The market for hard cider in the U.S. continues to grow yearly, so much so the industry can’t keep up with the demand. This shortage of bittersweet, bittersharp, and sharp apples comes as the industry has experienced a more than eightfold increase in hard cider production from 2008 to 2012, according to the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau.
“The growth rate is anywhere from 50% to 75% from the previous year. This includes the big producers making more [hard] cider and includes a lot of new producers getting into the market and some wineries and some breweries also starting to make cider,” says Greg Peck, assistant professor, tree fruit horticulture with Virginia Polytechnic University.
To keep up with this exponential growth, most hard cider producers are taking whatever apples they can get.
“There’s very limited and local supply of the traditional European bittersweets and bittersharps in North America,” says Ian Merwin, professor plant science emeritus, Cornell University. “The only option for cidermakers is to look what is available. A lot what is available goes back to some of the russetted varieties. The antique varieties are getting a new lease on life for [hard] cider production.”
Growers who do have these varieties are getting a good price their apples.
“For those who have these traditional European varieties, they’re getting phenomenal prices and in many cases, better than fresh market prices for their apples,” says Peck.
Growing These Varieties
That may sound great but, before you before jumping on the hard cider bandwagon, there are a few things to consider. If you’re putting a cider variety in the ground, Peck and Merwin offer some advice. (Read what varieties you should be planting here.)
Have A Plan And Destination — Growers seeking to sell apples to hard cider makers should choose varieties that there is a market for and are proven in the region. Growers seeking to add hard cider production should make similar choices and consider the type of hard cider you want to produce and choose apples accordingly.
“Be careful and cautious about planting varieties that are not well proven in your area. It is important that there is some experience with these varieties before planting them in quantity,” Peck says.
Organize Your Blocks — Merwin says blocks of European hard cider varieties should be organized according to bloom time because about half of the European varieties in the U.S. are late blooming.
“In order to chemically thin them, you have to plant them according to bloom time,” he says. “Have a block of the late-blooming ones separate from the rest so you can put those thinning sprays on a couple of weeks later.”
Be Wary — Because of the late blooming, your hard cider varieties may be more susceptible to fire blight. Some are more susceptible to apple scab and powdery mildew, too.
Be Prepared For Preharvest Fruit Drop — Keep in mind that most of the European hard cider varieties are bred to drop fruit and fruit size is smaller than fresh market apples. If you are growing these apples in a warmer area, more preharvest drop can expected. Some growers prefer to grow larger trees in order to have solid grass in the orchard for hard cider apples.
“If fruit drops in grass it’s going to hold up better than getting in the mud or sitting in the herbicide strip,” Merwin says.
Be Choosy When Picking Rootstock — Merwin cautions growers to select rootstocks a little more tolerant to viruses because a lot of the European and antique apple budwood has viruses in it. He uses B. 9 in his orchard and also G.41 and G.935. Peck says this also means as a grower you need to plan ahead to get the right rootstocks.
“If you get budwood, most of the available cider budwood is going to come from somebody’s orchard, and stuff from orchards may have latent viruses, so you don’t want to graft these things on to G.16 or a rootstock that you know has virus sensitivity,” he says.
Varieties Can Be Vegetative And Biennial — Peck and Merwin stress that these European varieties can be vegetative and vigorous. Also, if you don’t properly and aggressively thin the trees, they can be biennial.
The Future Of Hard Cider
With the demand high for hard cider varieties, it is important to understand the potential this has on the market, especially with large crops of fresh-market apples.
“We’re looking at the monster crop out of Washington. If we can’t do something to increase per capita apple consumption in the U.S., the apple industry is in for a really hard time,” says Merwin. “This [hard cider resurgence] couldn’t be happening at a better time in terms of developing alternative markets for fruit.”
Peck suggests growers look for varieties that can be a niche market, and not just exclusively for hard cider.
“Just like any decision, you’ve really got to think about the entire market. Always remember an orchard is at least a 20 or 25-year long investment,” he says. “It’s nice to be a part of the apple industry that is showing just phenomenal growth. It’s not often the case.”
Peck worked with Agricultural Economist, Dr. Gordon Groover, and graduate student, Jarrad Farris, to develop a customizable enterprise budget for growing hard cider apples and a partial budget for growing dual-purpose apples. He also worked with Matson Consulting to develop an economic feasibility study for a small-farm cidery. These studies are available for free.