Black Mountain Ciderworks + Meadery only uses apples from nearby Hendersonville, North Carolina which produces 85% of all North Carolina apples. Specifically, we choose apples from Grandad's Apples, Lyda Farms and the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Co-Op, which sources from all the orchards in the area. We also occasionally forage for wild apples and crab apples, and happily accept apple donations from fellow foragers.
There are three components of the apple that concern the cidermaker: acid, sugar, and tannin. Acid refers to the tartness of an apple and its juice; sugar is sweetness; and tannin refers to mouthfeel, just as in other kinds of wines. The ideal cider has a proper blend of all three, but the apples available to a cidermaker may not provide the optimal balance within a single variety. Therefore, typically the cidermaker must blend from among various apple varieties to achieve a balance of acid, sugar, and tannin. Sweeter varieties like Red Delicious are too sweet to make cider alone, but if blended with juice from a tarter apple--like Granny Smith--and that of a more tannic apple-- like Arkansas Black--a better blend of juice can be achieved and fermented into a proper cider.
Much is made of the importance of using cider apples when making cider. Cider apples are certain cultivars that have been identified as most appropriate for cidermaking due to their balance of sugar, acid, and tannin. These apples are often smaller and tarter than more readily grown and available table apples (such as Red Delicious), and can resemble crab apples. With fun names like Yarlington Mill and Ashton Brown Jersey, these are the kinds of apples Johnny Appleseed planted across America, and he planted these apples for cider rather than for eating. Before refrigeration, pesticides, pasteurization, and preservation additives were common, apples just didn’t keep that well, nor did their juice. However, if these apples were fermented into cider, the alcohol in the cider preserved the apples in a way that allowed for some of the vitamins and nutrients to still be consumed. In fact, when left to their own devices, apples and pressed juice will ferment naturally after a time due to the presence of wild yeast.
Sadly, many of these cider apple trees were tastelessly cut down during the dark time of Prohibition in the United States because those apples were deemed too tart or tannic for eating. Prohibition also marks the time when the word “cider” was misappropriated and used to signify what is really just cloud, non-alcoholic juice. Some cider apple trees survived, especially in New England, and many orchard keepers and cidermakers are now working to restore as many of these traditional apples as possible throughout the United States. In North Carolina, there aren’t many traditional cider apple available yet, though they are forthcoming. For our cider, we use as many heirloom varieties as possible and consider all the apples we use in our cider to be cider apples, whether traditionally named so or not. We find that the right balance of acid, sweetness, and tannin can be achieved with the apples that grow locally in North Carolina. We chop, press, blend, and ferment from among the following apples varieties:
ARKANSAS BLACK: Originating in Benton County, Arkansas, these heirloom apples are medium in size and round in shape with a distinctive aroma. Their skin is red to purple or nearly black where the apple is exposed to the sun while hanging on the tree. While the apple's skin is smooth with a waxy finish, the flesh of this apple is yellowish and quite hard.
BLACK TWIG: The state apple of Tennessee, this apple was found as a seedling in the Volunteer State around 1830. Black Twig apples are medium to large in shape and roundish, with juicy, aromatic, and yellow flesh. Color can vary in the apple variety but most are green to yellow with dark red stripes. These apples offer a balance acid and tannin, and like Arkansas Black apples, Black Twigs develop a heavy coat of wax in storage, earning the nickname "greasy apple."
CORTLAND: This medium acid, sweet apple hails from Geneva, New York and is a cross between Ben Davis and McIntosh varieties. The skin is dark red with a dusky, blue cast. Oblate in shape and medium in size, the Cortland also has fine-grained flesh that is juicy, tender, and white. These apples produce slightly pink juice that is mild and good for blending.
CRAB: Crab apples trees are commonly treated as ornamental because the small, hard, very tart apples are not considered good for eating, though they can make a nice jelly. Many varieties are wild but these sharp red apples can add depth and interest when their juice is blended to make cider.
CRISPIN/MUTSU: Originating in the Mutsu Province of Japan, these large green apples are not uniform in shape and can therefore be round, conical, or oblong. The flesh inside is aromatic, sweet, sharp, and juicy, producing juice good for cider when blended with sweeter varieties.
