What is a Cider Apple?

While a ‘cider apple’ could be any apple that ends up in a cider, it’s a bit more instructive to ask what a cider-specific apple variety is.  Cider-specific apples are, typically, those apple varieties that have been cultivated specifically for making into cider, and which have certain characteristics–high levels of acid, tannin, or sugar–which make them desirable for fermenting into cider. Also referred to as ‘spitters’ due to the astringency and bitterness imparted by their tannins, these apples are typically not desirable for eating (think of–or try!–the experience of biting into a crab apple straight off the tree as an example). But in a cider, they add color, body, mouthfeel, and–in the right proportion–balance to a cider that might otherwise be too thin, too sweet, or too one-dimensional in flavor.

Categorization of Cider Apples

There are a few different categorization schemes for cider apples–they share the concepts of tannin content and acidity. They may or may not explicitly include sugar content (aka, original gravity, aka brix), but sugar content is implicitly part of cidermaking regardless, as it drives the alcohol potential of the finished cider. Two common categorization ‘systems’ are discussed below, followed by a discussion of the measurement methodology for the concepts in question.

The British Categorization System (by Acidity and Tannin levels)

Where traditional cider apples from the United Kingdom are concerned, it is the combination of acidity and tannin level which drives their categorization into the following categories:

  • bittersweet
  • bittersharp
  • sharp
  • sweet

A variety might be called bittersweet it it has a low level of acidity and a high level of tannin, bittersharp if it contains high levels of both, or sharp if it is high in acidity but low in tannin. These terms don’t explicitly include the sugar content of the apples, though this is also an important factor in cidermaking as it drives the alcohol content of the finished product. Thus, while a sweet apple in this categorization scheme has low tannin and low acidity (and thus not ideal in cider, except as part of a blend), the term doesn’t necessarily refer to its sugar content relative to other apples. The categories above break down along these lines (original source: Andrew Lea’s article here, which you should read):

 

Cider Apple Categories by Acid and Tannin
Category% Acid% Tannin
Sharp>0.45 %<0.2 %
Bittersharp>0.45 %>0.2 %
Bittersweet<0.45 %>0.2 %
Sweet<0.45 %<0.2 %

The French Categorization System (by Acidity, Tannin, and Sugar content)

The distinction between British and French cider apple terminology are not extreme; the latter, however, specifically calls out the sugar content of the apples. According to Charles Neal, in Calvados: Spirit Of Normandy, the cider apple categories generally referred to in Northern France are:

  • sweet
  • bittersweet
  • bitter
  • acidic

Sweet apples in this scheme are those with high sugar, low acid, and low tannin. Bittersweet varieties have both high sugar content, high tannin (>.2% weight/volume), and low acidity (<.45% weight/volume). Bitter apples have high tannin and low acidity, and acidic have low tannin (<.2% weight/volume), low sugar, and high acidity (>.45% weight/volume).

Measurement of Acidity and Tannin

pH: The easiest way to get a quick, ballpark figure on acidity is to use a pH strip to measure the pH of the juice. I say ballpark because pH is not a true measure of the overall acid content of a liquid; rather, it’s a measure of the activity of the acid in said fluid, and it can vary considerably based on factors like temperature. Acid titration, discussed below, is a much more accurate, if somewhat more time-consuming, measure of acid content. Nonetheless, pH is a quick way to get a sense of the acidity of an apple juice and guide you in your efforts to blend various juices with an end cider goal in mind. Note: If you do go by pH without total acidity titration, make sure to use a wine-spectrum pH strip. These pH strips are more accurate than a broad-spectrum strip in that they measure a narrow range of acidity–between 3.0 and 4.0–which both wine must and apple juice are likely to fall into.

Acid Titration: Acid Titration uses a color-changing reagent to determine the total acid content of a fluid. It’s much more accurate than pH as a measure of acidity, though it takes more time and uses more expensive reagents. You can get away with using wine-scale pH strips on a home cidermaking scale, but if you have commercial applications (or if you’re a serious hobbyist wanting more a more granular understanding of the medium you’re working with), TA titration is a must. More process specifics can be found at:

  • Andrew Lea’s site (here)
  • the package instructions of your TA Test Kit
  • this quick explanation video by Schilling Cider House in Seattle
    • the acidity titration section starts at 02:24, but the sugar measurement section that precedes it is useful as well

More about the relationship between TA and pH in juice can be found in Claude Jolicoeur’s article, Acidity and pH of Apple Juice.

