How Do Ya Like Them Apples?

November 3, 2015

Drink all the delicious hard cider you like, but bite into an apple grown specifically to make the beverage, and you are likely to grimace. While wine grapes are sugary sweet, cider apples are anything but. Surprisingly, crushing the fruit brings out a tart, dry sweetness – just what you would want a hard cider to taste like. Added ingredients and seasonal flavors aside, what makes one cider taste so different from another? The answer is simple, it’s the apples!

Traditional cider apples, or “spitters” (they are so bitter, most people spit them out) are high in sugar and tannins – perfect for creating hard cider. You won’t find these “bittersweets” at the grocery store though; eaten as fruit, they taste terrible. In fact, you won’t find many in the U.S. at all. After Prohibition, orchards once planted with cider apples were replanted with the more common dessert apples like McIntosh and Red Delicious. The truth is, cider apples just don’t grow very well in many American climates. So, it is very common for American cider makers to use common eating apples, as they are readily available and affordable. However, spitters are often imported from Europe where conditions allow for these types of apples to flourish.

So, what type or types of apples are used to make the hard ciders we love the most? We went straight to the source to find out…

Angry Orchard

Angry Orchard’s cider makers have been experimenting with apple varieties and unique flavors for more than 20 years. In early 2012, Angry Orchard Hard Ciders became available in the U.S. To develop each ciders’ distinct taste and flavor profile, cider makers traveled the world in search of the best apples.

“We carefully select specific, high-quality apple varietals that will deliver the characteristics we’re looking for in each of our ciders,” says head Angry Orchard cider maker, Ryan Burk. “For example, our flagship Crisp Apple is made with a blend of culinary and bittersweet apples from Europe. They are traditional cider-making apples from France, including such varieties as Dabinett, Binet Rouge and Harry Masters Jersey. Our summer seasonal cider, Summer Honey, as well as Green Apple and our newest cider, Hop’N Mad Apple are all made using American culinary apples including Gala, Fuji, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith.”  

“Apples are a terroir crop,” says Burk. “Where the apples are grown greatly impacts the flavor, aroma and quality they impart on each cider. For example, the blend of culinary and bittersweet apples from Europe used to create Crisp Apple lends a nice balance and complexity to the cider, delivering a fruit forward, juicy flavor. Drinking it is a lot like biting into a fresh apple. For some of our other ciders, we’ve found that the apples we harvest from certain apple-growing regions in the U.S. share characteristics with apple-growing regions in Europe, giving some of our ciders a slightly less tannic character and distinctly American flavor profile.”  

For Burke, it all comes down to balance. “A great cider shows acidity, tannin and often some sweetness,” he says. “What the cider maker does to show off these attributes is what makes it interesting and defines his or her style. Also, I like to know I’m drinking cider – I want to smell and taste apples. If a cider has been innovated with hops, honey or an additional fruit, apples must always be the focus.”

Angry Orchard recently announced a new home for research and development at a historic 60-acre apple orchard in Walden, New York, located in the heart of the Hudson Valley. Burk says, “We’re excited to develop innovative ciders to share with drinkers nationwide. We plan to open the cidery to visitors beginning in late fall so they can learn how cider is made and try samples of our exclusive, handcrafted ciders made on-site.”

Jack's Hard Cider

Jack’s Hard Cider is produced and canned locally by Hauser Estate Winery, eight miles west of Historic Gettysburg. Hard cider was part of the initial opening of the winery on July 22, 2008, and the name was inspired by “Jack” Hauser, the patriarch of the Hauser Family who led Musselman Foods into national recognition in the 1950s. Visitors of the winery who provided positive feedback on the experimental batches of the cider led to the larger scale production and distribution in Central Pennsylvania in the summer of 2011.

All of the apples used to make Jack’s Hard Cider are grown at the orchard in Biglerville, PA. Director of off-site sales for Jack’s, Shane Dougherty says, “We currently grow about 20 varieties. Recently, we added a large variety of cider apples to our orchard including Hewe’s Crab, Roxburry Russet, Ashmeads Kernel, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Goldrush.” Each variety of Jack’s Hard Cider is made from a specific blend of apples containing the preferred sugar, acid and tannin levels. “The process in which our cider is produced is what separates it the most from other hard ciders. Growing all our own apples and pressing them ourselves, allows us to control the most important ingredient – the sweet cider base. Once in our tanks, we slowly transform our freshly pressed sweet cider into Jack’s Hard Cider, retaining as many of the natural apple flavors as possible. We don’t add any artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners.”

Dougherty is a fan of hard ciders with depth and complexity, containing a combination of crisp, tangy, woody and aromatic qualities. “I also enjoy trying innovative ciders with creative ingredients,” he says. “But Jack’s Original is my favorite. After a few years of trial batches, that was the cider that encouraged us to expand production. It’s a great every day cider. I also get excited about our Conewago Orchard Cider. We only make one batch per year and it contains some of the best cider variety apples we grow. Our Peach Cider is also delicious. It’s dry with a refreshing hint of peach.”

Woodchuck Hard Cider

Woodchuck Hard Cider was first introduced in Philadelphia in 1997, but their story began in 1991when winemaker, turned master cider maker, Greg Failing began an experiment with apples in his garage. Woodchuck Amber was the result.

Today, the Vermont Hard Cider Co., producers of Woodchuck ciders, have created some of the most popular hard ciders in the market. At their new state-of-the-art cidery and tasting room in Middlebury, Vermont, visitors are welcome to see how their ciders are made.

Cider Makers Ben E. Calvi and John Maston attribute the wild success of their ciders to the variety of options they produce. “With over 20 ciders in our portfolio, we have something for everyone. From sweet to dry, pear to hopped, traditional to experimental, we’ve got you covered with Real Cider from a Real Cidery.”

Dozens of apple varieties are used to make their vast array of hard ciders. “Our Granny Smith is the only ‘single varietal’ cider we make, using 100% Granny Smith apples. Everything else is a blend of U.S. orchard varieties and European bittersweet apples. Many of the common eating apples like McIntosh, Gala and Red Delicious make it into the orchard blend. But we also use not-so-common varieties like Jonagold, Northern Spy, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, and Tremlett’s Bitter. There is no “perfect” apple variety for hard cider. To get the desired flavor and chemistry, it is common practice to blend. Every apple variety has its unique flavor profile. Granny Smith is tart and green, while McIntosh has a classic, sweet, crisp flavor, and Red Delicious has sweetness and depth. Some varieties have notes of honey, others have pear. And the bittersweet apples have loads of tannin, with bitter flavors. From year to year, depending on the crop and weather, there may be more of one variety and less of another. But with practice, you can make blends that have similar flavors.” Calvi and Matson source as many apples as they can from local Vermont apple growers. “Vermont is a world-class apple growing region, and we are lucky to source about a third of the available cider crop from Vermont orchards. That said, a cidery of our size needs over 2,000 acres worth of cider apples. Vermont has only 200, so efforts are underway to identify the best cider apple varieties and increase the available acreage of cider apples in the state. In the meantime, we also source apples from other apple growing regions in the northeast, mid-west and northwest. Additionally, we source European bittersweet apples from the U.K.”

So what do these guys look for in a good cider? “First of all, we look for a cider that is without flaws. Making a clean, flawless cider is harder than you’d think – just ask any home cider maker. Next, we look for the expression of the cider maker. If it’s a traditional style, we’re looking for the expression of the apple varieties used to make the cider. If it’s a blend of fruit wines and cider, we’re looking for balance and flavor. If it’s Out on a Limb, with ginger, chocolate or chamomile, we’re looking to be a little shocked, and pleasantly surprised.”


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