The question of what constitutes a ‘cider apple’ often comes up in conversations among cideries, growers, and consumers. The simplest definition for a cider apple is an apple that goes into cider. However, that definition masks the interests in diversifying the apples cultivars grown for cider making.
The vast majority of apples used in cider in the U.S. are second-grade fruit from dessert cultivar orchards. In the northeast, it is common for the dominant cultivars ‘McIntosh’, ‘Empire’, ‘Cortland’, and similar types planted across large acreages to dominate the juice blends used in cider making. These fruit are sourced from packing houses or as ‘final pick’ fruit from either wholesale- or retail-oriented orchards. In most cases, this makes economic sense because the majority of the crop was sold for a higher price, so orchards can accept a much lower, often below-cost of production, price for cider fruit. Despite the low price paid for these traditional dessert variety cider fruit, the price is often high enough to justify cleaning up the orchard of otherwise unmarketable fruit, which is a horticulturally wise practice.
European cider apple varieties
When many producers think of ‘cider apples’, they mean specific apple varieties grown for cider making. These typically fall into four categories: high-tannin cider apples, often of European origin; dual-purpose cider, culinary, and fresh apple varieties that may be sold across multiple markets; low-input disease-resistant cultivars; and locally-adapted apples both feral and cultivated.
In many cases, growers considering cider apple varieties immediately think of the high-tannin European varieties, e.g., ‘Dabinett’, ‘Yarlington Mill’, ‘Stoke Red’, and similar varieties. These are commonly grown in major cider production areas in Europe, e.g., western United Kingdom. Northwest France, and northern Spain. Many European cider varieties are available in the nursery trade and have been planted in New England orchards to some degree over the past three decades. These fruit tend to be sought by some cider makers for their unique flavor, aroma, tannin, and acid characteristics. As such, prices paid for many such cultivars may compete with prices for fresh market dessert apples. This means that orchards comprised of such cultivars may be managed and the fruit sold specifically for cider making without the need to recoup revenue through fresh market sales. This is an important consideration that may allow for optimized management for cider production, since cosmetic blemishes are largely not a concern with cider fruit. However, there are several disadvantages of European cider apples that limit their widespread planting.
The four primary downsides of European cider apple varieties, as a general consideration, include marketability; biennial bearing tendencies; relatively lower yield; and susceptibility to fire blight. In general, European cider apples tend to be bitter, mealy, low-acid, and otherwise dissimilar to high-quality dessert apples such that there is no secondary market for such fruit beyond certain cideries. This reduces the overall market for both apple and cider producers, which has limited expansion of cider apple production due to increased market risk. In addition, many of the European cider apple varieties have pronounced biennial bearing tendencies- it is not unheard of to have zero production in the ‘off’ year. Because management costs are incurred even in years with no fruit, even large yields in the ‘on’ year may not make up for overall production costs. New England growers of these varieties have not reported crop yields competitive to the highest and most profitable yields of dessert cultivars (e.g., 800-1200 bushels per acre) grown in modern high-density systems. Finally, many European cider apple cultivars have high susceptibility to fire blight, such that this disease is considered a limiting factor toward increased production by many growers. Despite these challenges, European cider apple varieties remain popular among cideries and growers, and distinctive and high-quality ciders are made from them or from juice blends containing them.