Jonathan

How does an apple become famous?

In 2021 there would certainly be a PR firm involved and a social media campaign complete with foodie influencers and sexy images. Nothing of the kind existed in the 19th century, so how did far flung farmers and apple consumers get the word on the Next Big Thing? Newspapers were key, of course, for every county seat and most towns with more than 500 inhabitants had at least one or two weeklies, but to establish a reputation for excellence an apple needed a champion. For the Jonathan apple that champion was Jesse Buel (1778-1839).

The apple that became Jonathan was an Esopus Spitzenberg seedling planted on the Woodstock, New York farm of Philip Rick(s) (1745-1828), probably sometime around the turn of the 19th century. Ricks undoubtedly shared what he thought was a pretty good apple with family and friends, one of whom was Jonathan Haasbroek, godfather to one of Rick’s sons. Haasbroek, in turn, brought the apple to the attention of Buel in the early 1820s.

Buel was in the perfect position to turn a local favorite into a national phenomenon. A self-made man, he apprenticed to a printer at the age of 14. Though having had just six months of formal education he was apparently a quick study as he mastered his craft in four years instead of the usual seven. Securing release from his apprenticeship, he moved to New York, first to Manhattan, then to various towns in the Hudson Valley, eventually settling in Kingston where he likely became friends with Jonathan Haasbroek, another Kingston resident. He founded his first publication in 1797, the Northern Budget, followed by the Guardian, the Political Barometer, the Ulster Plebian, and the Argus. He was appointed Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Ulster County, and, after moving to Albany in 1815, was chosen printer for the State of New York.

The success of his publications, the anti-Federalist Plebian in particular, had allowed him to create quite a nice life for himself and his wife Susan, accumulating considerable property both personal and real. It came as a bit of a shock to some then when, in 1821, he divested himself all his publishing interests and announced he was devoting his energies to agriculture and its improvement (including cidermaking). Though having little practical experience of farming, Buel had spent years thinking about it and studying treatises on the latest practices. “There is no business of life which so highly conduces to the prosperity of a nation, and to the happiness of its entire population, as that of cultivating the soil,” he wrote in 1839. 

Buel was right in the thick of the 19th century agricultural reform movement. Proponents advocated “scientific agriculture”, and the movement sparked the formation of countless agricultural societies and a robust agriculture-specific press. Northeastern farmers in particular were faced with a number of challenges. Soil fertility was declining, infestations of crop pests and diseases were worsening, and rising competition from midwestern grain farming was forcing a shift to new crops. Buel’s 85 acres in the Sandy Barrens west of Albany became his experimental nexus, and as he learned he wrote–articles, books, and letters to like-minded agriculturalists. He became the recording secretary of the New York State Board of Agriculture in 1822, a state assemblyman in 1823 where he served on the committee for agriculture, and a corresponding member of the Horticultural Society of London in 1825.

James Shull, 1911

The first published mention of the Jonathan was in a printed version of an address given by Buel to the New York Horticultural Society (not to be confused with the Horticultural Society of New York) in 1826. He was pushing for a comprehensive list of all available apple varieties and their various attributes that could help farmers make intelligent planting choices and included an example of such a list with “some of the most valuable Apples propagated in the Nurseries of this State.” Jonathan is number 39, though here it is called Ulster Seedling (new) and described as “less tart than Esopus Spitzenberg, fruit much desired.” He sent fruit to the Horticultural Society of Massachusetts in 1829 (“Jonathan, or New Spitzenbergh…superior to the old for eating”) and scions to the Horticultural Society of London in 1831. By the 1830s, pieces like the following were appearing in agricultural journals throughout the northeast, “From Judge Buel of Albany, the Jonathan Apple, a new and superior fruit, and esteemed in its season, by him and other good judges…as one of the most beautiful, excellent, and admired of all known…Skin thin, of a pale red, blended with faint yellow…Flesh very tender…Juice very abundant, rich, and highly flavored…Named in compliment to my friend Jonathan Harbrauck, Esq.” 

People took notice. By the end of the century it was grown in just about every state in the country, and newspaper ads trumpeted the arrival of Jonathan apple season.

