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Cider Apple Classifications

The qualities that are desirable in a dessert apple are quite different from those that make a great cider variety. Cider apples are, in fact, often basically inedible, but they contain chemical compounds that become delightful after fermentation. Because almost all cider-specific varieties are also heirlooms, these apples can also be challenging for growers; they lack the disease resistance found in many of the modern cultivars.

In the world of cider making, each apple variety is usually assigned to one of the four categories within the Long Ashton Research Station system. These categories were developed in 1903 by Dr. B.T.P. Barker, who was the original director of the Long Ashton Research Station in Bristol, England, and they serve as shorthand for describing the typical levels of acid and tannin present in the juice of each apple variety.

This chart outlines the Long Ashton system. The categories of most interest to cider makers (and the least appealing as dessert apples) are the bittersharps and the bittersweets.

CategoryAcid %Tannin %
Bittersharp (BSH)>.45 (high)>.2 (high)
Bittersweet (BSW)<.45 (low)>.2 (high)
Sharp (SH)<.45 (high)<.2 (low)
Sweet (SW)>.45 (low)<.2 (low)

Bittersharp

High tannins provide the fermented juice with body and bite, while the acid adds a cleansing, bright quality to the flavor. Several varieties that are high in both tannin and acid are also classed as “vintage quality” cider apples, which means that they can produce a high quality cider alone, without blending. Kingston Black, often called the perfect cider apple, is a bittersharp. Other varieties in this group: Cap of Liberty, Collaos, Domaines, Dolgo, Foxwhelp, Golden Hornet, Mettais, Porter’s Perfection, Stembridge Cluster, and Stoke Red.

Bittersweet

Bittersweet varieties yield a juice that is high in tannin but low in acid. This juice is typically blended with that of more acidic varieties to complete the flavor profile and to protect the fermentation process (low acid juice is a great breeding ground for bacteria).

The bittersweets are often divided into English and French, with Dabinett being perhaps the most versatile of the French bittersweets. Other French bittersweet varieties include: Bedan, Binet Rouge, Frequin Rouge, Kermerrien, Medaille d’Or, Michelin, Muscadet de Dieppe, Muscat De Bernay, Nehou, Reine de Pommes, Vilberie, Zabergau Reinette.

English bittersweets include: Ashton Bitter, Brown Snout, Bulmer’s Norman, Chisel Jersey, Ellis Bitter, Harry Master’s Jersey, Herefordshire Redstreak, Major, Somerset Redstreak, Tremlett’s Bitter, and Yarlington Mills. One of the most beloved bittersweet cider apples in the American cider tradition is Harrison.

Sharp

High in acid but low in tannin, varieties in this group are often used as a base for blending with bittersweets, and to add bite and protect the fermenting juice from bacteria. This group contains several varieties that are also considered good baking apples. Sharp apples in the Cummins Nursery catalog include: Brown’s Apple, Bramleys Seedling, Gravenstein, Maria Elena, Piel de Sapa, Reineta do Caravia, Raxao, Sangre de Toro, Stembridge Jersey, and Wickson Crab.

Sweet

Almost any sweet dessert apple could potentially be used to raise the sugar levels of your cider blend. Three varieties recommended by Dr. Ian Merwin of Black Diamond Cider are Belle de Boskoop, Novaspy, and St. Edmund’s Russet.

“Crossover” Apples

Other dessert varieties that have found favor with cider blenders include: Akane, Ashmead’s Kernel, Baldwin, Golden Russet, Goldrush, Newtown Pippin, and Northern Spy.

Separate from the Long Ashton classification, there is also a slightly different classificatory system that is used by French and Spanish cider makers, whose finished beverage also has quite distinct qualities. In the French system, juice with high sugar and low acid and tannin receives its own category. The French cider groups are: sweet, bittersweet, bitter, and acidic.

For those who are interested in making cider at home, the Cider School web site provides a great starting point, with tons of information and references for further reading.

Perry Pears

It is worth noting that a delicious adult beverage called “perry” can be made from pears. As with apples, there are a number of otherwise unpalatable pear varieties that have traditionally been used for perry and are valued for their chemical composition. It is also the case that, as with apples, there are distinct perry traditions from England and France. While English perry is typically dry and still, French perry (poiré) is usually quite sweet and sparkling.

Perry pears are notorious for being long lived and large. In England’s West Midlands, there are examples of perry pear trees that are over 80 feet high and 300 years old.

At Cummins Nursery we propagate a range of perry pears. Our catalog in any given year may include: Barland, Brandy, Butt, Gelbmostler, Gin, Hendre Huffcap, Normanischen, Theilersbirne, Winnals Longdon, and Yellow Huffcap.

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