Heritage Ciders from Tannic Apples: New England’s OG Wine
Eleanor Léger, Founder
Eden Specialty Ciders and Eden Orchards, Vermont
Your favorite apples from the grocery store don’t have much in the way of tannin, and they make an alcoholic cider that OG New Englanders would have scorned. Tannins are the polyphenol compounds in some plants that provide astringency and bitter taste – think tea, oak, and robust red wine. Tannins are to good wine what traffic lights are to Boston roadways – a way to create some structure in an otherwise biochemically amorphous soup. It’s not that the fruit of the vine or tree doesn’t have flavor – acids and other compounds provide flavor – it’s just that without tannin the flavors can seem thin, or flabby, or out of balance.
Most ciders in the US are made from commodity grocery store variety apples that didn’t make the grade for the grocery store market – wrong size, strange shape, or blemished. But the limited number of varieties that you are familiar with from the store were selected and grown with that market in mind – they look good, store and travel well, and are bred for crisp texture and mild flavor. Those factors are precisely the wrong ones when it comes to making a great cider. Apples grown for producing cider have mad tannins and/or high flavor, come in all shapes and sizes, and are picked much later when they are really and truly ripe (perhaps even once they have fallen off the tree!). These ‘Heritage’ apples don’t store well, so you can’t press them out of storage in June. And their juice, once fermented, needs time to age for the flavors to integrate and smooth out. Just like wine. You can’t make a batch of Heritage Cider in 3 – 6 weeks. It takes more like 5 – 12 months or even more.
The difference in the taste of the cider is remarkable. Heritage ciders made from cider-purpose apples using wine techniques will have more flavors and structure, and be much less sweet, than ciders made from grocery store apple varieties and produced in a few weeks like beer. An excellent Heritage Cider will be delicious in the same way that an excellent red wine is delicious, and similarly it will be a wonderful accompaniment to food. It will have tart acidity without any vinegary taste, it will have a smooth rich body with astringency and slight bitterness, and its flavors will remind you distinctly of apple without tasting like apple juice, just the way you don’t expect your Pinot Noir to taste like grape juice.
The Founding Fathers cared so much about the quality of their cider that there are plenty of letters and quotes in the historical record from people like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. They argued about which apples were best, shared scion wood to propagate favored varieties, and drank copiously and discerningly.
Heritage cider apples are grown particularly well in the Northeast. They are grown by passionate farmers on smaller orchards, with care for their environment and employees. Similarly there are wonderful Heritage Cider makers in the Northeast willing to invest in these rare varieties and spend the time and money it takes to make amazing ciders. Look for varieties like Golden Russet, Kingston Black, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Bulmer’s Norman, Esopus Spitzenburg, Stembridge Cluster, Reinette or Binet Rouge. And check out the ciders from places like Farnum Hill in NH, Eve’s Cidery in NY, West County in MA, Portersfield in ME, and Eden in VT.
At the end of the day of course, the purpose of an excellent quality drink is to have an excellent quality party. To quote John Adams, the OG New Englander, “He that drinks his cider alone, let him chase his horse alone.”