U.S. shortage of 'spitter' apples threatens boom in hard cider

Wed Jun 25, 2014 3:55pm EDT
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By Michael Y. Park

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Trying to find a traditional hard cider apple in the United States these days is the pits.

Even as hard cider is enjoying phenomenal growth, U.S. craft brewers are facing a shortage of bittersweet, bittersharp and sharp apples, the fruits traditionally used to make hard ciders.

"They're just not out there," said Colleen Finnegan, owner of Finnegan Cider in Lake Oswego, Oregon.Finnegan currently sells about 1,000 cases of cider a year, and would like to sell about twice that. But that is not likely because she cannot source enough apples.The industry is partly a victim of its own success. For five years, hard ciders have enjoyed explosive growth, with a sales increase of 68 percent in 2012-2013 alone, according to the Beer Institute.

One reason for the apple shortage is historical. DuringProhibition in the 1920s, trees known to bear hard cider apples became targets of axe-wielding FBI agents.

Popular bittersharp varieties include Kingston Black, Foxwhelp and Golden Russet. These are not dessert or eating apples such as Granny Smith.

Planting new orchards is a big commitment. An apple tree is a 25- to 30-year investment and it takes anywhere from three to six years before it becomes productive.

Greg Peck, assistant professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech University, said there are no figures for how many so-called spitters - apples too tart or bitter to eat fresh but perfect for cider making - are available currently.

In 2012, the total U.S. crop of apples was 216 million bushels, of which 1.7 million were used to make cider. Of that, Peck estimated, "only a handful" of those were bittersweet, bittersharp or sharp varieties.   Continued...

A glass of Woodchuck Hard Cider is seen at an apple orchard at its maker Vermont Hard Cider Company in Middlebury, Vermont in this undated picture provided by the Vermont Hard Cider Company. REUTERS/Vermont Hard Cider Company/Handout via Reuters