In celebration of harvest season, we look at some of the many heirloom apple varieties growing in our state, recommend some tasty hard ciders,…
When an apple tree dies, Peter Montgomery says, if it’s the last of its kind, you’ll never again see the type of fruit it produced.
We’re standing in a small heirloom apple orchard he planted behind Tapping Reeve House and Law School in Litchfield. It was the nation’s first law school and where a young Aaron Burr studied long before his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton. But perhaps the greatest link to history here is the orchard itself.
For apples are an extraordinary fruit.
Like humans, they are heterozygotes, meaning their offspring are very different from their parents. But they have significantly greater genetic diversity, with 50,000 genes to humans’ 32,000. Each apple seed within a given apple will produce unique offspring, often tasting and looking nothing like the original apple. To reproduce a specific apple, ancient humans developed a crude cloning method called grafting, in which a branch is cut from one tree, then grafted onto a new tree that it will naturally fuse with and continue to produce the fruit that grew on the branch’s original tree. It is through grafting that heirloom varieties, like the ones Montgomery planted in Litchfield, have been preserved from the 18th and 17th centuries and even earlier.
As the owner of Montgomery Gardens Heirloom Apples & Orchards in the tiny Litchfield Hills town of Warren, Montgomery is dedicated to helping others plant old and rare varieties of apples. He has planted trees at the Eric Sloane Museum & Kent Iron Furnace in Kent and works with many private orchard owners to grow heirloom apples.
He is not alone in his Johnny Appleseed-esque quest to bring back ancient apples to Connecticut trees. Heirloom varieties are increasingly returning to orchards in the state and beyond. This is partly due to the expanding craft cider industry, which is thirsty for heirloom varieties, as well as to an increasing consumer demand for local and unique products.
Heirloom apple trees are not tracked in Connecticut, but several orchard owners tell of small-scale plans for increasing their heirloom production, and many in the industry say they have noticed a clear uptick both in heirlooms being grafted and in interest from buyers.
“Most commercial orchards are now retaining or replanting some heirlooms,” says Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association. She adds that her organization, which promotes apple growers in the region, has seen an “increasing number of questions from website visitors about which orchards grow their favorite heirlooms, where to buy bulk heirlooms for hard cider, and people asking us to identify apples from their old, abandoned trees.”
The U.S. Apple Association recently announced that after a half-century as the most-grown apple in the country, the Red Delicious will be dethroned by the Gala, which originated in New Zealand in the 1930s. Apple enthusiasts hailed the demise of the sightly, but not particularly tasty, red-skinned apple as proof that consumers were starting to value taste over appearance. “The Long, Monstrous Reign of the Red Delicious Apple Is Ending” declared an August headline in The New York Times.
Mary Concklin, a fruit specialist at the University of Connecticut, says the definition of an heirloom apple is not set in stone. Sometimes heirlooms are defined as varieties passed down from generation to generation, but Concklin says “there may only be 20-25 years between generations. So by that definition an heirloom apple could be one that is anywhere from 20-50 years old.”
Others define them as varieties that are 50-100 years old or ones that predate modern refrigeration, but there are limitations to all these definitions. In general, though, all heirloom apples are old, usually dating to before the 20th century. Common apples such as the McIntosh, discovered in Canada in 1811, and even the hated Red Delicious are technically heirlooms, according to many definitions. But the heirloom varieties whose attributes are espoused by enthusiasts tend to be more rarely grown and harder to find.
Many classic heirloom varieties have disappeared over the years, and those that remain are often produced in small quantities. Exploring unusual heirloom varieties still grown in Connecticut today is a journey of colors and flavors we don’t normally associate with the apple.
At Maple Bank Farm in Roxbury, owners Howie and Cathy Bronson grow about 15 varieties of less common heirloom apples in varying quantities. “Some of these apples are not terrific apples, but they’re interesting,” Howie says. “The Sheepnose, or Gillyflower, it’s kind of a purply looking apple, not quite football shaped but very long and narrow. It doesn’t have a lot of great qualities, it’s just very different.”
Other heirlooms have highly specialized uses. “The Yellow Transparent is an apple that turns ripe in July and it’s great for applesauce,” he says.
