Stoke Red

Image courtesy of Albert Johnson

Ask a reasonably knowledgeable cider drinker to make a list of English cider apples, and Stoke Red is unlikely to be on it. This mildly bittersharp apple never became the sort of household name that Kingston Black did, for example, although it has many similarities. It’s one of those apples that forms the backbone of many a cider though seldom seems to be the star. You won’t find old newspaper ads touting Stoke Red, yet dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that Stoke Red has had its fans.

The first part 20th century was a time of great change in the cider world, particularly in the United Kingdom. Up to the late 19th century, cider was almost exclusively a local product. It was made by farmers from their own apples and consumed primarily on the spot. Orchards did double duty, producing fruit on huge trees and carpeted with grass for grazing livestock. The cidermaking could be haphazard for the cider itself just had to satisfy the tastes of the farmer, his family, and his hired help. Only if there was excess would it be sold elsewhere, and even then generally within 50 miles of where it had been made. The Bulmer brothers, Percy and Fred, changed all that.

The Bulmers weren’t the first to start what would become a large scale cidermaking operation. That credit goes to William Gaynor, Jr. when, in 1870, he purchased a hydraulic juice press and began transforming his family’s local Norfolk cider business into one with national ambitions. “It was a defining moment,” writes Ted Bruning in Golden Fire (Authors Online, Ltd., 2012), “the moment when cidermaking stopped being a by-product of farming or estate management and became an industry in its own right.” The Bulmer’s Hereford-based operation got started later, in the 1880s and was soon joined by other cider manufacturers such as Godwin’s, Weston’s, and Showerings. The latter two started out as farmer-based businesses but by the turn of the 20th century were fully focused on large-scale cider production.

Bringing cider into the industrial revolution was, of course, dependent on a reliable and ever-increasing source of apples to provide juice, and that was a problem. By the 1920s, many of the orchards in the west of England, where a significant number of the cider factories were located, were up to 100 years old and had often not received the best of care. They also contained a wild mix of varieties, many unnamed and ill-suited to creating the sort of consistent flavor profiles that average, urban cider consumers had come to expect. This was the view of the scientists at the Long Ashton Research Service (LARS), at least. The bigger problem was that there simply not enough apples being grown for cider. Cider manufacturers had to increasingly rely on using culls of market apples and imports from abroad, particularly France. The latter option worked well enough as long as tariffs remained low, but the general feeling was that it would be better to ensure a robust domestic supply.

In the early days of the National Fruit and Cider Institute, which became Long Ashton upon its jointing the University of Bristol in 1912, research focused on testing apple varieties, provided by local farmers or gathered in the field, through chemical analysis and tasting test batches of cider. As the program and budget, grew LARS expanded its research accordingly. Test orchards were created at or near the research station to investigate the impact of different rootstocks and management practices. Trees of selected varieties were used to start test orchards in Devon, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Monmouthshire, Dorset, and other spots in Somerset to examine the effect of different climates and soils. Over time, various aspects of cider production were evaluated–wild vs cultured yeast, the use of sulfites, slowing the rate of fermentation by centrifugation, and the impact of storage temperature, among them.

In 1925 in an effort to stimulate more interest in improving and expanding the domestic apple supply, the LARS researchers created a novel cider competition. Farmers wishing to enter were instructed to send in roughly 1,700 pounds of a single variety, which would be fermented into cider at LARS then judged by three prominent members of the British cider community, often principles in one of the large-scale cider businesses. Fermentation by the same people under the same conditions eliminated, as must as is possible, the variable the cider’s character coming principally from cidermaking choices and put the focus right on the fruit itself. The categories were sharps (> 4.5 g/L acid), sweets (< 4.5 g/L acid), and bittersweets (< 4.5 g/L acid plus >2 g/L tannin). (Bittersharp as a category doesn’t appear in the LARS reports until the 1940s.) Kingston Black apples got their own separate category.

