Growing a cider culture
WSU has the leading cider research program in the country.
Scientists with Washington State University in Mount Vernon hope to support an emerging hard cider culture by strengthening their research program. Hard cider is the fastest-growing segment of the beverage industry.
Many of the classic cider apple varieties originated in England, and northwestern Washington has a good climate for growing apples that thrive in relatively cool conditions. A new test orchard to be planted at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in 2014 will help growers select the best cider apple varieties for the region.
Twenty years ago, apple growers in that area were pinning their hopes on Jonagold, a highly rated dessert apple variety adapted to maritime climates, but they lacked the packing, shipping, and marketing infrastructure to be economically successful in the fresh market. Since then, apple production has waned, along with market interest in the variety, and growers have downsized or gone out of the business.
Dr. Carol Miles, who heads the tree fruit program at WSU Mount Vernon, believes the time is ripe to focus instead on growing varieties for cider that would be made locally and avoid the need to haul the fruit to central Washington to be packed and sold.
For agricultural areas along the I-5 corridor directly north of Seattle, Miles believes high-quality hard cider will fit right in with the urban food culture and the emphasis on local products.
“We see the opportunity for many small-scale producers to develop an artisanal product with excellent taste and quality and high value,” Miles said. “That type of production fits western Washington where land values are very high. You really need a product that’s going to justify those expenses.”
Though the region lacks a labor force to harvest apples, there’s the potential for using mechanical raspberry harvesters after the raspberry season is over, and Miles is researching the feasibility of mechanical harvesting of cider apples.
Another goal is to identify apples suitable for cider making in the Pacific Northwest. Apple varieties that are great for fresh eating, such as Gala and Honeycrisp, don’t necessarily make the best ciders. Apples with more intriguing names such as Brown Snout, Crow Egg, Peau de Vache, Tom Putt, or Foxwhelp, possibly do.
Back in the 1970s, Dr. Bob Norton, former research horticulturist at WSU’s Mount Vernon station, began dabbling with a few cider varieties from England. Local growers who were interested in making cider could take the fruit from Norton’s test plots.
Jacqueline King, technical assistant, recalls that Norton tested several of the common cider varieties but had no good way to evaluate their usefulness, because cider apples aren’t judged in the same way as dessert apples. Cider apples are classified into four categories: Bittersweet, bittersharp, sharp, and sweet. The first two are high in tannins and not intended to be eaten fresh. Many have a woody texture and are just plain inedible, even when ripe, which makes it difficult to evaluate them without actually using them to make cider.
More varieties have been added to the test plot over the years, primarily from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Geneva, New York. Research scientist Gary Moulton headed the program for many years. Miles, who is WSU’s statewide extension vegetable specialist, took over when Moulton’s position was eliminated three years ago because of budget cuts.
The cider orchard now boasts 59 varieties, which is more than any other institution in the country. Some of the varieties originated centuries ago and are cherished for the cider they produce, not for their productivity, ease of growing, or good looks. Sometimes they produce a full crop, other years no fruit at all. The fruit is often small and sometimes lopsided.
The trees are on a range of different rootstocks, and many have succumbed to anthracnose over the years, leaving more gaps than trees in some of the rows. This makes it extremely inefficient to manage, particularly for practices such as spraying.
The new cider variety block will replace the old cider orchard so that the varieties can be more easily evaluated.
Budwood has been collected from the existing varieties to make new nursery trees, all on the semidwarf Geneva 935 rootstock, and more varieties will be added. The trees will be trained to a tall spindle system on an upright three-wire trellis with trees spaced 5 feet apart and 10 to 12 feet between rows. Tree height will be limited to 8 feet so that a mechanical harvester can pass over the rows.
“Our goal is to modernize our orchard and minimize our labor,” Miles said. “We believe there’s a good opportunity for us to expand the program and the research we’re doing to meet the needs of the emerging industry.”
She and her colleagues are compiling a database on the characteristics of the apples. Some varieties are suitable for making single-variety ciders, while others have useful characteristics for blending.
They will analyze the juice of 50 varieties from the test plot and select four to make cider for further evaluation. They will collect samples of identical varieties from several commercial orchards in different locations in western and central Washington for juice analysis and compare the results. Miles will assemble a trained sensory-evaluation panel to help producers evaluate and understand their own products. Cideries will be able to use that information to produce different styles of cider and educate consumers about them.
Her research is supported by grants from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Washington State Wine Advisory Committee, and the Northwest Cider Association. •