Porter’s Perfection is a bittersharp apple variety that originated in Somerset, England, during the 19th century. It has a peculiar tendency to produce fused apples. (Geraldine Warner/Good Fruit Grower)
With consumption of hard apple cider surging—growth last year alone was pegged at 89 percent—some apple growers are looking to grow some cider varieties, either to sell or start a cidery of their own.
Not to burst a bubble, but tree providers say it’s likely going to take at least seven years, and probably longer, to get “genuine” hard cider apple trees, and it’ll be risky for those who decide to do it.
Right now, no one knows which varieties they should plant—that is, if the goal is to grow the old varieties that are used in northern France and England, where draft cider is widely consumed.
In the meantime, those who have such varieties, or others with cider reputations, will find demand very strong and prices stronger than anyone could ever imagine for juice apples.
Given this outlook, those who attended the packed hard cider session during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo came out a mixed group—some deflated, others exhilarated.
Among those feeling the upside are growers who have Rhode Island Greening, Baldwin, Northern Spy, Wealthy, and some other varieties—including the modern varieties Golden Delicious and GoldRush—that are American as apple pie but have good potential in quality hard-cider production. Much of the recent growth in hard cider has been built on the McIntosh variety.
Josh Wunsch and his daughter Adele, who were in the crowd, said they were finding a good market for their Rhode Island Greenings. These apples are growing on old-style trees more than 60 years old on a poor site near their farm of mostly cherries in Traverse City.
Josh Wunsch said they’d have been pulled out years ago except the frosty site wasn’t wanted for anything else. He sold 15,000 bushels last year for around 15 cents a pound. Other processing apples were selling for 10 to 12 cents, and juice apples were well below that.
Another happy pair were Tim and Cindy Ward of Eastman’s Antique Apples, located near Midland in eastern Michigan. Read: “Looking for fruit.”
They have 112 acres devoted to about 1,400 antique varieties, many of them old cider varieties. They sell some to other cider makers, but want to further develop their own cidery.
Tim was looking at new grafting tools at Expo. He had to acquire grafting skills to maintain the antique apples, and has the budwood needed to produce more trees.
Those who found the news more depressing are would-be growers and cider makers who want to use more exotic European varieties with names like Brown Snout, Foxwhelp, Hereford Redstreak, Dabinette, and Binet Rouge. These are just not available in any quantity.
Moreover, there are more than 80 such varieties, and nobody has yet come up with a short list of ten or so that would be easy and productive to grow.
As an example, the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station north of Traverse City has ordered 31 different varieties to evaluate. Dr. Ian Merwin, the Cornell University pomologist who retired and now nurtures his antique apple orchard, described 20 of the varieties he thinks are good for cider. Read: “Where to find unusual apples,” and a PDF from the 2008 winter New York Fruit Quarterly.
Wafler Nurseries in New York has 26 varieties it is able to make for growers.
“The lists don’t overlap much,” said Nikki Rothwell, the coordinator of the Northwest Michigan station. She and her husband, Dan Young, operate Tandem Ciders. Read: “Cider history repeated.” They tried a small planting of 10 trees each of 15 varieties, and many of them died during the hard winter of 2013-14.
“We just don’t know what will grow or how to grow them,” she said.
During the Expo session, a key piece of advice emerged.
While it’s true that England and France are models to look at, it doesn’t mean Americans need to copy them. Americans don’t know enough about hard cider to know one from another. They just want to know if it suits their taste. “You don’t need to grow cider varieties,” said Wanda Heuser Gale from International Plant Management in Lawrence, Michigan.
Mike Beck, from Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, Michigan, said some of the varieties already grown produce good cider, too.
Gale quoted Bill Pitts, the nursery manager from Wafler Nursery in Wolcott, New York, who said: “There’s nothing good about any of these varieties.” He was talking about how hard they are to grow, both in the nursery and in orchards.
The original hard cider tradition in America—cider was once more readily drunk than water—was built on apples of no-name variety grown from seeds. Prohibition had a greater impact on hard cider than on distilled liquors or beer, but cider is just now making a comeback.
In the future, certain cider varieties will emerge—just as certain wine grape cultivars have emerged over the centuries. But, today, nobody knows which will become the Pinot Grigio or Cabernet Sauvignon of cider apples.
“Do your thing. It will sort out,” said Nancie Oxley, from St. Julian Winery in Paw Paw, Michigan, a large winery that has added hard apple cider to its line. “Nobody is putting us in a shoe box. There are plenty of different styles of cider that can be made.”
Demand for trees
Both Pitts and Gale explained why it will take so long to get cider varieties into orchards.
“There is a shortage of budwood and of rootstocks to grow them on,” Pitts said. Wafler Nursery has decided to work with small growers and will custom bud to order, but, he said, there’s a waiting list of 30,000 to 40,000 trees now. “We can’t afford to bud trees on speculation, not for cider varieties,” he said.
Gale noted that demand for apple trees now is unprecedented. “We’re in the midst of an huge planting cycle,” she said. “Nurseries don’t need to cultivate the cider apple business. Waflers seem to have done the best job of trying to figure it out.”
But Pitts said it would help if somebody would come up with a top ten list of varieties to plant.
Gale noted that it takes three full growing seasons from root to tree, which can then be shipped in the spring of its fourth year. Then, it will take three more years for fruit.
Cider varieties, she said, are not something most nurseries want to contend with.
Other items from the Great Lakes discussion:
—There are few reliable budwood sources. Budwood is often sourced from private orchards and old trees and may be infected with viruses.
—Trees are not true to name.
—Favorites change year to year.
—They are difficult to grow. Many don’t graft well in the nurseries, and nobody knows what rootstock/scion combinations work best to get the proper vigor or whether trees will be freestanding or need trellises, etc. •
Some hard cider trees available
Growers seeking to plant hard cider apple trees can find some varieties at Wafler Nursery in Wolcott, New York.
Nursery manager Bill Pitts, who spoke at a hard cider educational session during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo, passed out a sheet listing 20 varieties that are in stock at the nursery.
They are: Arkansas Black, Bedan Des Parts, Binet Rouge, Bramley’s Seedling, Brown Snout, Chisel Jersey, Dabinette, Ellis Bitter, Fillbarrel, Harry Masters, Kingston Black, Lady, Major, Michelin, Porters Perfection, Somerset Redstreak, Stembridge Jersey, Tremletts Bitter, Wickson, and Yarlington Mills.
Most of the varieties are budded on Malling 7 and M.111 rootstocks, so they are freestanding and relatively large trees, but some are available on Budagovsky 9 or M.9/337, and a few are on the Geneva rootstocks G.11 and G.41. Dabinette is available on six different rootstocks.
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He was a member of the staff of Good Fruit Grower from 2010 until 2015.
Read his stories: Story Index