Prune your planting list to these expert picks for the best cider apple varieties, and you’ll be making apple cider to sigh for.
To produce a flavorful cider, the pressed apples must contain a balance of sugar, acid, tannin and aroma. Few single varieties cover all the bases, but a blend will balance out any individual weaknesses. Here are six favorites from among the best apples for cider I’ve encountered in my decades as an orchardist. Each has proven merits ideal for making cider, and will also double as a delightful dessert apple. You can grow these cider apple varieties on your own property or seek them out at local markets and orchards.
1. ‘Arkansas Black’ is suited to fresh eating, cooking and cider-making. This 19th century variety produces fruit that’s as hard as a rock — an excellent storage quality in an apple. The yellow flesh is firm and crisp with a distinctive flavor that’s enhanced after a few months in storage. ‘Arkansas Black’ is resistant to most major diseases, but it’s vulnerable to apple scab and fire blight.
2. ‘Goldrush,’ the most modern variety in my top six, is a dessert apple that has become the darling of professional cider-makers. Developed in 1972 at Purdue University, ‘Goldrush’ exhibits a sweet-tart flavor and is a long keeper. The flesh is high in acid and sugar, with a rich, spicy flavor that improves in storage. ‘Goldrush’ trees are prone to cedar apple rust, but they’re highly resistant to powdery mildew and apple scab disease.
3. ‘Grimes Golden’ is believed to be a parent of ‘Golden Delicious.’ Popular for making brandy and cider because of its high sugar content of 18.8 percent, ‘Grimes Golden’ juice will ferment to 9 percent alcohol in hard cider. The apple’s crisp flesh has a spicy, sweet flavor. ‘Grimes Golden’ is tasty when sliced and fried or when made into apple butter. Only an average keeper, this cider apple variety is moderately susceptible to common apple diseases — especially collar rot — but somewhat resistant to fire blight and cedar apple rust.
4. ‘Harrison’ makes a dark drink that leaves a memorable sensation in the mouth. This variety’s rich juice will produce the quintessential North American cider on its own or when combined with the juice of another cider apple. The dense, yellow flesh yields a high volume of juice when pressed. I’ve measured the volume produced by ‘Harrison’ at 18 percent higher than that yielded by an equal amount of ‘Winesap’ fruit. This apple stores well and is appropriate for desserts and culinary uses. ‘Harrison’ trees are vigorous, heavy bearers and are resistant to apple scab.
5. ‘Roxbury Russet’ is likely the oldest named North American apple variety, dating back to the mid-1600s. These trees bear an all-purpose fruit suited to cider-making, with coarse flesh that’s more sweet than tart when fully ripe. The juice contains nearly 13 percent sugar, which will ferment to 6 percent alcohol in hard cider. This fruit is fine in desserts, and retains its flavor when dried. ‘Roxbury Russet’ offers good resistance to apple scab and powdery mildew, and it’s moderately susceptible to fire blight and cedar apple rust.
6. ‘Winesap’ was first described as one of the best apples for cider in 1804, and now dozens of strains exist. This long-keeping apple is sweet, crisp and aromatic. The versatile fruit is also a fine dessert apple and is delicious in brandy, applesauce and apple butter. Standard rootstock trees will grow vigorously, reaching as high as 30 feet tall and producing heavy crops — as many as 100 bushels in a single season. ‘Winesap’ trees are geographically adaptable, moderately resistant to all the major apple diseases, and escape late frosts because they bloom a few days later than mainstream varieties.
Bonus: Other worthy and historically proven cider apple varieties are ‘Baldwin,’ ‘Ben Davis,’ ‘Black Twig,’ ‘Empire,’ ‘Honeycrisp,’ ‘Jonathan,’ ‘Newtown Pippin’ (aka ‘Albemarle’), ‘Northern Spy,’ ‘Razor Russet,’ ‘Smokehouse,’ ‘Stayman,’ ‘Virginia Crab’ (aka ‘Hewes Crab’), ‘Wickson Crab’ and ‘Yates.’
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Known as “Professor Apple,” Tom Burford is dedicated to planting seeds of knowledge about heirloom apples. Buy his award-winning book, Apples of North America.