Planting Heirloom Cider Varieties for the Future

Filling in the dirt after planting cider apple trees

As we do every spring, we’ve spent the last couple weeks out in the orchards planting new trees.  We replace trees that have been injured too badly to heal, like from winter injury in 2014 and 2015.  The biggest part of our planting is trying to balance supply and demand — it seems like we’re constantly planting Honeycrisp (350 more trees this year!).

But my favorite part of planting over the years has been adding to our heirloom apple varieties.  A lot of them were popular at one time but have since fallen out of favor.  Generally it was because they’re tricky to grow, they don’t hold up in storage well, and/or they’re not very attractive.  But there’s something very cool about maintaining a part of history.  And so many of the flavors and qualities of these old apples can’t be found in the modern varieties!


Chris on the tree planter
The tree planter is pulled down the row. The rider places a tree down into the furrow that it creates, and then the wheels fill in the dirt around the new tree.

A Very Brief History of Cider

The same thing is true for cider apples (from here on I will mostly be referring to “hard cider” as “cider.”  It’s the industry norm, and it’s just easier to type repeatedly).  The best cider isn’t made from the standard grocery apple varieties, just like you don’t expect to find good wine made from a table grape.  Some of the best cider apples are actually “spitters” — when you bite into one, you will definitely be spitting it out.  They are often high in tannins and astringent, with a lot of bitterness.  While these flavors are too harsh for most of us to eat, after fermentation and some balancing/mellowing, the results can be amazing.

Cider was the drink of choice in early America.  Most of the Founding Fathers loved it.  It’s what everyone drank throughout the early history of our country.  And then came Prohibition.  Once you couldn’t make alcohol out of these spitters, they had no value.  Many cider orchards were either pulled out or abandoned.  There was little reason to grow any of these apples any more, and with a few exceptions, most of these American cider varieties were lost.  After the repeal of Prohibition, rather than spending years re-establishing cider orchards, Americans moved on to faster ways of producing alcohol.

Trees laying out in front of the tree planter
Getting ready to plant trees.
First person point-of-view of tree planting
First person point-of-view of tree planting.

Meanwhile, Today in the Apple Orchard….

A lot of the heirloom varieties we already grow are great for cider: Roxbury Russet, Golden Russet, and Northern Spy, to name a few.  But in the interest of making the best cider possible (and collecting more cool varieties), the last few years we’ve been tracking down and planting traditional cider varieties.

An apple called Harrison was at the top of my cider wishlist, and we got the trees this year.  Harrison had been one of the most widely-planted American cider varieties, but it was thought to be lost until being rediscovered not long ago.  It blends with Graniwinkle (another old American variety we got this year) to make a cider that was supposed to be one of the best ever.

Many of the other historically great cider apples still available are English and French.  Those countries have a large cider industry and didn’t deal with Prohibition, so they’ve bred hundreds of excellent varieties that are still around today.  We’ve planted some of the best, with amazing names like Kingston Black, Medaille d’Or, and Harry Masters Jersey.  These apples will be adding additional levels of complexity to our ciders going forward.  We can’t wait to share them with you!


6 thoughts on “Planting Heirloom Cider Varieties for the Future

  1. Susan Tafoya says:

    Living across the road from Rittman Orchards, I’m really looking forward to your new venture. I’m sure it’s going to be a huge success!

  2. The McKeands says:

    We are so blessed to have two sides of our property next to the orchard! The trees blooming are spectacular and to see such pride being taken in the orchard planting, growing the best fruit around. I am also looking forward to the cidery opening. The view from here is breathtaking and I know your customers will come back year after year.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Larry!
      A few years ago a worker fell off one of the orchard ladders. He was fine, but he bent the ladder. We tried fixing it, but it was still wobbly. We didn’t want anyone else falling off, so we set it way over to the side, away from everything else. Somehow when anyone needed a ladder, that was still the one they would take and more stability problems would ensue. When we were coming up with a name for this project, Bent Ladder just seemed to fit. It symbolizes the trials and tribulations of running an orchard, while also being an amusing story (since no one got hurt!) that we constantly look back on. And…we just think it sounds really good.

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