This is where Stoke Red comes into the story. Dairy farmer Herbert H. Sealy (1873-1939) entered it into the 1926/27 competition, under the name Stoke Red Stripes, and not only won first prize in the sharp category but thoroughly impressed the staff at LARS. The 1927 Annual Report of the Agricultural and Horticultural Research Station stated “this variety promises to be worthy of a place amongst the best sharp cider apples,” the most celebrated of which was, of course, Kingston Black. Two more entries by Sealy, in 1927/28 and 1928/29, cemented interest among the research staff (“This apple is undoubtably an outstanding sharp variety,” noted the 1928 Annual Report) assuring Stoke Red’s future.

Sealy lived and worked at Honeyhurst Farm just outside of Rodney Stoke three miles from the town of Cheddar, home of the eponymous cheese that has been made there since the 12th century. Honeyhurst Farm was owned by the Tyleys, a family of wealthy yeoman that owned several farms in the area, including Manor Farm and Edgecomb, where Sealy and his wife, Mary Jane (neé Carver, 1871-1951) were living in 1901. One of Sealy’s cousins, his grandfather Edwin’s niece , was the first wife of Honeyhurst’s owner, Charles Tyley (1851-1906), which may be how he came to be a Tyley tenant. It is almost certainly one of the Tyleys that planted the original Stoke Red tree. The apple was well established there by the 1920s as demonstrated by the fact that one of the Tyleys, William James (1882-1943) sent 1700 lbs of Stoke Red to the competition from Manor Farm (next door to Honeyhurst) in 1928. 

Honeyhurst and Manor Farms (circled, across from St. Leonard’s Church)

The staff at LARS was so impressed with the vintage quality of Stoke Red that they almost immediately began including it in their research. They grafted it into the orchard at Long Ashton in 1932 and created trees that were sent for planting intest orchards in Worcestershire, Devonshire, Gloucestershire, and elsewhere in Somerset to see how it would fair under different growing conditions. Follow-up work was a bit hit and miss during WW II, but by the time the LARS cider advisory committee published their short list of recommended varieties in 1947, Stoke Red was on it. It was a slow grower, but was somewhat self-fertile and a reasonable pollinator for other varieties. It was also resistant to a number of troublesome pests–aphids, apple sucker, winter moth, and scab-which led to its inclusion in the LARS breeding program. (It is one of the parents of Ashton Bitter; the other is Dabinett.)

Though Stoke Red’s unruly growth habit and small size, both of which demand extra labor to deal with, have made it a less popular choice for the modern orchard, its other positive characteristics have endeared it to some. One can find single variety Stoke Red ciders on both sides of the Atlantic, though the ones made in the U.K. seem to come primarily from older orchards. Notes of orange and spice seem to be a common flavor through-line, as is the abundant acid and tannin. These ciders did indeed have some similarity to a well-made Kingston Black while at the same time maintaining their own unique character.

Bauman’s Cider, Gervais, OR – dry; passion fruit, orange, lemon, tart apple, plum skin, leather, quince; sparkling; 2021; 7.9%

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; tart plum. twig, baked apple, clove, orange; sparkling; 2017; 7.5% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA – semi-dry; orange, orange peel, clove, ripe apple, plum skin, twig, baked apple; sparkling; undated; 6.9% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA – dry; lemon, orange, plum skin, yellow apple, clove; sparkling; undated; 6.3% ABV

Burrow Hill Cider, Kingsbury Epsicopi, Somerset, U.K. – dry; plum skin, apple, just ripe pear; sparkling; undated; 8.0% ABV

Wilding Cider Stoke Red #1, Chew Magna, Somerset, U.K. – semi-sweet; orange, ripe apple, wet leaves, twigs, peach, strawberry; sparkling; 2020; 3.8% ABV

Wilding Cider Stoke Red #2, Chew Magna, Somerset, U.K. – semi-sweet; ripe apple, sweet orange, twig, ripe pear, clove, pear skin, rose; sparkling; 2020; 3.7% ABV

Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, U.K. – semi-sweet; sweet orange, orange blossom, ripe apple, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, ripe plum, dried leaves; still; 2015; 5.5% ABV

Northern Spy

There are a handful of apple varieties that just say “New York!” to me, and Northern Spy is one of them. Some apples have made homes and reputations for themselves in any number of other places, like Newtown Pippin, but though Northern Spy is grown elsewhere, New York seems to me to suit it best.

