Let Us Speak of Apples

This essay originally appeared in Issue 7 (2019) of the zine Malus. In the coming months I’ll explore this broader notion of cider apples by taking a closer look at individual varieties–their history, what happens when someone ferments them, common and distinctive aromas and flavors that reflect place and process. Pour yourself a glass and join me!

It is time that we expanded our notion of just what is and isn’t a cider apple. 

Spend enough time with serious cider enthusiasts and eventually talk will turn to “proper cider apples” and how they are the sin qua non of cidermaking. It is clear to the speaker that “good” cider can only be made with real cider apples, by which is generally meant apples with a lot of tannin in them, “spitters”, otherwise unfit for anything else. There may well be a little bemoaning of the fact that these sorts of bittersweet and bittersharp apples are not widely available in the United States, and wouldn’t American ciders be so much better if they were. There will be slightly worshipful talk around the celebrated names of Kingston Black, Porter’s Perfection, Yarlington Mill, and Dabinett, fine apples all. 

There are problems with this sort of thinking. The first is, of course, the many long-standing cider traditions that don’t focus on a high-tannin flavor profile or require a significant proportion of tannin-containing apples in the mix. Germany, especially in the area around Frankfurt am Main, has one such tradition, but one far older is that of northern Spain. Modern Spanish cidermakers do identify many particular varieties as being best for cider, but they are predominantly high acid, low tannin apples, sharps, not bittersweets or bittersharps which typically make up only about five percent of a blend. 

A far more troublesome issue, perhaps, is more a narrowness of mind, a shrinking of possibility. It’s akin to the mindset that has driven the market for table apples into a corner where a tiny handful of varieties dominate. It’s also the equivalent of saying that the only “good” wine is red. And what’s more, a small subset of reds, excluding an easy drinking, fruity Beau- jolais, for example, and focusing only on Bordeaux blends that aren’t actually drinkable until they’ve had a good ten plus years of aging to soften their tannins so they don’t feel like they are stripping the enamel off the drinker’s teeth. 

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

Many of history’s favorite apples for cidermaking were not bittersweets or bittersharps at all. Some of the most highly prized cider apples of 17th century England, such as the Genet Moyle and the Golden Pippin, were, in fact, also celebrated as dessert and/or cooking apples. “Our Gennet Moyles are commonly found in hedges, or in our worst soil . . . But this fruit makes the best Cyder in my Judgement, and such as I do prefer before the much com- mended Redstreak’d,” wrote John Beale in a letter to polymath Samuel Hartlib, subsequently published as Herefordshire Orchards, a Pattern for All England in 1656. He goes on to say, “[I’]tis (at a distance) the most fragrant of all Cyder Fruit, and gives the liquor a most delicate perfume. So for Tarts and Pyes it is much commended.” Beale’s contemporary, agriculturist John Worlidge, echoed this sentiment in his Vinetum Britannicum, or a Treatise of Cider (1676). “The Gennet Moyle is a pleasant and necessary Fruit in the Kitchin, and one of the best Cider-Apples. The Fruit is well marked, and the Trees great bearers.” Of the Golden Pippin Worlidge says, “[T]he Golden Pippin will very well deserve a place in your plantation, being a very great bearer, and the fruit one of the best for the Table as well as the Mill.”

The Golden Pippin kept its reputation intact well into the late 1800s, but by the 18th century there was a new favorite dual-purpose apple on the table, the Stire (aka Styre or Forest Styre). “Of Apples, the Stire stands first in estimation,” wrote William Marshall in The Management of Orchards and Fruit Liquor in Herefordshire, Volume II (1796). “It is deemed, by most people, a tolerably good eating apple. The cider, which is produced from it . . . is rich, highly flavored, and of a good body, its price frequently fourfold that of common sale cider.” James Thatcher repeated this sentiment, writing, “This is the most celebrated and extensively cultivated cider apple in England, and is also a good eating apple” (The American Orchardist, 1822), as did pomologist Robert Hogg when he observed that “The cider that it produces is strong bodied, rich, and highly flavored” (British Pomology, 1851). 

None of these apples are grown much today, but there are many other examples that will be familiar–the Gravenstein, for example. “This apple is equally useful for the table and other purposes of economy; as it not only affords excellent cider, but also when dry a very palatable dish; it may be kept fresh dur- ing the greater part of the winter,” wrote William Kendrick in The New American Orchardist in 1833. Of the Winesap, William Cox wrote, “This is one of our best cider fruits, and is much esteemed as a good eating apple,” and “. . . I have cider of 1810, the mixture of [Hewe’s] Crab and Harrison and Winesap . . . which annually improves like the finest wine” (A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees, 1817). Both Hewe’s Crab and Harrison, probably the most famous cider apples originating in the United States, it should be noted, would not be considered bittersweet/bittersharp apples by today’s standards. 

