Left: The bittersweet apple Harry Master’s Jersey. Bittersweet apples are in big demand. Center: Yarlington Mill, a traditional bittersweet English cider variety. Right: Kingston Black is a much sought-after bittersharp cider apple.
There are now 20 cideries in the Pacific Northwest, including eight in Washington State. As a result, there’s a huge demand for cider apples and not enough product to satisfy every producer, says Drew Zimmerman, a grower in Mount Vernon, Washington. Bittersweet varieties are particularly sought after.
As in the wine industry, the person making the cider is typically not the person growing the fruit because it takes a different mindset, Zimmerman said. “Not every cider maker is going to be a good cider apple producer.”
Interest in cider making seems to be growing at a greater rate than interest in growing cider apples, confirms Sharon Campbell of Tieton, Washington, who is chair of the Northwest Cider Association. People who are starting up cideries tend to be from urban areas and don’t know where they’re going to source the apples.
“They are not interested in growing fruit,” she said. “They don’t have the background or the desire.”
Campbell, who operates Tieton Cider Works with her husband, Craig, says growth of the cider market has been “explosive,” and there are good opportunities for growers who might be looking at replanting a few acres or diversifying and want to try growing some cider varieties.
“There are many cider makers that are starting out, and they’re pounding the pavements for these bittersweet and bittersharp apples,” Craig said.
They will not need big volumes, but cider makers should be able to pay a good price that would make it worthwhile—perhaps double the peeler apple price. They typically might be looking for only 20 bins of a variety, so the grower needs to have a contract with cider makers, just as a grape grower would with wineries, before taking the leap.
Though many of the traditional cider varieties originated in England and are suited to maritime climates, Craig said they grow perfectly well in arid eastern Washington. The trees grow faster in the warmer climate and produce more fruit, though the apples might have slightly different tannins and other characteristics, which the cider maker would need to take into account. “It’s like growing wine in Mount Vernon versus Pasco,” he said. “It will be different.”
The Campbells own the 350-acre Harmony Orchard in Tieton, which Craig’s grandfather founded, and grow apples mainly for the fresh market. Five years ago, a friend who had taken a course from English cider expert Peter Mitchell encouraged them to look into cider making. They planted a two-acre test plot containing up to 40 trees each of about 40 different cider varieties and in 2008 established the Tieton Cider Works, purchasing apples from another grower until their own trees came into production.
Craig said one of the advantages of growing apples for cider, rather than the fresh market, is that it’s possible to grow more tonnage because color, size, and cosmetics don’t matter. On the negative side, many cider apples have greater biennial bearing tendencies than the major apple varieties. Apples for cider are picked fully mature, and some varieties tend to drop before harvest and need to be picked several times. Craig is experimenting with stop-drop sprays to try to keep them on the tree longer.
From the 40 varieties in his test plot, Craig has narrowed them down to a handful that have a good balance of tree growth and fruit characteristics that he is comfortable with growing. He also considered bloom dates, to ensure good pollination, and harvest timing to avoid having to pick fruit in November.
He has one acre each of Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Harry Master’s Jersey, Golden Russet, and Harrison, all now in their fourth leaf. In addition, he has six acres of perry pears and six acres of heirloom apples that are good for cider as well as fresh eating: Ashmead’s Kernel, Gravenstein, Newtown Pippin, and Spitzenberg.
In 2013, he will plant another 30 acres of cider varieties and graft over a 5-acre block of Fuji. With more than 50 acres of cider apples, Harmony Orchards will be among the largest growers in the country.
Sharon said the Northwest Cider Association had put together a committee to help cider makers find sources of apples. She can be contacted at sharon@tietoncider works.com, phone (206) 720-1117.