Growing a wider variety of flavors for cider

Samascott cider orchard tree closeup

These trees will grow apples with a different accent.

On a small plot off to the side of an orchard in Kinderhook, there are rows of apple trees with names that are probably unfamiliar to even the most ardent apple lovers in America: Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Dabinett, Tremlett's Bitter.

That's understandable: These apples are not from around here. They're varieties that originated in England. And they have the sort of dry, astringent accent that registers right away. So bracing is the flavor of these apples that you wouldn't want to eat them.

And that's OK -- because they're meant for drinking.

A brief history of apples in America

Apples show up in North America in the early 17th century in New England. The first American variety was cultivated by an Anglican priest in what's now Rhode Island. From there apples spread to other parts of America and there's an explosion of different varieties. By the 19th century there's an estimated 14,000 varieties grown on this continent, with all different sorts of characteristics.

A few illustrations from The Apples of New York State, a 1903 New York Department of Agriculture publication that's one of the bibles of old American apple varieties.

Some of those apples were for eating fresh, or storing, or baking. But one of the most common uses for apples back then was making hard cider. In fact, Johnny Appleseed's efforts to spread the growth of apple trees was largely about cider production. These cider apples tended to be sour and bitter -- some people refer to them as "spitters" because of the reaction you'd have if you took a bite -- and it was those qualities that contributed interesting flavors to cider after fermentation.

Then Prohibition comes along, essentially killing off the hard cider industry in this country. Orchards are stuck with trees producing fruit that no one wants to eat, so the trees get ripped out or forgotten. Cider apple varieties in this country fade out.

Back to the present

Fast forward to the present: The hard cider industry in the United States -- especially in places like New York State -- is re-emerging, with a focus on making more sophisticated, nuanced ciders. And cider makers have been working with what they've got, which is mainly the 80-90 (or so) varieties of fresh eating ("dessert") apples that are grown in this country. But this is like painting with just a handful of basic colors. So cider makers are looking to expand the palette with old-school cider varieties.

"I mean, we have obviously figured out a way to make great tasting cider without them," said Alejandro del Peral, the founder of Nine Pin Cider in Albany, the first cidery to be licensed under the state's farm cidery law, which requires the use of New York apples. "But what this does is it opens up an entire new sort of flavor and quality that we can create different styles of cider."

One of those styles of cider is a type that's typically found in Europe, especially England and France. It has an astringency not that's unusual for American ciders. "It's sort of a mouth drying, warming, fuzzy kind of feel when you drink the cider," as del Peral describes it.

To get that effect, you need the right types of apples. Specifically, it requires apples that are high in bitter compounds called tannins. (Tannins show up in all different sorts of foods.) And without these cider apples, you can't make that sort of cider.

Bittersweet and bittersharp

Samascott cider orchard wide
Jake Samascott and Alejandro del Peral in the cider orchard.

"I think Alejandro has asked us that since day one," said Jake Samascott of Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook with a laugh. "What's it going to take to get you to plant cider apples?"

As it happened, it didn't take too much convincing.

Last year Samascott, which has an equity stake in Nine Pin, planted the first rows of its new three-acre cider plot alongside an edge of the orchard. It's there that the Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Dabinett, and Tremlett's Bitter seedlings stand along other bittersweet and bittersharp varieties such as Porter's Perfection, Redfield, and Franklin, as well as old dual-purpose varieties such as Belle de Boskoop and Saint Edmund's Pippin.

Samascott cider orchard tree with apples

These sorts of trees tend to be different from the varieties typically grown here in the United States. One difference, for example, is that many of them produce apples very late in the season.

"I think there's going to definitely have to be a learning curve on varieties that do well in the Northeast," Jake Samascott said after a tour of the plot. "I think it's going to take a few years to really figure out what varieties are going to do the best here and what root stocks are going to do the best with the varieties. Every variety's different. So it's going to take some time to figure out what the best planting system is."

Toward that end, Samascott and a group of apple growers and cider makers from New York went on a tour of cider orchards in England this past June that was organized by Glynwood, an org focused on creating sustainable agriculture businesses in the Hudson Valley. Glynwood has also helped distribute some of these old varieties of cider apple trees to farms around the state, with the idea that growers will be able to share what works (and doesn't).

Samascott cider orchard apple bite

Samascott said that planting apples that can only be used for cider is a bit of a risk -- if they were dual-purpose apples, then they could just be sold for eating fresh if cider demand isn't there. But the recent strength in the state's cider industry gives them confidence to take the leap.

