What Apple Varieties are used in Quality Craft Cider?
What apple varieties are good for hard cider? What is the difference between a quality craft cider and an industrial, mass-produced equivalent?
The big difference between dessert/eating apple varieties and cider apples is that the less desirable the apple is for eating fresh, the better it is for cider. Although sweeter apple varieties are sometimes used to create a sweeter style, most traditional or truly craft ciders are made from apples which are in the crab-apple family, at least a portion of the blend anyway.
Several different varieties of apples are blended to achieve the perfect balance of sweetness, acidity and tannins. The unique blend chosen directly influences the style, character, aroma, flavour and structure of the cider.
Commercial Apple varieties and their use in cider styles
The apple varieties available to cider producers varies depending on location. Here are some of the types available in many parts of North America:
Medium to large, round, red blushed with yellow background. Flesh is cream, juicy and tart. Excellent for fresh eating, sauce and freezing. Good for salads and baking. Available early September to December.
Medium, round, red to red blushed. Flesh is white, crisp, juicy, sub-acid and browns quickly. McIntosh apples are excellent for fresh eating and good for sauce. They are available late September to June.
Medium to large, round to round conic, striped or blushed red. Flesh is white, sub-acid and non-browning. Excellent for fresh eating, salads and sauce. Good for pies, baking and freezing. Available early October to May.
Large, bright red with yellow background. Explosively crisp, firm, sweet and juicy. Exceptional for fresh eating, salads, sauce and cooking. Available late September to June.
Medium to small, conical shape, streaked with bright orange red and with golden yellow background. Mild, sweet flavour, softer for eating and favoured for apple slices. They are available late September to June.
Small to large conic, striped or blushed red. Flesh is greenish cream, juicy and sweet. Red Delicious apples' sweet taste makes them excellent for fresh eating. They are available from mid-October through to August.
Medium, round, red blushed. Flesh is cream, crisp, lightly aromatic and sub-aid. Spartans are considered good for fresh eating, salads and sauce. They are available from mid-October through to May.
Medium to large, round oblong, blushed red. Flesh is cream, firm and sub-acid after storage. Excellent for pies and baking. Good for fresh eating, salads, sauce and freezing. Available November to July; primarily February to July.
Medium to medium small, round to oblong, blushed dark red. Flesh is greenish cream, slightly aromatic and sub-acid. Empire apples, known as excellent fresh eating apples, are available from mid-October to June.
Medium to small, round, greenish yellow. Flesh is fine, rich, mildly aromatic and sub-acid. Russets, considered excellent fresh eating apples, are available from November through to May.
Cider Apple Varieties Classification
Cider apples are divided into four different categories depending on the level of acid and tannins they contain.
The following is a list of the classifications and examples of apple varieties within them:
Sweets (low acid, low tannin): McIntosh, Russet & Gala
Bittersweets (low acid, high tannin): Dabinett & Yarlington Mill
Sharps (high acid, low tannin): Esopus Spitzenburg, Crimson King & Winesap
Bittersharps (high acid, high tannin): Kingston Black & Dolgo Crab
For cider making, the typical quality blend is:
40% Sweet, 40% Sharp and 20% Tannic Apples.
Now, cider makers in North America do not have access to the same varieties as in the UK or Europe. However, if the following apple varieties are available to you, snap them up as they would prove to make delicious cider:
Gold Rush (most popular and easiest in many parts of the US to obtain), Stayman’s Winesap, Winesap, Crimson Crisp, Liberty, Black Twig, Arkansas Black, Roxbury Russet, Golden Russett (as mentioned above), Harrison, Newtown Pippin (also known as Albemarle Pippin), Cox Orange Pippin, Ashmeads Kernel, Wickson, Ribston Pippin, Northern Spy, and Baldwin.
Cider: Industrial vs. Craft
Growing fruit for industrial ciders can be challenging. Apples cost more than wheat or barley and the profit margin is lower than for beer.
As traditional cider apples are not grown in North America in large quantities, many producers use apple concentrate. Concentrate tends to be lower price and consistent in flavour, making it an appealing option in cider making for the larger producers.
Industrial cider makers can get concentrated juice from China, Eastern Europe and U.S. The cider apple demand has grown for the craft cider sector, supply is low, and demand is high. Prices of those “cider apples” has increased exponentially in the last years and producing these higher-end ciders with the proper apple varieties has been increasingly difficult.
The first cider most consumers tend to try is usually the sweeter, carbonated industrial varieties. Craft ciders tend to be a more of an acquired taste and consumers move towards them as their pallet develops and they learn more about the different varieties and flavours.
Cider properties can be broken down into 7 attributes and further defined by specific characteristics. These attributes include:
Colour – clear, yellow, golden, copper or red
Clarity – clear or cloudy
Apple, ethanol, grassy, caramel, earthy, woody, tropical, fruit, berry, citrus, floral, nutty, spicy, straw, yeasty or chemical
Sweet, sour or bitter
Apple, berry, butterscotch, citrus, fruit, earthy, grassy, honey, nutty, pear, spicy, straw, woody or yeasty
Astringent, carbonated, creamy, metallic, chalky or ethanol
Duration, intensity and characteristics
So, the next time you sip on some cider, ponder a moment on the apple varieties, the blend used in it and the art involved in putting that smile on your face once you gulp down on that quality apple cider!