7. Cider Apples and Perry Pears

Apples for Cider

The fermented juice from any apple can, by definition, make cider. However, most quality ciders are made from a blend of apples. Apples contribute three primary components to cider: sugar content for potential alcohol and preservation, acidity (high for preservation, low to balance a high acid blend), and bitter / astringent tannins providing body, structure, and finish. Aroma is usually a secondary component but may be a primary use of a small percentage of a blend. A proper blend of apples will provide all four of sweetness, acidity, tannin, and aroma.

Apples may be classified by sugar, acid, or tannin content, by the season in which they ripen, or simply by their major use. Each categorization has their own requirements: an ability to hold its shape in cooking is important with a Baking apple, while a Keeper would need to last a significant amount of time in the cellar or refrigerator. Summer or Early Season apples do not last very long but are prized as the first available of the harvest, while many of the best Eating or Dessert apples require very low tannin and a crisp texture. The term “cider apple” sometimes refers specifically to apples that are difficult to impossible to eat fresh (usually due to tannin content; i.e., “spitters”), but some expand it to include any apple with the potential to make great cider. We will use the wider definition here.

Different growing regions have come up with varying classifications for potential cider apples. Though countries such as France, Germany, and Spain have their own valid classifications, the BJCP is using the English classification. This system dates to the early part of the 20th century, developed by the initial head of the Long Ashton Research Station, Professor B.T.P. Barker, and categorizes cider apples as one of four groups: sweet, bittersweet, sharp, and bittersharp.

Note that a particular variety of apple can taste, and possibly be classified differently depending on both the growing region and seasonal conditions. For example, the sugar content in apples can range from 6-25%, and is influenced by the growing conditions; a cool rainy summer will produce less sugar than a hot dry summer.

More in-depth apple descriptions are available in the Special Ingredient Description page on the BJCP site, but a brief description of the four basic classifications of apples is as follows:

  • Sweet apples are low in both acid and tannin levels, and are classified as less than 0.45% acid and less than 0.2% tannin (low tannin, low acid).Examples: Golden Delicious, Sweet Alford, Sweet Coppin, Winter Banana, Reine des Hatives.
  • Bittersweet apples impart the characteristic flavor of English ciders, and are classified as less than 0.45% acid and greater than 0.2% tannin (high tannin, low acid). The high tannins are responsible for the sensation of astringency and bitterness on the palate. In the bittersweet apple, there is a range of astringency and bitterness that depends on the variety of apple.Examples: Bulmer’s Norman, Chisel Jersey, Binet Rouge, Tremlett’s Bitter, Brown Snout, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Red Streak, Michelin, Reine des Pommes, Nehou.
  • Sharp apples have a predominant characteristic of acidity, and are classified as greater than 0.45% acid and less than 0.2% tannin (high acid, low tannin)Examples: Northern Spy, Golden Russet, Ashmead’s Kernal, Winesap, Baldwin, Jonathan, Esopus Spitzenburg, Newtown Pippin.
  • Bittersharp apples are high in acid and tannin; however, the tannins do not show the wide range of character seen in bittersweet apples. They are classified as having greater than 0.45% acid and greater than 0.2% tannin (high acid, high tannin).Examples: Foxwhelp, Kingston Black, Stoke Red.

Note that even though two of the classes contain the word “sweet,” the groupings are made without respect to sugar content. A “sharp” may have high, medium, or low sugar, but will definitely have at minimum a moderately high acid level. Some apples also do not fit neatly into a single group, and in one growing location may be Sharp while a different growing location or even season creates lower acid apples that would be classified as Sweets. High sugar, moderate acid apples have been referred to as “sweet-sharps” in some regions – with the low incidence of tannic fruit in the United States after Prohibition, a great deal of the cider fruit there fits into a “sweet-sharp” descriptor, at least until the bittersweet and bittersharp trees rapidly being planted start bearing fruit. Finally, a trained cidermaker will identify their apples by taste alone, regardless of where the cultivar would normally fit in the English classification system.

Beyond the four classifications you may encounter modifiers such as “hard” or “soft” that describe the tannin as bitter or astringent, respectively. Though this will vary with terroir and is on a continuum rather than clear dividing line, certain cultivars tend towards one of the two – Yarlington Mill is known for astringency while Dabinett is noticeably bitter. You may also encounter the term “vintage” which generally refers to apples with a proper range of acid, tannin, sugar, along with good flavor and aroma, to make a single-varietal cider. These apples tend to be rare, and in general a blend will be more complex than a single varietal, but judges are encouraged to seek out such varietals or even ferment their own when given the opportunity.

