Greetings again to all my wild apple lovin’ monkeys. I’ve missed y’all! Hope you’ve all been staying dry — after this latest string of monsoon-like weather we are now up to a record 12 inches of rainfall in the last 5 weeks. This truly astonishing amount of wetness is certainly going to prove very interesting for the apple crop this year…. Harvest is rolling up as August approaches its end. I have some literary criticisms coming up in this post, but first, I want to share a few mental notes on the new harvest. Apple season has officially begun with the trickling in of the first few Summer apples. Duchess of Oldenburg, Trailman, Summer Rambo, Ginger gold are just a few. I have been a bit disappointed at how commercial growers in my area pick apples well before they ripen on the tree! How infuriating to see those white pips in the seed core.
I spent a few days last week doing some work preparing a wild apple grove in the upper Catskills for harvest. What work happens just before harvest? You might wonder, so here’s my two cents. Due to the innate differences in wild apples’ fruit characteristics, ripening and development can be very tricky to pin down. Add another set of variables into the picture from rainfall, sun exposure and degree days, and you’ve got a lot to keep track of if you’re trying to predict ripeness. The only way to really know when apples are ripe is to assess several factors manually. Here is a primer on assessing ripeness of apples in general, certainly valuable information for any forager to review.
- Seed color : White seeds = not ripe. Seeds of a ripe apple are a deep brown or hazel color. Anything less than a solid coating of brown means that the apple hasn’t developed to ‘dead ripeness.’ In unfavorable conditions, apples may drop before this happens. It is unfortunate when this happens, but seeds can darken post-harvest as well.
- Starch : A more precise definition of ripeness is the conversion of plant starches into sugar. An apple with starch leftover is not ripe regardless of seed color. This assay is harder to assess with certainty, taste can be deceiving. For exact results, use a starch-iodine test. (Sprinkle iodine into a halved apple, any starch present will bind to the iodine and turn dark purple or black in color.) The goal is to see no discoloration! Then you’ve got dead ripe apples.
- Qualitative observations : Other attributes like fruit color, how easily the fruit’s stem tissue releases from the tree (degree of success in shaking), flavor, and quantity of apples already strewn about the understory are all important things to mind as well, though they aren’t exact bookmatches for the definition of “ripe.”
I assessed the several hundred wild apple trees that are holding a crop with quick field assessment measures. Each tree received a color -coded blaze denoting one out of three phases of predicted harvest (early-, mid-, or late-season). After thoroughly beating up my taste buds and adopting a tri-chromatic color spectrum as my new vocabulary, I believe these lucky orchardists will enjoy a more efficient harvest process of their fabulous gnarly pippins this season.
Onto the intellectual stuff! I recently received my first two issues of the newly formed Malus publication. It’s a quarterly print-only joint devoted to all things apples and cider. It is a unique publication. A very important one for the fledgling craft we all love. Its mission is not the same as the academic publications such as state extension service handbooks, and not the same as those concerned with marketing such as Cidercraft magazine and related acts. Its mission is for exploration rather than declaration; inclusion rather than pedagogy; and adaptation over stagnation. It harnesses the intellect of dedicated individuals who are determined to propel this community and scene into the future. We should all be reading and discussing the pieces therein for the betterment of apple growing in theory and practice alike.
The first two issues touch on topics I have written about here at Gnarly Pippins in the past couple of years. Affirming and encouraging, yes. Earlier this season, I made a post about the embattled term “natural cider,” (you can read the piece here). The term “natural cider,” had represented uncharted terminology in the American cider market until some months ago, when GLINTCAP released a new set of style guidelines for a category designating “natural cider” as being basically synonymous with Sidra natural. (If you’re curious about the can of worms I opened up on the subject, check out the post, no more ranting here!)
Between issues 1 and 2, one can observe parallel discourses on cider’s identity. On the one hand, we have discussions of the syntax of cider production; the fundamental definition(s) of what cider is, and what it is coming to be in the eyes of today’s maker as well as of today’s consumer. On the other hand, we have an exploration of how the process of cider’s evolution is innately affected by how we communicate its notions. These two voices materialize on topics like marketing terms and their wavering truth value, production styles and their varying degrees of integrity, formality and informality, cultural growth and cultural governance… There is hardly any standard for coherence in views among producers, consumers, cider governing agencies (USACM, GLINTCAP, etc). This publication is an inquisitive look at cider (a problematic word, too, thanks to Mike Reis’ article) in the quiet nature of observation, rather than exclamation. It is very carefully plotted, and the pieces stir a lot of thoughts up for me. Aside from my ringing endorsement for anyone interested in diving deeper into apples and cider, here are my responses to some key essays.
