Once a staple of the early American diet (with the average person consuming 35 gallons per year), hard cider hit hard times with the advent of Prohibition in 1920. Cider apple orchards across the U.S. were either abandoned, chopped down by axe-welding FBI agents, or replaced with more popular eating apples, such as the ubiquitous Red Delicious.

Today, hard cider is experiencing a renaissance, with more than 35 million gallons produced in 2013 and industry growth second to none among alcoholic beverages sold in the U.S. One of the biggest issues facing producers, however, has nothing to do with marketing or legal roadblocks, and everything to do with a general lack of the right varieties. Once widespread, cider apple trees are currently dwarfed in numbers by their more table-friendly varieties.

“The hard-cider industry is essentially developing without a true raw material,” Galen Williams of Bull Run Cider told Modern Farmer last year. “Cidermakers are using everything they can to make interesting, good-tasting ciders without actual cider fruit.”

Naturally, not everyone wants to give up their day job and become a commercial hard cider producer. If you’re reading this, it’s likely because you’re interested in having a small cider apple orchard of your own — for both sweet and maybe even some personal hard cider making. With thousands of available varieties, choosing only a few for a small space can be a daunting task. Thankfully, Tom Burford, a seventh-generation Virginia orchardist, apple expert and author of “Apples of North America,” agreed to lend a hand.

apple orchard in Ithaca, New York
A portion of the author's apple orchard in Ithaca, New York. (Photo: Michael d'Estries)

“Keep in mind that good ciders are a blend of sugar, acid, tannin and an aromatic,” he writes. “Few have the magic combination of elements, except Harrison, Hewes Crab, Roxbury Russet and Golden Russet. Usually, varieties are blended to achieve it and this is the excitement and the mystery of artisanal ciders. The same blending of elements should be applied to pie making.”

For those only interested in planting a few cider apple trees, Burford’s recommendation for trees containing a perfect blend all their own is spot on. The Harrison cider apple in particular is worth growing for its rich flavor in both sweet and hard cider production.

“The Harrison apple makes a thick, almost viscous juice with intense apple flavor,” Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider says in a chronicle of the variety’s history. “In our orchard I taste ginger, cooked apple and other spices in the fresh juice. For hard cider I find that the flavors in the fresh juice often carry through fermentation, which is not always true for other apples, even cider apples.”

For those looking to make a more adventurous planting of varieties, here are 20 as recommended by Burford and me.

My recommendations:

  • Wickson (high-acid, great for cider and eating, small size)
  • Kingston Black (good single-variety cider, high-tannin, high-acid)
  • Harrison (excellent single-variety cider)
  • Medaille d’Or (very sweet, high sugar)
  • Virginia Hewes crab apple (small size, great single-varietal cider)
  • Golden Russet (wonderful all-around apple for cider, eating, baking)
  • Esopus Spitzenberg (good eating, cider, high-acid)
  • Dabinett (excellent bittersweet)
  • Burford’s additional recommendations:

  • Winesap (perhaps one of the world’s greatest for cider) and its kin, like King David and Stayman
  • Empire (has some disease resistance)
  • Arkansas Black (becoming popular)
  • Black Twig (similar to Black Twig, but not in appearance)
  • Roxbury Russet
  • Grimes Golden (high in sugar)
  • Smokehouse
  • Northern Spy (It is important to graft an early cultivator. Modern ones lack in flavor.)
  • GoldRush (one of the most popular modern varieties)
  • Newtown (Albemarle) Pippin
  • Ben Davis (historically important in 19th and early 20th century cider making)
  • Most crab apples (a source of tannin)
  • As Burford mentions, each apple variety should be weighed against the geographic conditions and growing season of the home orchard.

    “I would recommend to anyone selecting varieties for a backyard cider orchard to explore cider varieties for time of ripening, storage quality and taste assessment (sweet, tart, sweet-tart, mild, pronounced). Most of those mentioned are also suitable for dessert and cooking,” he writes.

    All of those mentioned in his list are American ones featured in “Apples of North America.”

    Burford adds that when in doubt, trying hard ciders is the best way to familiarize yourself with those varieties most pleasing to your palate.

    “Above all, seek out cider for tasting,” he writes. “Some varietals are already in the market, like Sweet Stayman (Foggy Ridge), Old Virginia Winesap (Albemarle CiderWorks), GoldRush (ACW), Royal Pippin, all Newtown Pippin (ACW), Virginia Hewes Crab (ACW), Redfield (West County Cider), Black Twig (Castle Hill Cider) and Gravenstein (Whitewood). One, perhaps two, cideries will have a vintage Harrison available next season.”

    apple orchard in the winter

    Winter scenes like this one are beautiful in the orchard, but also scream, "prune me." (Photo: Michael d'Estries)
    Where to purchase
    If possible, it's great to search local sources first for cider apples; with Craigslist a decent place to start. Scoring some rootstock and grafting varieties using scion wood from willing commercial orchards or friends is also another great (and inexpensive) option. Otherwise, as some of the above varieties can be hard to find, I've found the following nurseries offer the best and highest quality selection of cider apple trees. You may have some as well to recommend, so please add them below in the comments to assist others. And by the way — the best time to purchase is now. So if you're interested in planting some trees this year, hit the links below sooner than later.
    I've purchased from this nursery, located in Virginia, for the past two years and have been very impressed with both their selection and quality of trees. Both one- to two-year fruit trees are available on a variety of rootstocks for between $26-$32. But I'd recommend placing an order for more than one, as priority shipping can get pricey at $30 on top of your total order.
    Located in Ithaca, New York, Cummins has a giant selection of cider apple trees priced between $17.75-$27.75; with savings as your order increases. Navigating their website to research their inventory is a bit maddening, but the staff there more than makes up for it with their excellent support and extensive knowledge. Highly recommended.
    Located in Michigan, I've had good success ordering from G-Pa's Orchard, especially when it comes to scoring hard-to-find favorites. Trees come well-packaged with detailed instructions for proper planting.
    Have any more apple varieties or nurseries to recommend? Let me know below!
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