Howie’s favorite apple is the Gravenstein, a variety believed to have originated in Denmark in the 17th century before being brought to North America in the early 19th century. “It’s a small apple and misshapen,” he says, calling it “an ugly little apple with a great big taste. It’s the first apple of the season you can make a great apple pie with.”
These apples, regardless of their taste or lack thereof, offer distinctive flavors from the past.
“We often tell people with heirlooms that they’re taking a bite of history and it really is,” Bronson says.
Modern apples trace their lineage to the Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China come together. The region surrounding the city of Almaty in Kazakhstan is often cited as the apple’s ancestral home, and forests filled with wild apple trees still exist there today.
From Central Asia, apple seeds were carried to Europe and from there to the New World. Here, in the 17th century, the seeds mingled with native crab apples, sprouting fruit with a dizzying combination of new flavors and characteristics. Some apples were sweet, others were tart. Some were good eating apples, but many were more suitable for use in hard cider, much of which was distilled into brandy.
At the height of the cider craze in the early 1800s, “Litchfield County had between 75 and 100 cider mills and distilleries,” Montgomery says.
The most famous evangelist of apples, and by extension hard cider, was John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. Born in the late 1700s in Massachusetts, Chapman carried apple seeds from New England and introduced them to parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Seeds Chapman and others planted resulted in a rich tapestry of new varieties. During the 1800s, “there’s something in the order of 7,000 named varieties in North America,” Montgomery explains. He adds, some of those names referred to the same apples, so there were really probably “about 3,500 varieties out there.” Over the centuries, the continent may have seen as many as 17,000 varieties. It’s hard to get an accurate estimate of apple varieties existing today, Montgomery says. There are only about 1,000 varieties currently available to purchase from apple tree catalogs, and hundreds of varieties have disappeared from these catalogs, even over the last decade, Montgomery says.
The kaleidoscope of varieties emerging in the 1800s had creative names to match. As Michael Pollan writes in his classic The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, written while the author lived in Cornwall,they were, “Names that reek of the American nineteenth century, its suspender-popping local boosterism, its shameless Barnum-and-Bailey hype, its quirky, unfocused-grouped individuality. There were the names that set to describe, often with the help of a well-picked metaphor: the green-as-a-bottle Bottle Greening, the Sheepnose, the Oxheart, The Yellow Bellflower, the Black Gilliflower, the Twenty-Ounce Pippin. There were names that puffed with hometown pride like the Westfield Seek-No-Further, the Hubbardston Nonesuch, the Rhode Island Greening ... And then there were the names that denoted an apple’s specialty like Wismer’s Dessert, Jacob’s Sweet Winter, the Early Harvest and Cider Apple, the Clothes-Yard Apple, the Bread and Cheese, Cornell’s Savewell and Putnam’s Savewell, Paradise Winter, Payne’s Late Keeper, and Hay’s Winter Wine.”
Apple-naming’s showmanship has carried through to modern times. The Rambo, an apple variety dating back to at least the 1700s, inspired the name of the main character in author David Morrell’s novel First Blood, later immortalized in Sylvester Stallone’s film franchise.
The stories surrounding these apples also had the quirk and boldness of early editorial cartoons. There were the famous Stark brothers in Missouri, who discovered the Red Delicious in a contest in the 1890s and whose marketing genius helped make the apple the most popular variety in America (its original incarnation had a better taste but less uniform appearance). More locally there was the Northern Spy, a sweet apple also prized for use in cider that originated in New York in the early 1800s and survived to the modern age thanks to grafts from Connecticut trees, and the Rhode Island Greening, which, according to lore, originated in 1650 in Newport in a tree owned by a tavern owner named Mr. Green.
And with these stories grew legends and myths. Stephen Gencarella, professor of folklore studies at the University of Massachusetts and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, says throughout history apples have been a magnet for folk tales. Some of these tales have a particularly Connecticut flavor.
“The granddaddy of all apple stories in Connecticut is the ‘bloody apples’ tale in Franklin, in which Micah Rood reportedly kills a man, buries his body under an orchard, and the apples then show blood spots in them the following years,” Gencarella says.
