Hard cider is one of the fastest growing beverages in the United States, and some cider makers are taking an extra step – growing their own apples.
“Hard cider is being compared to both beer and wine, but the reality is that it’s a unique beverage,” said Eric Shatt, an experienced winemaker and nursery/vineyard manager who currently oversees Cornell University’s orchard. “If you have to compare it to one or the other, it’s more like making white wine. It isn’t about brewing, cooking or heating; it’s about selecting fruit, pressing fruit and fermenting fruit.” In addition to his work at Cornell, Shatt and his wife Deva Maas grow cider apples and make hard cider at their Redbyrd Orchard Cider in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
There’s a lot to selecting suitable apples for cider, and even more to selecting nursery stock for growing apples.
“For cider, there are four main categories,” said Shatt. “There are the common apples, like Empire, Mutsu, Cortland, McIntosh. They’re everywhere, and there’s no reason to plant them because you can buy them. There are heirlooms, or antique varieties, that add certain styles of complexity and aroma, and are harder to source. Crossover varieties are heirlooms that can be used for either fresh market fruit or pressed for cider. Then there are specific hard cider varieties that add tannins, acidity and complexity. If you’re looking for tannin structure, there are lots of options. Brown’s Apple, Brown Snout, Porter’s Perfection, Dabinette and Kingston Black are fantastic varieties.” Crossover varieties that could be categorized either way include Ashmead’s Kernel, Tompkin’s King and Baldwin. Shatt adds that apples in these categories may not be highly productive, but they’re valuable for what they contribute to the finished product.
Selecting apple varieties for cider includes becoming familiar with various rootstock options. Most good cider apple varieties are not grower-friendly, so it’s critical to match scion vigor with rootstock and plan for the potential tree that the combination will create. Shatt says that rootstock selection depends on what you want, how much time you have and your ultimate goal. “In our case, we have minimal acreage – 14 acres – and we planted four of those acres,” he said. “We’re going to plant more, but we’re running out of tillable land so we’ve chosen dwarfing stock to maximize production.” Semi-dwarf rootstock or even standard size trees are good options for some growers, depending on orchard layout and available space.
“A lot of the European bittersweet cider apples tend to have some unusual growing patterns,” said Shatt. “Mainstream varieties like Empire, Cortland and Mutsu were chosen because of the way they’ll grow for a certain orchard system. A lot of popular cider varieties were chosen for the properties they have for cider. It’s important to think about how different varieties grow, and match with the proper rootstock.
For instance, if I were going to plant Somerset Redstreak and wanted to plant on vigorous rootstock, I would have to prepare for a big tree with a lot of vigor. But Brown Snout on B9 or G11, which are dwarfing rootstock, you’d have to plan a low-vigor tree that can be planted close together because the tree won’t fill a lot of space.”
When it comes to disease and pest management, it’s important to become familiar with the issues in your growing region. “If you’re going to plant cider-specific varieties, the two biggest management challenges will be fire blight and the biennial nature of cider apples,” said Shatt. “Certain sites will have issues with cedar apple rust, scab, coddling moth and oriental fruit moth.”
Shatt says that growing cider apples can mean less intensive pest management because apples won’t be under scrutiny by consumers. “For the fresh market, we have to concentrate on perfect fruit to meet market demand,” he said. “In the cider orchard, we can back off on perfect fruit and focus more intensively on fire blight and the biennial nature of cider apples.”
Fire blight management begins with selecting varieties for bloom time. The bacterium that causes fire blight enters the flower when environmental conditions are warm and moist, so late-blooming varieties are more susceptible.
Later blooming European bittersweet apple varieties, which Shatt says are an integral part of good cider, will be more susceptible to fire blight than early blooming varieties. “It isn’t uncommon to have bittersweet varieties blooming into late May and early June in New York,” he said, “several weeks after other varieties are finished blooming.” Shatt added that a Cornell study that involved slow and steady application of copper throughout the bloom period successfully suppressed fire blight.
Shatt says that the Geneva (G) series rootstock were all created under intense fire blight pressure. “If you’re going to plant fire blight-prone, late-blooming bittersweet apples, put them on fire blight resistant rootstock,” he said. “You’re more likely to avoid a disaster.”
Another challenge with many cider varieties is their biennial bearing, or alternate year bearing habit. As cider makers start planting larger orchards of bittersweet varieties for cider, proper thinning will be a critical aspect of managing crop load from year to year. “Not only do we have the alternate bearing situation, we also have the potential for a heavy crop with apples that are diluted in flavor and sugar,” said Shatt.
Harvest and post-harvest treatment of cider apples is an important aspect of production to consider. “If you are the apple grower and the cider maker, you can decide how to pick and process the fruit,” said Shatt. He also says that many hard cider varieties were originally selected because they drop naturally, and it’s easier to pick fruit off the ground than from the tree.
A challenge for cider makers who are purchasing some of their apples can be sourcing, whether the varieties are traditional or are being grown specifically for hard cider. “It’s important to communicate with the grower about what you want,” said Shatt. “A lot of apple growers who grow for the fresh market pick apples at the optimal time for storage. We don’t want hard cider fruit picked to be stored for three or four months. We want maximum flavor and sugar content. Pressing starchy apples is bad; pressing ripe (almost rotten) apples is better.”