Spy, as it is often called, originated as a seedling in Western New York, mostly likely in the late 18th or very early 19thcentury, on land owned by Heman Chapin (1776-1843). The Chapin family had already had a long history in North America by the time Heman was born. The family’s founder, Deacon Samuel Chapin (1598-1675), arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1630s, and was one of the early European inhabitants of what became Springfield, MA. He held a variety of important positions in the community and was later memorialized by a rather severe looking statue called The Puritan. 

There were, we know, already peoples in the area that had been living there for centuries–the Woronoco, Pocotumtuc, Agawam, and others. Though the European settlers of Springfield ostensibly had a document giving them title to the land, as was the case for many of the other nearby settlements, it is not clear that all the parties involved had the same understanding of just what it meant. In the months before Deacon Chapin’s death this conflicting understanding erupted into real conflict in what is known today as King Philip’s War, which engulfed the region and resulted in the devastation of much of Springfield as well as eleven other local towns. While overt conflict eventually subsided when the colonists caught and executed the Native American leader Metacom (aka King Philip) the deadly fighting certainly took its toll on the survivors on both sides, both physically and psychologically.

One hundred plus years later, after the North American colonies broke away from Britain to become an independent polity, the newly formed United States of America found itself with whole lot of land to the west that up until that point had remained largely unoccupied by Europeans or those of European descent, including western New York. This was land occupied by the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois) Confederacy. The Nations had tried to remain neutral during the war, but had eventually picked sides, some fighting with the colonists and others with the British, breaking hundreds of years of precedent and collective government. In the end, sides didn’t matter, though, for all of the Nations lost most of their land, either right after the War or in the decades following it, selling it off to various state governments or land speculators.

In the late 1780s, land speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham were looking to get in on the land action and asked one of the Chapin war heroes, Gen. Israel Chapin (1740-1795), to help them negotiate their purchase of what is now Ontario County from the Onodowaga (Seneca) It is certainly through this family connection that Heman Chapin and his brother Oliver (1765-1822) found out about the land deal. Each bought a parcel in the early 1790s in what would become East Bloomfield in Ontario County, relocating their families from Salisbury, CT, soon thereafter. This was still wild country, so it would have taken some time to clear land and build houses, their farms slowly taking shape as they created fields for grazing and planted apples seeds to start an orchard. 

Ontario County, 1852. Lake Ontario is on the left, East Bloomfield in the center

The first printed mention of the apple Northern Spy was in an October 1842 issue of The Cultivator where it was included on a list of apples recommended for a small garden written by a J.J. Thomas of Macedon, NY. It was not remarked on as being new, suggesting it had come to public notice some time before. That being said, a few years later in publications such as The Genesee Farmer and The Magazine of Horticulture, Northern Spy was described as new and exciting with the promise to become a well-beloved market apple. It’s chief proponents were George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry, the two owners of the Mount Hope Garden and Nurseries, one of the largest of the nurseries that sprang up in early 19th century Rochester, NY. Their motivation was clear for they advertised that they had thousands of 2-year old trees ready for sale, another strong indication the apple had a good reputation, at least locally, well before 1840. There are also any number of ads for barrels of apples selling for up to $2.50/barrel, again suggesting that Northern Spy had been widely grown for some years, at least around Bloomfield and Rochester.

The specifics of where the seeds came from and which of the Chapin’s farms it sprouted on or moved to (some stories add in Heman Chapin’s brothers-in-law Roswell Humphrey and/or Elijah Taylor) are, as with so many apples originating at this time, a little murky. The really interesting question, though, is how did it get a name like Northern Spy? Many of its contemporaries were named for their shape or color (Sheepnose or Golden Russet) or the man (almost always) whose farm it came from (Bullock’s Pippin) or the person who popularized it (Baldwin). But “Northern Spy?” What was that about?

