Crabapples

Manchurian Crabs, courtesy of CiderAuction.com

This is a tale about a group of apples that is not very familiar to most people–crabapples. First, let’s consider the name. The descriptor crab as used for apples goes back a long way, to the early 1400s at least. In their entry for the Oxford English Dictionary, the good people researching the history of words, whose job it is to know such things, could not decide whether or not it first referred to a cranky, sour person or a wild apple (M. sylvestris in Europe), which were generally perceived to be hard, sour, astringent, bitter, and thoroughly unpleasant to eat. They cite a number of references that could support either choice, then seem to throw up their hands and walk away.

Eventually the word crab apple came to refer to any apple grown from seed, whether planted as nursery stock by a farmer or by chance in a hedgerow, though the latter was looked upon with more suspicion. The association between wildness and crabbiness persisted and was as much philosophical as botanical. Wildness existed outside of civilization, the place where mankind had the opportunity, by the grace of God, to tame its sinful nature. Wildness was antithetical to order and to be discouraged. In the 17th century, apothecary John Parkinson wrote “Wildings and Crabs are withought number or use in our Orchard, being to be had out of the woods, fields and hedges rather than any where else” (Paradisi in Sole. 1629). There was hope for crab apples, though. It was clear that despite their unpleasantness, they could make good cider. “Wee may admire the goodness of God, that hath given such facility to so wild fruits,” noted Parkinson. 

A crab’s wild, unpleasant nature could also be transformed. Later in the century, devout Calvinist, cidermaker, and nurseryman Ralph Austen expounded on this point in A Dialogue, or Familiar Discourse, and conference betweene the Husbandman, and Fruit-trees (1672), one of the books he wrote about the spiritual nature of orchards and fruit trees. The Husbandman has a brief conversation with the famous Redstreak cider apple, how it was first called the Skidomore (Scudamore) Crab, but its name changed when people considered its true nature “and now we are everywhere cryed up, and in great esteeme amongst all men.” Later, the other fruit trees explain that the act of grafting itself can convert the “stocks that are of wild kinds, of bitter, harsh, and sower kinds” to the “sweete, and pleasant Nature” of the scion so that they would “bring forth Fruits according to their owne Natures; and the badnesse of the stocks cannot alter the goodness of the Grafts . . .that the God of Nature at first Creation fixed in every individual.”

The connection between crabapples and wildness has never completely disappeared, though modern scientists are more likely to define crab apples by their small size, typically less than two inches across. As it happens, though, many of the apples falling into the small category are descendants of wild Malus species, i.e. something other than our domesticated apples, M. x domestica. (The x here means that domesticated apples are themselves a hybrid of several wild species, mostly M. sieversii, but with genetic contributions from M. sylvestrisM. prunifolia, and M. orientalis.) The connection with tart and/or astringent crabiness has also stayed with crabapples, though each variety has more or less of one or the other.

As a group, crabapples had, and still have, much to recommend them. They have a well deserved reputation for hardiness, which endeared them to people living in less than ideal environments. They have long been planted as pollinators in orchards of domesticated apples, which are often not self-fertile. Their “crabby” nature also made them useful for canning and jelly-making, and for cider. Modern cidermakers are embracing crab apples once again, using them to give a lift of acid to blends, and sometimes fermenting them as single varieties. Here we’ll look as just three of them: Columbia, Kerr, and Manchurian.

Columbia Crab Apple

Columbia is a hybrid between the wild species M. baccata (aka Siberian Crab) and a domestic apple, Broad Green. It was bred by Willam Saunders (1836-1914), founding director of a group of government-sponsored experimental farms established in several Canadian provinces in the 1880s. Son of British emigres of modest means, Saunders has been described as one of the last self-taught natural scientists to rise to prominence in Canada. A pharmacist, entomologist, botanist, and agriculturalist, he developed many hardy plant varieties that could withstand the harsh cold of the Canadian north, including an early maturing wheat. 