Darlene Hayes, contributor in Malus, carries the torch further yet by railing against other phony or lacking uses of cider terminology in market terms in her piece On Words. For example, words attaching nationality to cider not produced in said place (like “British-style” or “Sidra” etc.) have no place on bottles, as this is untruthful. Furthermore, we uncover that the misuse of taste descriptor words ‘funky,’ ‘dry,’ and others denoting style. Exposed! She drives the point home that we really have very little meaningful language left to describe cider, as it has all been thrown around so much, truth value is hard to locate. Hayes’ article makes one wish that there were a clear, definitive and integral voice banning improper use (from the producer’s perspective) of these adjectives! This discussion may seem like one big esoteric name-game, but it is really reflective of larger trends that affect all those who enjoy cider.
We are all working to locate the notion of good cider in a moment where both of those words have lost their meaning. I offer my thoughts on what defines good cider in The Wild Apple Forager’s Guide , but that doesn’t budge the everyman’s notion, which is keen to differ vastly from mine or yours. The misuse of labeling verbiage such as “craft,” “artisan,” “fresh,” “natural,” “hand-picked,” etc. is rampant ! Take this simile as an example: In American culture, the greeting “how’s it goin’?” has replaced other common salutations such as ‘hello,’ and the replies ‘fine’ or ‘good’ have usurped our tendency to answer the question “how’s it goin’?” with honesty and thought. This malaise is similar to the assumption now, that just because cider is labeled “natural,” or “fresh,” and from “hand-picked apples,” that it must have been produced with care, skill, and integrity. As a cider enthusiast, producer, consumer, and insider, I can assure you that those buzz words have no correlation to the quality of the beverage itself.
“Natural cider” must be hallowed for cider produced with wild apples. Cider is the soul of the apple, and the untameable gnarly pippin makes the most natural cider that there is!
Issue 1 digs into the existential hemisphere of America’s cider community. In need of an establishing shot, “where are we?” is the resounding rhetoric. Asking a figurative show of hands in the room, we assess how many producers are also growers, how many of us are limited in scale by our growing, how many producers do not grow their own fruit? And to what ends are they limited in scale by their practices? What is the inner makeup of this fermented apple juice across many cider labels? Though essentially every contributor in Malus offers a fresh perspective on those fundamental questions, the common thread that slowly establishes itself is that we’re coming to terms with the fact that there are two distinct beverages both known as “cider,” (alcy-pop vs. the wine of apples) with very little meaningful language to disambiguate.
Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Ciderworks (Wurtsboro, NY) puts this discourse into creative focus in his piece Cider Cons – Considering the Triple Entendre. The cidermakers who are limited by the production of their land are more effectively elevating the craft than the cidermakers whose primary limitations are availability of market resources (fruit, fresh juice, fermenting equipment, skilled labor) and their finances. I often enunciate this separation in terms of urban – rural , or farm / orchard – based in contrast to producers in cities, not connected to any orchards. This terminology is not perfect either, as there is a lot of nuance in each case that has to be considered. A common urban model with some market precedent is a cidery that establishes residence in a city, and contracts a business relationship with an orchard capable of producing apples or fresh juice for the urban facility. This is the antithesis to the grower-producer identity, having less control, transparency, and connection to cider’s origins than their farming counterparts.
This is not to be condemned! In fact, it should be said that in order to create a more sustainable and vibrant agricultural economy, increasing these urban-rural connections in the orchard and cider realm is rather vital! Even though we cannot assume that all grower-producers achieve a higher quality product, or that integrity is important to them all, I believe that the work of grower-producers must not be lost in translation here. The care, attention to detail, and environmental component to the production of apples and cider on the farm is the true culture in cider, if you ask me. Mad respect and praise to Andy Brennan for his clarifying words.