So admired was the Jonathan that it became a staple in many 20th century apple breeding programs and a parent of popular apples such as Jonagold, Jonamac, and Idared. And though other modern apples have perhaps eclipsed it in sheer numbers grown, Jonathan apples are still important in the marketplace, appearing in stores around the country every fall like clockwork.

Though historically Jonathan was not considered an apple for cider, the handful of Jonathan varietal ciders that have appeared in the last few years are a testament to what is possible when interesting apples are grown with cidermaking in mind then thoughtfully treated in the cidery. The 2016 Tilted Shed is a case in point. The apples were harvested from large, mature, organic, dry-farmed trees, and in Sonoma County, CA that means essentially no water from about April until late October at the earliest. This stresses the tree, of course, and while reducing over-all productivity the fruit that is produced is typically richer and more concentrated in flavor. The must was treated in the traditional manner of a fine champagne–fermented and aged in neutral, French oak barrels, bottled and kept on tirage for nine months, then riddled and disgorged. When it was released in 2018 its flavor was full of rich, ripe fruits. By early 2021 the cider had matured, taking on flavors of roasted hazelnuts and cardamon, a fine example of how a well-made cider with the right structural components can age gracefully.

All these examples share moderate acids and a variety of ripe fruit flavors, perhaps because all the apples in these ciders were grown in the warmer arid west. It would be most interesting to try a Jonathan cider made from apples grown in a colder, wetter place. 

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; orange marmalade, mandarin, pineapple, ripe cantaloupe, lemon juice, brioche, pear skin, cardamon, roasted hazelnuts, almond; sparkling; 2016; 9.5% ABV

Blindwood Cider, San Leandro, CA – dry; baked apple, baked pear, orange zest, cinnamon, vanilla, orange juice; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV (dry-farmed apples grown in Sonoma County, CA)

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-dry; ripe apple, quince, banana, pineapple; 2017; 7.4% ABV (apples grown on Colorado’s western slope)

Horse and Plow Winery, Sebastopol, CA – dry; melon, ripe apple, pear, nectarine, mango, orange; 2018; 8% ABV

Ellen I. Schutt, 1913

For the consummate apple nerds among you, there is one other story about the Jonathan apple that you should know. 

In 1804, a woman named Rachel Negus married a Jonathan Higley, Jr. moving with him from Connecticut to Windsor Township in the newly admitted state of Ohio. The Higleys were one of the first families to settle in the area, which never did develop much. At the end of the 19th century, at the height of the Jonathan’s popularity, one of the Higley’s descendants wrote a book, The Higleys and their ancestry: an old colonial family, that insisted that Rachel Higley was the apple’s true originator.

As the story went, Rachel Higley had gathered seeds from a cider mill as she left Connecticut and planted them near her new home. The result was an apple called Jonathan, and the author was certain that it was this apple that had swept the country. “The original fruit bearing this name is claimed by a horticulturist in Central New York, at much later dates,” the author wrote. “The writer, however, has conversed with a number of aged persons who clearly [my emphasis] recalled the fact that Mrs. Rachel (Negus) Higley gave her first apples, in 1811, her husband’s given name.”

It is perfectly plausible that Rachel Higley grew an apple that she named for her husband and possible that the locals thought highly of it. Windsor Township was, however, at the edge of the Western frontier. There wasn’t much there then, and there isn’t much there now–no newspaper, no railroad, not even much of a town. The Ohio State Pomological Society didn’t exist before 1847. So who would have been this apple’s champion? Who would have introduced it to a wider world and ensured its place in orchards across the country? The Higley Jonathan had no Jesse Buel. Though it might well have been the choice variety the Higley heir believed it to be, it is just one of the many the small-town apples lost to history.

Porter’s Perfection

This month we turn our eyes to England and an apple that has become a classic, Porter’s Perfection. The Porter in its name is one Charles Porter (1844 – 1932) of East Lambrook, a small village in the Kingsbury Episcopi parish of the southwestern county of Somerset. 

There have been Porters living in Kingsbury Episcopi since at least the mid-16th century, and probably even before that. They were rural folk, laborers mostly. Charles’ father, James, was an innkeeper, owning the Buffalo Inn in East Lambrook from at least 1834. Briefly jailed in 1842 on a smuggling charge, James died of liver failure when Charles was but 15 months old, leaving his widow Jane with four children under the age of 11. She supported her young family as a glover, an important cottage industry in mid-19th century rural Somerset. Money would probably have been tight, so by their mid-teens, both Charles and his older brother William had left school and gotten jobs.