His apple-breeding efforts started on the experimental farm near Ottawa, Ontario in 1894 with the planting of M. baccata seeds he’d gotten from the Imperial Botanic Gardens in St. Petersburg, Russia. The 1800s was a time of great international horticultural exchange, and using apples that were known to grow well in cold places as breeding stock made sense. In his report on the work, Progress in the Breeding of Hardy Apples for the Canadian Northwest (1911), he noted that M. baccata grew abundantly on the shores of the Baikal Sea, where temperatures typically range from a high of 14˚ C (57˚ F) to a low of -19˚ C (-2˚ F). Columbia’s pollen parent was also Russian, coming to North America in a shipment of scions sent to the Iowa State Agricultural College in 1879 from the Akademi Petrowskoe Rasumowskoe near Moscow. (Its Russian name,  наливное зеленой широкой, translates literally as bulk green wide. The fellows at the American Pomological Society seem to have thought that Broad Green was a reasonable approximation.)

1. M. beccata, 5. Columbia Crab

Saunders was not just looking for hardiness, disease resistance, and good flavor but also larger size. At 1.8 inches, (4.5 cm), Columbia was the largest of the crabs in the first group of new ones released to the public and quite a bit larger than at least one of its parents, as can be seen in the images above. Saunders described it as a very strong grower and fair bearer, red, with stripes and dots of a deeper shade, juicy and subacid with a pleasant flavor and slight astringency.

Kerr Crab Apple

Kerr is another Canadian apple, bred at the experimental farm near Morden, Manitoba. Canada’s western prairies are particularly harsh, dry and windy as well as cold. They were also largely treeless until Europeans moved in. Realizing that settlers would be more attracted to a place that wasn’t quite so bleak, the government established several experimental farms in Manitoba and Saskatchewan with the mandate to not only test and develop hardy agricultural plants, but ornamentals and trees and shrubs that could be planted as shelterbelts and windbreaks. The Morden site was located on land purchased from A.P. Stevenson, a “pioneer fruit grower, nurseryman, and the first commercial apple orchardist on the Canadian prairies”, according to William Alderman, author of Development of Horticulture on the Northern Great Plains (1962). Apple breeding started in 1916 with 25,000 seedlings sent from the experimental farm in Ottawa. Of the 21 new varieties released by 1962, 18 derived from this initial planting.

The Kerr crabapple is named for the scientist that made the original cross, William Leslie “Les” Kerr (1902-1986). He wasn’t at Morden long, just a year or two before moving on to become the superintendent of the Sutherland Dominion Forest Nursery Station near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where he had a long and very productive career. Released commercially in 1952, the crab apple Kerr created has a more complicated pedigree than Columbia. One of its parents was Dolgo crab, imported from Russia in the late 19th century. Dolgo’s parents were believed to be M. x robusta, (a chance hybrid between two wild species, M. baccata (which seems to have gotten around) and M. prunifolia), and a mystery pollen parent. Kerr crossed Dolgo with pollen from an M. x domestica variety called Haralson (parents: Malinda and Wealthy), introduced by the University of Minnesota in 1922 as part of their efforts to breed hardy apples.

Kerr Crabs from Verger Heath Orchard, Stanstead, Quebec

You can guess at the Dolgo genes in Kerr Crabs based on their bright candy-red color, though they don’t have Dolgo’s elongated shape . (Dolgo is one word for long in Russian.) It is hearty enough to be grown in Alaska, and, like Dolgo, it can make some very good cider. I’ve only come across one single variety Kerr so far, which seems like a shame. I suspect that it isn’t grow much in the U.S., as Eden sourced their apples from Quebec, something that was a near impossibility during the recent pandemic-related shut downs.

Manchurian Crabapple

Unlike Columbia and Kerr, Manchurian Crab is not a hybrid, but a species of Malus in its own right. Native to Japan, Korea, and other parts of northeast Asia, M. mandshurica, its botanical name, was probably first collected and described in Western literature by Russian horticulturalist Carl Johann Maximowicz (1827-1891). Maximowicz spent five years, starting in 1859, exploring China, Korea, and Japan, studying the unique flora and collecting samples. (There is a dried specimen of M. mandshurica at the New York Botanical Gardens collected by Maximowicz in 1860.) After his trip, he returned to St. Petersburg to work at the Imperial Botanical Gardens, becoming director in 1862. 

There is no record of just when Manchurian Crab arrived in North America, but it is easy to imagine that it was in one of the several shipments of seeds and scions sent from St. Petersburg to the Iowa State Agricultural College starting in 1875. Support for this idea can be found the collection records of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University which show that they received M. mandshurica from Iowa in both 1883 and 1885. It is still grown there today, one of the first crab apples in the arboretum’s collection to bloom in the spring. 

