Much of a cider’s character can be attributed to the apple varieties in it. Like wine grapes, cider apples are different from their fresh eating cousins. In European cider making regions, apple varieties have been selected for their outstanding fermentation qualities.
On a very basic level, the balance of a cider is defined by sugar, acid and tannins. Thus, cider apples are classified by their tannin and acid levels.
Bittersweets: tannin levels greater than .2% and acid levels less than .45%
Bittersharps: tannin levels greater than .2% and acid levels greater than .45%
Sweets: tannin levels less than .2% and acid levels less than .45%
Sharps: tannin levels less than .2% and acid levels greater than .45%
Additionally cider apples tend to have higher levels of sugar. While supermarket varieties tend to be in the 12-14 brix range in our growing area, cider varieties will often reach 15 brix and some as high as 20 brix.
True cider apples also have unique flavor profiles. In the same way that one would not want their red wine to taste like concord jelly, the aromas in a good cider are not predominately Mott’s apple juice. Some varieties lend themselves to tropical or summer fruit flavors produced during the fermentation. Others have slight citrusy notes; still others have a distinctive sweet and sweaty aroma particular to bittersweets. Varieties with tannins will have earthy, smoky, roasted or bitter underpinnings and velvety, deep texture. Some varieties will produce salty, steely mineral flavors.
A few varieties, such as Kingston Black and Northern Spy produce excellent unblended vintage ciders. For the most part though, a blend of varieties makes the best cider. We generally blend prior to fermentation based on harvest dates and a pH for a healthy fermentation, and blend after fermentation for tannin balance and more subtle flavors.
One of the exciting and challenging things for the orchardist growing cider apples, is that they are often growing these European varieties for the first time in a new climate or micro-climate. For example, as compared with England, we get hotter, dryer summers and sunnier falls. When you read descriptions in books about the kind of cider a Kingston Black makes, it’s the kind cider an English Kingston Black makes. I believe we have one of the best apple growing climates in the world. When grown with out irrigation or excessive spraying I think our apples also make some of the best ciders.
The following is a not at all comprehensive list of apple varieties grown in our orchards:
Medialle D’ Or
Heirlooms, Crabs and Others:
Cox Orange Pippen
Saint Edmund’s Russet
We also grow perry pears. Perry is cider made from pears, and just like cider apples, perry pears have higher sugar and tannin content and different aroma profiles than dessert pears.