Fall would not be complete without a delicious glass of homemade apple cider. Apple cider tastes just like the apples it was made from. That means making your own apple cider is a great way to make a drink that tastes just how you like it.
From heady and tart cider apples to incredibly sweet dessert varieties, there’s a cider apple for everyone. With so many varieties of apples, it can be difficult to know where to start. Don’t worry, because here you’ll learn all the best apples for cider.
Three Elements of Cider Apples
There are over 300 varieties of apples for cider, from tart cider apples like Granny Smith to sweet cider apples like the Honeycrisp. No wonder it can be so intimidating to choose an apple for cider! It doesn’t need to be overly complicated. Three main factors influence the taste of apple cider: sugar, acid, and tannins.
If you’re making hard cider, the amount of sugar in the apple is very important. Clearly, a sweeter apple will yield sweeter apple cider. Brix is the term used to describe how much sugar is in an apple. It’s the percentage of the juice that is sugar. The yeast in hard cider feeds on sugar to create alcohol, so an apple with a higher brix will make stronger hard cider. An apple of 11-15 Brix is usually preferred for making hard cider.
The more acid in a cider apple the tarter, or “sharper” the apple will taste. This acid also slows down the process of oxidation that turns juice brown. If you want natural cider that stays light in color, consider high-acid apples. An apple with high sugar and high acid content will have a more balanced tart flavor. These apples are perfect for hard cider or a tart, refreshing iced cider.
Tannins are compounds found in the skin and flesh of an apple. These tannins give your cider a bitter flavor and drying sensation in your mouth. Finding an apple with the right balance of tannins is key to great apple cider. An apple too high in tannins will make cider that is difficult to drink. However, some tannins add that classic slightly bitter flavor that’s beloved in hard cider.
As you can see, the three factors paired with each other leave plenty of room for experimentation. Ciders come in several general categories based on acidity and tannins: bittersweets, sweets, bittersharps, and sharps/sharps–sweets.
Best Cider Apple Varieties for Bittersweet Cider
Bittersweets are low in acid and high in tannins and sugar. Bittersweet cider apples are not as tart as other cider apples and are dry-tasting. These are some of the best apples for bittersweet apple cider.
Dabinett Apple: An excellent bittersweet cider apple is the Dabinett. This apple is known for being very easy to grow and producing high-quality juice that is perfect for hard cider. Not only that, but the Dabinett has also been found to contain tannins identical to those found in wine grapes. Dabinett apple trees are very resistant to apple scabs and cankers.
Yarlington Mill: Another classic bittersweet apple is the Yarlington Mill. Few varieties are as well-rounded in flavor as the Yarlington Mill. This variety is one of the few cider apples that can make a good hard cider by itself rather than needing to be mixed with other varieties. Yarlington Mill apple cider makes a smooth and easy-to-drink bittersweet cider.
Best Cider Apples for Sweet Cider
As implied by the name, sweet cider apples are high in sugar, low in acid, and low in tannins. Many of these varieties are already common in your kitchen. Sweet ciders produce a very dessert-like drink that is perfect for hot, spiced cider or mixing into an apple cider cocktail.
Gala: The Gala apple defeated the Red Delicious in 2018 for being the most popular apple. Crisp and mildly sweet, the Gala is perfect for making sweet, mellow cider. Its mild flavor makes it perfect for combining with more strongly-flavored apples like Granny Smith and Arkansas Black.
Honeycrisp: Another favorite of sweet cider apples is the Honeycrisp. As you might guess, its crisp, perfectly-tart flesh makes delicious sweet cider. First produced by the University of Minnesota, it was named Minnesota’s state fruit in 2006. You may want to try out making this spiced Honeycrisp cider drink mixed with rum.
Roxbury Russet: You may not have heard of the Roxbury Russet, but this variety is one of the best cider apples for old-fashioned sweet cider. It is generally recognized as the oldest variety of apple first bred by North Americans. It has that classic sweet-tart appley flavor that you’ll love in spiced hot cider. Another plus for Roxbury Russets is that they are resistant to diseases like apple scabs, fire blight, and cedar apple rust.
Other good apples for sweet cider include Golden Delicious, Fuji, and Jonagold.