There are three other groups of special apples that Judges may encounter in cider:

Summer Apples – Summer apples tend to be brief and fleeting, ripening a few weeks to a few months earlier than other varieties. As they grow quickly, they do not contain a particularly high level of sugar, acid levels are fairly low, and they are uniformly poor keepers. Flavors can be fleeting too. However, as they often give very interesting fruity, floral, or spicy flavors and especially aromatics, they have some use in cider. Gravenstein is among the most well-known early season apples and has enough acidity and sugar to make a wonderful single-varietal cider; however, this is very rare among early season apples. Early apples tend to be good at balancing an extremely high acid/sugar blend while providing complexity to the aroma. Note the cidermaker must store the juice for weeks or even a few months to use summer apples with later-maturing apples.

Crabapples – Uniformly thought of as tiny, tart, and tannic, crabapple (or crab) size can vary from the size of a small cherry to a couple inches in diameter. Acid levels can vary from moderately to extremely high; however, many crabs also have high sugar levels. Wickson (some consider it a small Sharp apple, others say a large crab) is among the most well-known with its sugar content of up to 25%, but Dolgo, Hewes, Manchurian, Snowdrift, etc. crabs have also found a home in cider, a couple of them even as single-variety ciders. In addition to sugar and acidity, a small percentage of the many varieties of crabapple may give a light astringent finish that improves the cider’s balance.

Red-fleshed apples – Slowly gaining popularity, red-fleshed apples present a challenge but can make a tasty cider. If a New World Cider is similar to a white wine, a cider with red-fleshed apples is more akin to a Rosé wine with similar differences in fruit character. Character like peach, pear, and citrus is replaced with raspberry, hibiscus, rhubarb, and cranberry. Many red-fleshed apples were created by crossing the red-fleshed Asian crab Malus niedzwetzkyana with dessert varieties. Flesh colors range from orange to pink to deep red, and the apples range from Sharp to Sweet-Sharp to Bittersharp. Featuring high levels of acidity and in some varietals accompanied by moderately high astringency, it can be difficult to create a single-varietal red-fleshed cider (although it has been done on occasion). Sometimes a sweet, fairly low acid dessert variety can be added to a red-fleshed blend to lower the acidity while maintaining most of the red color and associated characters. A few intensely red-skinned apples such as Dolgo crabapples may bleed some of their color into the juice without most of the associated red-fleshed flavors.

Pears for Perry

Pears and apples are closely-related pome fruits. Perry (fermented pear juice) is not as popular as cider, partially due to the slow-growing nature of pear trees, and the length of time historical trees needed to bear fruit. In some cases the wait could be several decades, though pear trees also live a long time and some have fruited for over 300 years.

Pears used to make perry are similar to the apples used to make cider with a few important distinctions. Like cider, many of the best perries tend to be made from high-tannin pears that are not good for eating. Perry tannin content may change more significantly during the maceration and fermentation processes than cider tannin. Pears tend to have a little higher sugar content than apples, as well as much higher levels of the unfermentable sugar alcohol sorbitol. This allows perry to retain some sweetness even when fermented fully dry.

Pears often have very delicate flavors and aromas, and perry can be made with dessert pears, but like cider made from dessert apples may lack complexity. Like apples, pears tend to have a high amount of malic acid, however citric acid content is much higher than in apples and in some varieties citric is the dominant acid. Finally, due to acid levels pear juice may require higher levels of sulfite than cider to adequately protect against microbial contamination.

A more in-depth description of pear varieties can be found in the Special Ingredients Description page on the BJCP site, but a brief description of the four basic classifications of pears is as follows:

  • Bittersharp – Know to be very harsh in flavor and not very good for eating, but generally considered ideal for perry-making. They are classified as having greater than 0.45% acid and greater than 0.2% tannin (high tannin, high acid).
    Examples: Barland, Butt, Green Longdon, Holmer, Moorcroft, Oldfield, Pint, Rock, Teddington Green.
  • Bittersweet – Classified as having less than 0.45% acid and greater than 0.2% tannin (high tannin, low acid).
    Examples: Flakey Bark, Harley Gum, Nailer, Thurston’s Red.
  • Medium Sharp – Classified as having between 0.2% to 0.6% acid and less than 0.2% tannin (low tannin, medium to high acid).
    Examples: Arlingham Squash, Blakeney Red, Brandy, Brown Bess, Claret, Early Griffin, Gin, Green Horse, Gregg’s Pit, Knapper, Parsonage, Pine, Red Longdon, Staunton Squash, Taynton Squash, Tumper, Turner’s Barn, Yellow Huffcap.
  • Sweet – Classified as having less than or equal to 0.2% acid and less than 0.2% tannin (low tannin, low acid).
    Examples: Barnet, Bartestree Squash, Chaceley Green, Clusters, Coppy, Dead Boy, Ducksbarn, Hendre Huffcap, High Pear, Late Treacle, Lumber, Merrylegs, Newbridge, Red Pear, Sack, White Longdon.