Manchurian Crab’s showy, fragrant blossoms are what recommends it to most, though it is also used as a mid-season pollinator in orchards across the U.S. It does not appear to have been used much for breeding, although for the last 100 years or so M. mandshurica was assumed to be a variety of M. baccata rather that a distinct species, so it is rather hard to tell from the records. It’s quite small by apple standards, making harvest a challenge, but the results seem to be be worth it.

All the ciders I tried had the bracing high acidity that you’d expect from crabs (the Columbias were a touch lower), which has allowed for some very elegant aging, especially in the two Kerr Crabs, which six and seven years from harvest still showed plenty of intense primary fruit. Each crab apple could be distinguished from the others–stone fruit in the Kerrs and orange notes in the Manchurians, for example. There were also notable differences in astringency with little to none in the Columbia Crab ciders and moderate amounts in the Manchurians.

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA, Columbia Crab – dry; quince, green apple, pear, nutmeg, oregano, lemon; sparkling; 2016; 7.3% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA, Columbia Crab – semi-dry; green apple, lemon, thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, pear; sparkling; undated; 6.7% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA, Columbia Crab – semi-dry; green apple, quince, lemon, marjoram; sparkling; undated; 7.4% ABV

Eden Ciders, Newport, VT, King of the North (Kerr Crab) – semi-dry; candied lemon, golden raisin, almond, pear, dried peach, rose, violet, plum, fresh Gravenstein apple; sparkling; 2015; 6.5% ABV

Eden Ciders, Newport, VT, King of the North (Kerr Crab) – semi-dry; lemon, yellow apple, pear, yellow plum, golden raisin, orange; sparkling; 2016; 6.5% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Vashon Island, WA, Manchurian Crab – semi-dry; yellow apple, lemon, pear skin, plum skin, cardamon, fennel; sparkling; undated; 6.9% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO, Manchurian Crab – semi-sweet; rose, orange blossom, baked apple, sweet spice, orange rind, lemon; sparkling; 2017; 7% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

Ploughman Cider, Aspers, PA, Manchurian Crab – semi-dry; lemon, yellow apple, plum skin, orange rind, fennel; sparkling; 2017; 10% ABV

Big Hill Ciderworks, Gardeners, PA, Manchurian Crab – dry; twigs, orange zest, tart plum, lemon, sour orange, cranberry, pear, just ripe nectarine; sparkling; undated; 8.2% (blended with a small amount of Winchester apple)

McIntosh

McIntosh is such a familiar apple in the U.S. that we tend to forget that its true origins are farther north in Canada. It got its name from John McIntosh (1777-1845), the man that found it growing on land he was clearing outside of Matilda Township in the county of Dundas, Ontario near the St. Lawrence River. He’d arrived there some time in the late 18th or early 19th century from New York’s Mohawk Valley, part of the second wave of European settlers moving into an area long inhabited by the Algonquin, Iroquois, and Wyandot peoples. The first wave had arrived in the 1780s. They were mostly German protestants resettled in England’s American colonies after being ousted from their home in the Palatine by the religious conflicts that were devastating much of Europe. Though historical accounts suggest that they were treated as little more than a cheap source of labor to support the business interests of the controlling English aristocracy, the Palatine ex-pats remained loyal subjects of the crown. Thus were they once again uprooted, heading north into territory still under British rule after the bloody war that turned 13 disparate colonies into the beginnings of the United States.

Known as the McIntosh Red, it seems to have remained a local variety until the 1870s, first noted in a handful of articles in northern Vermont newspapers. “A New Apple” trumpeted the headline over an article written by Guy A. Clough of Braintree, VT to the Vermont Farmer in April 1874. He said that he had accidentally discovered the applewhile traveling in Canada, coming across it in a market and finding it so wonderful that he tracked down its source, John McIntosh’s son Allen. “Your informant became so much interested in . . . this tree, that he traveled over a large section of country . . . in search of rebutting testimony [to its superior qualities], but found none, each affidavit being of the most positive character . . .”, he wrote. 