Charles started his working life as a gardener in various parts of Somerset, though never too far from home. By 1881 he was married with two children and had the wherewithal to be farming 20 acres in East Lambrook. In keeping with farms of this time and place, it was probably a mixture of cropland, livestock, and orchards, mostly apples. Like a number of his neighbors, he had a space in one orchard that he used as a nursery, a place to start seedling trees that could be used for rootstock, though one might become a useful apple in its own right. And, like his neighbors, he made cider. That’s who was making most of the cider in England in those days, small farmers with mixed farms, using both equipment and techniques that had for the most part not changed in centuries. However, the scientific rigor of the agricultural revolution was about to hit.

A concerted push for agricultural improvement was one of the defining features of the 19th century. People were developing new breeds of livestock and crop varieties, finding new ways to enhance soil fertility and combat pests and diseases, and pioneering the mechanization and improvement of agricultural equipment. With the exception of the innovative orchard work of Thomas Andrew Knight in Herefordshire, though, research into improving cider lagged until the 1890s. Cider, which had once graced the tables of lords and ladies, was now often seen as a mixed bag, some clean and good but much more deeply flawed. Such rough cider might be acceptable to a farm laborer during harvest, but hadn’t much of a market otherwise.

Robert Neville Granville, a cider enthusiast and engineer living near Glastonbury, got the improvement ball rolling in 1891. In 1893 the trustees of the Bath and West Society, founded in the late 18th century to advance local agriculture, gave Neville Granville the financial support to hire professional chemist Fredrick Lloyd. They also started a cider competition with the stated goal of encouraging the improvement of cider by awarding cash prizes to the best that met certain minimum standards.  (Very few prizes were awarded that first year, but in subsequent years Charles Porter’s neighbor Richard W. Scott entered and won often.) Lloyd began analyzing juice samples, making and analyzing single variety ciders, studying yeasts, and evaluating production methods from harvest to packaging. Each year he wrote a detailed report for the annual Journal of the Bath and West Society and Southern Counties Association.

Within a decade this work had caught the attention of the Board of Agriculture, which was always on the look out for ways to build markets and add to farmer revenue. With monies from the Board, as well as from various apple-growing counties in the west of England, a farm suitable for experimentation was identified at Long Ashton near Bristol, and the National Fruit and Cider Institute was launched. This hugely influential body continued to conduct research on cider for the next 80 years, merging with the University of Bristol in 1912 and being renamed the Long Ashton Research Station. Lloyd acted as the institute’s head until 1905, then was succeeded by Bertie T. P. Barker.

It is here that our story (finally) loops back to Porter’s Perfection, for Barker is the one that brought the apple to public notice after learning of it much by accident. He was searching for a supply of Cap of Liberty apples for that year’s experiments when Charles Porter pointed out a seedling tree, growing in one of his orchards, that seemed to be similar. Barker gave it a try, and, he wrote later “the cider made from it proved to be of such excellent quality that each year since that time…the fruit has been procured for trial purposes…the results have on the whole been so good that it is justifiable to regard the variety as one of the best kinds yet tested for the production of a medium brisk [by which he meant acidic], light, bottling cider.” Barker named it Porter’s Perfection as it was Charles Porter “to whom is really due the credit of having …recognized its merit.” The institute had by this time (1912) been producing young Porter’s Perfection trees and was poised to provide them to farmers ready to try this new apple that but for chance might have lived out its life unknown. It remains popular to this day, and the Porter family is still growing it, and others varieties, supplying fruit to Perry’s Cider in nearby Dowlish Wake.

It’s a funny little apple, yellow-green with stripes of red and a thick fleshy stem. Its most remarkable feature, though, is its regular tendency to form fused fruits, usually in twos, but sometimes three or more, hence its other name, Clusters. When walking through an orchard it is hard to imagine mistaking this variety for anything else. 

