Cider Apples of Renown

If you're going to press your own apple cider you need the right cider apples.
By Michael Phillips
December/January 1995
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Many of the russets have earned a reputation as excellent cider apples.

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So you've decided to grow apples with the express intent of pressing them into cider. Having heard from MOTHER EARTH NEWS and other sources that mass market varieties aren't really up to the job, bred as they are for appearance and durability rather than flavor, you might be wondering what alternatives are best.

Heading the list of classic cider apples are the Golden Russet, Ribston Pippin, and the Roxbury Russet. Each of these makes a singularly rich cider by themselves, a nonblended distinction afforded few apple varieties over centuries of opinionated cider making. Bill MacKentley of St. Lawrence Nurseries in Potsdam, New York, likens a Golden Russet cider to "the nectar of the gods." Russets tend to yield a third less juice by volume than other varieties, but when dealing with heavenly ambrosia, who cares?

The North Orchard at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate in Virginia was dedicated exclusively to the pursuit of fine cider. Virginia Hewes Crab, Golden Permian, and the lost Tailiferro were particular favorites of Mr. Jefferson. Tom Burford of the nearby Burford Brothers Nursery in Monroe does a cider-making workshop here each October: "It's become commonplace to me now to hear people say 'I didn't know there were so many tastes in apples.'" The spicy Grimes Golden gets a strong Virginia commendation for hard cider makers, with a sugar content of 18.8 percent fermenting to 9 percent alcohol.

Out in Courtland, Kansas, amongst the wheat and milo fields, Dan and Carla Kuhn are defying the windswept plains with orchard plantings for their Depot Cider Mill. Jonathan apples squeeze out a sprightly subacid juice that the Kuhns blend in the renaissance spirit with Stayman Winesap, Arkansas Black, and Saint George. There are apples for every region and a cider for every taste.

My own cider favorites don't need to withstand tree-leaning winds as much as deep, cold winters. I'll know in the decades to come if these vintage cider apples — Sweet Bough, Peck's Pleasant, Fameuse, Wickson, Ashmead's Kernal, St. Edmund's Russet, to name a few — continue to pass the winter hardiness test on our sloping mountainside. Equally exciting are twentieth-century selections of Malus domestics that offer both marketable fruit and tasty juice. Milton adds an aromatic sweetness to our late-September pressings. Tree-ripened Paulareds make a good, mildly tart juice base. Macoun, today's vogue apple, crunches sweetly into the October nectar flowing from our water powered press.

Most of these latter apple varieties have been developed by growing out pollinated seed of two known varieties. For northern growers, the University of Minnesota brought forth a series of Malinda-crossed varieties with wonderful cider qualities, Haralson, Sweet Sixteen, and the nutty-flavored Chestnut Crab among them. Bill MacKentley affirms the worth of this century's selections: "The cardinal rule of a good breeding program is to release an apple only if it is superior to its parents." Name recognition aside, the buying public is missing out on the likes of Sharon, Joyce, and Wellington.

Home cider makers and orchard entrepreneurs will deserve high praise for reviving cider to its full array of flavor by blending apples like these. Such acclaim doesn't belong only to our era, however. As Mr. Jefferson might aptly remind us through the easy drawl of Tom Burford, "Oh no, we had that a while."

For lots more information on how to make cider, see Home Brewing: Cider Making.

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