Cider was America’s first beverage. Not the apple juice we call cider, but real cider… hard cider. In colonial times water was not clean enough to drink. The fermentation process that juice must go through before it becomes hard cider kills most pathogenic bacteria. As a result, in those times there was nothing safer to drink than hard cider. Orchards became a fixture of American farms and most contained apples that were unique to that farm.
Thanks to John Chapman and many others who planted apple seeds in the colonies and all across the country, apple trees of American origin came into existence. The ability for apples to create many very different combinations of genes contributed to the apples success in the new world. Each apple seed is as unique as a snowflake, which gave rise to limitless new apple varieties. Most of these seedling apples would eventually go the way of the buffalo. However, a small number of these chance seedlings would have just the right combination of genes that would go on to make great apples. These varieties were selected for and propagated by farmers and orchardists throughout the country. Of all the apples of American origin, only a handful are truly suited to making great cider, the kind our forefathers drank morning, noon and night. These apples form the backbone of the list of American cider apples.
Many cider apples were named after the farmer who found them or the place in which they came from. This is the case with the Campfield apple as it was named after a family who lived in Eastern New Jersey. According to historical writings, a 50/50 blend of Campfield and Harrison made a cider of “superior quality”. It was also said that Campfield made a great single variety cider.
Also known as Virginia Crab, this variety was favored by some of the founding fathers including Thomas Jefferson. In fact, a large planting of Hewe’s crab can still be found at Monticello. Hewe’s crab makes a very high flavored dry cider. It is unknown when the first Hewe’s crab tree came into existence, but writings from 1817 describe trees of this variety that were already about one hundred years old.
The Newtown Pippin is perhaps the oldest American apple, or at least the oldest of record. A single Newtown Pippin tree was found in Queens, New York in 1730. Classified as a mild bittersweet and I would add very mild, the Newtown Pippin will make a wonderful light bodied cider in its own right and is also well suited to contributing to a blend. The Newtown Pippin apple is also a top-notch eating apple that ripens in November and doesn’t hit its peak of flavor until resting in storage for about a month.
Of all the American apples, the story of the Harrison is my favorite. It was discovered around 1770 in New Jersey, and at one time was thought to be extinct, forever lost from this earth. It was rediscovered in 1976, with just enough time to take scions from the tree before it was cut down. After careful examination and consultation with historical descriptions of the Harrison apple… over the course of 17 years, Tom Burford, a renowned apple expert determined that it was in fact the lost apple. Fortunately for us, Harrison trees were propagated and can be found through a number of sources.
Unlike the varieties listed above, the Wickson crab apple was a product of an intentional breeding program. Bred by Albert Etter by crossing two crab apples and named for his friend and famed U.C. Davis pomologist E.J. Wickson, this apple can make a cider of vintage quality. Wickson apples are bittersharps and tend to have loads of sugar and acid so depending on the year they may be best used to balance out a low acid cider.
Where you live will determine how easy it is to find the apples above, either for eating or hard cider. But if you have the chance, definitely give them a try. Your taste buds will thank you for it.