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 appleproved 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, 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)

Golden Russet

My first deep dive into apple history came five or six years ago. I’d been asked to be part of an evening focused on the apple called Golden Russet which would include some history, a chance to sample fresh fruit from various orchards across the country, and single variety, or mostly single variety, ciders. The goal was to see if we could understand the apple a bit, tease out common flavors and textures the way wine enthusiasts do with their favorite grape varieties. Little did I know just what a challenge the history part of this project would be.

Golden Russet isn’t a particularly distinctive name. At its most obvious it indicates an apple with two notable physical features. The first is yellow skin, which is unexceptional when it comes to apples. The second is russeting, a rough, brown corky sort of texture on the skin surface, like your basic russet potato. Russeting isn’t particularly uncommon either for it appears on any number of apples, sometimes just in the cavity where stem meets fruit and sometimes over most or all of the skin. The presence and degree of russeting, though ultimately under genetic control, is significantly influenced by environmental factors, such as water on the apple’s surface early in its growth, so there can be a certain amount of year-to-year variation in the same orchard. As a name, then, while generally descriptive, it is not unique, unlike Slack-ma-girdle or even Porter’s Perfection. 

Another complicating factor for the apple historian is the habit that people had of not fastidiously adhering to single names but of adopting new ones as the fruit moved with pioneering families as they relocated to different, often quite isolated, parts of the country. A perfect example of this phenomena is the Putnam Russet. In the late 18th century, a number of members of the old Puritan family of Putnam moved from New England to the newly opened Northwest Territory and what would become the state of Ohio, although it took a while to clear out the native people that were already living there. They brought their favorite apples with them, of course, and one became known in those parts as the Putnam Russet. Several members of the Putnam family had a prominent place in Ohio society, so one can imagine why the locals attached the Putnam name to a well-liked fruit. It was not until a few prominent mid-19th century eastern pomologists figured out that Putnam Russet was identical to the venerable Roxburry Russet that the name was largely dropped, though Putnam lives on even today as a synonym for Roxburry, which is, incidentally, also a yellow russeted apple.

The 19th century ushered in a great enthusiasm for agricultural progress. Societies were formed by the dozens to debate and recommend reforms in farming practices, new farm machinery, and the best varieties of produce, apples included, for any given region. Books and periodicals on the same subjects flourished. New commercial nursery operations arose to provide “improved” varieties of fruit trees enticing farmers with stock that had a marketable name and reasonably well-understood growth habits. Some nurserymen recognized that problems had arisen with the names of varieties as well as in how they were being, sometimes inconsistently, described. Pointedly voicing his concerns in the 1843 Transactions of the New York Agricultural Society, Macedon, N.Y. nurseryman John J. Thomas lamented that among the difficulties being faced by the industry were “the numerous errors in the names of fruits, existing all over the country, and the consequent perplexity in procuring those which are genuine,” as well as the “multiplication of new varieties differing but slightly from old and celebrated ones,” and “the impossibility of speaking with confidence [about the identity of a particular variety] in many cases from mere descriptions, however excellent and perfect they may be.” Is it any wonder, then, that the apple(s) grown today under the name Golden Russet may be of uncertain provenance?

Spend enough time reading 19th century texts and you’ll find a handful of apples that come up time and time again called Golden Russet, or with Golden Russet as one of their synonyms–Bullock’s Pippin, Hunt Russet, English Russet, Perry Russet, and Golden Russet of Western New York occur the most frequently. There are others, as one might guess, but they seem to have mostly had regional reputations and may be less likely to have strayed far from their original territory.

The first to appear in the pomological literature was Bullock’s Pippin described by William Coxe in A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees in 1817. “This is one of the finest apples in New-Jersey, in the autumn and early winter months,” he wrote. “[T}he skin is yellow, inclining to a russet, the flesh is yellow, rich, juicy, tender and sprightly; it is an excellent cider apple.” It’s original name was Sheep-nose, which Coxe disliked, so he changed it opting instead to cite the name of the family on whose farm it had been first planted. Quaker John Bullock, member of one of the first families in Massachusetts, had bought land near New Hanover in Burlington County, West Jersey in the late 17th or early 18thcentury, and his grandsons Isaac and Amos where farming there still in the 1820s. 

