Spitter apples and the future of innovative hard ciders

by Melissa Piper Nelson

At question is a small, dark red, bitter apple. A bittersharp “spitter” (for spit it out) variety, the Kingston Black is nonetheless desired by innovative hard cider makers across the U.S. for its blend of acidity and tannins. Unfortunately, it also has become the metaphor for a diminishing supply chain of coveted hard cider apple cultivars.

At the crossroads are apple growers who supply the burgeoning hard cider industry with mostly sweet dessert and sweet-tart varieties and the determination of craft cider makers to create regional “terroir” blends.

While apple growers have definitely benefitted from the cider business, the time, resources and management required to produce more complex cider-specific varieties pose serious economic concerns.

In spring 2017, Harvest NY, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agriculture program, conducted a survey with apple growers, hard cideries and nurseries to explore the state’s supply chain. One of the findings concluded “the hard cideries are having a hard time sourcing apples varieties from the following categories: specialty cider bittersharps, bittersweets, and heirloom dual purpose.” The same concern is echoing throughout the industry as innovative producers stretch the boundaries of hard cider production and craft beverage consumers seek new tasting experiences.

“The rapid increase in cider production and consumption has led to a critical shortage of the apple varieties preferred by craft cider makers who strive to make high-value ciders,” cautioned the New York Fruit Quarterly.

What makes a good eating apple does not always translate to the perfect ingredient for complex hard cider. Cider-specific apple varieties are those which ferment well with a blend of acidity, tannins and sugars. Some older apple varieties (think crisp-tart), heirlooms and bittersharps (the distinct tang of a crabapple) blended with good balance produce a taste-worthy and punchy (but pleasing) hard cider. In the U.S., however, apple growers have long established acreage devoted to sweet dessert-type apples or sweet-tart varieties for fresh consumption or baking. It is often pointed out that older bittersharp or bittersweet orchards that once touted European varieties of cider apples were destroyed during Prohibition.

A recent University of Vermont USDA marketing study noted the steady growth of cider sold in the U.S. from 6.4 million gallons in 2007 to 54 million gallons in 2014. Hard cider has been identified as the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic beverage industry. That same year, the U.S. cider industry required 18 million bushels of apples – 7 percent of all apples grown in the country. Vermont cider makers surveyed said they favored apple cultivars which included dessert, dual-purpose and specialty cider varieties including the Kingstown Black. The market challenges identified, however, showed a “limited interest from growers to grow specialty cider cultivars.”

The reluctance to establish new cider cultivar orchards is about management and economics more than accommodating cider makers. Some cider cultivars are difficult to establish and are late-blooming and sensitive to heat stress, making for more complex production and post-harvesting management. According to one researcher, “The European Bittersweet and Bittersharp varieties definitely pose unique challenges for those used to growing mainstream varieties.”

Establishing new plantings can cost upward of tens of thousands of dollars per acre (some estimates range from $15,000 – $60,000 per acre) compared to the possible increase in per bushel price for cider apples versus fresh fruit or concentrate.

Adams County (Pennsylvania) Fruit Growers President Gregory Culp said most growers have some land on their farm that doesn’t produce good fresh apples but will produce a good cider apple. “This is where you decide what to plant and how much money to invest into the cider apples and what varieties will be in demand without over-planting and saturating the market with a particular variety,” he said. “It all depends on the consumer in the end.”

Troy Lehman, at Adams County’s Big Hill Ciderworks, along with his partner Ben Kishbaugh, both Pennsylvania Cider Guild members, grows apples, including some crabapple (bittersharp types), for his award-winning ciders. While he sees some consumer movement toward complex cider varieties, he is cautious in predicting whether more acreage will be devoted to bittersharp cultivars. “The American palate is evolving,” he said, “but apple growers and cider makers are looking at the price points as well.”

While large commercial hard cider producers are importing bittersharp apples or juice concentrates from England and France, regional cider makers are either growing their own cultivars or seeking blending varieties from local growers. Working out the logistics of supply and demand, however, is another matter. Of the apple growers surveyed in the Vermont study, 38.1 percent said they would increase their production within the next five years, but were guarded in their interest to growing specialty cultivars. Study supervisor Florence Becot in interviewing apple growers said this guarded interest comes from two main factors – the unknowns about the economics of cider-specific varieties and worries that hard cider might be a fad.

Hard cider consumption took a rapid climb in the early 2000s and then went into a slump before a revival a few years ago. The rise and fall of the industry left apple growers wondering if planting new varieties, although potentially rewarding, was worthwhile. The Harvest NY study concluded that hard cideries and apple growers might want to work together on an individual basis to determine how to meet the demand. Even so, the research firm Nielsen reported at Cider Con 2018, an industry conference of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers, that the off-premise market share for hard ciders grew by 30 percent from 2017 to 2018, noting consumer interest in locally-sourced products.

New York Cider Association Executive Director Jenn Smith noted the strong demand both on a local and national level for more apples to serve the cider industry. She said there is “a close interaction between growers and makers around what varieties are preferred for cider-making, and suitable for growing in the respective climates of the apple growing regions of the state.”

Still, some apple growers and cider makers like Lehman question whether the shortages being acknowledged are more industry- or consumer-driven. “Is the nursery industry seeing growers buying or requesting more trees of one variety or another and thinking there is a shortage out there?” he asked. “I think there is an uptick of interest in more complex ciders being made, but I feel there is a sufficient quantity of good cider apples to meet the current demand.”

University of Vermont tree fruit researcher Dr. Terence Bradshaw, in summarizing continued cider research, noted, “Impediments to increased planting of cider apples is the lack of consistent demand from cideries for high-value specific cider apple cultivars. Growers aren’t seeing the reward yet in taking the risk to plant when both the performance of unknown cultivars and the long-term demand aren’t certain.”

Seeking to bring apple growers and hard cider makers together, Washington State University recently announced a multi-state (Washington, Michigan, Vermont and Wisconsin) $500,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to develop the best apples for hard ciders. Part of the process features surveying cider makers to identify the types of apples best suited for the industry, identifying barriers for producing cider apples and gleaning consumer feedback.

While significant acres of spitter varieties like the Kingstown Black may not become the next major agricultural revival, the interest in more complex and varied hard ciders makes the case for serious supply chain coordination and negotiation between apple growers and cider makers a reality. The search for the perfect, mouth-puckering cider apple is like a contemporary treasure hunt where the bounty is just out of reach – for now.

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