GoldRush

So many of the apple varieties that come up in conversation when talking about cider have long histories, occasionally well documented but more often not. GoldRush is different. It is a thoroughly modern fruit, the product of focused 20thcentury science. 

Up until fairly recently in the history of the apple new varieties arose solely by chance, created at random by busy insects and scattered by hungry bears. Although humans have for millenia been singling out and perpetuating plants with traits that they liked, the idea that one could selectively breed new cultivars didn’t arise until the 18th century in the wake of the Scientific Revolution. The first breeder of apples, or at least the first to write about it, was British horticulturist and pomologist Thomas A. Knight (1759-1838). He had been experimenting with cross breeding peas and other plants, and, believing that the cider apples then in use were coming to the end of their natural life span, he decided to try to develop new apples as well. Some, like Downton Pippin, are still available today. 

By the late 19th century, professional scientists at universities and state-sponsored agricultural stations had gotten in the apple breeding game. Breeders in Minnesota were working on varieties that could withstand the bitter winters there; the New York Agricultural Experiment Station was working to improve the already popular Mcintosh. Soon scientists were looking to develop cultivars that would not fall prey to a variety of pests that negatively impact apple growers. As science came to a better understanding of the mechanism of inheritance, that knowledge was enthusiastically applied to the creation of new and improved apples. GoldRush is product of these efforts, coming out of a program seeking to create cultivars resistant to apple scab.

Apple scab is caused by a fungus, one that originated in Central Asia and that since the 19th century has spread throughout the apple-growing world. It infects pears and other related plants, too. It blights both the fruit and the leaves; the latter die and fall off while the former become blemished, unsightly, and unsaleable. Cosmetics might not be such a big deal for fruit that is intended for the cider mill, but if the leaf drop is severe enough over successive years scab can end up killing the tree. There are sprays, of course, but fungicides have their own potential issues, including residues on the fruit and in the environment, plus the added costs of the spray and labor to apply it. 

It is with these things in mind that a group of scientists got together to breed new scab-resistant apples. It started in 1945 as a collaboration between J. Ralph Shay at Purdue University and L. Fredric Hough at the University of Illinois. In the early 1940s, Dr. Hough had discovered what appeared to be a single gene in a Japanese crabapple species, Malus floribunda, that made the progeny that carried it resistant to scab. This discovery became the basis for the collaboration and the larger program that grew out of it. Other scientists at the University of Illinois stayed involved when Dr. Hough subsequently moved to Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and since then, the crosses developed by the program are known by the acronym PRI.

GoldRush’s Pedigree – from Crosby, et al, HortScience 29(7):827-828. 1994.

The seed that became GoldRush was first planted in May 1973 at Purdue’s research farm in West Lafayette. It came from a cross made in Illinois–Golden Delicious and Co-op 17, a great-great-grandchild of one of the original M. floribunda cultivars (new varieties deemed worthy of additional study were given the identifier Co-op plus a number. GoldRush was Co-op 38 until it was deemed worthy of commercialization). It took seven years to determine that the seedling was interesting enough to pursue further and released for advanced testing. By the time it was finally introduced to commercial nurseries in 1994, GoldRush, as it was now known, had been evaluated at Purdue and Rutgers, and by private growers in California, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Washington, as well as Bologna, Italy. 

Twenty-one years from seed to release seems like quite a long time, but in the typical life of an apple tree planted at random that’s practically lightening speed. Consider that a tree started from seed can take as many as seven to ten years to fruit for the first time. Then someone needs to discover it and wait possibly another ten years to see if it produces a decent crop and has something else to recommend it, good flavor and/or texture. GoldRush had the benefit of having a group of people watching it from day one, knowing just what they were looking for. Once it passed its first test, resistance to scab and other major diseases, it could be sped into wider trials to determine its over all value. Add in the time from the first generation of M. floribunda crosses, and the apple was nearly 50 years in the making.