Putting It All Together

Regardless of the above categories or the measurement tools, you’re essentially looking for the same thing regardless–a juice blend with a balance of acidity, sugar, and tannin which results in a balanced end product: your finished cider. There are many ways in which a cider can be out of balance:

  • Overly acidic juice can result in a harshly tart, sharp cider
  • Overly sweet juice can result in a high alcohol level which may not be in balance with the other characteristics
    • in a commercial context, when ABV exceeds 7%, cider is taxed at a higher rate–producers have to monitor this closely as cider can finish upwards of 8% naturally using just apples
  • Sweet, but bland, juice with little tannin or acidity can result in an insipid, bland, boring cider with little character (this is a common outcome of ciders made from standard ‘table apples’ such as Red Delicious, Fuji, and the like)
  • Overly tannic juice can lack acidity (as many high-tannin apples are low in acid) or impart too much bitterness and astringency to the end product

So…how do you achieve balance? There are various options after your fermentation–ranging from oak-aging (which can impart tannins to low-tannin ciders) to additives (e.g., powdered malic acid to increase acidity or powdered tannin to add astringency) to malo-lactic fermentation (a bacterial, post-initial-yeast-fermentation process whereby harsh acidity is reduced by transforming malic acid to lactic acid, thereby reducing the intensity of the acidity in the flavor profile)–but, if you have access to multiple apple varieties, the best approach may be start with blending juices for balance up front. At a minimum, blending initially will minimize the number of interventions you’ll need to make later on in the process.

If you can’t do it up front, don’t sweat it–after all, not very many people have access to multiple cider-specific varieties with which to make the perfect cider base. This is particularly true of the United States, in which the many hundreds of heirloom and cider apples that have developed or been transplanted here have given way to this trifecta of homogenizing forces, which have annihilated the natural variety of apples in favor of mass-production of only a few, well-known table varieties:

  • grocery store supply chain demands (which favors apples that don’t bruise easily and which are pleasant in appearance)
  • prohibition (in which most U.S. cider-variety trees were cut down, never to recover in popularity until present day)
  • consumer tastes (not fully separate from the above item, but which refers to the demands for sweet, not-too-sour, eating apples and acidic cooking apples, with very low tannin levels in each either case)

Blending Rules Of Thumb

Here’s an example proportion for blending, drawn from Cider: Making, Using, & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider by Proulx and Nichols:

Cider Blending Proportions

Juice TypePercent of Juice Total
Neutral Base30-60
Tart10-20
Aromatic10-20
Astringent5-20

Aromatic in the above context doesn’t take into account acidity or sugar levels, but refers to the volatile flavor/aroma components in apples such as McIntosh. Astringent, on the other hand, refers to tannin content.

For a more specific, flexible blending tool, I highly recommend the Blending Wizard by Claude Jolicoeur (the author of The New Cidermaker’s Handbook)–there is a downloadable .xls file on this site which you can manipulate in Excel or Google Docs to see the effects of changing the proportions of juice with various levels of acidity and sugar.

A Note On Apple Diversity

Before we dive into content around specific cider varieties, it’s important to put things into context. These days, if you live in a region dominated by large grocery store chains, you could be forgiven for only knowing a handful of apple varieties by name, including such common (at least in North America) varieties as:

  • Gala
  • Golden Delicious
  • Red Delicious
  • Fuji
  • McIntosh
  • Pink Lady
  • Granny Smith
  • Jonathan
  • Honeycrisp

Each of these varieties has an interesting and storied history, and together with a few other varieties they dominate both the market and the growing volumes of the western world. They are also–except as the blander portion of the blend, and with the possible exception of Granny Smith–not all that interesting in (hard) cider. What makes a great eating apple–high sugar content excepted–doesn’t make a great hard cider apple.

And therein lies part of the problem with modern cidermaking–there are plenty of apples produced, but most of them are not what the discerning cidermaker is looking for. But if you look at the history and categorization of apples in general, you’ll understand that the current, mass-produced, intensive monoculture system is not indicative of the apple’s natural potential–it is in fact an incredibly diverse species, with something on the order of 7000 known varieties. Among these are numerous varieties–often with anachronistic, odd names–with outstanding cider characteristics, which are now seeing a renaissance as more cidermakers rediscover them.

It’s this context that I’d like you to think about when evaluating ‘cider apples’ against others–there’s a large spectrum that the named varieties are only a small part of, and since even one particular variety varies in major qualities tree-to-tree and year-to-year, it’s best not to think of apple varieties in absolute terms.

Note: For some more depth on the topic apples in general, see our Resources Page.

What Are The ‘Cider’ Varieties?

The table below includes some of the varieties commonly considered to be cider apples. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are numerous sources–both in print and online–that I’ll refer you to below which contain additional information. Nevertheless, it’s a useful exercise to examine some varieties and their characteristics.

Due to the above mentioned variability of juice characteristics, the numbers below should only serve as rough estimates of what you might expect in terms of sugar, acidity, and tannin of a given variety.

For references to growing apples in different, numbered zones, see the USDA Plant Hardiness Map.