In 1996, a man named Conrad D. Gemmer proposed an answer in the journal for the North American Fruit Explorers journal, Pomona. He claimed to have come across a letter to the editor in an “obscure gardening magazine” dated “around 1853” in which he paraphrases the writer, JBK, as saying that everyone around Rochester, NY, knew that the apple was named for “the “hero” of that notorious dime novel The Northern Spy, but that nobody will come out and admit it.” Gemmer went on to explain that the book had been written anonymously, published “sub-rosa” and circulated among “hard-core abolitionists circa 1830” and the name was probably attached to the apple by “some smart-aleck kid” as both Chapin and Humphrey were “eminently respected gentlemen.” It’s an interesting story, and in fact, there was a novel published in the 19th century called The Northern Spy or, The Fatal Papers written by J. Thomas Warren. The problem, though, is that among the many characters in the book are Confederate soldiers, and since the Confederate States of America wasn’t formed until 1861, it seems unlikely to the source the name of an apple already well known by the 1840s.

That being said, the idea that such an unusual name arose from the literature of the time is an intriguing one. Maybe it came from another dime novel called Double-hand, The Dark Destroyer, or Bashful Bill, The Northern Spy by Lewis W. Carson. The story is set in the mid-1700s in lands occupied by the Onodowaga near the Finger Lakes (and in the general area that was eventually home to many of the Chapins). It features “good Indians” and “bad Indians” (the latter want to kill all the Europeans moving into the area), and brave white men out to avenge the deaths of their family members. It is, in keeping with the dime novel ethos, lurid and slightly ridiculous to the modern reader, but was popular in its day. Though the setting and theme suggest it would have been an attractive read for the early 19th century Chapins, it wasn’t published until 1873.

A better option, at least in terms of the time frame, is James Fennimore Cooper’s book The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground. Published in 1821, it tells the story of a man spying on the British and British sympathizers during the Revolutionary War and was apparently inspired by things Cooper learned from his friend John Jay, delegate to the first and second Continental Congresses, signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and commonly thought of as the “founding father” of U.S. counterintelligence. Jay was also a colleague of both Gen. Israel Chapin and his son Israel Chapin, Jr. Many of the Chapins were soldiers, including Heman and Oliver’s father, Charles. There is even a book about them all, Chapins Who Served in the French and Indian Wars, 1754-59: the Revolutionary War, 1775-83, the War of 1812-15, and others by Charles Wells Chapin (1895). Might one of them have been a spy? No lists from that time exist, so who’s to say.

Suggestive book titles notwithstanding, it may not even have been one of the Chapins that named the apple to begin with. As noted previously, George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry were instrumental in creating a market for Northern Spy, both apples and trees, and as part of that campaign sent a near constant stream of articles and letters to various publications throughout the region. In one piece 1845 written for The Chambersburg (PA) Times, they wrote that the apple was named around 1830 by a man who travelled about offering his grafting services to farmers that might not have the time or skill to do it themselves. This fellow was so impressed with the fruit, the story goes, that he not only named it but took suckers from the base of the tree and sold them to other local farmers, who then grew the fruit for market, which maybe how it came to the notice of Ellwanger and Barry. Northern Spy had not been out of commercial cultivation since, though not grown to the levels it was a hundred years ago. 

Corks from Northern Spy ciders from 2014 to 2021, left to right

Usually when I set about to write about an apple I try to find as many examples of cider made from it as I can. This time will be different. The cidermakers at Eve’s Cidery in Van Etten, NY, have been making single variety Northern Spy ciders for many years, and I was fortunate enough to have seven of them (they did not make one in 2018) allowing me to get an idea of how ciders from this apple might age as well as any vintage variation. All had some common elements, such as the high acid that supported graceful aging, as well as lemony aromas and flavors. The oldest, from 2014, seemed a little faded, but that may be due to what seems to have been a rather loose cork (all were closed with a cork and cage). The 2016 vintage was the richest with a fuller body and longer finish. The three vintages starting with 2019 were made using wild yeast and all had a savory quality that wasn’t evident in the others. It was a fascinating experience and one that I am anxious to repeat with other apples.