FARMERS ARE NOT FOOLS

Historically, why would there have been so much interest in dual-purpose fruit? Farmers are practical people, and they always have been. For most of human history, anyone not living in a city–by far the majority–had to grow most of what they needed to survive and feed their families: grain, vegetables, fruit and animals. Some portion of what was produced went to pay rent on the land, since the elites of the world who rarely got their own hands dirty owned most of it, and if there was a little left over a farmer might be able to either sell it or trade it for those things that he (almost never she) couldn’t produce himself. Multi-purpose was the name of the game. Cows could be milked or butchered; sheep provided meat, milk and wool; chickens gave eggs and could end up in a pot once their useful laying days were over. Grain fed people, and made beer if you had enough of it, and the spent stalks fed livestock in winter. 

Subsistence farming also dictated how someone used what- ever land was available to him. Many acres had to be found for grazing and grain production. Fruit trees, if planted in an orchard, were spaced widely, 30-40 feet apart, to allow for other crops to be grown between them. They were also grown as large trees so that livestock could graze beneath, though dwarfing rootstocks had been known since the third century BCE and widely used for espaliered trees in the gardens of the wealthy by the 1500s. Apple trees were often planted on the margins or in hedgerows where they could serve as boundary markers and not interfere with the growing of other crops. In this world, before the advent of farming-for-the-market that really took off in the 19th century, a multi-purpose apple, one that could provide both good food and good drink, would have been a very attractive thing indeed. 

A NEW WAY FORWARD

So, herein it is proposed that a new definition of “cider apples” be adopted. Let them be any apples selected and grown with cidermaking in mind. Let them be sweet and sharp, suffused with tannin and not. Recognize and embrace the magic and complexity that can be found in a cider made from Newtown Pippin, Northern Spy, or McIntosh, which when grown to be fermented and then processed by an attentive cidermaker can be transformed into something magical and complex, rich with both flavor and history. Eschew the path that wine took, now finding itself in a place where six or so grape varieties dominate the international market and regional varieties struggle to survive or drift into extinction. Celebrate nuance, not the narrow ness of a focus on tannin. Lovers of “good” cider can do better. 

How Sweet It Is

Every new business wants to differentiate itself, to stand out from the crowd. It is a bit of a mystery, then, why so many websites for smaller cider companies proudly state that they are different because they don’t make sweet cider, unlike the big bad Big Players (you know who they are). So many cideries make this claim that it no longer seems to be much of a distinction. More to the point it does an incredible disservice to sweeter ciders, seeming to say that if it’s sweet it’s therefore bad, and implying that if it’s dry it is therefore good. As with most simplistic statements, this ain’t necessarily so.

First, when we talk about sweetness in cider, just what is it we’re talking about.

Sugar is the obvious answer, and how much of it is either left in the cider from the original juice or added back at some point post-fermentation either in the form of un-fermented juice or plain old table sugar. The amount of sugar in a finished cider can be reported in any of a number of ways – in grams of sugar per liter (which can also be expressed as a percentage), specific gravity, or degrees brix (often used in the wine world). There are any number of calculators and tables available that can convert these measurements from one to the other, so for the purposes of this discussion we’ll stick to grams per liter (g/L).

The good folks at the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) have tried to bring some order to the world of cider evaluation by setting some general boundaries for various categories of cider-based on sugar content.

Dry

Medium-Dry*

Medium

Medium-Sweet

Sweet

g/L

0 – 4

4 – 9

9 – 20

20 – 40

>40

%

0 – 0.4

0.4 – 0.9

0.9 – 2.0

2.0 – 4.0

>4.0

SG

1.000 – 1.002

1.002 – 1.004

1.004 – 1.009

1.009 – 1.019

>1.019

               (*aka semi-dry or off-dry)

To put this in perspective, regular Coca Cola® has a sugar content of 108 g/L, and freshly pressed apple juice will typically come in at 117 – 260 g/L.

