Cider-making ABC: apple, blend, cider

Apple taxonomy photo by Rebecca Siegel

Hundreds of varieties of apple are grown.  All will make cider. Far fewer, though, are regarded as ‘true’ cider apples and only a couple of dozen cultivars are classed as vintage quality.

How many apples does it take to make one cider?

The weight of apples required to make so many litres of cider depends on the variety you press and how you go about it. But will just one type of apple be enough to give your cider the necessary complexity and balance of sweetness, acidity, tannin and aromatics?

Single varietals are on the up but most ciders are blended

A few vintage quality cider cultivars such as the crisp Kingston Black or the fruity Stoke Red can produce really good single varietal ciders but most ciders are blends.

Cider can be made with most types of apple including  sweet dessert or eating apples, tart culinary apples or cookers such as Bramley’s, and mouth-puckering crab apples (usually feral domestic varieties rather than wild apples). However, there are also ‘true’ cider apples.

The types of apple used for West Country and French ciders are generally high-tannin bittersweets or bittersharps, as opposed to low-tannin sweets and sharps. Growers often hedge their bets with a range of bittersweet varieties and use sharps to balance out the acidity. Bittersweets are generally preferred for commercial cider-making.

Sharps are often low in sugar and are used with sweets, which add a characteristic apple flavour and aroma. Some sharps such as Brown’s Apple and Fair Maid of Devon combine high acid and good cider flavour.

Tannin, acidity and sweetness all in one apple

In wine-making or brewing, the choice of grape, or barley and hops alters the attributes of the final product, often in very subtle ways. The same is true with the choice of apples whose balance of sugar, acid and tannin can affect the rate and nature of the fermentation and therefore the quality of the cider.

Tannin is what makes cut apples go brown in the air. It is not the same as acidity. Tea is high in tannin; lemon juice is acid. Both are needed for balance, along with sugar. High-tannin apples have more body and bite (astringency) but they are also more fibrous and easier to press.

There’s more than one way to blend cider 

Blending can take place at various stages of cider making. Kept apart in piles or tumps, the apples can be mixed in proportions based on their flavour and acidity, before they are milled and pressed.

Or they can be pressed separately and blended before fermentation, once their different sugar levels, acidity and astringency have been measured – often simply by taste. Blending juices gives the greatest control.

A third way is to blend single cultivar ciders that are racked and stable and, ideally, the same age – after they have fermented. Sometimes differences in sweetness, nutrients, acidity and residual yeast bring about re-fermentation, and blending can produce a haze, although whether that’s really a problem is moot.

Vintage quality apples

While the art of blending is seen as an essential skill, craft and commercial cider makers alike are producing more single variety ciders using a small number of vintage quality cultivars. Vintage quality apples are also blended with one another. For example, the medium bittersharp Red Stoke and the medium bittersweet Dabinett, which is often used to make ciders ‘behave’.

Nor is vintage quality restricted to bittersharps and bittersweets. Brown’s Apple is a gorgeous vintage quality sharp, while Sweet Coppin is an excellent all-round vintage sweet.

Andrew Lea, the author of The Science of Cider Making, says that vintage quality is ‘probably due to minute amounts of certain flavour precursors or possibly the presence of micronutrients which cause the fermentation yeast and bacteria to act in particular ways. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that certain cultivars produce a superior quality of cider to others.’

Vintage cultivars

The term vintage quality was coined in the late-19th century. It is cannot be quantified scientifically. The list is elastic and sometimes includes cultivars such as Fair Maid of Devon, a sharp that is high in acid and low in sugar but which adds a distinctive aroma to blends.

Sharps / Bittersharps
Dymock Red
Kingston Black
Stoke Red
Brown’s Apple
Backwell Red

Sharps and bittersharps have a wide range of attributes. Brown’s Apple, a pure sharp gives a light, sharp, fruity cider. The medium bittersweet Stoke Red has more body.

Ashton Brown Jersey
Harry Masters Jersey
White Jersey
Yarlington Mill
Medaille d’Or

Yarlington Mill, a mild bittersweet and Medaille d’Or can stand on their own to make a good quality cider with soft tannins, while Major, a full bittersweet, tends only to be used for blending.

Pure Sweets
Sweet Alford
Sweet Coppin

Sweet Alford and Sweet Coppin are regarded by cider-makers as very useful, all-rounders.

The almost perfect apple: Kingston Black’s beautiful balance

Kingston Black is an old bittersharp Somerset variety regarded as the ‘perfect cider apple’. About 80% of an apple is water soluble, as juice. Kingston Black’s contains proportions of sugar, malic acid, tannin, starch, pectin and amino nitrogen that are almost ideal.

But it’s unusual to find Kingston Black grown commercially because the tree does not produce a high yield and is prone to canker, a fungal disease that attacks the bark on its branches. Added to which, an apple that grows well in one area may not do well in another, due to the soil, lie of the land, climate and so on – what the French call terroir.

This may partly explain regional preferences. In Devon and West Dorset they veer towards sharper ciders with lower tannin, whereas in neighbouring Somerset, ciders tends to be well-rounded but astringent.

A single varietal to try 

For an example of a single varietal that works: Sheppy’s near Taunton, which is close to where the cultivar is thought to have originated, grows and presses a dry, slightly sparkling Kingston Black Cider (6.5 abv) that’s well worth sampling.