2014 – dry; green apple skin, lemon pith, cardboard, slightly faded; petillant; 7% ABV

2015 – dry; ripe, dried, and baked yellow apple, lemon peel, lemon pith, yellow plum skin; sparkling; 7.1% ABV

2016 – dry; fresh ripe yellow apple, fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, honeysuckle, baked apple, dried pineapple, almond, yellow pear; sparkling; 9.2%

2017 – dry; ripe yellow apple, lemon juice, slate, ripe peach, rose, persimmon, slight bitterness; sparkling; 7.5% ABV

2019 – dry; ripe yellow apple, lemon drop candy, lemon juice, savory green herbs, brioche, salt, shoyu, tart just ripe peach, yellow plum skin; sparkling; 8% ABV

2020 – dry; ripe yellow apple,quince, ripe peach, lemon juice, pineapple, slate, savory herbs, very fruity; sparkling; 8.4% ABV

2021 – dry; ripe yellow apple, savory green herbs, candied lemon, tart green apple skin, pear skin, just ripe pear, slate, green plum,slight bitterness; sparkling; 8% ABV

Yarlington Mill

The village grain mill was ever an important feature in the lives of local residents. Not that one couldn’t mill grains at home but, as anyone who’s tried it knows, using a hand mill is laborious and time consuming, and it’s next to impossible to produce anything finer than a course flour. Until the advent of steam power, mills were locate along waterways, the movement of the water serving as the means to turn the giant grinding stones. The mill in the Somerset village of Yarlington was on the River Cam, a bit to the southwest of the village center It was in continuous operation through the 19th century until finally closing in 1906.

As the story goes, the eponymous apple was discovered by Edward Bartlett (1867-1916) growing out of a stone wall near the point where the water left the mill to rejoin the river. Edward’s father, William (1840-1918), purchased the mill some time between 1875 and 1881. William’s mother, Mary (1798-1959, née Humphries), was born in Yarlington, and a member of the Humphries family owned the mill until 1845, which may be why William was interested in it. It could also be that Edward was already working there as a baker boy (he’s listed as a baker in the 1881 census when the family was living at the mill), though he would have been young for the job. 

Upon its discovery, the scrappy little tree was dug out and transplanted, possibly in an orchard on the mill property but more likely at the 140 acre farm called Mancroft that William Bartlett owned in nearby Galhampton. By 1891, William and his second wife, Sarah (1841-1917), had moved back to Mancroft, leaving Edward and his brother James to run the mill in Yarlington. There’s no indication that Edward ever was a cider maker, but his father certainly was. Several reports in the local papers note that after various meetings the participants adjourned to Barlett’s farm to enjoy more than a few pints of his cider.

William and Sarah Bartlett and their daughter, Liliam, at Mancroft

Most apples grown from seed take upwards of 15 to 20 years to bear fruit in any significant quantities. Yarlington Mill must have been an exception, however. By the early 20th century it was producing sufficient quantities of fruit to make enough cider to share with the neighbors. The cider apparently made quite an impression, so much so that several nearby farms had grafted trees in their own orchards which were also bearing fruit. In 1903, the apple was discussed at a cider conference held by the Mid-Somerset Agricultural Society. “Yarlington Mill was another apple very highly spoken of . . . a very vigorous grower,” noted an article published in the 30 October issue of The Shepton Mallet Journal

About this time it also came to the attention of The National Fruit and Cider Institute, precursor to the more well known Long Ashton Research Station. Researchers there grafted Yarlington Mill into a number of test orchards and began logging annual bloom times and the tree’s growth habits. Apples from the bearing orchards around Galhampton and Yarlington were collected for analysis, and test batches of cider were being made and evaluated. “Not brisk enough for use alone, but of first-rate quality for blending,” one researcher decided. Good quality juice and the preciosity of the tree recommended it to many a farmer, and Yarlington Mill was on its way to becoming a staple in Somerset’s cider orchards.