The collection of Porter’s Perfection ciders I tasted through recently–half sparkling, half still–was fascinating, to say the least. None were particularly aromatic, light to medium in their intensity. Not every renowned fermentable fruit is particularly fragrant, of course, Chardonnay grapes being a perfect example. All possessed notable acid, each showing more than medium briskness, to use Barker’s term, and plenty of tannin, though their colors ranged from yellow to gold to amber.

Where they diverged the most was in their aromas/flavors. Most had some fruit character, tending toward the tart parts like skin or peel, the exception being the cider from Haykin Family Cider, which was rather riper and a little floral. Two, from Eve’s and South Hill, were distinctly savory. What was most interesting to me, however, was how several of the older examples were beginning to develop the tertiary flavors we often associate with aged wines, such as cedar and spice. Certainly these ciders have the acid/tannin structure that suggests they’d age well. It would be worth laying in a few bottles to try again in a year, or two years, or perhaps several more. 

Here’s the list:

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – lemon, lemon peel, pear skin, gooseberry, twigs, granite, wood; sparkling; 2019; 6.9% ABV

Eastman’s Forgotten Ciders, Wheeler, MI – plum skin, tart apple skin, blood orange peel, gooseberry, cedar, sawdust; sparkling; 2015; 6.3% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – lemon juice, blood orange juice, guava, ripe apple, ripe pear, rose petals; sparkling; 2018; 7.7 % ABV (the apples used were grown in Yakima, WA)

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – orange peel, pear, gooseberry, brine, soy sauce, clove, cedar; still; 2017; 8.5% ABV

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – apple skin, gooseberry, green plum, grass, brine; still; 2019; 8.4% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – grapefruit peel, pear skin, green plum, gooseberry, clove, cedar; still; 2017; 7.4% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – tart orange, apple skin, gooseberry, grapefruit peel, clove, twigs; still; 2019; 7.5% ABV

Harrison

There was a time in the 19th century when the Harrison apple was one of the most famous cider apples in America, but its history reaches back much further. 

It takes it’s name from Samuel Harrison (1684-1776). Samuel’s grandfather and great-grandfather, both named Richard, came to North American with their families from West Kirby, a small town on the Mersey River in Cheshire, England. Part of the Great Migration of religious separatists, they arrived some time around 1640 and by 1644 were among the first residents of the town of Branford on the north side of the Long Island Sound. This area had been the land of the Quinnipiac people, but disease and war with both English and indigenous neighbors had taken it’s toll, and it was now part of the New Haven Colony, founded in 1638. 

Moving to a new continent did not actually mean that people were free from government control of their religious lives. The governing principles in each colony, especially in the north, were closely tied to the church. The right to land was often tied to church membership, for example, and different churches, or groups of churches, had varying ideas about what it took to become a member. The New Haven Colony’s ideas were considerably stricter than the neighboring colony of Connecticut, so the decision to merge the two in the mid-1660s set off a major rift among New Haven’s residents. 

Thus it was in 1666 that Richard, Jr. and family (Richard, Sr. died in 1658) followed the Branford congregation of Reverend Abraham Pierce to the newly English land of New Jersey where they founded the city of Newark on land purchased from the Lenni-Lenape. Richard was granted one of the first town lots, expanding his land holdings in 1675 to include an area known as the Mountain (now West Orange, NJ), which was where the tree that became the first Harrison apple was planted.

The planter was Samuel Harrison, Richard’s grandson. Samuel was an enterprising sort, owning not only extensive lands but the area’s only sawmill, a fulling mill, a blacksmith and carpenter’s shop, a boat that ferried people and goods between Newark and New York City, and, later in life, a cider mill. According to his son, another Samuel, he got a large number of seedling trees from a Mr. Osborne, a descendant of one of the first families in the New Haven Colony but now in South Orange, some time around 1713. (Personal connections were as important then as they are now.)

