Here at Sly Clyde, we love apples. In fact, they’re the core of our business (see what we did there). All of our fruit comes from a family-owned orchard in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. We’ve spent a lot of time eating, thinking about, and fermenting apples, but how much do you, dear cider lover, really know about apples?
Did you know that there are four traditional categories of apples?
Sweets are low in tannin (more on that later) and low in acid. Note that the sweet moniker is not related to sugar content, but has to do with the lack of acidity. A familiar example would be Golden Delicious or Honeycrisp, anything typically used as an eating apple.
Sharps are low in tannin and high in acid. Note that this does not mean that these apples have sharp edges, but that they have a “sharp” acidic taste. The best example in the United States is Granny Smith, Pink Lady, or anything that your grandma uses to make the best, most flavorful pies.
Sweets and Sharps are collectively known as “dessert” apples. They can be eaten, cooked with, or made into cider. These two categories, being the most prevalent categories in American apple growing, will constitute part of Sly Clyde’s ciders.
Bittersweets are traditional cider apples which are high in tannin and low in acid. (Here’s where we can talk about tannin).
Tannin is a complicated subject but, in the simplest terms, it describes a group of compounds in apples and grapes that contribute to body, mouthfeel, color, bitterness (hard tannins), and astringency (soft tannins). The best way to conceptualize what tannin actually does is to think about drinking strong, oversteeped tea. Feel that drying sensation in your mouth? That’s the tannins.
These are rare in America except on traditional cider apple orchards, but form the key foundation, for example, of England’s West Country ciders.
Bittersharps (you guessed it) are HIGH in tannin and HIGH in acid. Referred to by some as the perfect category because it’s capable of being fermented as a single varietal without the need to blend in acid. Similar to Bittersweets, these are rare in America.
Bittersweets and Bittersharps are traditional cider apples in that they are not typically eaten out of hand and grown primarily for fermentation, similar to wine grapes--when is the last time you bought a bag of Pinot Noir grapes at the grocery store?.
American Heirloom fruit doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories, as they are more complex than a standard sharp apple such as a Granny Smith, which has led some to call them Sharp-Sweets, as they are high in acid but have a small amount of tannin. We love these apples and you’ll see us making ciders with as many of them as we can get our hands on, including Gold Rush and Jonathan.
Want more information? Check out Chris Lehault’s great series on Serious Eats here, here, and here for more. If you want to read a whole book about it check out the Apple Bible, Tom Buford’s Apples of North America And keep an eye on our blog for more in our TMI series.