This content is likely to be a work in progress for some time–if there are apples you’d like to see represented, or if you have additional information for any of those that are, feel free to contact me–I’ll add them as time permits.

 

Cider Apple Varieties

VarietyTypeAciditySugar ContentTanninGrowing RegionsHarvest InFlavor CharacteristicsSourcesNotes
Ashmead's KernelEnglish DesserthighhighlowThe New Cidermaker's HandbookTriploid; grows well in the Great Lakes and Virginia
Kingston BlackEnglish Bittersharphigh (5.8 g/L)medium (SG 1.061)high (1.9 g/L)mid-OctSlightly smoky and brandy-likeThe New Cidermaker's Handbook; Craft Cider MakingOne of the most prized cider apples; can be challenging to grow.
BaldwinAmerican HeirloomHardy to zone 5The New Cidermaker's HandbookTriploid; grows well in Rocky Mountains and VA
Bramley's SeedlingEnglish Cookinghigh (>10 g/L)low (SG 1.040)low (<.5 g/L)The New Cidermaker's HandbookTriploid; good for raising acidity in a blend
Brown SnoutEnglish Bittersweetlow (2.4 g/L)medium (SG 1.053)high (2.4 g/L)late seasonThe New Cidermaker's Handbook
Bulmer's NormanEnglish Bittersweetlow (3.4 g/L)medium (SG 1.056)mediummid SeptemberThe New Cidermaker's Handbook
Chisel JerseyEnglish Bittersweetlow (2.2 g/L)medium (SG 1.059)high (4 g/L)The New Cidermaker's HandbookGrows well in zones 5 and 6; grows well in the Pacific Northwest
CortlandAmerican Heirloomhigh (7.3 g/L)medium (SG 1.059)lowearly OctoberaromaticThe New Cidermaker's HandbookA cross of Ben Davis and McIntosh
Cox's Orange PippenEnglish DessertNo colder than zone 5aromatic and complexThe New Cidermaker's Handbook
DabinettEnglish Bittersweetlow (1.8 g/L)medium (SG 1.057)high (2.9 g/L)Hardy to zone 5late October/early NovThe New Cidermaker's Handbook; Craft Cider MakingGrows well in North America (Northwest, New England, Great Lakes)
FoxwhelpEnglish Bittersharpvery high (up to 20 g/L)The New Cidermaker's HandbookAmerican versions ('Fauxwhelp') are often not the same as the original
Frequin RougeFrench bitter cider ApplemiddleThe New Cidermaker's Handbook;

Calvados: The Spirit of Normandy
Commonly used for Pommeau in Normandy
Golden RussetAmerican Heirloomhigh (9.2 g/L)very high (SG 1.074)lowOctobernuttyThe New Cidermaker's HandbookOne of the better American varieties for cider
Harry Master's JerseyEnglish bittersweetlow (2 g/L)medium (SG 1.056)high (3.2 g/L)late October/early NovThe New Cidermaker's HandbookDifficult to grow in the U.S. due to fireblight susceptibility
LibertyAmericanmedium to high (6.9 g/L)medium (SG 1.058)lowlate SeptemberThe New Cidermaker's HandbookVigorous; resilient; McIntosh descendent
McIntoshAmerican/Canadian table applehigh (9.8 g/L)high (SG 1.067)lowlate SeptemberaromaticThe New Cidermaker's Handbookhighly aromatic
MichelinFrench bittersweet cider applelow (2.5 g/L)SG 1.050high (2.3 g/L)mid-seasonThe New Cidermaker's Handbook
Muscadet de DieppeFrench bittersweet cider applelow (3.1 g/L)medium (SG 1.058)medium to highmid-SeptemberThe New Cidermaker's HandbookGood early season cider apple
Northern SpyAmerican HeirloomhighlowCommon in New England and the Great LakesThe New Cidermaker's Handbook
Porter's PerfectionEnglish Bittersharpvery high (15 g/L)high ( SG 1.060)mediumOctoberThe New Cidermaker's Handbookhardy; low productivity
RedfieldAmerican HeirloomThe New Cidermaker's Handbookproduces reddish juice
Roxbury RussettAmerican HeirloomhighThe New Cidermaker's Handbook
Somerset RedstreakEnglish Bittersweetlow (1.9 g/L)medium (SG 1.060)high (3.5 g/L)To Zone 5The New Cidermaker's Handbook
Virginia (Hewe's) CrabAmerican HeirloomhighhighhighHardy to zone 2The New Cidermaker's Handbook
Wickson CrabAmerican Cider Applehighvery highThe New Cidermaker's HandbookWandering Aengus makes a single-variety Wickson cider

Other Resources

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Coming Soon: Cidermaking, Meadmaking, and more.

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