Harrison

There was a time in the 19th century when the Harrison apple was one of the most famous cider apples in America, but its history reaches back much further. 

It takes it’s name from Samuel Harrison (1684-1776). Samuel’s grandfather and great-grandfather, both named Richard, came to North American with their families from West Kirby, a small town on the Mersey River in Cheshire, England. Part of the Great Migration of religious separatists, they arrived some time around 1640 and by 1644 were among the first residents of the town of Branford on the north side of the Long Island Sound. This area had been the land of the Quinnipiac people, but disease and war with both English and indigenous neighbors had taken it’s toll, and it was now part of the New Haven Colony, founded in 1638. 

Moving to a new continent did not actually mean that people were free from government control of their religious lives. The governing principles in each colony, especially in the north, were closely tied to the church. The right to land was often tied to church membership, for example, and different churches, or groups of churches, had varying ideas about what it took to become a member. The New Haven Colony’s ideas were considerably stricter than the neighboring colony of Connecticut, so the decision to merge the two in the mid-1660s set off a major rift among New Haven’s residents. 

Thus it was in 1666 that Richard, Jr. and family (Richard, Sr. died in 1658) followed the Branford congregation of Reverend Abraham Pierce to the newly English land of New Jersey where they founded the city of Newark on land purchased from the Lenni-Lenape. Richard was granted one of the first town lots, expanding his land holdings in 1675 to include an area known as the Mountain (now West Orange, NJ), which was where the tree that became the first Harrison apple was planted.

The planter was Samuel Harrison, Richard’s grandson. Samuel was an enterprising sort, owning not only extensive lands but the area’s only sawmill, a fulling mill, a blacksmith and carpenter’s shop, a boat that ferried people and goods between Newark and New York City, and, later in life, a cider mill. According to his son, another Samuel, he got a large number of seedling trees from a Mr. Osborne, a descendant of one of the first families in the New Haven Colony but now in South Orange, some time around 1713. (Personal connections were as important then as they are now.)

By the luck of the draw, one of these seedlings turned out to be a superior apple for cider. Exactly when this was recognized is so far lost to history. The first written account appears in the American version of Anthony Willich’s Domestic Encyclopedia, edited and augmented with information about American apples in 1804 by Dr. James Mease. Called also the Long Stem and Osborne apple, Mease describes the fruit as “of a moderate size, and of a rich dry taste, with a tartness that renders its sweetness agreeable and lively . . . keeps well a long time, and answers well for culinary purposes.” This is not a particularly detailed description, and nurseryman/orchardist William Coxe did better in A View of Cultivation of Fruit Trees, and the Management of Orchards and Cider (1817). “The shape is rather long,” he wrote, “and pointed towards the crown–the stalk is long. . . the ends are deeply hollowed; the skin is yellow, with many small but distinct black spots, which give a roughness to the touch . . .” Both authors describe the cider as “clear, high colored, rich, and lively” and “and of great strength commanding a high price in New-York, frequently ten dollars and upwards per barrel. . . .” Mease goes on to say that no less a figure than General George Washington preferred it to cider made from another famous cider apple, the Hewes’ (aka Hughes’) Virginia Crab. High praise indeed from a Virginian, if true.

The spread of the Harrison’s reputation can be traced through the young nation’s newspapers. Ads for Newark Cider made from Harrison apples (or simply Harrison Cider) appear in the New York Post starting in 1808, followed by Pennsylvania, south into Maryland, the Carolinas, Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky, north and west into Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and eventually all the way to California by the 1880s. Harrison Cider was shipped to the West Indies by the 1840s. Nurseries advertised grafted trees for sale in New York as early as 1804, and in Missouri, Nebraska, Kentucky, and North Carolina in the 1850s and 1860s. 

Demographics within the United States were changing, however. The waves of immigrants swelling the U.S. population were largely from countries where cider was not an important drink, and competition from beer and whiskey increased significantly. Newark and its environs were shifting from orchards to industry, as were many other parts of the east coast. Furthermore, at the turn of the 19th century more and more states were enacting laws prohibiting the production and consumption of alcohol. These and other factors encouraged farmers to shift from growing apples for cider production to fruit for the fresh and processing markets. This shift wasn’t absolute, of course, and Harrison cider could still be found in any number of places. It was, for example, the beverage of choice for the annual sheep-roast dinner held by the Crocodile Club, a group of socializing Connecticut politicians, at the Lake Compounce resort owned by the Norton family near Hartford. In 1907 the local papers reported that Norton’s Cider Mill had made 80,000 gallons of Harrison cider that season, some of which would be enjoyed by the Crocodiles.

Contrary to popular narrative, Harrison didn’t completely disappear post-Prohibition; Neenah Nursery in Wisconsin was advertising trees for sale in 1952, for example. Apple markets and consumer tastes had changed, however, sending farmers in a different direction. The intent to reverse that course, at least for Harrison, may have been what sent Vermont orchardist Paul Gidez to Essex County, NJ in 1976 in search of old trees. Good fortune helped him find a few, and he tried to establish an orchard of Harrisons in New England, with limited success. He also gave scions to Virginian Tom Burford, apple enthusiast/explorer, who became the Harrison’s champion. It took a few years, but Harrisons are once again being grown across the U.S. as the interest in cider and old apples has grown. 

Where there are apples there will soon be cider, of course, and it is now possible to find a range of Harrison single varietal ciders on the market. I recently conducted a blind tasting of six of them, all from harvests done in 2018 or 2019 and grown in different parts of the country, notably Virginia and Washington. I am happy to say that the 19th century writers were dead on. These ciders all have the richness of flavor that they describe, some with more acid, some with a little less, and are medium to full-bodied. What is interesting, though, is that each had a common aroma/flavor, that of sweet, ripe orange, sometimes veering in the direction of mandarin. 

Think about pairing these ciders with a dish that has some richness, like seafood or chicken with a butter or cream-based sauce or a creamy white cheese. An umami-rich soup would be a fine choice, too.

Here’s the lineup with some brief notes:

Albemarle Ciderworks, North Garden, VA – orange, orange blossom, fresh ripe apple, apricots, peaches, and mango; 9% ABV

Potter’s Craft Cider, Charlottesville, VA – orange zest, ripe apple, pineapple, peach, and mango; 8.2% ABV

Wise Bird Cider Co., Lexington, KY – orange, pear skin, slightly under-ripe nectarine, and tart plum; 8.1% ABV

Liberty Ciderworks, Spokane, WA – baked apple, baked pear, orange peel, clove, and nutmeg; 8.3% ABV

Tieton Cider Works, Yakima, WA – mandarin orange, pear, and asparagus; 6.9% ABV

Haykin Family Cider, Aurora, CO – baked pear, orange zest, and guava; 7.9% ABV (the Harrisons used by the Haykins were grown in Yakima, WA)

Let Us Speak of Apples

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

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

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

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

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

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

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

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

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

FARMERS ARE NOT FOOLS

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

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

A NEW WAY FORWARD

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

How Sweet It Is

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

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

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

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

Dry

Medium-Dry*

Medium

Medium-Sweet

Sweet

g/L

0 – 4

4 – 9

9 – 20

20 – 40

>40

%

0 – 0.4

0.4 – 0.9

0.9 – 2.0

2.0 – 4.0

>4.0

SG

1.000 – 1.002

1.002 – 1.004

1.004 – 1.009

1.009 – 1.019

>1.019

               (*aka semi-dry or off-dry)

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

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

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

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

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

Stone Dry LabelWyder's Pear Label

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

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

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

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

Redbyrd Label3 Pepper Cider Label

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