GoldRush, named for its golden color and “rush” of flavor, had, and has, a lot going it. It bears fruit every year if not overcropped, and it’s a good size, an important consideration for an apple destined for the fresh market. It has a firm, crisp texture and what has been described as a spicy, rich, full flavor and sprightly acid. It can keep well in storage for as long as seven months without losing either, another important feature. The acid and the rich flavor are two of the things cidermakers mention in particular when you ask what they like about GoldRush. For though its intended destiny was the local supermarket, GoldRush has found a home in many a cider program as well, especially on the East coast where it is the most widely grown.

That acid and rich flavor were on full display in the ciders I tried recently all of which exhibited a range of tropical fruit notes in amongst the flavors of citrus and flowers. A few had been aged in oak, and while the notes of vanilla were a nice touch, the oakiness did seem play down the primary fruit flavors a bit. Two ciders in the group were at least five years old and still going strong, all that acid helping them to age quite gracefully. For those of you thinking you want to avoid a cider with any residual sugar, keep in mind that a little can be just what an acidic cider needs to achieve the right balance.

Wise Bird Cider, Lexington, KY – semi-dry; pine, pineapple, lime, lemon, green herbs, honeysuckle, passionfruit; sparkling; sparkling; 2019; 6.7% ABV

Albemarle Ciderworks, North Garden, VA – dry; lime, grapefruit, lemon, pineapple, green apple, pear, ripe peach, nutmeg, pine; sparkling; 2017; 9.9% ABV

Ploughman Farm Cider, Aspers, PA – dry; vanilla, pine, pineapple, lemon, lime, cedar, green apple, sweet orange; sparkling; 2019; 7.3% ABV

Westwind Orchard, Accord, NY – semi-dry; vanilla, pineapple, rose, lemon, slightly feral, VA; sparkling; 2016; 7.4% ABV

Manoff Market Gardens & Cidery, New Hope, PA – dry; vanilla, coconut, lemon, lime, wood, apple skin, pineapple pith; sparkling; 2019; 8.5% ABV

ANXO Cider, Imperial Blanc, Washington, DC – dry, lemon, lime, pineapple, lychee, melon, VA; sparkling; 2020; 8.3% ABV

Ringing in the New Year

Sloe-Berry Holiday Fizz

We’re finally going to see the end of 2021, a thoroughly unsettling year for many of us, and I for one am looking forward to a fresh start. Out with the Old and in with the New seems like a perfect reason to celebrate to me. What better way to do that than with a great cider cocktail! Here are a handful of simple recipes that you can use to get the party started.

Kir Normande

This is the simplest of all possible festive concoctions, and a classic to boot.

  • Very dry sparkling cider
  • Sugar cubes
  • Cassis liqueur
  • Lemon peel for garnish

Start by putting a single sugar cube on a plate then pour 1/4 teaspoon of Cassis into the cube so that it soaks in. Place the cube in the bottom of a Champagne flute, then fill the flute with the cider. Garnish with the strip of lemon peel.

Fence Line

This is a riff on one of the oldest named cocktails, the Stone Fence. Traditionally is was a simple mix of whatever spirit was common to an area and a local cider. Lately I’ve been using a locally produced rum plus a dry cider from Tilted Shed Cider, one of my favorite local producers, and have been adding a bit of spiced simple syrup for balance and a little warmth from the spices. Choose whatever is local to you be it rum, whiskey, or something else, and adjust the sweetness to taste.

  • 1 1/2 ounces Sugar Daddy Amber Rum
  • 3 ounces Tilted Shed Arkansas Black
  • 1/2 ounce Spiced Simple Syrup (see below)
  • Orange peel for garnish

Put the rum and the spiced simple syrup in a pint glass along with a generous handful of ice, then stir for 30 seconds or so to both chill the rum and combine it nicely with the syrup. Strain the rum/syrup into a double Old Fashion glass, then add the cider and more ice. Give the cocktail a stir, then garnish with the orange peel.

Spiced Simple Syrup

Place 1/2 cup of sugar in a pot with 1/4 cup of water, 2 cinnamon sticks, 6 whole cardamom pods, and 2 whole star anise. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat, cover, and let the mixture steep for 1 hour. Strain out the spices.

Sloe-Berry Holiday Fizz

One great thing about the holiday season is the appearance of tart and tangy cranberry ciders, perfect to get into the festive spirit. A tart, dry cherry cider would do nicely if you can’t find cranberry. As with the Fence Line, you may want to tweak the amount of agave nectar up or down depending on your particular palate.

