and more comparative evaluations to come to any more definite conclusion. Wherever you are, you can almost certainly access a handful of Kingston Black varietal ciders, though. Why not get a half dozen, invite some friends over and see what you think?

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; orange, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ripe pear, ripe yellow apple; sparkling; 2018; 9% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; clove, orange rind, ripe melon, pear drop, ripe pear, VA; sparkling; 2019; 9% ABV

Greenwood Cider Company, Seattle, WA – semi-dry; orange, clove, plum skin, twig, just ripe nectarine, VA; sparkling; 2020(?); 6.8% ABV

Snowdrift Cider Company, Wenatchee, WA – semi-dry; orange juice, baking spice, nectarine, yellow apple, apple skin; sparkling; 2020(?); 7.5% ABV

Chatter Creek, Seattle, WA – dry; clove, baking spice, ripe apple, lemon, sour orange, plum; sparkling; 2019(?); 9.5% ABV

Slopeswell Cider, Hood River, OR – dry; sour orange, lemon, lemon rind, nutmeg, nectarine, plum skin, clove; sparkling; 2019; 6.9% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA – dry; orange marmalade, orange juice, lemon, ripe melon, baking spice; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV

Two K Farms, Suttons Bay, MI – dry; lemon, apple skin, clove, pear, pear skin, grape; sparkling; 2019(?); 6.3% ABV

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – dry; rose, clove, lemon, just ripe pear, lightly ripe banana; sparkling; 2017; 7.9% ABV

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – dry; lemon juice, clove, green apple, green plum, salt, just ripe pear; sparkling; 2019; 7.9% ABV

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – dry; lemon, baking spice, lemon pith, plum juice, pear; sparkling; 2017; 8.5%

Belle de Boskoop

The dedicated enthusiast is well aware that apples come in an almost infinite number of varieties. Most have sprouted, grown, fruited, and eventually crumbled back into the earth never having been much noticed by humans. Many others have been both noticed and named, though, tens of thousands over the apple’s long history. Each place has had its favorites, some of which have gone on to become international stars. Others have kept their reputations a little closer to home. Belle de Boskoop seems to be one of the latter for while it has been long grown and treasured in northern Europe it didn’t catch on in the same way in the United States or other New World apple-growing areas.

It was first discovered in the Netherlands, in a nursery in the town of Boskoop just a little northwest of Gouda. Boskoop has a long history of commercial arboriculture dating back to at least 1466 when a Jan de Backer sent an invoice for 10 grafted apple and pear trees to the local Convent of Rijnsburg. The deep peat soils were perfect for growing trees and the many canals essential for getting getting products to market in an era when roads were few and passage often impossible for heavily laden wagons. There were 20 commercial nurseries operating there by 1612 shipping trees all over Europe, and Boskoop remains an important center for the nursery trade today.

Belle de Boskoop was first grown and popularized by the Ottolander family, who had been in the nursery business there since the 18th century. Given the very annoying habit that some families have of recycling the same names throughout the generations, there is some confusion about just which of the Ottolanders either planted the tree or first brought it to the attention of the wider public with writers picking one or the other, either Cornelis (1779-1864) or his nephew Cornelis Johannes Willem (1822-1887). We know that there were multiple Ottolander nurseries operating in Boskoop the 19th century with various Ottolanders starting two new ones while the original continued to operate under the name Ottolander & Hooftman. The reports from that time unfortunately don’t always distinguish between them when writing about Belle de Boskoop. 

Most writers say that the apple was first either noticed or planted in the 1850s (typically 1856). The entry on Belle de Boskoop written by S. Berghuis in De Nederlandsche Boomgaard in 1664 suggests that it had been grown earlier, however. “Already for some years bred in the nursery of the family Ottolander and widely distributed,” he wrote, then went on to describe how the apple’s shape varied depending on the rootstock to which it had been grafted, which would, of course, take some years to figure out. One of the Cornelises displayed fruit at a show in Görlitz, Germany in 1863. That is around the time that many more northern European pomologists began to take notice and add their assessment to the literature (great apple!). American pomologist Charles Downing received Belle de Boskoop from France in the late 1870s or early 1880s, adding a description in the 1881 appendix to his brother Andrew Jackson Downing’s book Fruits and Fruit-Trees of America. [It] “keeps well, and is a promising variety,” he wrote. It did not, however take America’s orchards by storm.

