Best heirloom apple varieties to grow if you want to make your own ciders gallery

Cider-making is enjoying a resurgence.
DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER

Cider-making is enjoying a resurgence.

Ever fancied making cider? Ever made it and regretted it? Well, one wander around Peckham's cidery in Tasman's Moutere Hills during the autumn harvest will surely send you home fermenting a plan to make your own cider.

Branches laden with glowing mellow fruit, damp grass, crisp mornings and a sweet smell rising from heaps of pomace (spent pulp) have me reaching for my basket and press. But cider making is not all wandering and wassailing, especially not during harvest.

One autumn Saturday, Alex and Caroline Peckham spared me time to discuss the art and science of it, between the pressing task of making cider.

For the past 10 years, they have been honing their knowledge and skills as cider growers and makers to turn this bounty into some of the country's finest artisan ciders, winning acclaim and awards for the Peckham's brand along the way.

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Cider is wine's friendly cousin. But don't be fooled by cider's beguiling simplicity. The Peckhams have learned that true cider is an expression of the fruit, the soil and the maker. It is made with apple juice and skill.

That doesn't mean it is stuck in a rut; cider is evolving as the new craft beer with cideries popping up everywhere. But a good cider still sticks to the fundamentals. And these basic tenets of fruit, land and technique have enabled the Peckhams to create a range of ciders that suit the Kiwi palate.

The Peckhams have spent a decade honing their skills as cider growers and makers.
DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER

The Peckhams have spent a decade honing their skills as cider growers and makers.

The pure fruit flavours shine through – without adding sugar. Their cider with a hint of boysenberry is a great example of this.

One of the biggest disappointments of the home cider maker is creating a mouth-puckering bone dry brew that bears no resemblance to their favourite tipple. And while fermenting out all the natural fruit sugars is a common trap, Alex believes that dry is in the eye of the beholder.

One man's dry is another man's medium, he maintains, and Caroline agrees. Even in the last few years, at tastings, she has noticed a shift in customer preferences away from the sweeter ciders to the drier, more complex flavours of some products in their range.

But even if you do over-ferment and create one of these bone dry brews at home, all is not lost either. Caroline advises that with the addition of a little apple juice or elderflower cordial, there is every chance that you will be able to transform your cider from puckering to perfect.

Just don't put the lid back on it and pop it in the cupboard as it may well start to ferment again.

What apple varieties are best for making cider?

While it's true that you can make cider from pretty much any apple, there are also apple varieties which have been bred specifically to give sweetness or sharpness to cider. Trees of these specific cider apple varieties are hard to come by in New Zealand.

The Peckhams built up their collection of over 30 varieties by obtaining graft wood off other growers and trees from Allenton Nurseries in Ashburton which has now closed. Lambourne Marketing in Tasman and Tasty Trees in Kaitaia both carry some varieties of cider apples in their catalogues. 

DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER DANIEL ALLAN/NZGARDENER

'Broxwood Foxwhelp': yellow flesh tinged with red, bittersharp.

'Sweet Alford': mid to late season, bittersweet producing a sweet cider.

'Kingston Black': very late season, bittersweet juice, produces excellent vintage cider.

'Northwood': sweet, red flush over green/yellow.

'Stoke Red': mid to late season, medium bittersharp, vigorous tree.

'Sweet Coppin': mid season, medium size fruit, sweet, heavy cropper.

'Tremlett's Bitter': early to mid season, heavy cropper, full-bodied bittersweet.

'Yarlington Mill': mid season, bearing early in life, heavy cropper, medium bittersweet.

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Cider apples have flavour profiles such as bittersweet, bitter and sharp, and a mix of apples from each profile goes into making the perfect blend – not unlike blending whisky. Choosing varieties is all about getting a blended juice with a good structure, you want:

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* a balance of astringency, tannin, and sweetness;
* a good aroma.

Most ciders are blends for this reason, and if you are only planting a couple of trees, the Peckhams advise choosing ones that give a balanced blend and ripen at the same time. 'Kingston Black' and 'Sweet Alford' would be one such pairing. But if you can't get your hands on a 'Kingston Black' or a 'Broxwood Foxwhelp' tree, it doesn't mean you can't make good cider.

The secret is tasting the fruit. Alex feels somehow there is a belief that if you eat a sharp apple, then that is the one for cider. But while pressing a bucket of 'Granny Smiths' might make a lovely clean, crisp apple juice, it may ferment into a decidedly sharp cider without further special malolactic fermentation.

Whereas the juice from a nice but acidic 'Egremont Russet' blended with a low acid variety such as 'Fuji' may give you a wonderful base for cider with just a hint of tannin from a few added crabapples. Training your palate to taste the juice and adjust accordingly is one of the best things a home cider maker can do. See our guide (above) on the qualities of the most popular cider apples.

Do I need to prune and spray cider apple trees?

All apple trees benefit from some pruning and spraying, and cider apple trees are no exception.

While the Peckhams don't manicure their trees like culinary apple crops, they do still prune for structure and do some fruit thinning to overcome the biannual bearing habit of some varieties. Their trunk pruning regime involves taking out three or four branches from a tree to aid openness for fruit ripening and harvesting.

They have noticed lower yields without this pruning. They have also found that a basic spray programme for fungal diseases is necessary. Here are some tips on how to prune apple trees.

How will I know when to harvest cider apples?

The ripeness of fruit is all when it comes to a good cider. Alex and Caroline ground harvest a good portion of their crop and the rest is hand harvested when very ripe. In early April, while the culinary apple crop is all but picked, the Peckhams are still hard at work bringing in their cider apples.

Just when is ripe enough can be determined technically by brix meters to measure the sugar, but the Peckhams have some simpler tests to help them judge ripeness. The first is taste the fruit. Take the 'Cox's Orange Pippin'. Alex describes an under-ripe 'Cox', perhaps picked for supermarket sale, to be crisp, bland, acidic with moderate sweetness.

But take that same apple at peak ripeness and not only will you have the acid and sweetness but you also get all the mellow nutty flavours that linger on your palate. These are the flavours that properly ripe fruit impart to a great cider. 

For the home orchardist or forager, taste the fruit regularly in the weeks leading up to picking – until you get those nutty flavours as well as the crisp, clean acid and sugar. That is not to say the fruit should be rotten. It is a balance, and any rot in the fruit will also come through as musty notes in the finished cider.

Washing, cleaning and sorting apples are key to weeding out unwanted fruit and debris.

The final simple two tests are pop and pip. If your thumb can press into the apple with a pop and leave an indent without mushing it, then it is ripe. 

The colour of the pips when you cut it open also indicate ripeness – black pips are ripe while light brown is not. Here are some tips on when to harvest apples.

 - NZ Gardener

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