  • 1 1/2 ounces Sloe Gin
  • 1/2 ounce dry Orange Curaçao®
  • 5 dashes Ginger Bitters
  • 1/2 ounce Agave Nectar
  • 3 – 4 ounces Cranberry Cider (I used No New Friends from Artifact Cider)
  • lime wedge for garnish

Place the sloe gin, orange Curaçao®, the bitters, and the agave nectar in a cocktail shaker along with a large handful of ice. Shake for a good 30 seconds, then strain into a double Old Fashion glass. Add the cider and some more ice, then give the cocktail a stir. Garnish with the lime wedge.

Foxwhelp

Broxwood Foxwhelp, Albert Johnson, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Foxwhelp. It’s sort of an odd name for an apple, if you think about it. No one really knows where the name came from, though in the 19th century some speculated that it was discovered by a hunter, growing near a fox den. It is a very old apple, mentioned by name in a number of mid-17th century English treatises on cidermaking. Apples were more typically cited by class, but Foxwhelp had already gained a reputation for making distinctive cider. As seems to happen with all famous apples, 200 years later there were any number of new arrivals bearing the Foxwhelp name–Bulmer’s Foxwhelp, Broxwood Foxwhelp, Black Foxwhelp, Red Foxwhelp, Rejuvanated Foxwhelp. How they related to the original wasn’t clear, though all seem to have found their way into some farmer’s cider barrels.

For all its reputation, Foxwhelp’s history in the U.S. is problematic. It crossed the Atlantic many times, it seems, but according to its DNA profile it turns out that the apple listed as ‘Foxwhelp’ in the official USDA apple collection in Geneva, NY, the source of scionwood for so many new orchards, is something quite unrelated, a Fauxwhelp.

The story of Foxwhelp’s arrival in the U.S. starts with William B. Alwood (1859-1946), Professor of Horticulture, Entomology, and Mycology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Vice-Director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station (1888-1904). As the 20th century approached, there was some concern in government circles that American apples not fit for the fresh market were going to waste, and something needed to be done about it. Some of those “waste” apples went to cider, of course, but the sense was that there was room for improvement. Funding was found to send Alwood on a research trip to England, France, and Germany where he studied all aspects of cidermaking with the leading experts of the time. He returned with enough information to write several treatises and a collection of scionwood for some of Europe’s most popular cider-specific apples, including Foxwhelp. A report on activities at the Virginia Experiment station published in 1904 said that the apple was thriving, though it had not yet fruited.

All of the research work done by Alwood and his colleagues came to naught, though, as Prohibition loomed. Alwood moved on to other work. The apple varieties he collected were relocated to another federal research orchard in Maryland, then mostly vanished from the public mind.

Foxwhelp next officially arrived in 1939 courtesy of the Gloucestershire nursery Hopwood & Sons, joining hundreds of other varieties grown at the USDA’s Plant Industry Station in Beltsville, MD. Twenty-four years later, according to A Survey of Apple Clones in the United States made by the USDA, Foxwhelp was being grown in agricultural experiment stations in Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, sourced from from the accession in Maryland, but also independently from a New York nursery (Kelly Brothers) and the Long Ashton Research Station in the U.K. By the early 1980s, it was advertised in the catalogues of several commercial nurseries, though who might have been planting it, and why, isn’t clear.

What of the apple currently held in the Geneva collection? What of Fauxwhelp? The database listing indicates it was donated to the collection in 1986 by Cornell University emeritus professor Roger D. Way, but not where he might have obtained it. There had been an state-supported agricultural experiment station in Geneva since the 1880s, maintained jointly since the 1920s by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Cornell University‘s Department of Pomology. Foxwhelp was listed as part of that collection in the 1960s. Trees die, however, and orchards get moved or labels switched. Clearly when the collection came under USDA control and moved to its currently location in 1986, some mistakes were made.