Almost since its introduction writers have been sure that it was a sport or mutation of another apple known at the time, Reinette von Montfort, a similar looking apple originating earlier in the 19th century around Utrecht. One author, though, claims that according to the grandson of the elder Cornelis, Cornelis G. Overeijnder (1838-1915), it was grown from the seed of a German apple first described in 1797 named Kasseler Renette that had been long cultivated in the Netherlands. Overeijnder was part of his grandfather’s business and so might have been in a position to know this. And as it turns out, modern DNA fingerprint analysis has proved him right, though the other parent remains unidentified.

Known by various names depending on where it is grown–Goudreinette, Schöner aus Boskoop, Schone van Boskoop, or just Boskoop–it is one of those curiosities of the apple world, a triploid, meaning it has three chromosomes instead of the normal two. It’s an interesting phenomena that happens in all manner of plants, not just apples. Triploid apples tend to be infertile, or only minimally self-fertile and so require having another variety nearby, a diploid, if you want to get the tree to bear fruit. While this can be a drawback, some modern scientists believe that the extra chromosome has benefits that far out way the fertility issue such as larger fruit size and increased resistance to various pests and diseases. Check out the recent post by Eliza Greenman if you are curious to learn more. Perhaps it is no accident that many of the varieties that have found great commercial success over the years are triploids, varieties like Gravenstein, Bramley, Newtown Pippin, Bulmer’s Norman, Baldwin, Jonagold, Rhode Island Greening, and Winesap, just to name a few.

Bright yellow when fully ripe with a red blush, sometimes striped, where the apple faces the sun, Belle de Boskoop is generally celebrated as a fine table and cooking apple, especially for applesauce, high in acid and long keeping. It is a favorite of many of the cidermakers of the German state of Hesse around Frankfurt where it is most often used in a blend. I was lucky enough to find a handful of single varietal ciders here in the U.S., however, and based on them one might wonder why it isn’t used more often. All three of these golden-hued ciders were as bright with acid as you might expect and full of flavors of various tropical fruits, some riper than others. The surprise was the astringency, balanced but noticeable, giving the ciders both body and depth. One can only hope that more cidermakers give this apple a try.

Horse and Plow Winery, Sebastopol, CA – dry; banana, lemon, yellow plum, lychee, green herbs; sparkling; 2020; 8.5% ABV

Eden Ciders, Newport, VT – dry; lemon, lime, yellow plum, pineapple, pear, slate; sparkling; 2019; 7.5% ABV

Cidrerie du Vulcain, Treyvaux, Switzerland – semi-dry; yellow plum, tart orange, lemon, papaya, biscuit, dough; sparkling; 2018; 7.1% ABV

Gravenstein

The golden days of August are a time of great abundance in California’s Sonoma County. Farmers markets and home gardens alike are bursting with ripe tomatoes, squash, and peppers. The late summer air around the small town of Sebastopol is perfumed with one of the county’s historic bounties, Gravenstein apples, their harvest celebrated there for more than 100 years. It’s an old apple, and as is the case with most old apples, its origins are a little muddled. Did it come from Italy, Denmark, or Germany and how did it find itself on the other side of the globe in California?

A very early, and perhaps the first written description of the Gravenstein apple was made by Christian C. L. Hirschfeld (1742-1794), a hugely influential writer on gardens and garden design. In volume 1 of his Handbuch der Fruchtbaumzucht (1788) Hirschfeld writes that though the apple originated in Italy it took its name from an estate held by the Dukes of Augustenburg, a lesser branch of the House of Oldenburg. (Other branches sprouted such notables as the late Prince Philip and Catherine the Great.) It was a summer residence in Gråsten (Gravenstein in German) near Sønderborg, which is now firmly in Denmark. During the 18th, though, this part of Jutland was not in Denmark proper, but was a separate duchy in the Holy Roman Empire, which may account for some of the confusion as to whether the apple arose in Denmark or Germany.

Hirschfeld knew the grounds around the castle for he wrote a very detailed description of them in 1782. He does not mention seeing any orchards, though there were pockets of fruit trees here and there. That same year, though, Hirschfeld also wrote about a nursery business on the island of Als, likewise near Sønderborg, owned and run by the Vothmanns. It is from the 1802 writings of Nicolai Vothmann, grandson of the nursery’s founder, that we get a few more details. From 1689, Peter Vothmann (1666-1731) was a gardener at a ducal estate on Als owned by the von Schleswig-Holstein-Sønderborg-Augustenburg family. Vothmann leased a plot of his employer’s land in 1695 to start a nursery, the first in the area. Beginning with kitchen vegetables, he soon was grafting and selling fruit trees, borrowing money to buy the land in the late 1720s. The loan was still outstanding when he died in 1731 leaving his second wife Maria, née Thun (1678-1765), struggling keep the business afloat.

