What Are the Best Apples for Hard Cider?
OK, I make no bones about it - we live in a great place for produce of all kinds. We have access to more fruit than we can shake a fermenter at, and MANY of us have apple trees in our yards, planted by our long-lost pioneer brethren, that just become loaded with delicious, ripe fruit. We love living in the Pacific Northwest!!
But now the crux of the matter as it applies to cider-making:
Traditionally hard cider is a mixture of apples. The traditional blend is something like 50% neutral varieties, 30% aromatic varieties, 15% tart, and then a few (tannic) crabapples thrown in for the "edge" that they put in alcoholic beverages. This blend produces a complex flavor in the fermented cider and it ultimately adds a rich, flavorful dimension to the aged product. None of these apples, historically, were of the eating kind. They were (and are) called cider varieties.
Now the bad news: Most of what is grown locally are "eating apples." Jonathons, Granny Smith, Gala, Braeburn, etc., which are all meant for eating, not for the depth of their fermented cider tastes. They can make great sweet cider, but when the sweetness goes away, they don't leave much real hard cider flavor left behind.
For those that desire, Mangrove Jacks offers an excellent cider kit that is ready-to-go for an easy and quick 6-gallon batch. These have gotten excellent reviews for several years now. Many people enjoy this kit more than their fresh-pressed hard ciders...
But what about if you grow your own apples and just want to use them? Do not let me dissuade you. I, personally, happen to like the dry, dry flavor of the fermented local apples, and I make cider from these "eating" varieties about every other year. If you are going to keg it, and have read my instructions here, then it doesn't really matter - the sweetness of the added flavor will bring back all sorts of life to the finished product. Kegging hard cider will virtually guarantee you a product you will love. Or just play around with the fermented cider and try to "tweak" it yourself until you get it to taste the way you want.
The only reason I wrote this article is, that over the ten-plus years I have been here, watching people make cider, I have seen many people disappointed in the final product. Not everybody, but many. More than wine, beer, soda or mead COMBINED. People seem to want sweet, apple-flavored ciders that still have alcohol. This is very hard to achieve if you are trying to bottle and carbonate your cider. Not wanting to see unhappy customers, I now warn people of the inherent hurdles that lay in this process. This does not mean that it is impossible. I had a gentleman come in a few weeks ago raving about his bottled cider. Please read my instructions, linked above, so that you know what you are getting into.
If you have an abundance of apples, you have nothing to lose, and you may find yourself as happy with your cider as I am with mine - but I've found - and seen over the years - that it's dryness does take an acquired taste. Call me if you need more info on this confusng topic...