The qualities possessed by McIntosh Red, according to Clough in this and subsequent correspondence, would recommend it to any farmer. The trees bore a decent crop every year, for example, instead of the habit of biannual bearing that many otherwise good apples exhibit, even today. The fruits were large, had an attractive red color, and were reported to keep well into the spring following harvest. But it was the tree’s hardiness and reported resistance to frost damage that seems to have most interested Vermont farmers. Winters in the area could be harsh with temperatures often dropping to -20˚ F, according to one writer. Many of the popular market apples simply couldn’t handle such severe cold. Various horticulturalists had started importing varieties from Russia in hopes of finding or breeding apples that could survive in the coldest climes of Vermont, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, but maybe the native-born McIntosh Red would prove to be a winner for the farmers of the north.

from The Canadian Horticulturist, 1900

The editor of The Enterprise and Vermonter set out the case in a piece entitled “A Remarkable Apple Discovered” March 1874. “This apple . . . originated in [Matilda, Dundas County] . . . transplanted from the edge of the forest seventy years ago, with perhaps twenty other trees found scattered about in the county, which was then an almost unbroken wilderness,” he wrote. “The other trees have been dead more than thirty years, but . . . the McIntosh Reds . . . are still alive, the tops being thrifty and healthy.” “[I]t is conceded that the frost,” he went on to write, “which is generally so fatal to the apple blossom, never injures this variety in the least. In some instances the ground about the trees has been frozen sufficiently hard to hold a horse, when they were in full bloom, but while other trees were entirely spoiled these were not in the least affected.” This is a singular statement, but if true could make a significant difference to a farmer’s potential bottom line. The papers were soon filled with notices that local nurserymen, including Clough’s son Storr, had grafted McIntosh Red trees ready for sale.

Buying ready grafted trees was something of a new phenomenon. For most of North America’s post-European settler history famers had simply either relied on whatever seedlings were at hand or grafted a seedling tree with a familiar variety themselves. There were a handful of plant nurseries early on, of course, but they mostly catered to the well to do, folks that could afford the significantly higher price tags. The situation had begun to change by the middle of the 19thcentury as selling fruit with recognizable and marketable names increased in importance. The farmer wanting to purchase ready-grafted trees could, then as now, write to a nursery and request a printed catalog, then mail in an pre-paid order and wait for delivery. But there was also another option: the nursery agent. This fellow (it was always a man) would travel the rural highways, knocking on doors with catalog in hand, taking orders for trees and other plants. The order eventually reached the nursery, and some time later the nursery agent would return with the goods. This had tremendous advantages for the rural farmer, for he (also invariably male) would have the opportunity to purchase new and improved varieties that he might not otherwise have know existed, or access stock that was unavailable locally. An article in the February 1871 issue of The Horticulturist stated that “probably nearly three-fourths of the nursery stock sold throughout the United States, is sold by personal solicitation of agents or dealers . . .” a remarkable percentage, if true. The system worked splendidly, too, provided the nursery agent was an honest one (the many help wanted ads stressed the importance of good character). 

Unfortunately, this was not always the case. “[A]pparently the great evils the agriculturalist has to deal with are insects and tree-dealers; these two, and the greatest of these is the tree-dealer,” wrote editor James Vick in 1879 (Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine, October). There was, for example, no guarantee that the trees an agent brought to the farm were actually what was ordered, and it took years before the tree would bear enough fruit to tell one way or the other. “I purchased six of those trees [Wealthy] of one of those unreliable beats.,” complained one farmer in a letter to the Vermont Farmer in April 1880. “Three of these trees never leaved (sic) out, and the other three proved to be Soulard crabs.” Anyone could pass themselves off as an agent by ordering a catalog from a well-respected nursery, declare themselves to be that nursery’s representative, then order and pass on possibly quite inferior stock from practically anywhere. The most reputable nurseries took great pains to ensure that their representatives were trustworthy. Some gave their agents special catalogs prominently bearing the agent’s name on the cover or issued official certificates to them, regularly noting these means of authentication in their ads. Others required agents to send in their order books as soon as they were filled so the nursery could monitor sales and makes sure inventory was adequate and properly labeled. 

These measures seem to have had an effect, for despite the problems reported in the press, nursery agents proved to be anenormous boon to both the farmer and nursery industry. By the 1890s McIntosh was being grown across the continent, from British Columbia to Pennsylvania. It grows best in cooler climates; in places with warmer autumns it tends to fall from the tree before becoming thoroughly ripe. It is still one of the the top 10 apples grown in the U.S. today and accounted for more that a quarter of the Canadian apple crop in 2018, though there are rumors it is loosing ground to newer, sweeter, and crunchier cultivars. 

