Bittersweet symphony: Cider apple varieties

Susanna Forbes

Susanna Forbes

21 July 2016

Most cider is made up of a blend of different apple varieties, each of which brings something different to the blend. Susanna Forbes tells you how to recognise your Brown Snout from your Yarlington Mill

Cider can be made from all apples, since all varieties have the sugars and acids needed for fermentation. But not all apples have many tannins. As with grapes, tannins are primarily found in the skins, and they manifest themselves in cider as astringency on the palate.

‘The heavier the tannins the more complex the flavour,’ says Mike Johnson, founder of Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry Company, whose orchards are home to over 100 different types of apples. As with wine, tannins can be vigorous when young and tend to mellow with age. A sip of Johnson’s five-year-old Ashton Bitter cider proves the point. Early on this can be challenging (as with a young Barolo), but now it’s balanced and sumptuous.

There are around 2,000 varieties of apples in the UK alone, so where to start? In the early 20th century, four types were classified as relevant to cider making: sharps and sweets – those with high acids and high sugars, more commonly known as desserts and cookers – and bittersharps and bittersweets, those varieties where tannins play a part. While bittersharp apples originated in the UK, word has it that bittersweets originally hailed from France.

It’s these two types that are most highly prized. These are the orchards that cider makers own themselves rather than buy in. Take Aston Manor. One of the UK’s largest cider producers, of the 1,500 acres of orchards it owns – two-thirds of which have been planted in the last three years – 90% are bittersweets. Across the pond in America the story is the same. Bittersweet and bittersharp varieties of apple are being planted to complement existing culinary and ‘heirloom’ varieties.

But while there are several hundred cider apple varieties, most ciders are made from several dozen tried-and-tested varieties.

‘Varieties do taste different in different parts of the country,’ says Thatchers’ chief cider maker, Richard Johnson. With dozens of varieties in its orchards, from historic apples to varieties that are barely a few years old, Thatchers takes the long view, with a 50-year orcharding plan.

Siting is key, the soils play their part, and the sugars available depend on the vintage. ‘Part of the art [of cider making] is to understand how each type of apple has reacted to the summer,’ explains Aspall’s Henry Chevallier Guild.

Culture also plays a part. Historically the eastern side of England majored on dessert and culinary fruit, because that’s what the main markets, which are centred around London, traditionally wanted to buy.

Over in the west of the country meanwhile, it’s a story of two B’s, with bittersharps and bittersweets particularly favoured in Devon and Somerset, the Three Counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, and Wales.

So let’s meet the players...

Bittersweets – fulsome and textured
Arguably the most prized, bittersweets often sit at the heart of the blend (see box on previous page).

With a natural mix of fruit sweetness and tannins, bittersweets bring both flavour and mouth-coating astringency to the mix. ‘The tannins add texture and give a wonderful flavour on the swallow,’ says Mike Johnson. Add some of his Balls Bittersweet Cider to one made with Browns, a bittersharp, and you see what he means. What was initially an upfront, tingly, appley flavour immediately broadens and lengthens.

If a cider blend was an orchestra, these apples would most definitely be the brass section, contributing the power, drive and the energy of the final composition.

Take Dabinett for example. James Marsden of Gregg’s Pit has access to dozens of different apple varieties, many of them historic, yet Dabinett remains a favourite. ‘It’s got great depth, breadth and body,’ he explains. Aromatic as well as textured, it shows distinct vanilla notes, along with spicy, almost clove-like flavours. ‘With its richness and fullness, this is the Cabernet of the apple scene,’ says Thatchers’ Martin Johnson.

Yarlington Mill, similarly, likes to be the centre of attention. While the apple is rich and ruby-red in colour, its juice is phenolic and structured, and it responds well to being fermented in cask as well as vat, as Johnson’s Islay-cask fermented cider illustrates with style.

Look out for: Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Somerset Redstreak, Tremlett’s Bitter

Bittersharps – tingly
Bittersharps naturally have higher malic acid – that green-fruited zest. These waken the palate on entry but, without
much sweetness to back it up, can disappear quickly.

In our orchestra, these are the strings. Integral to the whole composition, ‘they elevate the blend and make it sing,’ says Gabe Cook, a cider maker himself, and the National Association of Cider Makers’ communications officer.

Some varieties, such as the high acid Foxwhelp, add real piquancy to the mix. A few, such as Kingston Black, have what Cook calls ‘the holy trinity’: a deft balance of acids, sweetness and tannins that make them fully capable of going it alone.

Look out for: Kingston Black, Foxwhelp, Dymock Red

Sharps – tangy
The cookers and eaters, or culinary fruit, these provide appley, upfront notes, adding that refreshing bite of crispness. As with dessert apples such as Cox and Russet, there can be a splash of sweetness in these varieties too.

Bramley’s Seedling, Cox, Russet and Grenadier form the bulk of the thousands of tons of apples used by Aspall. Fresh and fruity, they often undergo malolactic fermentation, either pre- or post-bottling, becoming softer and smoother.

And it’s not just east coasters who use these varieties. Thatchers in Somerset is proud of its Katy orchard. Originally created as an eating apple, Katy’s light, fragrant nature is responsible for one of Thatchers’ most popular ciders.

Look out for: Bramley’s Seedling, Brown’s, Frederick, Katy, Jonagold

Sweets – well... sweet (!)
This is the woodwind of our orchard orchestra. ‘They help to round things off,’ says Cook. Some, like Sweet Coppin, are light and sweet, like a flute, whereas others, like Sweet Alford, produce rich, fruity flavours, like an oboe or bassoon. They can be extravagantly aromatic. Richard Johnson calls Discovery the Gewürz of the apple world. ‘It’s like drinking perfume,’ he says.

