“So, You’re Planting a Bunch of Apples You Can’t Eat?”: The Science of What Makes a Cider Apple a Cider Apple

Before we get started: When I say “cider” I mean “hard cider” and when I say “sweet cider” I mean “the sweet brown stuff you get from a farm stand in the fall”.  “Apple juice” is an atrocity that comes in a box that children drink.

 Cider apples look a bit different from eating apples.

Cider apples look a bit different from eating apples.

So the “cider apples” I’m planting; these babies ain’t no Granny Smith or Honey Crisp, these apples are way out there.  If you were to take a bite of one your immediate reaction would likely be to spit it out followed by a chasing down and pummeling of the person that encouraged you to take a bite in the first place.  This is exactly why these kinds of apples are often referred to as “spitters” and that thing that makes you spit them out is exactly why they are so excellent in cider.  Confused?  Let me attempt explain.

A big bright red ripe Mcintosh apple picked from the tree on an autumn day is delicious for the following reasons:

1. Apples contain sugar, in particular fructose which is a power house in terms of relative sweetness and your brain really likes sweetness.

 Thanks for the flowers! You're so fructose!

Thanks for the flowers! You're so fructose!

2. It’s tart, malic acid in the apple when perceived on the tongue alongside sweetness does a beautiful thing.  It keeps things in balance.  If you were to try to drink just the amount of sugar in a glass of water that is contained in a coke without the acidity they add to coke to balance it out you’d be pretty grossed out by time you were about half way through.  We often refer to something containing this imbalance as “flabby” or we just say: “This tastes too sweet”, often what we really mean is it’s out of balance or the acidity is too low. 

 What goes into "apple".

What goes into "apple".

3. It tastes like “apple”, there are a vast variety of flavor compounds, esters and polyphenols that create the overall flavor of an “apple”.  This mechanism of perception is extremely complex.  A bit like describing your favorite song as “catchy”, there is a huge amount going on underneath that gives our brain this final impression.

4. Mouth feel, it’s crisp, crunchy and juicy.  People love crunching things in their teeth in general.  Several years ago at a dinner party a colleague of mine confessed that they thought people like eating apples so much because it satisfies a primal carnivorian instinct to gnaw on a crunchy bone to obtain the nutritional benefit from the juicy marrow.  I may not agree with this theory entirely but there definitely is something about that crunch that satisfies something innate in most of us.

Now, a “cider apple”, sometimes it’s missing one of these or several of these points entirely, but it’s got something a little extra called tannin.  Some eating apples have a very small amount of tannin but cider apples really pack it in on a scale that you never see in an eating apple because it would make the apple inedible.  It’s generally thought that tannins’ original purpose in fruit was to deter animals from eating the fruit until the seeds within the fruit were ripe enough to be consumed and sprout after their…delivery.

 Al drinking traditional English cider on a very comfortable couch with a Banksy back drop at Roger Wilkins Cider Farm in Somerset.

Al drinking traditional English cider on a very comfortable couch with a Banksy back drop at Roger Wilkins Cider Farm in Somerset.

So, you’d think: “OK, tannins don’t taste good, they prevent animals from eating fruit, why do you want them in cider?” and this was kind of my understanding on the subject as well but it doesn’t quite work that way.  Every time I tasted a cider made with high tannin apples fermented in a traditional way I was blown away.  I tasted a completely new set of flavor compounds and aromas that you just don’t get from “eating apples” and it is heavenly.   This for me was a bit of an aggravating mystery that I couldn’t figure out until I had the luck to meet a man named Andrew Lea over an outdoor brick oven pizza in Glastonbury last year during an English cider holiday.  Andrew Lea is a former chemist / plant biochemist / food scientist / Head of Beverage Research and he received his Ph.D at the Long Ashton Research Station in Bristol while working on these exact kind of questions in cider.  As I scarfed pepperoni and combed mozzerlla out of my beard I asked him in a mumbling mouth full American accent “What the heck is going on with the tannins and stuff in English cider, like why does it change and stuff after you ferment it?”.  Andrew in a philomathian styled English accent then proceeded to enlighten me eloquently.

The answer, he explained, is complicated but is tied into a set of interactions that occur during fermentation specifically the tannins interacting in conjunction with Lactobacilli and Brettanomyces that in a way convert these tannins into something entirely new. 

To which I followed up with: “Ohh…” (chewed pepperoni falls from mouth into beard onto floor).

Now, here’s the kick, and this is going to get me in trouble a bit with some other cider makers, but I’ve only tasted this in it’s fully funky glory in English ciders, never in an American cider.  Also, I know “cider apples” used to be grown in the US and cider was a very popular drink before prohibition and the massive influx of beer.  This cider would have been made the way the traditional English cider makers make cider now, they are the one’s we stole it from in the first place. ::Deep Breath:: So I’m lead to believe we used to make this funky glorious tannic cider here, in New England and those cider makers very likely accomplished these flavors and aromas that I now taste in English ciders but we seem to have lost the art of it.  And I think there may be a lot of reasons why, not just a Lactobacilli and Brettanomyces thing or a lack of tannins thing but a whole array of technique, orchard management and culture around cider making that’s preventing us from tapping back into this very traditionally English and Colonial American drink as whole heartedly as I think we can.  So this is why I’m doing what I’m doing and why “cider apples” are so special.

-Al

Jen TranComment