McIntosh Red was never touted as a great apple for cider, though doubtless more than one found its way into the press as part of a blend. The cidermakers of the 19th century may not have realized what they were missing. A number of 21stcentury cidermakers have taken to McIntosh and are making some throughly tasty ciders with it. The best balance McIntosh’s bright acid with just a hint of sweetness, and when grown well this apple seems to make ciders with real intensity and complexity of flavor, often with an interesting herbal note. 

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – semi-dry; ripe apple, baked apple, sweet lemon, anise, pear skin, cardamon, mango; 2017; 8.2% ABV

Gowan’s Heirloom Cider, Philo, CA – semi-dry; ripe apple, baked apple, pear skin, lemon, almond, orange juice, fennel, ripe pear, cinnamon; 2018; sparkling; 6.8% ABV

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – semi-dry; ripe apple,, blossom, cinnamon, ripe pear, lemon juice, pear skin, guava, lemon grass, fresh thyme; sparkling; 2021; 6.0% ABV (apples grown in the Bitteroot Valley, MT)

West County Cider, West-View Orchard “M2”, Sheridan, MA – semi-dry; ripe apple, pear skin, mint, rose, anise, fresh thyme, lemon, yellow plum; sparkling; undated; 6.5% ABV

West County Cider, West-View Orchard “Pura Vida”, Sheridan, MA – semi-sweet; ripe apple, ripe pear, lemon, green apple skin, lemon rind, fresh thyme; sparkling; undated; 5.5% ABV

Newtown Pippin

The global trade in fresh fruit amounts to about 80 tons a year with a value of roughly 75 billion dollars. Bananas, limes, grapes, mangos, pineapples, oranges, pears, blueberries, strawberries, and kiwis zip around the world by air, sea, train, and truck. Most of us don’t give the fact that our fruit has traveled so far a second thought. The mass globalization of the fruit trade is relatively modern phenomena, however, and there’s an argument to be made that it was pioneered by an apple, and an American apple at that, the remarkable Newtown Pippin.

Newtown Pippin was born on Long Island in the village of Newtown (now Elmhurst in Queens County) on land owned by one of the Moores, Gershom or Samuel (historical accounts differ). Their father, Rev. John Moore, had been one of the village’s founders in the 1640s, and the original tree was probably planted not long after. At the time, New York was still New Netherland under the control of the tolerant Dutch. That lasted until 1664 when the Dutch governor turned over all the territory that they “owned” in the area to the British and their four threatening war ships, despite the fact that the two countries were technically at peace. The good folk of Newtown had declared their allegiance to England’s king, Charles II, some months before, so local life didn’t change much. In the long run, though, it made it easier for the villagers to significantly expand their geographic horizons.

The apple’s next move was probably to what would become northern New Jersey. Long Island’s land was finite and already largely spoken for. Since farms had to be a minimum size to support even one family, younger sons were forced to move elsewhere if they wanted farms and families of their own. Farming in this age was largely about subsistence, growing enough food to support oneself and one’s family, though having excess to sell or trade was an important part of the economy, too. Access to a waterway was key, roads being few and far between (and bad to boot). Thus did many of the sons of Newtown, including several of the Moores, begin the 18th century by moving to land between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Most settled in Hopewell along the east side of the Delaware, giving them market access to the largest city in North America at the time, Philadelphia. The Moores that moved to Hopewell probably brought Newtown Pippin with them, though nothing has been found in the documentary record to confirm this (so far).

What the Moore family had undoubtedly figured out was that not only was Newtown Pippin a tasty apple, it was a perfect apple for shipping, firm enough that, if packed well, it didn’t bruise. It kept well for months, even without refrigeration, and even got more complex and aromatic with time. (Anyone who has inadvertently kept a case of Newtown Pippins in the back of their car for a week and been enveloped by the rich, tropical aromas they emit can attest to this.) Others would have noticed this, too, and gotten scion wood to graft trees of their own. By the mid-18th century, advertisements for land with bearing orchards of Newtown Pippins were appearing in various colonial newspapers–the New York Gazette (1751), Pennsylvania Gazette (1752), and Virginia Gazette (1766), for example. Nurserymen were advertising grafted trees for sale as early as the 1750s, significant in an era when planting a new orchard from seed was commonplace. Farmers were selling apples in nearby towns, and shipping them to the plantations in the Caribbean where land was more profitably used for sugar production, not food. 

