Aug 12, 2017
Cider apple production faces extensive screening process

The questions about what apples are best to grow for hard cider continue, but Michigan State University (MSU) researchers are screening varieties to try to find some answers.

“The cider industry is very new. A lot of these issues are growing pains because it is such a young industry,” said Nikki Rothwell, MSU Extension specialist and coordinator of MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center (NMHRC) near Traverse City, Michigan.

“We don’t know what the consumers are going to want,” Rothwell said. “We’re making cider in Michigan from dessert varieties. Should we be using heirloom varieties instead – those traditional varieties with natural tannins?”

Golden Hornet is one of the cider varieties being screened by MSU researchers. It’s bearing well and has other good traits, but doesn’t produce much juice. Photos: Dean Peterson

With literally thousands of varieties to choose from, the challenge is paring down the number of varieties to a manageable number. “Nurseries are not going to continue budding this many varieties,” Rothwell said. “The goal is to narrow the field.”

MSU is screening about 75 varieties for cider production.

Most of the trees are at NMHRC. Most were planted close to two decades ago using trees from nurseries that were unsold at the end of the season.

Trees were also planted last year at MSU’s Plant Pathology Field Station in East Lansing. These plantings were funded by the Michigan Apple Committee and the U.S. Association of Cider Makers.

MSU is screening for resistance to apple scab and fire blight and trying to identify best management practices for cider varieties.

Cider varieties are often biennial bearing. “A lot of times, they don’t bear every year,” Rothwell said. “Is that the variety or is that because of the management practices?”

Some of the older varieties used for hard cider are crab apples. “The labor costs get too high if you’re going to pick these tiny crabs, or even medium crabs,” Rothwell said.

Identifying lower cost management practices may make crabs profitable. “Can we manage them with fewer inputs, but still have a healthy crop?” Rothwell asked.

The cider makers also have needs.

Some cider varieties produce a small amount of juice per gram of fruit which is unacceptable.

Tannins darken cider, give it a golden color, and add taste and flavor. “What is the tannin level of a variety?” Rothwell asked. “What is the acidity? What is best for the fermentation goal?”

Consumer preference is another uncertainty.

Fruit juices are being mixed with cider to appeal to more consumers. Blueberry apple cider, peach apple cider and raspberry apple cider have all appeared on the market.

American cider drinkers tend to be younger than other consumers. Some expect hard cider to be sweet like sweet cider. Some prefer it to be like wine and be something they can drink with bread.

People with gluten intolerance are another important market.

“They are another driving force behind this – people who can’t drink beer,” Rothwell said. “That’s a huge market for us. Most breweries have at least one variety of hard cider on tap.”

“There are a lot of unknowns out there,” Rothwell said. “We’re screening to provide the varieties the cider makers want, and the consumer wants, and that are grower-friendly apples that are profitable to grow.”

— Dean Peterson, FGN correspondent

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