There was indeed a real-life Micah Rood who planted apples, but he died in 1728, a decade or so before the legends surrounding him are usually set. The story may have been inspired by the “Mike apple,” a variety of apple popular in eastern Connecticut by the early 1800s that did indeed have red flecks or spots within its flesh.
Gencarella recounts another Connecticut apple tale in his Connecticut River Museum exhibit The Thirsty River: 400 Years of Drink, Life, and Reform in the Connecticut River Valley, which runs through Oct. 8. It is a local legend about an apple harvest in Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1878 that was so plentiful, pickers and cider makers could not keep up. Eventually, the apple trees collapsed under their own collective weight and their juices pressed and flooded into the Connecticut River, fermenting as they ran and causing the mighty river to be cider-ized with a 3 percent alcohol content all the way past Hartford.
Unfortunately, as the 1900s dawned, the metaphorical rivers of cider in the state began to dry up and cider and apple variety declined. Prohibition led to the destruction of apple trees that only produced cider apples. And apple producers sought to distance themselves from booze. The iconic “apple a day keeps the doctor away” phrase was based on a Welsh proverb and popularized as a new marketing slogan designed in part to separate the fruit from its now negative associations with hard cider.
The refrigerator also diminished apple variety, as heirlooms prized for their long shelf lives were no longer needed, and those with short shelf lives but late harvests were also unnecessary. As were varieties that bruised during the now-longer shipments between orchard and customer.
With massive development of open spaces and the natural aging and decline of apple trees protected in orchards, slowly but surely the diversity of apples diminished. Producers and consumers forgot about tart cider apples and began to value appearance and uniformity above flavor. Today that long trend is being ever so slightly reversed.
At Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford, like at many orchards in the state, the majority of remaining rare heirloom varieties were replaced with more common apples in the 1960s and ’70s.
Today the Bishops and their partners are working to try to bring some of those varieties back and introduce new ones. Last year they regrafted 700 trees, replacing sweet apple varieties with a mix of 10 heirloom varieties including the Golden Russet, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, Kingston Black and the Esopus Spitzenburg, said to be Thomas Jefferson’s favorite variety. Chosen for their cider-making properties, they were grafted from trees at Poverty Lane Orchards in New Hampshire, makers of the acclaimed Farnum Hill Cider.
Driving through the existing orchard toward the new heirloom orchard, Jonathan Bishop, co-CEO of Bishop’s with his cousin Keith, recalls how in his father and grandfather’s day, before planting techniques evolved to allow shorter apple trees, apple picking was a high-towering endeavor with 40- to 50-foot apple trees dotting the orchard. “My dad talks about placing one 24-foot ladder in the tree and pushing a second ladder up and hooking it somehow on the top of the first,” he says. “They initially used improved training and pruning techniques to lower the height to 16-18 feet and maintain a closer spacing. In the late 1960s, the advent of size-controlling rootstock made it possible to have much smaller trees in higher-density orchards.”
The recently grafted cider apple-yielding branches are starting to bear fruit but won’t have a full yield for at least another year. At Bishop’s direction, looking closely at points near where the branches meet the trunks of the host trees, there’s a slight discoloration and lack of symmetry — the tell-tale signs of a recently grafted tree.
The winery portion of Bishop’s business already produces apple wines and ciders (which are more carbonated and have a lower alcohol content than apple wines), but they are made from more common apple varieties. The new heirloom apple varieties that have been grafted will allow the orchard to produce more traditional hard ciders.
“Some of the more traditional English and European ciders are a little more complex and they’re made from different blends of bittersharp and bittersweet varieties that are practically inedible in their fresh form,” Bishop says.
Even with renewed interest in heirloom varieties, the apples remain rare in Connecticut. Husband-and-wife cider makers Ronald and Kim Sansone, the owners of Spoke + Spy Ciderworks, which opened in Middletown earlier this year, often use heirloom apples in their hard ciders, but have trouble sourcing apples from Connecticut.
“I try to use Connecticut, but it’s a little disappointing with finding the heirloom apples in quantity,” Ronald says. “Before we opened I drove around — this was prime apple season — and we would drive up and say, ‘Hey, do you have any cider apples,’ and they’d be, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Kim adds, even though many orchards are growing some heirlooms, “Overall most of the orchards don’t have the quantity necessary to make cider from.”