Then, in 1758, Benjamin Franklin, settled in London as a newly appointed colonial agent, wrote home to his wife Deborah chiding her for not having sent him any apples. “Newton Pippin would have been most acceptable,” he wrote. Good wife that she was, she soon did, making them the first American apples to cross the Atlantic. Franklin was happy to share them with his friends, of which he had many, and they responded enthusiastically to this tasty fruit from afar. One was Peter Collinson, who had a business relationship with American horticulturalist John Bartram. Bartram had for years been sending Collinson regular shipments of American plants he’d either grown or collected; Collinson in turn sold them to English aristocrats intent on filling their estates with the “exotic” plants of the new world. Within months of trying Franklin’s Newtown Pippins Collinson was asking Bartram to send him grafted trees and/or scion wood, which Bartram did, though he complained that he thought there were better apples. Another was Dr. John Fothergill who seems to have given some apples to explorer Joseph Banks, probably in dried form. Banks took them with him as he explored the South Seas with Captain James Cook and the HMS Endeavour between 1768 and 1771, including Tahiti, Australia, and New Zealand. A diary entry for December 1769 notes that they made an excellent pie.

By the 1770s, newspapers throughout the UK were advertising Newtown Pippin nursery stock for sale, and orchardists across the land were trying to grow their own–and largely failing. Plants have their place, their terrior, and Newtown Pippin wasn’t meant for England’s cooler, damper climate. Even prominent horticulturalist William Forsyth, superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington and St. James’ Place, admitted that “[t]he New-Town Pippin is a fine apple in good season, but seldom ripens with us,” (A Treatise on the Management and Cultivation of Fruit Trees, 1803).Enterprising merchants set about importing apples instead, slowed down only a little during the few years it took for the colonies to break their political ties with the motherland. The demand did nothing but increase after 1834 when Andrew Stevenson, Minister to the U.K. under Andrew Jackson, and his wife Sally sent the newly crowned Victoria a basket of Newtown Pippins grown in their home state of Virginia (where they went by the name Albermarle Pippin). The apple proved to be such a delight to the royal household that the excise duty applied to the importation of apples was lifted for that variety only.

With a ready and enthusiastic market available, American farmers planted Newtown Pippins by the thousands. On the east coast they became a signature apple in Virginia, New York’s Hudson Valley, and the shores of Lake Ontario, with farmers shipping apples by the ton to English markets. They traveled west as European settlers did, and really took hold in the western states because of their ready access to international shipping channels. Newtowns arrived in Oregon with Henderson Lewelling in 1847 and spread from there, north to Hood River, for example where exports started in the 1890s and where they are still grown today. 

Newtown Pippin headed south, too, first to the Gold Country around Sacramento in the early 1850s, then to California’s Pajaro Valley near Watsonville, an hour and half south of San Francisco. Exports from the area started in the 1870s, first to the fast growing city of San Francisco, then farther afield to Great Britain and it’s colonies in Australia and the far east. It also became the signature apple of Martinelli’s cider company, which started in the 1880s making fermented cider but segued into sweet sparkling juice when Prohibition reared its ugly head. Newtown Pippin was, and still is, the mainstay of Martinelli’s cider, so even as exports eventually fell off in the 20th century, though it took many decades, farmers kept those old trees in the ground instead of replanting with fancy new market varieties like Honeycrisp.

Newtown Pippins from 36 orchards across the U.S., 2017

The popularity and importance of Newtown Pippin cannot be underestimated. It has not only been grown on a commercial scale continuously in the U.S. for the last 300 years, but in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia as well. And though today you are more likely to find it as a fresh apple at a farmer’s market or roadside fruit stand, where it will undoubtedly be labeled simply Pippin, there are still a significant number of Newtown Pippin orchards around, meaning Newtown Pippin is one of the most widely available single varietal ciders in the country. 