Nurseryman and pomologist Andrew J. Downing thought that Bullock’s Pippin/Sheep-nose was a superb apple as well, so much so that he declared both original names to be demeaning and unworthy of such a splendid fruit. In 1845, he insisted it be renamed as the American Golden Russet. Some writers and nurserymen complied, but just as many kept the old names, and even into the 20th century all three names would be cited as synonyms, along with Pippin Bullock and, mysteriously, Little Pearmain. It was a popular apple grown throughout the Eastern seaboard and New England, moving west as settlers did.

Next on the list is Hunt Russet. The Hunts were another one of the original European settler families of Massachusetts, occupying land purchased from the Pennacook that became the town of Concord around 1635. Situated nicely on the crest of broad hill that the Pennacook had called Punkatasset north east of town, the farm was occupied and worked by the descendants of the original Hunt, William (1605-1669), for at least the next 250 years. 

One of the first, if not the first, mentions of the apple was printed in an 1853 issue of the New England Farmer. Editor Simon Brown knew it well, for he had spent time working on farms in Concord in the 1840s. Brown’s inquiries suggested that the original tree was planted by Deacon Simon Hunt (1704-1790), but by the mid-18th century the apple had spread throughout New England. “For productiveness, for the dessert, kitchen, for the home market and exportation, and for its beauty of form and coloring, the Hunt Russet, we think, excels any other apple in New England, and stands at the head of them all!”, he gushed. “Skin yellowish-green, nearly covered with russet, which is thickest near the stalk,” the Hunt Russet went on to be called by various writers American Golden Russet of New England, Golden Russet of Massachusetts, New England Golden Russet, and Russet Pearmain, and was on at least two occasions conflated with Bullock’s Pippin. 

Golden Russet apples from orchards across the US, fall 2017

Then there is English Russet, though the name I prefer is one of its synonyms, Poughkeepsie Russet, since it is, after all, an American apple. It was listed under the latter name in the 1832 catalog for the Prince family’s Long Island, NY nursery, one of 381 apple varieties offered that year. The catalog included a note that it was both American and good for cider and also gave it a second name, Nine Partners Russet. Both Poughkeepsie and Nine Partners are in Dutchess County, NY. Poughkeepsie is one of the area’s oldest towns and county seat. Nine Partners is the name of the land patent granted in 1697 to a group of nine English and Dutch land speculators who hoped to make, or increase, their fortunes leasing land to new arrivals. 

Unhelpfully, none of the 19th century horticultural writers noted the name of the person that planted the original tree, but it is possible that it was someone by the name of Haskins. A book of biographical sketches written in 1916 for the Massachusetts genealogical society included one for a Daniel Haskins, noting that his oldest recorded ancestor was Abel Haskins. Abel and his wife Mary, the sketch went on, set out from Nine Partners, Dutchess County in 1772 to become one of the founding families of Darby, Vermont. Mary, “a woman of uncommon energy. . .brought and apple tree with her from New York. . .becoming one of the features of the homestead and known as the “Nine Partners” apple.” One 19th century pomologist listed Vermont as the state of origin for the English Russet lending a certain credence to the Haskins story.

How it came to be called English Russet is never explained though it, too, went on to be planted well outside of its home territory. It even appears under the Nine Partners name in an 1831 German gardening book in a list of American apples being offered for sale by a French nursery located in the Loire Valley, and included another synonym, Little Russet, which is quite curious. It was certainly grown throughout New York for the export trade by the early 20th century, and had also developed a reputation for making good cider. 

Perry Russet first shows up in 1853 in the Wisconsin Iowa Farmer and Northwestern Cultivator. J.C. Brayton wrote a description of it’s appearance, that it had “and excellent sub-acid, spicy flavor,” and would “probably keep til May,” an attractive attribute for an apple at the time. “It has been received from Western New York, and Northern Ohio, under various names. The name here adopted was given by Mr. F. K. Phenix, of Delvan, who was first acquainted with the fruit in Perry, Wyoming County, N.Y.” Nine years later, J.C. Plumb wrote “It was formerly introduced into this state [Wisconsin] under the above names [Perry Russet, syn. Golden Russet], but seems to have been lost sight of by Eastern Fruit-growers” (The Wisconsin Farmer and Northwest Cultivator, 1862). That same year, O.S. Willey, another Wisconsin nurseryman added his two cents by writing “Too many can not be had, as it is the best of all the Russets,” but unhelpfully added “Perry Russet is a sort sent from the east under various cognomens, as Winter Russet, Poughkeepsie Russet, Golden Russet, etc.,” (The Horticulturalist, vol. 17, 1862). No one had any more to offer on the Perry Russet’s origins, though it is clear that there was already considerable confusion as to which russet was which.

