To decide what cider fruit to grow we need to know a little about fruit composition. About 80% of the apple is water soluble in the form of juice, and the approximate composition of that juice in different varieties is shown in the table below.
|Malic acid||> 1||0.5||< 0.2||0.4|
|Tannin||< 0.05||0.1||> 0.2||0.2|
|Amino nitrogen||0 - 300 parts per million depending on cultivation|
|Starch||0 - 2%, depending on fruit maturity|
|Pectin||0 - 1%, depending on fruit storage period|
For reasons which will become apparent in a later section, the composition of the 'ideal' cider juice should be similar to the figures in the last column. Unfortunately, very few 'true' cider apples match this ideal, and therefore a blend of cider apples is nearly always necessary. A renowned cultivar that does approximate to the ideal is the bittersharp 'Kingston Black', but this is scarcely grown commercially nowadays on account of its susceptibility to canker. It has become more usual to plant a range of bittersweet varieties, using 'sharps' to balance the acidity or, more commonly these days, using 'Bramley' which always seems to be readily available. There is some merit, in any case, in not putting all one's eggs in the same basket as far as cider varieties are concerned.
Not all 'true' cider apples necessarily produce 'vintage quality'. The cultivar 'Michelin', which is widely planted for cidermaking in Hereford and Somerset, is a good example of this. As a sort of 'Golden Delicious' of the cider world, it is easy to grow and to process but provides mere bulk without any distinction. A list of high quality cider cultivars is given in the Table below.
|FREDERICK||Growth moderate, light crop, drooping and awkwardly placed growth||Early/mid||mid Oct||Very fruity and characteristic high quality, but may not store long|
|BROWNS APPLE||Vigorous, tends to biennialism||Mid/late||end Oct||Fruity aroma|
|CRIMSON KING||Large triploid||Mid||mid Oct||Large fruits but better for cider than Bramley|
|KINGSTON BLACK||Growth and cropping moderate. Slow to start bearing||Mid||mid Oct||Excellent distinctive flavour, allegedly the 'perfect' cider apple!|
|BROXWOOD FOXWHELP||Growth moderate, biennial||Early||Sept/Oct||Full body, good blender|
|DYMOCK RED||Moderate, spreading, biennial||Early||Sept/Oct||Good allround bittersharp|
|STOKE RED||Slow and very twiggy||Mid/late||end Oct||Fruity aroma, high quality, for single variety cider or blending|
|DABINETT||Small tree, precocious but grows neatly. Needs high potash||Mid/late||end Oct/Nov||Soft but full-bodied tannin. A "must have" for behaviour and blending!|
|MAJOR||Growth spreading. Annual cropper||Mid||end Sept||Excellent soft tannin|
|YARLINGTON MILL||Tends to droop. Good biennial cropper||Mid||Nov||Good light aromatic cider|
|ASHTON BROWN JERSEY||Moderate growth, spurs well. Good yields but biennial||Mid/late||Nov||Pronounced hard tannin|
|HARRY MASTERS JERSEY||Compact, good annual cropper||Mid/late||end Oct/Nov||High sugar, high tannin but fruit may not store|
|MEDAILLE D'OR||Smallish tree, wood tends to split. Strongly biennial||Late||end Oct/Nov||Very high but 'soft' tannin|
|SWEET ALFORD||Strong annual cropper, tip-bearer and prone to scab||Mid||end Oct||High sugar, good bulk for fermentation|
|SWEET COPPIN||Strong large tree. Mildew susceptible and biennial||Mid||end Oct||Good allround sweet|
Generally it is considered wise to grow a selection of cultivars to hedge your bets. If you live in a traditional cider-growing area, you may already know which cultivars do best in your locality and so you may decide on these. Otherwise, you can plant a few of each and assess them as time goes on. At worst, you can always 'topwork' over the poor varieties to the better ones in later years. But do bear in mind the ultimate blend of fruit you need - a cider made entirely from heavy bittersweets may have insufficient acid and too much tannin to produce good cider, unless you blend it with the ubiquitous 'Bramley' or with synthetic malic acid from a bag!
Remember also considerations like the fruit harvesting period. Few small cidermakers can have a need for the early cultivar 'Nehou', whose fruit is ready in late August but which bruises easily and does not store. As with dessert apples, mid- to late-season varieties generally store better and produce superior quality ciders.
A reasonable yield for all trees is an average of 5 tons per acre, but this can vary hugely due to biennial bearing ('on' one year and 'off' the next) and to the extent of fertiliser application. In commercial cider orchards, 120 lbs/acre of N and 80 lbs/acre of K is typically applied annually, perhaps with the addition of phosphate and magnesium. The actual levels required are often determined by leaf and soil analysis. In an organic system, FYM might be used instead. For high quality cider, it is undesirable to feed the trees more than is absolutely necessary, and it is particularly important not to apply excess nitrogen. Yield may go up but quality certainly comes down, and there is ample evidence that the best ciders are produced from orchards low in nutrients. Aim to keep your trees just healthy, but not in the 'lap of luxury'!