Best Cider Apples for Bittersharp Cider
Bitter-sharp cider apples are high in both acid and tannins. Bittersharp cider apple varieties can make delicious hard cider if they are high enough in sugar. It’s important to choose an apple that is aromatic and well-rounded in flavor so that the bitter and acidic flavors do not overpower the cider.
Kingston Black: One very good apple for cider with balanced bittersharp flavor is the Kingston Black. Originally an English variety, this heirloom apple makes one of the best single-variety ciders. While it can be difficult to grow, the Kingston Black makes an aromatic cider that is hard to match.
Porter’s Perfection: If you’re looking for a cider apple variety that is the perfect balance of bitter and tart, then Porter’s Perfection should be high on your list. Porter’s Perfection often produces twins and triples, meaning that two or three apples may fuse together as they grow. While it is high in acid and tannins, the Porter’s Perfection has a balanced apple flavor that will add complexity to cider.
Other good bitter-sharp cider apples include Foxwhelp and Virginia (Hewe’s) Crab.
Best Cider Apples for Sharp/Sharp-Sweet Cider
Want cider apples that are pretty tart but also has a low tannin level? Sharp cider apple varieties are just the thing. These apple varieties produce acidic cider without the dry sensations caused by tannins.
Granny Smith: An instant hit for a sharp/sharp-sweet cider is the Granny Smith. Known for its tart flesh and lime green skin, the Granny Smith apple makes perfect tart cider. Granny Smith apples were first grown in Australia, where they were discovered by Maria Ann “Granny” Smith. It has excellent shelf life and stores well. Granny Smiths are also good for eating fresh and for cooking/baking in pies and cakes.
McIntosh: The McIntosh apple is a hardy, reliable apple popular in the US and Canada. Its refreshingly acidic juice makes excellent cider. However, the apple is also sweet with a classic apple juice flavor. McIntosh is the perfect cider apple for a beverage that will be a hit with both children and adults. It’s complexity of flavor is perfect for mixing into a cider cocktail, and the flavor is just like apple juice.
Newtown Pippin: The Newtown Pippin is versatile, good for eating fresh, cooking, and juicing. This apple variety is also very good for cider, especially hard cider. It is picked very late in the season (around late October), and it keeps very well over the winter.
Other good sharp/sharp-sweet cider apple varieties include Cortland, Orange Pippin, and Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, Esopus Spitzenburg.
What Apples Should You Use for Hard Cider?
It is difficult to rank a hard cider apple variety since hard cider is generally a blend of different varieties. However, hard cider apples always have a moderate to high sugar content (Brix) and tend to have balanced tart and bitter flavor. Of the apples mentioned above, here are some of the varieties that make good hard cider:
- Roxbury Russet makes a sweet and strong hard cider.
- Newtown Pippin is a good hard cider apple for refreshing tart and sweet hard cider.
- Kingston Black is great for classic bitter-sharp cider and doesn’t have to mix with another variety.
- Porter’s Perfection is acidic and tannic but is sweet enough for a refreshing hard cider.
- Winesap is a sweet and tangy variety that makes a nuanced and versatile hard cider.
How to Use Apple Cider
The main difference between apple cider and apple juice is that cider is raw apple juice that hasn’t been filtered or pasteurized. That means that while cider is a more natural choice, it’s also important to use it quickly or freeze it.
- Add some cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice to make spiced apple cider.
- Apple cider cocktails are a hit at a fall dinner party. Add some bourbon, rum, and spices of choice for a twist on the classic.
- Bake apples in cider and add your own choice of nuts and spices for the perfect apple dessert.
- Check out this apple cider smoothie. With creamy yogurt and maple syrup for sweetness, you’ll fall in love with this creative cider recipe.
- Apple cider waffles, anyone? You’ll never eat a waffle the same way after trying this cidery twist to your favorite breakfast. You can do a similar thing with apple cider pancakes.
- Freeze cider in these juice pouches for a grab-and-go beverage.
Cider is a must-have in any home. The wide range of tastes and smells make endless options for discovery. Next time you want a refreshing glass of cider, check out the cider apple varieties mentioned above to make your new favorite beverage.