Fruit and Nut
|Growing Apples for Cider Production|
In common with many other countries or regions on the fringe of Northwest and Western Europe, Ireland has a climate very suited to the production of cider apples.
Contrary to common perception, cider apples can be successfully grown in all counties of Ireland, and can be grown in many places where the production of eating apples would be a challenge. Many (though not all) cider varieties are among the latest apples to flower, an attribute which is useful for avoiding spring frosts. However, valley bottoms and flat inland sites prone to very late frosts should be considered unsuitable. While the risk of frost is usually much less on slightly elevated sites, the importance of shelter should not be underestimated. Exposed wind-swept sites will be vulnerable to flower damage and/or premature fruit-fall.
On very sheltered sites, there can be a problem of under-ventilation, which raises humidity within the orchard and consequently increases the risk of disease.
The requirements for large commercial orchards are generally more onerous, owing to the need to manoeuvre heavy harvesting machinery in between the trees. This rules out steeply inclined fields and awkward shaped parcels of land, and imposes a requirement that the orchard remain tractor-accessible even in a wet autumn.
Also, owing to the preferred high density planting regime in commercial orchards, canker can become a serious problem. Most commercial cider orchards resort to regular spraying regimes. The small-scale producer of cider apples need not fret about such matters: with greater tree spacing, careful choice of varieties, and similarly careful tree husbandry, the trees can be maintained in a healthy state and good crops can be expected in all but the most severe years.
Choice of rootstocks
All other things being equal, the rootstocks determine the ultimate size of the tree.These are the most commonly used cider apple rootstocks in Ireland and the UK:
M25 Very Vigorous
M111 Vigorous, high tolerance of waterlogging
MM106 Semi Vigorous
M116 Slightly less vigorous than MM106, disease resistant
M26 Semi Dwarfing
For any given rootstock there will be some variation in growth between different varieties. As a general rule, cider varieties are slightly less vigorous than cooking or eating varieties. Trees on the less vigorous rootstocks need warm sites and fertile soil to perform well. Outside of the traditional apple-growing belt (roughly speaking, Louth to West Waterford), such combinations of soil and site are not that common. But this problem can be overcome by choosing rootstocks with greater vigour.
For the grower seeking the smaller tree, M116 is a particularly good rootstock, but not widely available. In its absense, M26 (less vigorous) or MM106 (more vigorous) can be chosen. On sites where the ground is heavy, the vigorous M111 rootstock might be the best choice. M25 rootstocks are very vigorous and are good for cold sites or those with dry soil (for example gravely soils), or situations where large trees are preferred.
Choice of varieties
Cider apples are grown in many places including Galicia (Spain), Brittany and Normandy (France), Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Poland, and Norway. And of course Ireland and the UK. In terms of both historical and current production, the UK is by far Europe's largest cider apple producer, in fact it produces more cider apples than all the other producer countries combined and has been producing cider on an industrial scale for at least eight hundred years. Hence it should be no surprise that most varieties planted in modern Irish cider orchards originate from Britain. The one notable exception is the variety Michelin, which comes from Normandy.
Not all apples used in cider making are cider varieties, We will explain more about that later. But first, what makes a good cider apple?
Characteristics of Cider Apples
Cider apples are classified as follows
Bittersharp with high tannin content and high acid content
Bittersweet with high tannin content and low acid content
Sharp with low tannin content and high acid content
Sweet with low tannin content and low acid content
Of at least 120 named cider varieties that have been grown in the UK, only about 15 varieties are currently produced on any significant scale. All have relatively high sugar content (it is the tannin that gives cider apples their astringency). Compared to eating and cooking varieties, true cider apples and a fibrous internal structure that facilitates pressing. A small number of cider varieties are suitable for dessert or cooking purposes when fully ripe. However, a relatively wide range of cooking or eating varieties have characteriastics that may them suitable for inclusion in a cider wash.
