Cider Apples of Renown

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Many of the russets have earned a reputation as excellent cider apples.

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.