As it happens, Peter Vothmann’s son Hans Peter (1712-1797) had just begun a horticultural apprenticeship at the Gravenstein estate. According to Nicolai, Hans Peter’s son, there was a single tree in the gardens “which had been brought there from Italy several years ago…called Ville Blanc1,” which was known for it’s excellent flavor. The fact that it bore enough fruit to have developed a reputation suggests that it had been there a while, but how it got there and when Nicolai does not say. Wanting to help his mother, Hans Peter took as many scions from this tree as he could, grafting them to seedling rootstock in the family nursery and selling the results. Eventually he returned to Als and took over the nursery. According to Nicolai, who joined the business after the death of his brother Johann Georg (1755-1788), Hans Peter originally kept the name Ville Blanc, but eventually started calling the apple Gravensteiner so that it would not be confused with another apple, Caville Blanc, which he thought was similar, though not as good.

It is curious that this supposedly Italian apple, whether it arrived in Sønderborg as a single grafted tree, scion, or seed, had a French name. Perhaps this is why some writers over the years have suggested it originated in Savoy in the western Alps. This historic region is now divided by the French-Italian border and, as is common with border areas, changed hands many times due to its strategic value. One of its common historic languages was French.

The Vothmann nursery shipped trees throughout Northern Europe, as far away as Norway and St. Petersburg, according to Hirschfeld. It was being grown in Scotland and England by the early 1820s, and New York state by 1829, imported by a German nurseryman named C. Knudson, beginning its journey to the western frontier. At this point in American history the “western frontier” meant the states of Indiana and Iowa, what we now think of as the middle. That frontier line was rapidly evolving, however, as Anglo-European settlement pushed inexorably toward North America’s Pacific coast, taking its fruit culture with it. 

There are two competing stories about Gravestein’s eventual arrival in northern California. The first involves a group of Russians who, in 1812, established a fur trapping and provisioning settlement called Fort Ross on the coast of what would become Sonoma County. The existing records show that apples were first planted there in 1820 obtained from a shipment of trees brought in from the nearby Spanish town of Monterey. It is hard to imagine that these were anything but seedling trees and there is nothing in the documentary record to suggest otherwise. There seem to have been a couple of old Gravenstein trees growing in the remnants of the Russian’s orchard by the 1920s, but the property had changed hands several times in the ensuing years and those owners also planted orchards. Named, and therefore grafted, varieties don’t appear in the record until the 1870s.

A much more likely scenario is that the apple came west with the nurseryman Henderson Lewelling, or Luellling as he spelled it once he got to the west coast (1809-1878). A fascinating character, Luelling was born in Randolph County, North Carolina. It was a rugged and rocky place where the soils were largely played out by the time his family moved to the newly opened up territory of Indiana in 1822. He started his first nursery there. A devout Quaker and abolitionist, Luelling moved on to the new town of Salem, Iowa in 1837, along with this brother John and their growing families, both to start an expanded nursery business and participate in the Underground Railroad, sheltering enslaved people escaping from the nearby slave-state, Missouri. Gravenstein was probably one of the apples they grafted and sold for Luelling made regular trips to east coast nurseries, particularly the one owned by the Prince family on Long Island, New York, where he could access scionwood for the latest most popular fruit varieties. The Prince nursery started listing Gravenstein for sale some time between 1833 and 1837.

Apparently long fascinated with seeing the farthest western part of the continent, in 1847 Luelling made the decision to uproot his family once again and head for the Oregon Territories. The story of his journey as told by David Diamond in Migrations: Henderson Luelling and the Cultivated Apple, 1822-1854 (2004) makes for compelling reading, particularly if one has spent any time hiking in the still fiercely wild and beautiful areas they traversed. They built a wagon outfitted with soil-filled boxes just to transport the some 700 plants they took with them–apples, pears, cherries, and grapes, popular varieties that Luelling knew would sell–pulled by a team of six oxen. Setting out in April, 1847 it took them a full eight months to make the trip of some 2,600 miles from Salem to the Oregon Trail’s end near modern day Portland. Many families from the area went with them; one third died en route. They forded numerous rivers and creeks, crossed grassy prairie lands and arid alkali pans. They climbed and descended steep ridges, extra oxen pulling on the uphills and the team hitched to the backs of the wagons on the downhills to prevent them from careening away and crashing at the bottom. Half of the plants died from killing frosts as they crossed the Rocky Mountains in mid-July. Luelling’s wife, Elizabeth, spent the entire journey pregnant, giving birth to their ninth child about two weeks after their arrival in Oregon.

