By Tim Larsen, Cidermaker
Several years ago, my wife and I were spending some time in Scotland during a brief intermission between a cidermaking class in England and visiting the artisnal cideries of the west country. One sunny day on the shores of Loch Ness, we decided to explore Castle Urquhart. While we were there we made an interesting discovery. For centuries, the residents of Urquhart thought pears were poisonous unless cooked or fermented. Imagining my favorite eating pear—a bosc—I couldn't fathom why anyone would think a pear was poisonous. Sweet, plump and juicy,how could anyone hold a grudge against a pear?
Six months later I found myself precariously high on a ladder picking traditional perry pears in a local orchard. At the time I had really little to no idea what a perry pear was. Sitting fourteen feet off of the ground with one foot on a branch and another wrapped around a rickety ladder, I decided I should at least try one of these pears that I was risking my life to pick. However, the shock of intense bitterness of the pear (oddly named the "Butt pear") almost almost threw my balance off. It was so astringent that I could hardly swallow it. It quickly dawned on me why someone would consider pears poisonous if this was their experience.
Traditional cider apples and perry pears share a lot in common. When eaten fresh they are often bitter and contain a lot of flavor characteristics that few would normally associate with an apple or pear. In terms of flavor and overall character, both are far removed from their grocery store cousins.
There seems to be this quintessential apple in everyone's mind. Just take a second and imagine an apple... Perhaps you imagined something similar to the poisoned apple in Disney's Snow White. Beautiful, gleaming red skin wrapped tightly around a crisp, white, sweet flesh. However, there are literally thousands of named apple varieties and countless unnamed varieties and very few of them conform to modern idea of an apple. Most are ugly, have skins like a potato, knobby, mealy-fleshed and bitter.
To better understand apples, the England-based Long Ashton research facility began categorizing and testing known apple varieties in 1903. To bring some order in the chaos, the then director, BTP Barker decided to create four categories of apples: sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps. These classifications are now the de facto way of identifying apple varieties. Read here for more information on that research project.
The vast majority of apples found in the grocery store are considered "sweets." Honeycrisp, Gala, MacIntosh and Golden Delicious are all great examples of a sweet apple. Lacking in much acidity and containing almost no tannin, the main flavor characteristic in sweet apples comes from their high sugar content. In cidermaking, these apples are not very desirable because the sugar converts to alcohol during fermentation resulting in a bland cider. Because they are so readily available (and cheap!) they are often used in mass-produced ciders. Most often, the resulting cider is then heavily sweetened (to help it taste like commercial apple juice), and/or flavored.
Sharps are often the apples associated with cooking, though they are also occasionally good for cidermaking. Granny Smith and Bramley are two great examples of sharp apples. While still sweet, these apples will make you pucker with their intense sourness. They are rarely used on their own in cidermaking, but can be blended in to help achieve a healthy fermentation.
Bittersweets and bittersharps
Bittersweet and bittersharp apples are the preferred cidermaking apples, yet very few people have heard of these varieties. Medaille d'Or, Yarlington Mill, Bulmer's Norman and Kingston Black are great examples of these apple types. Most apples grown from seed actually fall into these two categories.
Like wine grapes, these apples have tannins and other polyphenols some of which present as bitterness, while others have an incredible range of robust flavor characteristics. Polyphenols have also been associated with many health benefits. Heard of antioxidants? Antioxidants are a subcategory of polyphenols. Try Googling "polyphenols" and keep the top search results in mind the next time you drink a bottle of Snowdrift cider!
Often considered less desirable for fresh eating, bittersweet and bittersharp apples can be quite intense right off of the tree. Like wine grapes these apple varieties need to be aged to soften the harsher tannins and let the more nuanced flavor characteristics be expressed. In the hands of a skilled cidermaker and aged to perfection, these varieties can yield a cider similar in character to a fine wine.
At Snowdrift, we grow over 40 varieties of apples across all of the classifications: sweets, sharps, bittersweets and bittersharps. We invite you out to our orchard this fall during harvest to do apple tastings fresh from the tree alongside the cider that the apples go into. Tasting Golden Delicious next to a bittersweet Dabinett is an experience that you won't forget! Harvest is a special and exciting time of year. Please come join us!