Left to their own devices yeasts will most of the time keep eating up any sugar they find until there is nothing left, resulting in dry cider. But not always. The traditional production method for French ciders, for example, starves the yeasts of other essential nutrients so that they more or less give up before all the sugar has been consumed. The result is a naturally sweet often quite complex and wonderful cider. A similar process can be used in the making of ice cider, which starts with highly concentrated (by freezing and thawing) juice and results in a very sweet dessert cider (upwards of 165 g/L) that more often than not avoids being cloying by wrapping all that sugar around a sturdy backbone of bright acid.

Sugar content isn’t quite the last word on sweetness, though. Our brains can sometimes be fooled into thinking something is sweeter than the actual available sugars would suggest. The amount of acidity in a given cider will, for example, influence how sweet it tastes. A high acid cider that has a sugar content that would put it into the medium cider category may taste less sweet than a low acid cider having a sugar level in the medium-dry range, which is also why to many palates fresh apple juice will taste less sweet than a Coke®. Furthermore, because taste and smell are so closely intertwined a fruity aroma will also encourage us to taste a cider as sweeter than it is, while conversely an earthy aroma will make a cider be perceived as less sweet. (Genetics can play a role in sweetness perception, too.) 

So why take issue with sweetness? For one thing, it’s an easy target. The most common complaint of people that don’t like cider is that it is too sweet. Generally this kind of statement suggests that the speaker hasn’t had the opportunity to try many ciders, and certainly the ciders offered by the Big Players are on the sweet end of the spectrum. What’s more, the Big Players muddy the waters by labeling some of their offerings as “dry” when on an objective basis they are anything but.

Take a couple of examples produced by some of the nationally distributed large brands. One “dry” cider has, according to the label, 7 grams of sugar in a 355 ml serving, which works out to 19.7 g/L of sugar, on the high side of medium. Another labeled as “dry pear” has a whopping 17 grams of sugar per 355 ml serving, coming in at an astonishing 48 g/L, so far from dry that it can’t even see it in it’s rear view mirror.

Stone Dry LabelWyder's Pear Label

Why, one might ask, don’t the Big Players make actual dry ciders if, as one assumes from the marketing pitches of their smaller competitors, there is in fact a market for them? The easy answer is that while there are those that do prefer drier beverages, Americans as a whole seem to prefer their drinks sweet, particularly in an emerging category or market.

More to the point, it’s actually more challenging to make a decent tasting dry cider than a sweet one. With a truly dry cider there is nowhere to hide. It requires more attention to apple varieties and blends, and to production dynamics, in order to create something that isn’t just a complete thin and watery acid bomb. In addition, when you are starting with juice concentrates, which once a company is making cider at a certain scale is an absolute must, it is simply impossible to add back all of the subtle complexities inherent in fresh juice that get stripped out during the concentration process. Sugar can make this diminished character less obvious, although at some point all you can taste is the sugar itself rather than the harmonious flavor you’d get from actual juice.

Dry shouldn’t be the considered the ultimate goal. There are certainly as many uninteresting dry ciders on the market today as there are sweet ones, and more than a few that could be rescued by just a little more attention to balance. Complexity, proportion, nuance – those are the watchwords of a great cider regardless of where it sits on the sweetness scale.

There are a handful of cider companies (such as Seattle Cider Company and Redbyrd Orchard Cider) that have taken it upon themselves to add some sort of scale information on their label in an attempt to help consumers find their way through the fog. This sort of information along with the writings of thoughtful reviewers, those that work hard to describe a full range of a cider’s characteristics not just whether or not they liked it, can help to bring some clarity to an otherwise murky area.

Redbyrd Label3 Pepper Cider Label

Meanwhile, here’s hoping that the next time a new cider company’s marketing team sits down to describe what sets the company apart he/she/they work a little harder to find something a little more original to say.

American Cider Zeitgeist

There’s been talk lately about an “identity crisis” happening in the cider industry. Having recently spent the better part of a week with some thousand enthusiastic cider makers and drinkers, it isn’t really clear just what the fuss is about, but perhaps the perception of anxiety is related to American cider’s multiple personality complex. Is cider a sessionable pub drink or an elegant beverage destined to accompany a fancy dinner? Put another way, is cider more like beer or more like wine? Can it be both?

Zeitgeist photo

Having lost whatever historic traditions cider had pre-Prohibition to the triploid pressures of increased immigration from non cider-drinking locales, movement from rural to urban communities, and the 18th Amendment, this country’s new cider makers are not constrained in the way that their comrades in Europe might be. European cider traditions stretching back many hundreds of years have left an indelible print on the drinks-consuming public in the UK, France, and Spain. Everybody “knows” what cider is, so that any attempt at innovation – whether it be the co-fermentation of apples with other things or the use of yeast strains more often associated with beer or cider made in another traditional style – can be met with skepticism and huffing that it isn’t “real” cider. (That being said, UK cider drinkers do have other issues to contend with.)

