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Cider Apple Trees – How to Choose the Perfect Variety

Fruit selection and pre-fermentation blending is an essential part of the traditional cider makers art. While cider can be produced from any apple, it will likely produce a bland, uninspiring flavour, without sufficient and proportioned levels of acidity, tannins and sugars.

Why Should I Produce My Own Cider?

Nothing tastes quite as good as your own home brew cider. Experiment with special cider-making varieties and refine your craft to produce the perfect artisan blend and impress friends, family and drinking buddies alike. Unlike commercial ciders, which are primarily produced from fermented sugar syrup, your cider, produced from apple juice, will reveal stunning long-lost flavours.

By planting your own cider apple tree, you’ll have a lifetime supply of heritage apples, which aren’t easily available elsewhere. These apples allow you to make the most out of your existing orchard, turning any glut into a year’s supply of alcohol.

Introduction to Cider-Making

Cider is an apple wine and good practices are shared with grape wine-making. Cider can only be made from apples and pears and anything else is not a true cider.

Most of what we know about cider-making originates from Long Ashton Research Station (LARS), which opened in 1903 as a cider research institute. The closure of its cider division in 1986 left cider-makers without an authority on the subject. Andrew Lea’s Craft Cider Making constitutes a recommended introduction and is available cheaply. (Being both a chemist and former employee of LARS makes him an excellent source.)

There are up to 100 cultivars in cultivation, but less than 20 in modern intensive orchards. Most vintage quality cider-apple trees produce low yields and are difficult to grow, but create cider with a complex and interesting flavour.

It is rare for a cider to be made from a single variety as good cider requires a balance of sugar, acid and tannin, rarely found in a single apple.

Kingston Black: high in tannin and with sufficient acidity to produce single-variety cider.

True cider varieties have high levels of sugar and tannins and a fibrous structure, which among other things makes pressing easier and juice yields higher.

Vintage apple varieties are notable for slow fermenting juices that produce complex and interesting flavours. Not all true cider apples are vintage apples.

Cider does not have to made exclusively from apple juice, but can be made from glucose syrup, apple juice concentrate and water. Indeed, commercial cider is often 65% glucose syrup. Water is often added post-fermentation to reduce the alcohol strength.

The need for cross-pollination dictates mixed orchards. Thus, it is important to buy varieties that flower at the same time (+-1 flowering group).

It is important you choose varieties with similar harvest season. Apples are often stored to raise sugar levels (allowing for the starch to convert to sugar), but beyond a few weeks most will go rancid. Only the best apples should be selected, as introduced microorganisms can spoil the blend. Apples should be washed before being pulped.

Acidity & Tannins

Key to cider-making is well-proportioned levels of acidity and tannins. High levels of acidity prevent spoilage from unwanted microorganisms and contribute to sharpness, while high levels of tannins improve the mouthfeel of the beverage and prevent it becoming too insipid.

Unlucky for us, apples that contain high levels of tannins are rarely acidic and are liable to spoilage unmodified. There is an exception to this – ‘Kingston Black’, a wonderful vintage cultivar, has sufficient acidity to forgo blending.

It should be noted that a drink that is too acidic will be extremely sharp and unpleasant to drink – just like your first drink ever!

Hence, it is important to measure a blend’s acidity. There are two measure of acidity: pH and titratable acid (TA) . Both are useful, and sadly there is no direct relationship with apple juice. The former relates to microbial stability and susceptibility to spoilage, while the latter relates to taste. If the TA doubles, so does perceived acidity.

Here, we are interested in preventing spoilage, so will use pH. To measure pH, you need to buy strips specifically for wine and cider-making with colours for intervals between 3-3.8pH.

If the pH is lower or equal to 3 the acidity is sufficient to prevent spoilage. If it is between 3 and 3.8, the acidity alone will not be sufficient, but will require the addition of sulfite (SO2), which kills the spoilage yeasts, moulds and bacteria, but not the desirable fermenting yeasts. If the acidity is higher than 3.8, adding malic acid is essential to lower the pH to below 3.8, before then adding SO2. To lower the pH, add 1g per litre and test again.

Importantly, the effectiveness of sulfite is very pH dependent, so we recommend you use pH when deciding on sulfite doses. Below you can see a table for different yeasts. Historically, naturally occurring yeasts were used to ferment cider, but today most commercial cider is produced using introduced yeasts, which speeds up the fermentation process. Campden tablets are equal to 57 ppm and can be purchased online.

sulfite cider apples

For those wishing to measure TA, you can purchase kits online. Again, it is not recommended to use TA when deciding on sulfite doses, but it is useful for finding your perfect acidity in regards to taste. For cider-making, you are aiming for a TA between 4.5 and 7.5 grams per litre (g/l), with 4.5-6g/l typical of English cider. Sometimes, TA is expressed as a percentage with 1% TA being equal to 10 g/l.

Sugar drives the alcohol content and is important as low levels may not produce alcohol strong enough to protect the cider during storage. Adding sugary apples to the blend will produce stronger cider as will adding sugar or apple juice concentrate. It is standard to measure specific-gravity (SG) with a hydrometer and aim for a SG of 1.045 as a minimum. Anything lower, add 12-15 grams of sugar per litre and test again.

So, to summarise one needs measure both acidity and specific-gravity (sugar levels) of my blend, before moving to later stages.

Handily, you can use a blending wizard online which will give you the resultant specific-gravity and titratable acid of a blend.

Choosing Your Variety/Varieties

In the UK apples are put into four categories, each with different levels of acid and tannin. Bitter refers to apples high in tannin and it is these apples that are true cider apples. The schema doesn’t factor sugar levels and sweet apples aren’t necessarily more sugary.

As a side note, crabapples are both acidic and high in tannins, and can be placed in the bittersharp category.

Unless, you are using ‘Kingston Black’ apples, you will need to select multiple apples and create a blend. It is common to plant a few bittersweet varieties and use Bramley apples to raise the acidity. Alternatively, you can purchase malic acid to raise the acidity.

Below, you can see a table of the acid and tannin % of some easily available apple trees. Vintage varieties are highlighted in bold. You can find information on more varieties here.

cider apple acidity and tannin levels

Blending Proportions

So, what is the ideal blending proportions? Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste, but Proulx and Nichols’s Cider: Making, Using, & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider recommends 33-40% acidic, 33-40% aromatic (volatile-flavour) and 20-33% high-in-tannin apples.

Claude Jolicoeur’s ideal blend is a specific gravity between 1.06 and 1.07 and titratable acid between 0.6 and 0.8%.

Again, use his blending wizard to arrive at the requisite mix.

Further Resources

Lea Ashton’s website.

Claude Jolicoeur’s website.

Less confused about cider-making? Primrose has a range of cider apple trees on a range of rootstocks.

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

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