The apple’s full name is actually Yarlington Mill Jersey, for it is a member of a group of apples sometimes called Jersey types, which includes Chisel Jersey, Coat Jersey, and Harry Masters Jersey, among others. What these apples all have in common is a bittersweet character and conical shape, though neither is unique to apples with the name Jersey. There has been much speculation about that moniker, including that it comes from the word jaisy, which is said to mean bitter in the dialect of Somerset. There has also been speculation that these apples, or at least their ancestors, came from the island of Jersey in the English Channel. There is nothing in the records to substantiate either guess, however.

Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, has been an important place for cidermaking since at least the 15th century. Apple varieties were brought in from nearby Normandy, but many local cultivars were developed from seed as well. An important provisioning port, records from the time of Henry the VIII talk of naval ships stopping to take on barrels of cider and complaining about the prices. By the late 17th century, so much land had been turned into cider orchards that the local authorities, concerned about grain supplies, passed a law forbidding the planting of any new ones, although existing orchards could be replanted. Cider was a major export product, and remained so into the 19th century. Both apples and cider are know to have been brought by ship to England’s southern coast, including to Somerset and Devon, and seeds might well have found their way inland. 

A more interesting, though highly speculative, possibility is that Jersey fruit came to Somerset orchards more deliberately. In the 1760s, a man named Sir Edward de Carteret (1620-1683) bought the manor of Toomer near the village of Henstridge in southeastern Somerset. The de Carterets were one of the oldest and most important families in the Channel Islands with several manors on Jersey surrounded by acres and acres of cider orchards. Ardent royalists, they supported the House of Stuart during the English Civil War, and one member of the family, Sir George Carteret, was rewarded with lands in England’s North American Colonies after the Restoration,which is how the area came to be named New Jersey (also known for its cider). 

A map of Toomer House and surroundings, 1689

It takes no stretch of the imagination to think that Sir Edward, and later his son Sir Charles, might have directed that the cider apple varieties they were familiar with be brought to their Toomer estate. Maps from the period show the house surrounded by orchards, just as their estate on Jersey was. Charles didn’t hold the place long, though, as he had both money and political problems, and by 1696 he’d sold it. Several years later he followed the last Stuart king, the unpopular James II, into exile in France. Still, the orchards, and their (possible) Jersey gene pool remained. It is just 10 miles from Toomer to Yarlington, and 18 to Martock, where both Harry Masters Jersey and Chisel Jersey were discovered. It is intriguing to think that Jersey type apples started at Toomer and spread out from there. 

Regardless of how Yarlington Mill Jersey got its name, it has been, and continues to be, an important variety for cider in England’s western counties. It has also found its way into American Orchards, though it is no longer part of the U.S. Germplasm Repository in Geneva, New York. After tasting through a group of Yarlington Mill single variety ciders, one has to wonder if somewhere in its travels through the US something got mislabeled, for though most of the ciders had very obvious common features–a rich amber color, pronounced aromatics, and spicy tannins–others were remarkably different both in color and aromatic intensity, not to mention striking different in flavor. Still good, just different.

Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Co., Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; roasted apples, clove, cinnamon, tobacco, vanilla, dried orange peel; sparkling; harvested 2014, bottled 2016; 7.4% ABV

Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, U.K. – semi-dry; honeycomb, ripe apple, ripe melon, pear skin, shoyu, clove, butterscotch, leather; petillant; 2021; 5.7% ABV

Stone Circle Cider, Estacada, OR – dry; orange peel, clove, ripe apple, ripe melon, leather, orange peel; sparkling; undated; 6.6% ABV

Two Broads Ciderworks, San Luis Obispo – dry; pear, pear skin, melon, quince, green herbs, lychee, cinnamon, clove; sparkling; undated; 8.5% ABV

Alpenfire Cider, Port Townsend, WA – dry; quince, pear, pear skin, grapefruit, green herbs, just ripe peach; sparkling; 2019; 5% ABV

Bauman’s Cider, Keeved, Gervais, OR – semi-dry; ripe peach, ripe apricot, raspberry, orange, ripe melon, clove, cinnamon; sparkling; undated; 6.8%

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – semi-dry; strawberry jam, bread dough, tart orange peel, ripe apple, barnyard, chalk; sparkliing; 2021; 7% ABV