Single-Varietal Cider: Tips from the Pros

Most commonly, hard ciders use a blend of apple varieties — with each variety expected to bring its unique taste to the cider — but many cidermakers are also producing single-varietal ciders to exemplify the characteristics of a specific varietal. We’ve contacted three pros that appreciate single-varietal ciders for advice on what home cidermakers should look for when choosing an apple that can stand alone.

Cidermaker: Andrew Brown,  Blue Mountain Cider in Milton-Freewater, OR

Our primary focus when searching for new varieties to make hard cider is on unique flavor and aromatic qualities. The secondary factor is chemical composition — pH, tartaric acid, and specific gravities. At Blue Mountain Cider, we love apples that have ample acidity, relatively high specific gravity around 1.065 and mild tannin content (bitterness).

We make single-varietal ciders with Gravenstein, Newtown Pippen and Winesaps. Each apple variety is unique in flavor and chemical composition and not to be cliché, but terroir — the growing region and soil composition — can also have a big effect on flavor profiles. So, a benefit of making single-varietal cider is that it increases awareness among cider consumers of single-varietal characteristics, producer/grower practices, regional terroir, and micro-climates.

Single-varietal ciders are usually not as complex as blended ciders. Some of the most common problems with single-varietals are composition shortfalls — apples often lack or have excess acid, sugar, or tannin. It is also easier to detect vintage variation from growing season to growing season. At Blue Mountain, we tend to shy away from additives and manipulation. Playing with what nature gives you takes away from the expression of fruit and terroir of the single-varietal.

For any homebrewers who want give single-varietal cidermaking a try, experiment with different yeast. Yeast selection can have a huge impact on aromatic profile.

Cidermaker: Judith Maloney, West County Cider in Colrain, MA

When West County Cider started making hard cider (as a farm-winery) in 1984, nearby farmers and country diehards were the only ones who had kept fermenting this once well-known drink in the U.S.A. Hard cider has always been part of the, “If you have it, use it, enjoy it, don’t waste it” tradition of frugal survivors and interested others.

We started a small orchard getting scions and having them grafted from the Geneva Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. They had a living library of cider/heritage varieties and we wanted to know what they tasted like, looked like, and grew like. In autumn, we brought home a truckload of this and that and tasted and fermented small batches. We planted three rows of mixed apples and lines of Golden Russet, Ashmead’s Kernel, Redfield, Tremlett’s Bitter, Reine de Pomme, and others.

Those who make their own cider here have favorite trees in small or abandoned orchards, along dirt side-roads, or secret crabs, as well as certain late apple varieties they can get from the local commercial orchards. We too wanted to pay attention to the varieties we were interested in: that was the wealth of this apple zone and also of what we had planted.

That is why we have made single-varietal ciders: the differences between bitter-sharps, bitter-sweets, and desserts need to be tasted to be understood. We of this age are just now learning the different tastes and textures that might have been understood when more cider was made in small batches in local zones, with wild and cultivated apples . . . this has been our interest and will continue to be so.

Cidermaker: Nick Gunn, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks in Salem, OR

A good single-varietal apple should have a nice balance between tannins, acidity, and sweetness. All three of these qualities are hard to find in the same apple, but a really good example is Kingston Black. Here at Wandering Aengus Ciderworks we make single-varietal ciders out of Wickson Crab Apples and Golden Russets. We have played around with Newtown Pippin as well.

Single-varietal ciders are less complex, but often times more interesting than blended ciders. The benefits of single-varietals lie in consumer education. A lot of folks lump cider into one category of sweet and apply, but cider can be much more than that. Our single-varietal ciders are bone-dry and showcase the dramatic differences in apple varieties. We are very traditional in our cidermaking techniques — this means no adding acid, tannins, sugars, etc. What Mother Nature gives us is what we get. If we added anything to the cider it wouldn’t showcase the apple’s natural abilities. Ultimately, I hope the cider-drinking populace will appreciate not only the single-varietal apples for their natural fermentation abilities but the terroir that makes a Golden Russet cider from Oregon taste different from a Golden Russet cider from New Hampshire.

If any home cidermakers are interested in trying their hand at a single-varietal cider for the first time, my advice is to use your mouth as a guide. If the apple has sharp acidity, intense sweetness and maybe some interesting tannins or other characteristics, it will probably ferment out nice. If it is crisp and watery, it probably won’t be very interesting. Other than that, the usual saying of, “Clean, clean, and clean some more” is very important to keep in mind when making cider.

Issue: October 2013