Last but not least, Golden Russet of Western New York. This apple started out under the name English Golden Russet, the name given to it by A.J. Downing when he described it in 1845 in The Fruit and Fruit Trees of America, mostly so he could point out its inferiority to his beloved Bullock’s Pippin/Sheepnose/American Golden Russet. By 1850, the English Golden Russet, which many authors claimed to be of foreign origin, had acquired the synonym Golden Russet of Western New York (namely in J.J. Thomas’ American Fruit Culturist). It appeared on lists of recommended apples in periodicals published from New England to Wisconsin, but no one appears to have attempted to explain its origins. It was a valuable market apple, and where it came from didn’t seem to be important.

While each an every one of these apples, and a handful more besides, went by another name, more often than not whatever that name had been was simply truncated to the simpler Golden Russet, regardless which variety it actually was. All the various interested parties were well aware of this issue, as well as the fact that it could be challenging, especially for the ordinary farmer, to tell any of the various Golden Russets apart. Any number of horticulturalists took a stab at writing some treatise that would eliminate the confusion, which most often came down to differences in the growth habits of the trees themselves, admitting that the actual fruits were often very difficult to tell one from the other. English/Poughkeepsie Russet had upright shoots; English Golden Russet/Golden Russet of Western New York’s were slender and weeping and had prominent spots; etc. These are not traits that can be spotted in a newly grafted tree, nor for many years after. By then, everyone involved would have ceased to think much about exactly which Golden Russet they were growing, just wanting to get on with business. It is, then, nearly impossible to tell just which of these various varieties is being grown where today.

That being said, in the end it may not really matter except to the consummate apple enthusiast, which you might well be if you’ve kept on reading this far. The single variety Golden Russet ciders I tasted through recently ran the gamut from bright and easy drinking to deeply complex, in part due to their age, though a cider that hasn’t got the stuff to begin with will eventually just fade to nothing. All were reasonably high in acid, and some were surprisingly tannic. There were a few common themes–quince, melon, peach, honey/honeycomb–though they didn’t run consistently through all of the ciders. Perhaps that is the consequence of using different Golden Russets; perhaps is it just the effects of terroir or the choice of yeast. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Big Hill Ciderworks, Gardners, PA – dry; tart pear skin, quince, yellow apple, lemon, lime, banana, apricot skin, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2016; 8.4% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; baked apple, rose, sour orange, clove, ripe peach, dried hay, dried nectarine, beeswax, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2017; 10.2% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – semi-sweet; spire yellow apple, pear skin, lemon, ripe melon, lemon curd, lychee, peach, mild tannins; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)

Kite and String, Interlaken, NY – dry; ripe yellow apple, ripe pear, lemon, honeysuckle, leesy; bread dough, hay, green herbs, ripe tannins; sparkling; undated; 8.4%

Tieton Ciderworks, Yakima, WA – semi-sweet; quince, apple pear, baked lemon, lime, ripe melon, slightly bitter; undated; 6.9%

Two K Farms, Suttons Bay, MI – semi-dry; green apple, pear, pear skin, a touch of honey, just ripe apricot; 2018; 5.9%

Bauman’s Cider Company, Gervais, OR – semi-dry; rose geranium, ripe plum, yellow apple, ripe melon, quince, lemon pith, mandarin orange, ripe apricot, ripe tannins; sparkling; 2021; 9.9% ABV

South Hill Cider, Ithaca, NY – dry; baked apple, ripe yellow apple, pear skin, lemon, honeycomb, quince, hay, yellow plum; sparkling; 2019; 10.9% ABV

Stoic Cider, Prescott, AZ – dry; honeycomb, baked apple, clove, nutmeg, lemon, dried apricot, hazelnut, candied orange peel, medium tannin; sparkling; 2017; 8.5% ABV

Eve’s Cidery, Van Etten, NY – dry; honey, ripe melon, peach, apricot, hay, beeswax, tart orange juice, yellow plum, ripe tannins; still; 2019; 7% ABV

Sundstrom Cider, NY – dry; honey, dried peach, dried apricot, lemon, dried mandarin orange, almond, hay, dried thyme, clove, cinnamon; still; 2015; 9.4% ABV

Dabinett

William Dabinett was born in 1861, the 69th soul in the small Somerset village of Middle Lambrook. His father, also William, was a farm laborer and his mother, Sarah, a glover–working class families needed to earn every penny they could to make ends meet. By the age of ten William the younger had left school and was working in the fields, too. Farm work is hard, physical, thirsty work, and laborers were often paid part of their wages in cider until amendments made to the Truck Act in 1877 forbade the practice. No doubt it took a while for employers to take the new law seriously, though, and testimony in parliament made clear that they could still give their workers food and drink as long as it wasn’t in lieu of coin. 