Fauxwhelp grown in Sonoma County, California

When it became clear that the accession in the USDA collection in Geneva wasn’t Foxwhelp, several individuals set about bringing in new material from established U.K. sources. John Bunker of Fedco Seeds imported Old Foxwhelp, Broxwood Foxwhelp, Red Foxwhelp, and Rejuvanated Foxwhelp. Dr. Greg Peck at Cornell University chose Bulmer’s Foxwhelp and Broxwood Foxwhelp from a different source. In the last year or so, as these importations neared release from a multi-year quartantine process, they were sent out for DNA analysis with some surprising results. The Old Foxwhelp and Red Foxwhelp imported by Bunker turned out to be identical, but his Broxwood Foxwhelp wasn’t related to Foxwhelp at all. It was another apple often used for cider called Ellis Bitter. Peck’s Bulmer’s Foxwhelp was also not a Foxwhelp, as one of its parents turns out to be Gala, an apple discovered in New Zealand in the 1930s.

All of this just goes to show that when dealing with old apple varieties, you can’t necessarily take an identity for granted. Orchards change hands, memories fade, records are lost. If the cider made from the fruit still finds a place in the market, a farmer may not be all that fussy about keeping perfect track of the original variety name.

What of the cider made from Foxwhelp? Historically it was admired, but not without its complications. Robert Hogg, in his 1886 book The Apple and Pear as Vintage Fruits, quotes one 17th century writer as saying. “Cider for strength and a long-lasting drink is best made of the Fox-whelp…but which comes not to be drunk till two or three years old.” Hogg goes on to say, “It will retain its full flavor for twenty or thirty years.” The secret to this incredible longevity wasn’t tannin, but acid, and lots of it.

It’s Foxwhelp’s acidity that commends it to cidermakers in the U.K. even today. Every cidermaker I spoke to on a recent trip to Herefordshire uses Foxwhelp to some degree. It is most useful in a blend, adding a lilting brightness even in small amounts, and its ability to lower pH aids in stability, a useful attribute for the cidermaker that employs little or no microbe-killing sulfite during fermentation.

The volume of apples grown as Foxwhelp in the U.S. is still relatively small, so there are few examples of single variety cider sold under that name. It seemed reasonable, then, to include here some sourced in England for comparison. All these English ciders were made with what the cidermakers believe to be Broxwood Foxwhelp, and all were as searlingly acidic as the writers of old would lead one to expect. Their common flavors were lemon and barely ripe stone fruit, apricot, peach, and plum. The example from Little Pomona had taken on a pronounced smokiness from its years in a used Islay whisky barrel, and its acid was somewhat rounder, perhaps due to the modified solera system in which is was made with the oldest cider in the barrel dating back to 2015. One of the American ciders was similar in its acid profile to its British counterparts, but with generally riper fruit flavors.

The second American example was altogether different. The fruit flavors were riper and spicer, and the acid level, though perfectly balanced, was medium rather than high. This is not particularly surprising, for one can deduce from the source of the scionwood that the apple used in this cider wasn’t Foxwhelp, but Fauxwhelp. That being said, it is a very good cider, one that I was happy to drink. In the end that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? The varietal name on the bottle might well give you clues as to what to expect, but the true measure of pleasure comes from what’s in the glass.

Newton Court Cider, Newton, Leominster, U.K. – medium sweet; lemon, apple skin, pear skin, yellow apple; sparkling; (undated); 6.6% ABV

Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Co., Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; lemon, lime, green plum, just ripe apricot, tart green apple; petillant; (harvested 2019, bottled 2021); 5.6% ABV

Oliver’s Cider and Perry Great Parton Farm Single Orchard, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; lemon, green plum skin, barely ripe apricot, barely ripe peach, tart green apple, lime, lime zest; still; (2020); 5.1% ABV

Little Pomona, Bromyard, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; smoke, lemon, green plum, just ripe apricot and peach, vanilla, cedar, tart orange; still; (from 2015, bottled 2020); 7.0% ABV

Eden Ciders, Oliver’s TwistNewport, VT – dry; lemon, green plum, green herbs, thyme, lemon zest, just ripe apricot; sparkling; (2018); 7.5% ABV (fruit grown in Lebanon, NH)

Alpenfire Cider, Port Townsend, WA – dry; baking spice, ripe apple, orange juice, orange peel, ripe peach, ripe apricot, hazelnut; sparkling; (2016); 6.9% ABV