Skip navigation links

Oct. 19, 2022

Helping Michigan growers pick the best hard cider apples

As Michigan’s hard cider industry blooms, MSU researchers help growers identify the best apple varieties for their fermented formulas.

Michigan is an apple lover’s paradise, and Michigan State University researchers and Extension specialists are helping growers across the state make the most of their harvests. From apples, apple cider and hard cider production, MSU provides information, education and support to Michigan apple farmers and helps them participate in growing industries.

The state ranks third in the nation for apple production, with more than 14.9 million apple trees covering 34,500 acres on 775 family-run farms, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.

Gathering apples for the cider mill

Some of the most common apple varieties grown in Michigan include Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious and Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Jonathan and McIntosh.

When choosing an apple you’d like to eat, you might choose a sweet Honeycrisp, or if you are going to bake an apple pie, you might pick a tart Granny Smith. For hard cider makers, choosing the perfect apple or combination of apple varieties isn’t so simple. Even more challenging is trying to find the perfect blend of sweet and bitter flavors to make their hard apple cider stand out. Until now.

Researchers at MSU have compiled data on more than 800 apple varieties to create a reference chart for cider makers that helps them develop their ideal recipe. The grid shows how different apple varieties are classified based on four quality traits that make apples desirable for hard cider production: sweetness, acidity, pH and bitterness (total phenolic content).

“What started out as a simple survey of apple varieties grown in Michigan and New York turned into actively collecting all of the data that exists in the published scientific literature about these traits to put them together in a useful way,” says Joshua VanderWeide, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Berry Crops Physiology Laboratory. “We have put together the largest database of fruit quality traits for apples that are important to both growers and researchers.”

This research involved a mix of collecting existing data from the published literature and getting hands-on in the field. For Christopher Gottschalk, who was a graduate student at MSU during the research and is now an apple geneticist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, that meant collecting apples for testing.

“I would go to either orchards in Michigan or orchards in New York, and I would collect the fruit, making sure we were sampling it at its ideal time,” says Gottschalk. “We were interested in learning whether an Otterson apple grown in Michigan tasted different than an Otterson apple grown in New York.”

Back at the labs (in the Department of Horticulture and at MSU’s winery at the horticulture farm), the apple samples were pressed, and the juice was collected for biochemical testing to see how each apple variety ranked.

Not all apples are equal

In countries like England, France and Spain, cider-specific apple varieties are grown to balance the sweet and bitter taste of their hard cider flavors. In the U.S., however, hard apple cider is traditionally made from culinary apple varieties that are sweeter and have lower acidity and bitterness.

Apples on their way to be pressed in the cider mill.

“Culinary apples at the grocery store like Honeycrisp have very low concentrations of phenolic compounds,” says VanderWeide. “Cider-specific apples such as a Chisel Jersey have a higher concentration of phenolics, which are the same compounds that cause that astringent sensation in your mouth when you drink black or green tea.”

The phenolic compounds in fruits are what comprise tannic acid, or tannins, which create distinctive flavors that are highly desirable in hard cider production.

“Tannin is the most important quality to have in a good hard cider,” says Tom Foydel, owner of Two Hands Orchard in Northport. “Bittersweet apples like Harrison, Kingston Black and Dabinett varieties are high in tannin, low in acid, and they have a good sugar content.”

Most people wouldn’t want to bite into a cider-specific apple. “In the industry, we call them ‘spitters’ because you’d never pick one of those apples to eat,” says Nikki Rothwell, an extension fruit specialist with MSU’s Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Center. When she’s not at the research center, Rothwell spends her time perfecting her own recipes as the co-owner of Tandem Ciders in Traverse City. “Some of the apples used in European hard ciders have a funky taste with barnyard notes, which make for great hard apple cider.”

The apples commonly grown in Michigan for making hard cider are Northern Spy, Golden Delicious and Dabinett apples, all known for their sweetness; McIntosh and Jonathan for sweet-tart varieties; and Yarlington Mills, which produce a bittersweet cider.

MSU researchers and Extension specialists working across Michigan have a long history of supporting the state’s apple and cider industries.

MSU’s role in Michigan’s hard cider industry

“Michigan is a great environment for apple trees since we have a good, cold winter, and our northern growers have the tempering effect of the big lake,” Foydel says. “Plus, our summers aren’t too hot, which can ripen the apples too fast.”

Drone view of an apple orchard

Over the past decade, the production and interest in hard cider have grown tremendously. In response, MSU created the Great Lakes Cider Apple Collection as a resource for apple growers and cider makers. The website features information about cider-specific apple varieties that grow well in Michigan and can be used for cider production.

“This information didn’t exist in one place,” says Steve van Nocker, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the leader of the team that developed the hard cider apple variety grid along with VanderWeide and Gottschalk. “There was a real opportunity to support apple growers and cider makers here in Michigan.” MSU’s Department of Horticulture and MSU Extension offer information and events to apple growers and cider makers throughout the year and provide educational opportunities that benefit orchards and cideries as well as foster further research.

“MSU’s horticultural research branch has been an excellent resource of knowledge and expertise,” says Foydel, who has attended events for growers and producers.

“I’ve really tried to cultivate relationships between apple growers and hard cider makers,” says Rothwell. “These relationships are important for the growth and future of the industry.”

Partnerships help put Michigan cider on the map

According to a 2017 Grape & Wine Industry Council economic impact study, cideries in Michigan produced 630,000 gallons of hard cider, and the industry was responsible for $164 million in total economic impact in the state. There are about 90 businesses producing hard cider, which means Michigan ranks second in the country for the number of hard cider producers.

The ultimate goal: hard apple cider

One of the first hard cider makers in Michigan was Mike Beck of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns. Some local cider makers affectionately call him “The Godfather” of the Michigan hard cider industry. Beck has worked with various MSU researchers over the years to perfect the apples he uses to produce the orchard’s apple cider and hard cider products.

“About 20 years ago, I received a USDA grant through MSU, and I ended up getting into business to share my ideas,” says Beck. “Once I started, I found a lot of people making apple cider already have 75% to 80% of the equipment needed to do what I was doing to make hard cider. Michigan’s hard cider industry is really poised to take off.”

Making hard cider ‘vintages’

Similar to the way grapes exposed to specific weather conditions produce wine with a distinct flavor that creates a “vintage” for that year, van Nocker, VanderWeide and Gottschalk discovered that the same is true for apples as well, providing the opportunity to create “vintages” for hard apple ciders.

“We provided evidence for the idea of hard apple ciders having a vintage-like quality,” Gottschalk says. “One year, the cider might taste more acidic than another year, or it might be more bitter in one year versus another year.”

With the wide range of hard ciders produced throughout Michigan, there’s something for every palette. And the growing popularity of ciders complements the state’s already booming beer and wine scene.

“Michigan ciders are easy-drinking because they are flavorful and can be served with bigger foods like steak compared to what you would normally pair with wine,” says Rothwell. “Almost 100% of the cider that’s made in Michigan comes from Michigan orchards. It helps the state and the industry.”

By: Emilie Lorditch

Media Contacts


more content from this collection

Spartan innovation feeds Michigan’s food and agriculture industry