Heirlooms lend themselves to cider in a way modern varieties simply don’t, Ronald says. “They have a lot more flavor and just more of everything that makes cider better. The standard apples you get are not great for fermenting as far as sugar, acids and tannins, which are the building blocks of good cider.”
New England Cider Co. in Wallingford has a similar problem, co-owner Miguel Galarraga says. Though they’ve made single-variety cider from heirlooms in the past, they can’t produce it regularly, because of lack of access to the rarer apples. However, change may be on the way. New England Cider Co. is working with Blue Hills Orchard in Wallingford, which is grafting many new heirloom varieties for cider.
Beardsley’s Cider Mill & Orchard in Shelton is planting a European hard cider apple orchard next year that will have apples available for home hard-cider makers beginning in 2023.
Some heirloom varieties also lend themselves well to non-alcoholic sweet cider. At Applebrook Farm in the Broad Brook section of East Windsor, owner Tom Muska has devoted 145 trees to a dozen varieties of heirlooms. The prime motivation for growing these apples is their use in the orchard’s unpasteurized cider. “The reason I started with the heirlooms was to embellish the taste of my cider,” he says. The varieties he grows include the Golden Russet, Northern Spy, Baldwin and Summer Rambeau, one of two types of Rambo apples. When it comes to eating them, he says the varieties have a wide range of flavors and appearances. “The taste is kind of strong. It’s good. They tend to be more tart.”
Lyman Orchards in Middlefield has 100 acres of apple trees, but most of that acreage is devoted to common varieties. Only one rare heirloom variety is still grown, and on only a few trees, says John Lyman III, the orchard’s executive VP and eighth-generation family member. He says there has been more interest in heirlooms of late but it is hard to gauge how much interest. “Our experience with the Baldwin is we have a number of customers who ask when they are ready, but then when we have them just a few will end up purchasing them. I know that some growers have made a point to plant new orchards with heirloom varieties and have done really well with it because they’ve really focused on building that interest.”
There is also consumer demand for new varieties. One popular relative newcomer to the apple world is the Honeycrisp, developed at the University of Minnesota and released in 1991. As Lyman Orchards replaces some older trees with new ones, they plan on mixing up their offerings a bit more, while staying true to what they currently offer.
“Our position is, get some new varieties but also keep some of the more popular ones we’ve seen over the years that people still prefer — McIntosh, Cortland, Macoun, Empire, Red Delicious — then be open to some of these new varieties that are available,” Lyman says. “Also, we are looking at a certain percentage of new trees being some heirlooms. Over the next two or three years, we might put in two, three, four acres of more traditional heirloom varieties.”
Lyman believes appearance still plays a big part in consumers’ purchasing choices, and he is reluctant to devote too many trees to less visually appealing apples. “If you look at them side by side and you put them on a shelf at the supermarket, if you’re not looking specifically for an heirloom apple, you’re going to go right for the one that looks attractive and red. That’s the reality in the marketplace.”
In the orchard behind the Tapping Reeve House and Law School, Montgomery explains that in addition to being an enthusiast of heirloom varieties, he is constantly on the lookout for new varieties.
The best apple he ever tasted comes from a tree just over the Connecticut border in Millerton, New York, overhanging a parking lot at a Cumberland Farms gas station and convenience store. The apples from this tree are what Montgomery calls “stolen apples.” They are not-so-forbidden fruit from trees you find beside the road, and at the back of parking lots, trees that grew from apples discarded from passing cars, apples that through luck and genetic chance have unique characteristics and flavors. He calls apples from this tree the “Cumberland Farms Pippin.”
When mature, the apple is yellow with a neon green background, he says. It tastes “crisp with explosive, sweet and tart-flavored juice, with crunchy, white flesh.” He adds, it’s excellent as a dessert apple and can be used to great effect with more tart apples in a cider blend. It’s “ready for mid-to-late-September harvesting.”
Based on Montgomery’s review, this tree born of a discarded fruit is worth grafting. After all, when it’s gone, like so many apple varieties from the past, it will be gone forever.