Also: "It's fun to put in the new varieties and see how they do. And. I'm excited to see what cider comes out."

Apples with a decidedly different heritage

OK, so those English cider varieties are like apple royalty, with old and distinguished family trees. But Samascott is also making room for some newcomers.

Alongside the rows of revered cider apple varieties in that three-acre plot, Samascott has also planted seedlings grown from actual seeds. Pretty much no one does this (on purpose, at least) because each apple seed is more or less a new type of apple -- and the chances of getting something good are very low. (That's why apple tree varieties are reproduced via grafting.)

Samascott cider orchard seedling
Could be great. Could be a dud.

But they're giving it a shot, anyway. They pulled 25 seeds from than 20 different varieties of fresh eating apples -- varieties such as Jonathan, Northern Spy, and Golden Russet -- to see what happens. The odds are long. A lot of the seedings might not even produce fruit.

"I'm really excited," said Jake Samascott, pointing to the history of many famous apple varieties that were the result of random chance rather than focused breeding efforts. "I hope we get one great apple out of it, whether it's a great cider apple or a great dessert fruit. At the very least we'll have a lot of new varieties."

Samascott cider orchard cow pasture
One of the apple trees along the perimeter of the pasture.

And even farther afield -- literally -- this fall Samascott and Nine Pin will be harvesting apples from old trees that are growing along the perimeter of the farm's cow pasture. These are trees that just sort of happened. They're the result of apples that were eaten by cows and the seeds were... well, you know. A few seedlings at the back edge of the pasture survived to maturity, and in contrast to typical orchard trees, they're now tall and bushy.

Some of these wild apple trees produce surprisingly large crops of apples. None of them are particularly good for eating fresh. But Alejandro del Peral said their bitterness could make for some interesting cider notes. So they're going to try making a few test batches with the wild crop.

Drinking the new old cider

Samascott will harvest the first crop -- a very small crop -- from the cider orchard this fall. Then Nine Pin will gauge the apples' sugars, tannins, and other qualities with an eye toward making cider.

Alejandro del Peral said if all goes well, those first batches of cider made from the new orchard plot could be available in Nine Pin's tasting room in 2018.


+ Beyond boring apples

+ New York's farm cideries


Nine Pin advertises on AOA.


This. Is. Fantastic.

Say Something!

We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.

What's All Over Albany?

All Over Albany is for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. In other words, it's for you. It's kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who can help you find out what's up. Oh, and our friends call us AOA.


Recently on All Over Albany

Today's moment of autumn

It's actually starting to feel like autumn. From a tweet today by the Oxford English Dictionary: As Autumn draws on: 'feuillemorte' (or 'filemot') is a... (more)

The Lifestyle Farming Conference day of DIY classes is returning to SUNY Cobleskill

SUNY Cobleskill is bringing back the Lifestyle Farming Conference Saturday, November 11. The event is a full day of classes on all sorts of topics... (more)

"The business is just not what it used to be"

The Ryan's Farmer's Market property on Railroad Ave in Colonie is for sale, and Brian Nearing reports this could be the end of the 107-year-old... (more)

Stewart's is selling dough boys from Esperanto

Updated There is no doubt an alternate universe where this has already happened because it makes sense: Stewart's is now offering dough boys from Esperanto... (more)

PechaKucha is back at Opalka Gallery this week

The Opalka Gallery on the Sage Albany campus is hosting another PechaKucha night this Friday. The announced lineup: + Doug Bartow, designer, "Craft x Beer... (more)

Recent Comments

Hopefully these projects will all be built. It's crazy how anti-development and NIMBYist some people are around here, and then they wonder why so many people leave. It's fine if they build a house or move in, but then they want to close the door to everyone else.

Here are a few bits for the new bar planned for the space next to The Spectrum

...has 16 comments, most recently from ron

New look for the Playdium redev! 5-story building for Central Ave! Apartment project pushback! And more exciting tales of the Albany Planning Board

...has 11 comments, most recently from Greg

How I ended up riding a bike as one of my primary ways of getting around town -- and how that's gone

...has 21 comments, most recently from Greg

The week ahead

...has 1 comment, most recently from Songsandbanter

A snapshot of the Capital Region pitch to Amazon

...has 26 comments, most recently from Cathy