This is an important consideration. The main risks are canker (which affects the whole tree, but especially the young wood), scab (which mainly impacts upon the fruit) and mildew (which mainly effects the growing tips and young leaves). Varieties that are disease-susceptible will succeed only when there is a regular regime of spraying. The organic grower should select varieties known to have high disease resistance.
Popular Cider varieties
Key: Poll = pollination group; sf = self fertile; trip = triploid (won't pollinate other trees); SS = slightly susceptible; S = susceptible; VS = very susceptible; R = resistant; VR = very resistant. A blank space left indicates no information available.
While disease-resistance is the preferred situation, slight disease-susceptibility can be countered with good orchard management, particularly in relation to tidying up the orchard after harvest. Disease risk increases in high rainfall areas.
Storage: Month indicates maximum storage in cool conditions (may sometimes store longer)
Cider quality: The designation vintage indicates a certain richness and complexity in the flavour, possibly a consequence of a lower rate of nitrogen take-up by the tree. Opinions vary. What is clear however is that some varieties have that vintage quality and others don't.
Within this elite group, Kingston Black and Stoke Red are considered to have the highest stand-alone quality. Dabinette has excellent blending qualities. Another good 'blender' is Broxwood Foxwhelp. This variety is unusual in that is flowers before most other cider varieties. Crimson King, although a vintage cider apple in its own right, is also good for bulking up other ciders. Yarlington produces a light, aromatic cider. Medaille d'Or flowers extremely late but is self fertile so it doesn't matter too much if all the trees in the orchard have finished. A good choice for areas prone to late frosts.
Of the non-vintage varieties, Michelin is a fairly reliable cropper that produces a light sweetish cider. Tremlett's Bitter produces a dry astringent cider, high in tannin, while Morgan's Sweet blends well with the bittersharps.
Apples - Cider Varieties
Non-cider varieties that have a history of being used in cider-making
The following cider varieties are available 2015/16:
Other varieties may be available, please enquire.
Growing Cider Apples - A Guide to Good Orchard Practice, Roger Umpelby and Liz Copas, St Owen's Press
Short but detailed guide covering most aspects of orchard establishment and maintenance. Aimed primarily at the non-organic commercial grower.
Craft Cider Making, Andrew Lea, The Goodlife Press
Comprehensive manual on cider-making, with a short section on the different cider varieties
Success with Apples and Pears to Eat and Drink, Alan Rowe, Groundnut Publishing
Not a specialist cider book but contains useful information on the different cider varieties as well as on the actual crafts of cider and perry making. Has short section on hawthorn, quince and medlar.
Golden Fire - the Story of Cider, Ted Brunning. Authors OnLine Ltd
Wonderfully researched and detailed account of the history of cider production right up to the modern day. And to that oft-asked question, did the ancient Celts produce cider, the answer is probably no! The evidence is that like many other things, cider originated in the Mediterranean area and was brought to Gaul and Britain with the Romans. However, it was the Normans and their English successors who really began to produce cider in earnest, aided undoubtedly by the invention of the screw press, which for the first time provided an efficient means of extracting the juice from the apple.
Cider Apples – the New Pomona. Liz Copas, 2014 (privately published) ISBN 978-0-9568994-2-2
This latest offering from Liz Copas, former cider pomologist at Long Ashton Research Station (UK) is by far the best source of information on the different varieties of apple used in cider making.
Described in careful detail are over one hundred traditional cider varieties plus another thirty or so eating and cooking varieties suitable for use in cider making. Copas also provides information on several dozen new varieties of cider apple developed at Long Ashton, some of which are now being planted commercially. The text is supported by over 160 high quality colour photographs depicting most of the varieties described.
A section describing the different qualities of the cider apple will assist the connoisseur cider apple grower to make an informed choice regarding slection of varieties.
Cider Apples – the New Pomona (Hardback) is available from Fruit and Nut, price €22.50. Please add €4.00 for postage.
Information for the intending perry pear grower
Note: this page is a work in progress. As more information becomes known it will be posted.