GINGER GOLD: Medium to large in size, this heirloom apple hails from Nelson County, Virginia and is round to oblate in shape. Its skin is greenish-gold and becomes yellow when fully ripe. The Ginger Gold’s cream-colored, crisp and juicy flesh is more sweet than tart. The juice blends nicely for cidermaking.
GOLDEN DELICIOUS: Originating in Clay County, West Virginia, this is a low acid heirloom apple is sweet and aromatic. Golden Delicious is medium to large in size and conical in shape with dry golden-yellow skin. The flesh of this apple is firm, crisp, and juicy with a mild sweet flavor, producing a sweet, amber, fragrant that is useful to enhance apple aroma in cider.
GRANNY SMITH: This well-know tart green apple is hard with crisp, juicy flesh and originates in Australia. When its juice is blended with sweeter and more tannic varieties, Granny Smiths are a useful cider apple.
HONEYCRISP: This is a medium to large apple, oblate to roundly-oblate in shape. This apple was developed in Minnesota, with yellow skin that becomes red when exposed to the sun while hanging on the tree. The flesh of a honeycrisp is coarse but crisp and juicy. It is low in acid but can vary from well-balanced in flavor to strongly aromatic.
JONAGOLD: This apple is the cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious, developed in New York State. The fruit is large and round to conical in shape. The dry, bumpy skin is reddish yellow with light stripes. Inside the creamy yellow flesh is crisp, juicy, and both sweet and tart, which makes for balanced blending.
JONATHAN: Low in acid, these round apples have yellow/red flesh and produce a spicy juice with mild aroma. These heirloom apples originate in Woodstock, New York. Some claim Jonathan can make a decent single-varietal juice or cider, unlike most apples.
LODI: Lodi apples were developed in New York State and are large and firm. These apples are round-elongated in shape with green skin that becomes yellow as the apple ripens. Inside the flesh is white, juicy, and crisp, producing low acid juice.
MCINTOSH: This is a medium acid, very aromatic heirloom apple, originating in Upper Canada. The apple is round-oblate in shape, medium in size, and light to dark red in color. The smooth skin has tiny yellow dots. Inside the fine-grained tender flesh is white but can also be tinged red. The McIntosh apple is often used as a table apple for its tender and juicy white flesh, and it produces distinctively tart and spicy juice, useful when blended for cider.
OZARK GOLD: One of the earlier varieties available in Western North Carolina, Ozark Gold apples are large and yellow-skinned. These apples were developed in Missouri and are crisp and firm, producing mild, sweet juice.
ROME BEAUTY: Hailing from Rome, Ohio, these low to medium acid apples are hard and dry with roughly-textured skin. In size they are medium to large, and inside the creamy-yellow flesh is juicy, crisp, and coarse but becomes mealy if overripe. Rome apples are medium-red in color and their juice is mild and sweet, making it useful for blending as its juice will pick up flavor of other more acidic or tannic varieties.
STAYMAN: This heirloom apple was discovered in Levenworth County, Kansas and is medium in acidity but highly-flavorful. In size Staymans are medium to large red apples with full blush, and are round-conical in shape. Inside the firm and tender flesh is white with a greenish-yellow tinge.
WINESAP: These medium acid, oblong medium-sized apples have smooth skin and dark red color featuring small yellow streaks. The origins of this heirloom apple are unclear but clues point to New Jersey. Their flesh is yellow, sweet, crisp, aromatic, and somewhat vinous. Winesaps blend well with sweeter varieties.
WILD FORAGED: Whenever possible we forage for wild apples in the area, often from larger, older trees. These apples are generally sweet and/or tart.
WOLF RIVER: These low acid heirloom apples hail from the shores of the Wolf River in Wisconsin. The apple skin features bright red flush and red stripes on a pale-green background with some russet dots. Inside the flesh is creamy, white, and tender but can become mealy if overripe.
Apple information from our own experience and these excellent sources:
Burford, Tom. Apples of North America: 192 Exceptional Varieties for Gardeners, Growers, and Cooks. Timber Press, 2013.
Proulx, Annie, and Lew Nicholas. Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider. Storey Publishing, 2003.