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Five Incredible American Cider Apples
Cider was America’s first beverage. Not the apple juice we call cider, but real cider… hard cider. In colonial times the water was not clean enough to drink. The fermentation process that the juice must go through before it becomes hard cider kills most pathogenic bacteria. As a result, in those days there was nothing safer to drink than hard cider. Orchards became a fixture of American farms and most contained apples that were unique to that farm.
Thanks to John Chapman and many others who planted apple seeds in the colonies and across the country, native American apple trees were created. The ability of apples to create many very different combinations of genes contributed to the success of apples in the new world. Each apple seed is as unique as a snowflake, which created unlimited new varieties of apples. Most of these seedling apples would eventually go the way of the buffalo. However, a small number of these random seedlings would have exactly the right combination of genes that would lead to the creation of wonderful apples. These varieties were selected and propagated by farmers and orchardists throughout the country. Of all the apples native to America, only a handful are truly suitable for making great cider, the kind our ancestors drank morning, noon and night. These apples form the backbone of the list of American cider apples.
Many cider apples are named after the farmer who found them or the place they came from. This is the case with the Campfield apple as it was named after a family that lived in eastern New Jersey. According to historical writings, a 50/50 blend of Campfield and Harrison made a “superior quality” cider. Campfield is also said to make a wonderful single varietal cider.
Also known as Virginia crab, this variety was favored by some of the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson. In fact, a large planting of the Hewe crab can still be found at Monticello. Hewe’s crab makes a very highly flavored dry cider. It is unknown when the first Hewe crab tree appeared, but writings from 1817 describe trees of this variety that were already about a hundred years old.
The Newtown Pippin is perhaps the oldest American apple, or at least the oldest in history. A single Newtown Pippin tree was found in Queens, New York in 1730. Classified as mildly bittersweet and very mild I would add, Newtown Pippin will make a great light cider on its own and is also suitable to contribute to a blend. The Newtown Pippin apple is also a top eating apple that ripens in November and does not reach its peak flavor until it has rested in storage for about a month.
Of all the American apples, Harrison’s story is my favorite. It was discovered around 1770 in New Jersey, and once thought to be extinct, it was lost from this earth forever. It was rediscovered in 1976, with enough time to get the branches off the tree before it was cut down. After careful examination and consultation of historical descriptions of the Harrison apple…over the course of 17 years, Tom Burford, a renowned apple expert, determined that it was in fact the lost apple. Fortunately for us, Harrison trees have proliferated and can be found through a number of sources.
Unlike the varieties listed above, the Wickson crab was the product of a deliberate breeding program. Bred by Albert Etter by crossing two crab apples and named after his friend and renowned UC Davis pomologist EJ Wickson, this apple can make a fine cider. Wickson apples are sharp and tend to be high in sugars and acid, so depending on the year they may be best used to balance out a low acidity cider.
Where you live will determine how easy it is to find apples above, whether for eating or hard cider. But if you get the chance, definitely try them. Your taste buds will thank you for it.
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