I should take time to mention my feelings about the incoming onslaught of old world cider apple trees being planted in the U.S.A. Since the dawn of our cider and apple renaissance, thousands of excited cidermakers and budding orchardists, as well as larger orchards, have been putting these high-tannin apple tree cultivars in the ground in preparation for the takeoff of cider in America. Rightfully there is nothing to fear, yet I take issue with the fact that a proper majority of these trees are cultivars descending from other cultures worldwide. I ask: why? This same question was echoed by Kim Hamblin of Art + Science Cider in her piece Made in America – The Case for the Seedling in Issue 1. She demands that we, do the damn work of creating regional identity for ourselves! This is the pomologist’s bit in an argument on appropriating other cultures; instead of hijacking centuries of apple breeding/exploration, selection, and culture from cider cultures who have developed out of a history of cider grower-producers, we should embark to use the very abundant apple resources we have at our disposal for the formation of our own cider cultures.
Centuries of necessity, mixed culture farming, and relatively intense degrees of isolation yielded many place-based varieties in European regions where cider was an important beverage (Amere de Berthecourt, Rouge de Flandres, etc.). We should have more Roxbury Russets, Hubbardston Nonesuches, and Tinmouth apples for our current moment. they should differ in that they reflect our current ideas of good cider, rather than the bygone and museum-piece heirloom apples primarily for dessert and all-purpose use. We should be continuing the work of our Homestead Act -era orchardist forbears, and select the regionally adapted varieties for cidermaking purposes. More recognition is deserved for being a region with some special things to offer (that be be enjoyed nowhere else) than to be known by the reproduction of European-style cider. We all have the means to do this work: wild and naturalized apple genetics, time, and our own nostalgia are commonalities in all American apple growing regions. This discourse is literally why I do this! I am so glad that perspective is being voiced by others too. Mad praise and respect to Kim Hamblin from Art+Science Cider for spitting potent truths.
I don’t want these apples to become the overplayed radio hits of the cider kingdom….
I have fear of the apple harvests – to – come. Kingston Black, Dabinett, and other European apples used for slick single variety ciders. This fall, 40,000 (wow) European cider apple trees were budded by Cummins Nursery (Ithaca, NY) in collaboration with Cornell University. In 3 years, an unholy amount of old world cider apples will be released into the American cider market, and only more to come after that. With all those apples on the hands of inexperienced American cidermakers, it may open up an ideology that single variety ciders are somehow elevated from blends, that a grower is somehow more sophisticated or advanced than their peers who err on the side of American pome stock. These old world apples are indeed precious, amazing even. However, I would hate to see the revered kingston black eventually be diminished in how it is coveted, by being promulgated so vastly that its scarcity no longer illuminates its specialty. I don’t want certain names in the single variety- cider aisle of the package store to elicit the same reaction as aisles stocked full of hackneyed grapes like merlot and chardonnay. Riddle me this: How is a wine rack of different bottles of chardonnay ( a french grape ), all grown in different Californian valleys, as unique and novel as a wine rack in which indigenous vinifera originating in California were domesticated, grown widely in vineyards throughout the state, and sold as wine inextricably tied to that place? Apply that same thinking to cider and you may see where I’m coming from! The second reality doesn’t exist for American wine. If you venture to Georgia or Armenia, where endemic species of Vitis are grown commercially and made into wines only replicated in their places of origin. Pretty freakin’ cool, eh?
We are on the cusp of our cider reality containing a major figment of locality, so let’s push it further as a community of growers and makers! You can count on me doing my share. Dan Pucci states in his piece, Lost in Time, that we have to meditate on what it is that gives cider value in order to elicit the cultural changes that we wish to see. Even though I am guilty of nostalgia, I agree with his beliefs that we must stop looking backward to the fossils of our cider past, and get with the present! See what wild apples are around us and get to work on integrating them toward our apple future!
Robby Honda of Tanuki Cider (Sebastopol, CA) gets the last word on all Malus issues to date in If Trees Could Talk, neatly summing up his piece with a universally apt maxim that dovetails perfectly on Brennan’s earlier remarks: “[We] strive to do the best we can with what we have.” Really, what gives cider value to me, and to those who I’ve connected with about this, is the fact that orchards and cider, like the authentic expressions of American folk art, are a reflection of what is available to those who cultivate connection to their place, wherever that may be. We should all live by R. Honda’s words and do the best we can with what we have.
Thanks for reading this post, if you could make it through the whole thing. Please reach out to me and share your thoughts/criticisms to any of the questions posed above, as well as to my own views if you feel moved to do so!
Happy harvest my friends,
Matt // Poppa pips