Once arriving at their destination it took several more months before Luelling found and bought property he thought suitable, rejecting the easy grasslands of the Willamette Valley for a forested site on the east bank of the Willamette River near Johnson Creek. There was an existing cabin, but not much cleared land for an orchard–it took two months to clear one acre of the old growth trees and finally get his young fruit trees into solid ground. Gravenstein, Yellow Newtown Pippin, and Esopus Spitzenburg were among them, according to a list provided by Luelling’s son Alfred, for most of the apples had survived the journey. They had spent an entire season, from flowering to dormancy, in that rolling wagon, now finding a completely new home in Oregon’s rich soil. There was a mad scramble to find or plant seedlings that could be used as rootstocks, but several years later Luelling or his partner, William Meek, were making periodic trips through Oregon and southern Washington with a nursery wagon filled with trees ready for planting. 

Luelling probably already had his eye on the California market from the beginning, though there still weren’t that many settlers living there. That changed pretty quickly when gold was discovered in 1849, setting off a stampede of prospectors, miners, and the myriad of other newcomers that set up businesses to support them. John and Seth Luelling, who had by now joined his brothers in the Oregon enterprise, even tried their hand at panning for gold, though they didn’t find much. They did, however, start another nursery orchard in 1850/51 on land in the mountainous gold fields west of Sacramento owned by Enos Mendenhall, another one of the Salem Quakers that had traveled west with the Luelllings. This nursery orchard was, no doubt, the source of the grafted trees sold by Sacramento auctioneer J.B. Stark in March of 1854, the first mention of Gravenstein’s existence in California. Captain Joseph Aram of San Jose, who had arrived in California in 1846 and some years later started the first nursery in Santa Clara County, exhibited Gravensteins at the state fair of 1856. J.W. Osborn showed Gravensteins from his Napa Valley orchard at the state fair of 1858. An early mention of Gravensteins in Sonoma County came in January 1862 when the J.L. Mock nursery included it in an ad with trees for sale in the Petaluma Argus. And so plantings of Gravenstein spread until by the early 20th century is was one of the most widely planted varieties in Sonoma County.

Gravenstein seems to have always had a host of devoted fans. “The Gravensteiner is unequivocally the king among the apples,” wrote Hirschfeld, “[i]t is also everywhere . . . [t]he shape is Caville-like, yellow in color, bright red on the sunny side, sprinkled with red stains [stripes] . . .The smell is sublime and melon-like; the flesh is very white, firm, rich, and has a lovely taste . . .The tree of this glorious apple grows very quickly and bears plentifully.” Other pomologists were likewise enthusiastic. “This apple is equally useful for the table and other purposes,” wrote William Kendrick in 1833.  ‘[I]t not only affords excellent cider, but also when dry a very palatable dish” (The New American Orchardist)

Though it has chiefly been used as a processing apple in the U.S.–dried, in sauce, for pies–a number of west coast cidermakers have recently embraced Gravenstein’s cidermaking potential. One might expect Gravenstein ciders to be all low tannin, but several in this group had pleasant levels of astringency and fuller body (Dragon’s Head, Tilted Shed, Humboldt Cider). Their most common feature was flavors of various tart citrus fruits, sometimes zest and other times juice. Several of the examples I tried had been in the cellar a while and had suffered for it (they are not included here), suggesting that Gravenstein ciders may be best consumed while fairly young and still showing their bright, zesty fruit character.

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – dry; apple skin, pear skin, lime juice, lemon rind, green apple, barely ripe peach, honeydew melon; sparkling; 2020; 6% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA – dry; quince, tart orange juice, lime juice, coriander, barely ripe nectarine, green herbs; sparkling; 2018; 6.9% ABV

Hidden Star Orchards, Camino, CA – semi-dry; butterscotch, lime zest, nectarine, plum skin, mandarin orange; sparkling; 2017(?); 6.9% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA, Inclinado Espumante – dry; grapefruit zest, dried herbs, tart apple, candied citrus peel, lightly floral, VA; sparkling; 2020; 8% ABV

Wildcraft Ciderworks, Eugene, OR – dry; dried twigs, straw, lime juice, apple skin, VA; sparkling; 2020; 6.8% ABV

Humboldt Cider Company, Eureka, CA – semi-dry; cooked apple, lemon zest, nectarine, quince, hay; sparkling; 2020; 7% ABV

Gopher Glen, San Luis Obispo, CA – dry; plum skin, lime, gooseberry, coriander, slight VA; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

  1. Vothmann, N., Some Remarks About Fruit Culture on Als, Schleswig-Holsteinische Vaterlandskunde, 1802, pages 1 – 28