Look out for: Discovery, Vicky

Mix it up

The majority of ciders are blends, since, if the goal is a balance of sugars, tannins and acids, most apples can’t go it alone. Blending can happen before or after pressing and fermentation, and can, like non-vintage champagne, include ciders from different years.

Rather than any formula, most cider makers who’ve been at it a while ‘know from experience’ what they want to do. ‘It’s an art, not a science,’ says James Marsden, speaking of his 22 years with Gregg’s Pit.

‘You get a feel for it,’ agrees Andy Hallett, co-founder with his wife, Annie, of Hallets Real Cider, the 2016 BBC Food & Farming Drinks Producer of the Year. For him, the early-harvest apples, the sharps, are the start, to be joined by his bittersweet and bittersharp fruit.

‘There’s a layering of flavours,’ says Hallett, explaining that his latest 2016 batch will start with newly fermented 2015 cider as the base, followed by an addition of Dabinett, which has been through malolactic fermentation and then been ageing for a year.

Across the pond in New York state, Doc’s Draft typically uses 10 apples in its ciders, majoring on Jonagold, a sharp, with the precise blend varying according to each harvest.

What about creating something new? ‘At Thatchers we begin with the consumers and the market,’ says Richard Johnson. If it’s to be traditional in style, bittersweet apples form the start, while if it’s to be more contemporary, there will be more dessert fruit in the blend. In 2015 they released a pair of limited-edition dual varietals, where a bittersweet variety was married with a dessert apple ‘to bring out the best of both worlds’.

A few of my favourites…

Dabinett, bittersweet
‘Dabinett is held in high esteem. It’s very consistent and gives character – what you could call a good bread-and-butter cider fruit.’ Rodney Clifford, Aston Manor

Yarlington Mill, bittersweet
‘Very fruity with mouthwatering acidity. Like a trumpet, it jumps out at you.’ Paul Stephens, Newton Court Cidery

Harry Masters Jersey, bittersweet
‘It’s like bringing a fruit bowl to the blend.’ Andy Hallett, Hallets Real Cider

Brown Snout, bittersweet
‘A very Herefordshire apple, with its ring of russet and lovely soft tannins.’ Dave Matthews, Bartestree Cider Co

Michelin, bittersweet
‘With its great astringency and rounder flavour, its ciders are very food friendly.’ Guy Lawrence, Westons Cider

Vilberie, bittersweet
With a high tannin count: ‘Like the Lagavulin of the apple world.’ Richard Johnson, Thatchers

Kingston Black, bittersharp
‘Everything in one apple – massive tannins, big fruit. It’s all there.’ James Marsden, Gregg’s Pit

Bramley’s Seedling, sharp
‘So versatile. You can’t make a single-varietal cider, but it gives backbone and moreishness to a blend.’ Henry Chevallier Guild, Aspall

Jonagold, sharp
‘A wonderfully balanced, sweet-sour taste.’ Jeremy Kidde, Doc’s Draft

Time to try

Henry Westons’ Vintage Reserve, 8.2%, Herefordshire
A bittersweet/bittersharp blend majoring on Harry Normans, Kingston Black and Dabinett, this shows depth and length, some butterscotch and hints of leather.
£24.35/12x500ml, Westons Cider, 07557 563 285

Hallets Real Cider, 6%, Caerphilly
A full-flavoured mix of Harry Masters Jersey, Dabinett, Michelin and Browns from the Welsh highlands, offering baked apple notes on the palate with a hint of dried fruit.
£33.80/24x330ml, £19/12x500ml, Hallets Real Cider, 01495 244691

Beers of Europe, 01553 812000,
Bristol Cider Shop, 0117 382 1679,
Fetch The Drinks, 07815 581481,
Fine Cider, 07792 616 446,
Matthew Clark, 0844 822 3901,
Pig’s Ears, 01306 627779,
The Real Al Company, 07967 646 245,

Aston Manor, Friels First Press Vintage 2014, 7.4%, Three Counties
Created with culinary and dessert fruit, this shows a lighter appley profile. ‘It’s like a light white wine,’ says head cider maker Rodney Clifford.
£13/8x500ml, £42/20l bag-in-box, Aston Manor, 01213 284336

Aspall Premier Cru Cyder, 7%, Suffolk
An east coast-driven blend, majoring on sharps (Bramley’s, Cox and Gala) with bursts of bittersweets. ‘This is very appley with a hint of cedar wood,’ says Henry Chevallier Guild.
POA/12x330ml, Aspall, 01728 860510

Perry’s Grey Heron single orchard cider, 5.5%, Somerset
An off-dry, deft mix of Dabinett and Somerset Redstreak with good food-matching potential.
£17.50/12x500ml, Perry’s Cider, 01460 55195

Ross-on-Wye, Kingston Black, 6.4%; Yarlington Mill, 6%, Herefordshire
Enjoy solo or play master blender yourself with these bittersharp and bittersweet ciders from the maestro of the single varietal himself, Mike Johnson.
£25/12x500ml, The Real Al Company, 07967 646 245

Thanks to Bill Bradshaw for his enlightening Cider Enthusiasts’ Manual (Haynes) and Mike Johnson for sharing his Ross-on-Wye single-varietal ciders. 

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