The best orchard floor is grass, although the immediate base of the trees should be kept clear of vegetation. If sowing a new sward, a slow growing mixture of chewings fescue (60%) and browntop bent (40%) has recently been recommended, or a slow-growing perennial ryegrass (sports turf mix) may be used. Some growers like to add white clover for its nitrogen fixing abilities. The grass should be cut as frequently as required, with the mowings allowed to rot in situ or used as a mulch at the base of the trees. Grass should never be removed from the orchard because this can lead to severe potassium deficiency and subsequent defoliation. A final cut can be made just prior to harvest, so that the fruit has a short clean sward on which to fall. You can run livestock e.g. sheep in traditional orchards although the tree trunks must be well protected by fencing. This is more difficult in bush orchards since both trunks and lower branches are vulnerable to browsing. As the trees mature, however, the lower tier of branches can be removed to allow for grazing if required. Chickens are an excellent alternative to sheep in dwarf orchards (and they greatly enjoy the blossoms on the lower branches!). Livestock should always be removed a couple of months before harvest to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination of fruit by animal droppings (author's note: I don't actually remove my chickens, but I DO wash my fruit throroughly!).
At planting, prune the maiden tree to a good bud about 3 ft above ground level, rubbing out the two buds below as they break in spring. Existing side branches ('feathers') below 2 ft should be cut off flush with the stem, but those above 2 ft may be retained as part of the first tier of permanent branches. In subsequent springs, the leader may be tipped slightly back to a good growth bud and the two buds below should be rubbed out. This will help more horizontal laterals to break further down, and reduce competition with the leader. Branches that do begin to compete vigorously with the leader should be cut out during the summer. Do not allow more than 2 side-branches per 4 ins vertical run of stem. In autumn, it will be worth tying down any upward pointing side-branches to a more horizontal position. Not only will this increase their fruitfullness by reducing their vigour, but by developing wide branch angles it will prevent them splitting under heavy loads when carrying fruit later.
Pests and diseases of cider trees are similar to those of dessert fruit, although the severity of attacks may be less. Scab and codling moth damage are scarcely important to the cider maker unless extremely severe, and even large cider growers may only spray routinely against mildew. Frequently, no spraying at all is required and cider apples are therefore well suited to organic cultivation. Fireblight, though, is a potential problem and is spread from blossom to blossom by pollinating insects which carry the bacterium. There is no easy solution and affected limbs should be cut out and burnt as soon as the disease is noted. MAFF should also be informed.
Biennial bearing is perhaps the biggest single headache for the cider grower. It is caused by a large crop in one year (the 'on' year) supressing flower-bud formation for the next year (the 'off' year). This pattern is often set by external climatic factors, such as a warm summer, so that all the trees in a locality tend to go 'in phase' with each other. For the UK as a whole, there is a strong biennial trend. For instance, crops in the years 1980, 82, 84 were about twice those in 1981, 83, 85. This is one of the factors which has led many manufacturers to rely so much more on concentrated juice to even out supplies from year to year. There are various potential remedies for biennial bearing, mostly using hormone sprays to control flower bud initiation, or even using hand removal of part of the blossom in an 'on' year to ensure some crop in the subsequent 'off' year. However, most growers are understandably reluctant to substitute less 'jam today' for an uncertain 'jam tomorrow'!
Once harvested, mid- to late-season fruit need not be processed at once. In fact it has traditionally been considered necessary to store the fruit up to a month or so after harvesting. The major reason for this is that starch in the fruit is still being converted into sugar even once the fruit is off the tree, and it is desirable that this process should be complete before fermentation. Changes in flavour precursors also probably occur. However, soluble pectin is also produced as the fruit is stored, which may eventually cause problems of sliminess when the fruit is being pressed. So it is unwise to store the fruit for too long - two to four weeks is probably a reasonable period. Traditionally, the apples are ready for milling when they retain the impression of a thumbprint after squeezing in the hand! You can also use the 'iodine test' to check for the presence of residual starch.
Before milling, fruit should be washed to remove soil, dead insects, leaves, stones, and rotten apples. It is fortunate that healthy apples float in water (pears don't!), thus providing an easy way to wash and clean the fruit. Clean water should be used to wash each batch of fruit - if the water is recycled, the dirt is recycled too! Don't be afraid of washing away the yeast - you won't! It is a popular fallacy that desirable fermenting yeasts are present on the fruit skin. There are indeed some types of yeast on the skin and in fact there can be up to 45,000 yeast cells per gram of fruit actually inside the apple itself, which get there through the open eye (where the flower petals once were). However, scientific study has shown that these yeasts (species such as Kloeckera and Candida) have only weak fermenting power and they soon die in more than a couple of percent of alcohol. They are not the Saccharomyces yeasts which are required for the successful completion of fermentation.
In a traditional cider-making operation where no yeast is apparently used, the inoculum resides on the press racks, the cloths, the vats, or even on the walls and ceiling. It persists from season to season but virtually none of it comes from the apples. Wild Saccharomyces yeasts are not very common, so this inoculum can take several years to build up but, once established, it can determine the 'house flavour' of a particular product. It is largely a matter of luck whether this flavour is desirable or not. We return to the subject of yeasts in a later section.
© Andrew Lea 1997. Lightly updated 2009Cider Tree Suppliers
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