Local lore says that one of the Williams discovered the eponymous tree growing in a hedgerow, a wilding or gribble in the dialect of Somerset. The tale does not, however, include when the discovery was made or what was done with the information afterwards. I like think that William was working for one of the cidermaking farmers in nearby Kingsbury Episcopi, perhaps Charles Porter or Richard Scott, and that William brought the apple to him. That might explain how the Dabinett name became attached to it, at any rate.

While census records indicate that William the elder was a farm worker until the day he died in 1865, his son managed to improve his lot. He had found employment as a gardener by the 1890s, and a decade later had started what turned out to be a pretty successful poultry-breeding business, leaving an estate of £2,126 (just under $100,000 in 2020 dollars)by the the time he died in 1918. There is no indication that either of the William Dabinetts had any more connection to either apples or cider beyond that fortuitous discovery. 

Dabinett the apple first enters the written record in the 1896 Journal of the Bath and West Society appearing in a table with analyses of local cider apples made by chemist Fredrick Lloyd, who’d been hired several years previously as part of the efforts to improve local cider. The apples been harvested in 1895 from the farm of the aforementioned Mr. Scott and had a specific gravity of 1.0655, 1.6 g/L of malic acid, and 2.7 g/L of tannin, making it a mild bittersweet according to the parameters that would be set later by the National Fruit and Cider Institute. (Also included was the already famous Kingston Black with an SG of 1.0672, 6.4 g/L acid, and 1.1 g/L tannin.)

In addition to funding Mr. Lloyd’s research work testing rootstocks, analyzing apple juice, and conducting experiments on the best practices for cidermaking, the Bath and West Society had also recently made the decision to add an exhibition of cider to their annual meeting. Exhibitions of this kind were intended to promote advancement by awarding prizes to the best examples of agricultural products important to the area. The Society had been rewarding producers of the best cheddar cheese, horses, dairy cows, pigs, and other farm products for decades, and cider certainly fit with their improvingmission. 

The first cider exhibition took place in 1895, then again in 1896 with slightly modified rules. Entries were classified by one of four regions (Devonshire, Herefordshire, Somerset, and anywhere outside of these counties), then sub-classified into cider made by, or for, 1. landowners that owned and occupied at least 50 acres of land, five of which had to be orchard, 2. tenant farmers occupying at least 30 acres, three at least in orchard, and 3. cider merchants whose business was making and selling cider. The final division was into two classes: cider in cask and cider in bottles. An interesting approach to say the least. The cider had to have been made in the year prior to the exhibition, made only with apple juice, and be a minimum of 4% alcohol by volume. Judges were instructed to consider “(1) Flavour; (2) Aroma; (3) Clearness; [and] (4) Alcoholic strength.” 

The Bath and West exhibition continues to this day, part of the annual Royal Bath and West Show each June.

In 1897, entrants were asked to include information about the varieties used, conditions in the orchard, and whether or not they used fertilizer, as the organizers thought this would add to the knowledge base for determining what made a good cider. Richard Scott included Dabinett in two prize-winning ciders that year (equal parts Chisel Jersey, Dabinett, and Kingston Black plus a handful of Cap of Liberty), and shared that he ran pigs under the trees. Norfolk cider merchant R. Rout & Son won both 1st and 2nd prizes in their regional division that same year with ciders made of russets and London Pippin and Blenheim Orange and Water Pippin, respectively. “These varieties would be considered, as a rule, rather table than cider fruit,” wrote competition steward F.G. Farwell when reporting on the exhibition for the 1898 Journal. “They made, however, a most excellent beverage. . . more like champagne than cider. . . It is clear that there is yet ample scope for further investigations as to the varieties of apples which can be used for cider-making,” he continued, demonstrating once again that quality and deliciousness is not synonymous with tannin.