I’ve been evaluating, and collecting, Newtown Pippin ciders for the last five or six years and had more than two dozen to try recently, some of which I’d had before. To be frank, most of the older ones had not held up that well. What had been lively and interesting flavors in 2018, when they’d been in bottle just a year or two, were now faded to almost nothing, not oxidized or flawed, just gone. To age well, wine, and presumably cider, needs a couple of things. The first is structure, significant acid or tannin or both to allow it to evolve into something more interesting with time. The second is a certain intensity of flavor, enough of those wonderful aroma and flavor components to morph from fresh bright fruit to honeyed, dried versions, for example. My memory tells me that these older ciders had the latter, but it seems not the former. Newtown Pippin in general does not have much in the way of tannin, though there are exceptions, and the ciders that had not held up had only moderate acids levels. If a cider I try is not at its best, it doesn’t get included, so that’s all I’ll say about them here. 

There were several exceptions made from apples harvested in 2016. Two, made by Angry Orchard and Liberty Ciderworks, still had some of the highest acid levels of any of the older Newtowns I tried giving them that needed structure. The others were two ciders made by Tilted Shed Ciderworks. The fruit for these came from two different orchards, one in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville and the other in Sonoma County, but both were dry-farmed (no irrigation or meaningful rain from at least April until October). They were pressed and processed separately using the traditional method, en tirage for 16 months before being disgorged. In early 2018 each was distinguishable from the other, the one from Sonoma County full of intense flavors of root beer, lemon, and peppermint and the Pajaro Valley example showing more notes of baking spice and savory dried herbs. What was truly interesting, however, is that both had two to two and a half times as much measurable tannin as any of the 30-some-odd Newtown Pippins sampled at the time, as much as is typically reported for Kingston Black apples (2 – 2.5 g/L). You could feel it in the cider’s body as well. Dry-farmed fruits, whether grapes or tomatoes, have a well-deserved reputation for a greater intensity and complexity of flavor, and in these examples that orcharding practice may well have pumped up the tannin content of the apples, too.

As for the Newtown Pippins of more recent vintage, their acid levels were generally moderate, and though tannins were noticeably present, more so than one might expect from what is generally considered a table apple, the levels did not approach those of the dry-farmed fruit. There was often a savory herbal quality and tropical fruit notes, especially those made from apples grown in a more Mediterranean climate.

Scar of the Sea Wines, San Luis Obispo – dry; lemon juice, lemongrass, melon, dried apple, dried pear, dried thyme; sparkling; 2018; 8% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-dry; ripe yellow apple, ripe pear, pear sauce, lemon, honey, ripe peach; sparkling; 2017; 6% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – dry; green apple, green apple skin, green plum, dried apple, slight bitterness; sparkling; 2019; 8.6% ABV

Potter’s Craft Cider, Charlottesville, VA – dry; fresh green apple, mango, allspice, green pear, thyme, toast, bread dough, smoke, slightly bitter; sparkling; 2020; 8.4% ABV

Tanuki Cider, Santa Cruz, CA – dry; tart yellow apple, lime zest, lemon pith, dried herbs; sparkling; 2020; 8.5% ABV

Ethic Ciders, Sebastopol, CA – dry; cardamon, nutmeg, mango, lemon rind, honeysuckle, nectarine, pineapple, rose; sparkling; 2021; 7.5% ABV

Golden State Cider, Sebastopol, CA – dry; hay, dried twigs, ripe yellow apple, lemon rind, dried thyme, melon; sparkling; 2021; 7.9% ABV

Two Broads Cider, San Luis Obispo, CA – dry; fresh yellow apple, pineapple, fresh thyme, fir tips, lemon, apricot, pear skin; petillant; 2019; 8.5%

Angry Orchard, Walden, NY – dry; smoke, jalepeño, dried thyme, dried apple, stewed pear; sparkling; 2016; 8.8% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; ripe yellow apple, fresh and dried, pear skin, lemon juice, dried apricot, dried thyme; sparkling; 2016; 7.2% ABV

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; dried green herbs, dried apple, dried pineapple, lemon juice, lemon pith, green plum; sparkling; 2016; 9% ABV (apples grown at Vulture Hill, Sonoma County)

Tilted Shed Ciderworks, Windsor, CA – dry; dried apple, dried pear, dried thyme, lemon peel, lemon pith, dried mango, dried oregano, honey, creamy texture; sparkling; 2016; 9% ABV (apples grown at the Five Mile Orchard, Pajaro Valley)