Not so in the US. Here cider is in many senses an unknown, free to be created in whatever image a particular cider maker has. Some see apple juice as just one of many possible constituents the way that a brewer would consider wort. It provides fermentable sugars and some acidity, but the variety of apple involved isn’t particularly important. It’s mostly just a canvas on which a cider maker can paint a flavor picture using other ingredients if need be. Then there is the element that seeks to elevate cider to fine dining status where it can sit along side wine. For this cider maker the apple is the whole point, and coaxing the truest flavor out of one or more varieties and embracing the complexities of vintage is the cider maker’s highest calling.

Some tension exists between these two camps, although politeness still reigns, in part because there are any number of cider makers with feet placed pretty firmly in both. The former sub-category of cider has been dominant so far, in part because the largest players are mega-breweries that are looking for products that can compliment their existing portfolios in a market where beer sales overall have been somewhat flat. These Big Players have been a key force in driving the explosive growth of cider as they’ve used their existing marketing muscle and distribution channels to ramp up cider’s place in the American drinker’s consciousness, not to mention on store shelves.

These Big Players have such an outsized influence on the numbers (% sales growth, for example) that it well may be that they skew an evaluation of American cider as a whole. More than half of the cider producers in the US in 2015 (65% to be exact) don’t have distribution outside their local area (yet) which is not to say that their businesses aren’t robust and growing. So when one hears that cider sales growth in 2015 was only 10 – 12%, instead of the remarkable 60 – 70% of the previous two years, does it mean that cider overall is slowing down (and 10% is still plenty respectable) or that sales for the Big Players are? Bear in mind that these sorts of sales figures come from sales to supermarkets and like, not to restaurants and bars where consumer preferences might be quite different. In a consumer trends survey conducted by Penn State Extension in the final quarter of 2015, researchers found that a significant number of respondents tried cider for the first time because they either make a point of trying locally made products or enjoy wine and thought that cider might be similar. So why insist that the cider only be compared to beer as published statistics so often do?

There is also some talk that American cider makers ought to be focusing on developing an indigenous cider culture rather than seeking to imitate the ciders of other regions. This seems a worthy goal, but frankly experimenting with European cider styles seems like it might be part of a cider maker’s maturation process, rather like an art student playing with the techniques of her predecessors as a means of preparing herself to take off in her own direction having through thoughtful imitation found her own voice.

Then there is the question of apples and the calls in some circles for US growers to plant more specialized varieties used for cider elsewhere. The apple-juice-as-canvas approach suggests that the need for apples having a lot of post-fermentation character in and of themselves may be overblown if not unnecessary. Certainly in skilled hands even a humble dessert apple can shine (think West County Cider’s Macintosh/Golden Delicious or Tilted Shed’s Inclinato). Besides, cider has been growing quite nicely based on the apple varieties already widely available.

This is, perhaps, a might short-sighted for it may be that a true American cider is one that embraces a melting-pot, multicultural approach, whether that be in fruit selection or production method, much in the model of America itself. Using apple varieties that originated on the other side of the pond won’t in and of itself make for a derivative cider, for certainly a wine made in France of pinot noir grapes grown there and one grown and made in northern California will be distinctly their own as the effects of soil and climate and all the other nuances of terroir exert their effects. Then, too, there are any number of cider makers/orchardists who are working to discover a whole new array of uniquely American cider varietals, tramping through the woods in search of character-filled wild seedling apples, people like Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr and Eric Schatt of Redbyrd Orchard. Many of the wildings are as richly flavored and mouth-pukeringly tannic as any apple hailing from Somerset and are as well suited to their environment as any of their wild native neighbors. Mayhaps these will be the apples of America’s true cider future.

Throughout the ages cider has fueled the celebrations of fierce warriors, graced the tables of ambassadors, and made up part of a day’s wages for itinerant farm workers. In the end there is really no need to create some strangling definition of what cider is and isn’t. Let cider just be cider. Because, after all, as one British cider maker quipped recently, cider making isn’t open heart surgery on small children. It’s making a quality drink that brings people pleasure and sparks good times be it poured by the pint in the corner pub or in crystal stemware to accompany foie gras en croute. And if the cider category seems a bit chaotic at the moment perhaps it is best to just embrace it, for it is out of chaos that new worlds are born.