By the luck of the draw, one of these seedlings turned out to be a superior apple for cider. Exactly when this was recognized is so far lost to history. The first written account appears in the American version of Anthony Willich’s Domestic Encyclopedia, edited and augmented with information about American apples in 1804 by Dr. James Mease. Called also the Long Stem and Osborne apple, Mease describes the fruit as “of a moderate size, and of a rich dry taste, with a tartness that renders its sweetness agreeable and lively . . . keeps well a long time, and answers well for culinary purposes.” This is not a particularly detailed description, and nurseryman/orchardist William Coxe did better in A View of Cultivation of Fruit Trees, and the Management of Orchards and Cider (1817). “The shape is rather long,” he wrote, “and pointed towards the crown–the stalk is long. . . the ends are deeply hollowed; the skin is yellow, with many small but distinct black spots, which give a roughness to the touch . . .” Both authors describe the cider as “clear, high colored, rich, and lively” and “and of great strength commanding a high price in New-York, frequently ten dollars and upwards per barrel. . . .” Mease goes on to say that no less a figure than General George Washington preferred it to cider made from another famous cider apple, the Hewes’ (aka Hughes’) Virginia Crab. High praise indeed from a Virginian, if true.

The spread of the Harrison’s reputation can be traced through the young nation’s newspapers. Ads for Newark Cider made from Harrison apples (or simply Harrison Cider) appear in the New York Post starting in 1808, followed by Pennsylvania, south into Maryland, the Carolinas, Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky, north and west into Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and eventually all the way to California by the 1880s. Harrison Cider was shipped to the West Indies by the 1840s. Nurseries advertised grafted trees for sale in New York as early as 1804, and in Missouri, Nebraska, Kentucky, and North Carolina in the 1850s and 1860s. 

Demographics within the United States were changing, however. The waves of immigrants swelling the U.S. population were largely from countries where cider was not an important drink, and competition from beer and whiskey increased significantly. Newark and its environs were shifting from orchards to industry, as were many other parts of the east coast. Furthermore, at the turn of the 19th century more and more states were enacting laws prohibiting the production and consumption of alcohol. These and other factors encouraged farmers to shift from growing apples for cider production to fruit for the fresh and processing markets. This shift wasn’t absolute, of course, and Harrison cider could still be found in any number of places. It was, for example, the beverage of choice for the annual sheep-roast dinner held by the Crocodile Club, a group of socializing Connecticut politicians, at the Lake Compounce resort owned by the Norton family near Hartford. In 1907 the local papers reported that Norton’s Cider Mill had made 80,000 gallons of Harrison cider that season, some of which would be enjoyed by the Crocodiles.

Contrary to popular narrative, Harrison didn’t completely disappear post-Prohibition; Neenah Nursery in Wisconsin was advertising trees for sale in 1952, for example. Apple markets and consumer tastes had changed, however, sending farmers in a different direction. The intent to reverse that course, at least for Harrison, may have been what sent Vermont orchardist Paul Gidez to Essex County, NJ in 1976 in search of old trees. Good fortune helped him find a few, and he tried to establish an orchard of Harrisons in New England, with limited success. He also gave scions to Virginian Tom Burford, apple enthusiast/explorer, who became the Harrison’s champion. It took a few years, but Harrisons are once again being grown across the U.S. as the interest in cider and old apples has grown. 

Where there are apples there will soon be cider, of course, and it is now possible to find a range of Harrison single varietal ciders on the market. I recently conducted a blind tasting of six of them, all from harvests done in 2018 or 2019 and grown in different parts of the country, notably Virginia and Washington. I am happy to say that the 19th century writers were dead on. These ciders all have the richness of flavor that they describe, some with more acid, some with a little less, and are medium to full-bodied. What is interesting, though, is that each had a common aroma/flavor, that of sweet, ripe orange, sometimes veering in the direction of mandarin. 

Think about pairing these ciders with a dish that has some richness, like seafood or chicken with a butter or cream-based sauce or a creamy white cheese. An umami-rich soup would be a fine choice, too.

Here’s the lineup with some brief notes:

Albemarle Ciderworks, North Garden, VA – orange, orange blossom, fresh ripe apple, apricots, peaches, and mango; 9% ABV

Potter’s Craft Cider, Charlottesville, VA – orange zest, ripe apple, pineapple, peach, and mango; 8.2% ABV

Wise Bird Cider Co., Lexington, KY – orange, pear skin, slightly under-ripe nectarine, and tart plum; 8.1% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – baked apple, baked pear, orange peel, clove, and nutmeg; 8.3% ABV

Tieton Cider Works, Yakima, WA – mandarin orange, pear, and asparagus; 6.9% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – baked pear, orange zest, and guava; 7.9% ABV (the Harrisons used by the Haykins were grown in Yakima, WA)