Cider Class: Learning About Apples

July 6, 2010

The first day at my cider class up in Mt. Vernon focused a little bit on marketing and a lot on trees.

Gary Moulton of WSU Mt Vernon gave us a presentation on the care of apple trees, including nutrition, disease, grafting, and pruning of cider apple trees. It isn’t that it is really all that different between growing apples to eat and apples for cider production, but eating apples need to be symmetrical in shape and blemish free, while cider apples just need to taste good since they will be ground up. Therefore, maintenance is aimed more at tree health for taste, not looks.

Indeed, even picking cider apples is done differently than picking apples for eating. Normally, apples are picked a little green to withstand shipping and storage. However, when they are picked green, they contain more starch, which is not fermentable. If the apples are allowed to stay on the tree longer, the starch is converted to sugars, which are fermentable, and in addition the apple is much more flavorful to give a much better taste to the cider.

So what is a cider apple? I had mentioned before that they are apples in which they have been breed for the production of cider and generally don’t taste all that great when eaten. Apples varieties have been tested for their acidic and tannin components. Therefore, cider apples are classified by how much acid and tannin one has:

  • High tannin, low acid – bittersweet
  • Low tannin, low acid – sweet
  • High tannin, high acid – bittersharp
  • Low tannin, high acid – sharp

However, these descriptors do not indicate how much sugar is in the apple. In fact, most grocery store apples are low in tannin and high in acid, making them sharp, not sweet, apples. Most grocery store apples are usually refered to as “dessert” apples, and can be used to make ciders, though they are not as good and do better when blended with a higher tannin apple. Since the acid is high in dessert apples, they are usually blended with bittersweet apples, allowing the two to have a balance between acid and tannin.

In this part of the country, dessert apples are readily available and easy to buy, so all three of the cideries we visited had an acre of bittersweet apples growing, like Dabinetts and Kingston Black. They would grow the bittersweet apples and then buy the sharp dessert apples to make their product. Interestingly, both Red Barn Cider and Sea Cider went with dwarf rootstock to have about 1,000 trellised trees per acre, while Merridale Estate Cider had semi-dwarf trees. Red Barn Cider said that they used M9 and Bud 9 rootstock and planted them 6′ x 12′ apart, thought would probably increase to 14′ in the future.These small trees allowed them to not use ladders on the trees and do all work on them from the ground.

One of the highlights of learning about apples was a taste test that Moulton brought us of cider made from a single variety of apples fermented dry as part of the WSU research. The first cider was Jonagold, which is a dessert apple, and therefore sharp tasting and thin due to low tannins. The second cider was a Brown Snout, which is a mild bittersweet apple. It had a better aroma, was darker in color, and more mouthfeel as it was thicker and creamier and very pleasant. The last cider we had was a Medaille D’Or, which was a very bitter bittersweet apple. It was very bitter, and Moulton compared it to drinking an IPA. It definitely had more tannins, as I had the dry mouth cotton feel from it. While horrible to drink alone, I could very easily imagine it blended with other apples to tone it down while it gave interest to other more bland apples. And in the cider world, blending is at the heart of cider production, just like a cook gathers together different ingredients for a sauce.

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11 Responses to “Cider Class: Learning About Apples”


  1. […] and sort ripe apples, removing all moldy ones. If you wouldn’t eat it, then it wouldn’t make good […]


  2. […] to add acid to it, and it just didn’t taste as good raw. I would have to call these apples “sweet,”as they were low in acid and in tannin, but I’m going to let it ferment and see what it […]


  3. […] iodine starch test, on the other hand, can tell me how ripe the apple is buy showing me how much starch is in an apple. Iodine turns blue when it comes into contact with starch. Green apples are full of unfermentable […]


  4. […] One thing I find interesting is that Orton divides apples into sweet, mildly acid to slightly tart, aromatic, or crab apple categories instead of using the sweet, bittersweet, sharp, bittersharp categories developed in 1903 at the Long Ashton Research Station in the United Kingdom, a classification that is still used today. […]


  5. […] cider for a week. I got to work with British cider expert Peter Mitchell, and I learned about cider apples, worked in a laboratory, toured other cideries, and went through a cider sensory […]


  6. […] was written by G.A. Moulton, Carol Miles, and J. King, all of Washington State University Mount Vernon, and A. Zimmerman of […]


  7. […] from my own cider. I asked about my observation, and I was told that all of their ciders have a 10% cider apple base, which would give it that mouth feel. Hmm. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "0"); […]


  8. […] However, he was delighted with the idea, saying he wanted me to take some money and get a hold of real tannin apples and do a blend more like Carlton Cyderworks. He didn’t think of it as making less and therefore […]


  9. […] I was going to make less cider this year, but hopefully better quality. That means I need proper cider apples, but I still haven’t exactly lined some up. So I’ve been pondering an experiment of just adding […]


  10. […] last winter, and there were no more apples. However, I did get my hands on 16 gallons of mixed cider apple juice. You know, the stuff with tannin. So it is out percolating away. I think I will finally break out […]


  11. […] I think Magners has decent flavor, partly because it is an Irish cider. That is to say, America cut down all of its cider apple trees, so the American cider makers are using inferior eating apples. […]


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