The point about alcoholic strength is an interesting one. Each entry was analyzed by Mr. Lloyd to make certain that it was up to the grade. Just over 60% of the 1895 entries were disqualified as having insufficient alcohol (31 out of 51); 14 of 44 in 1896, and 16 of 44 the following year. This state of affairs was apparently a source of frustration to the organizers. “It is evident that cider makers as a class have not yet been convinced, and that they consider the 4 per cent [sic] standard too arbitrary,” Mr. Farwell wrote, also in 1898. “I submit with every confidence that the 4 per cent standard is absolutely necessary if cider is to have keeping qualities without the use of preservatives, and that any matter in the shape of preservatives is not only deleterious to the cider, but in many cases prejudicial to the health of consumers.” Keeping in mind that the sorts of preservatives being tested in cider at this time were formaldehyde and salicylic acid (aspirin), one can understand why both flavor and health might be compromised. Nevertheless, the Society changed the rules for the following year to allow a separate subclass for ciders under 4% alcohol. 

Dabinett appears on and off in the Bath and West reports over the next five or so years, though only from farms within five miles of Middle Lambrook suggesting that it remained very much a local variety. But people like Mr. Lloyd and the scientists at the National Fruit and Cider Institute, established in 1903, liked Dabinett very much. They grew it their research orchard, used it to test various orchard practices such as top-working existing trees, analyzed fresh juice, and continued to make test batches of cider (they thought it was best in a blend). Director B.T.P. Barker and Superintendent of the Fruit Department John Ettle published a summary of the Institute’s work in 1911, including Dabinett in their short list of high quality cider fruit as well as on a list of “profitable sorts to grow” thus encouraging Dabinett’s spread out of its home region. Though grown around the world today, it doesn’t do well in every climate. It grows best in places that give it a significant number of chill hours, time spent below 30˚ F during its winter dormant period. Without sufficient chill hours it tends to leaf out months behind its peers in the orchard, bloom at often inappropriate times, and grow hardly at all.

Long thought to be a seedling of another bittersweet apple, Chisel Jersey, recent DNA analysis has shown this to be not the case. More likely parents are Burrow Hill Early and Hereford Broadleaf. Whichever its parents are, though, it does in fact make a very fine cider, though the examples we tried suggest that the folks at the National Fruit and Cider Institute were right about it being best in a blend, for adding some percentage of juice from a sharp variety like Foxwhelp gave the smoky, leathery flavors of Dabinett a little more brightness. Many were matured in oak, which may account for some of the smokiness. Stone fruit flavors, apricot in particular, were another common note, along with mandarin orange. How I wish I could grow it, but, alas, my orchard site is just a little too warm.

Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; smoke, clove, baked apple, apple skin, mandarin orange, twigs, apricot, green herbs; still; 2017; 9.3% ABV

Oliver’s Cider and Perry, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; earth, forest floor, smoke, dried apricot clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla; still; 2019; 7.6% ABV

Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Co., Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, U.K. – dry; wood, leather, dried mango/papaya, clove, stewed mandarin orange, walnut skin, ripe peach, smoke; sparkling; 2018; 8.4% ABV

Sanford Orchards, Crediton, Devon, U.K. – dry; smoke, leather, apricot, cream, apple skin, clove; sparkling; 2018, 8.0% ABV

Blue Bee Cider, Richmond, VA – dry; geranium, bruised apple, pear, smoke, celery leaf, tomato leaf; sparkling; 2020; 8.5% ABV

SteamPunk Cider, Medina, NY – dry; apple, apple skin, apricot, mild smoke, lemon, melon; sparkling; undated; 7.5% ABV

Ploughman Farm Cider, Dabinett (60%)/Roxbury Russet (40%), Aspers, PA – dry; melon, leather, wood, smoke, green herbs, ripe and just ripe apricot, plum skin; sparkling; undated; 8.5% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; mandarin orange, ripe apricot, ripe peach, mango, hint of smoke, VA; still; 2018; 10.5%ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – dry; ripe apple, butterscotch, orange, smoke, just ripe apricot, clove, green apple, VA; still; 2020; 8.0% ABV

Alpenfire Cider, Port Townsend, WA – dry; apricot, peach, orange, hint of smoke, green apple skin, cream (very textural); sparkling; 2019; 6.4% ABV

Dragon’s Head Cider, Dabinett blend, Vashon Island, WA – dry; ripe apricot, ripe peach, faint smoke, orange, dried apple; sparkling; 2019; 8.0 % ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Dabinett (80%)/Ashmead’s Kernal (20%), Aurora, CO – semi-sweet; caramel apple, pear drop, apple juice, green plum, pear; sparkling; 2018; 7.9% ABV (apples grown in Yakima, WA)