Heritage Midwestern apples debut comeback in new cider

Brix Cider
Brix Cider is using Midwestern apple varieties that were once essentially lost to history.

MOUNT HOREB, Wis. – Before Americans drank beer, they drank hard cider.  As small farmers and homesteaders spread West during colonization, many of them planted apple trees, and most of the apples were destined for the cider mill.  In hard cider’s American heyday, over 15,000 named varieties of apples were grown across the country, and many of them were grown especially for making cider. 

Many of these varieties were lost to history, and along with them went the popular flavors that our ancestors enjoyed.

In recent years, however, craft cider has undergone a renaissance, spurring new interest in the lost trees of times past. Leading the charge in the exploration of near forgotten trees is the Wisconsin-born apple historian Dan Bussey who recently released the most extensive publication of apple varieties ever produced.

Bussey's fascination with apple diversity took hold in the 1980s when he started planting the orchard at Albion Prairie Farm in Edgerton, Wis..  There he amassed a unique collection of close to 200 apple varieties, some of which were very rare. He eventually sold the orchard and moved to Iowa to work for Seed Savers Exchange as the orchard manager there.

Marie and Matt Raboin, the owners of Brix Cider in Mount Horeb, learned about Albion Prairie Farm in 2016, before their business had been formed. They met with Lisa and Dale Reeves, the current owners of the farm, and they worked out an arrangement to do numerous cider experiments using apples from Albion Prairie Farm.

In the fall of 2016, the Raboin’s conducted evaluations of 40 of the apple varieties at Albion Prairie Farm, testing their brix (sugar content), acidity, pH, and tannin levels.  Tannins are often considered a defining feature of true cider apples since they provide some bitterness, astringency, and complexity that is hard to find in common eating apples.

They fermented out all 40 apple varieties individually and evaluated the colors, aromas, and flavors that came through in the finished ciders. All of the results from their research are publicly available on the Brix Cider website.

Two apple varieties that really caught the Raboin’s attention were called Garfield and Minkler. Neither is commonly known, but a little research showed that both of these apples were of Midwestern origin, dating back to the 1800s. The age and local origin alone was interesting, but what the Raboin’s really liked is that both of these apples had high brix readings and high tannin readings.

The Minkler apple flavor profile fell in the “bitter sweet” category that cider makers covet, and the Garfield apple was nearly perfectly balanced for making a standout cider – just needing something mildly bitter sweet (like the Minkler) to make the ideal blend. In other words, in the unique collection at Albion Prairie Farm, the Raboin’s had rediscovered heritage Midwestern apples that were almost certainly featured in local ciders from centuries ago.

Wisconsin-born apple historian Dan Bussey planted an orchard in the 1980s at Albion Prairie Farm in Edgerton, Wis., where he amassed a unique collection of close to 200 apple varieties, some of them rare.

England, France, and Spain have their celebrated cider apple varieties, and some cider makers in New England are rediscovering old cider apple varieties there as well. A Midwestern Heritage cider, however, like one made solely with Garfield and Minkler apples, is something truly unique.

At the Albion Prairie Farm property, there are only a couple trees each of Garfield and Minkler, and in harvesting apples for Brix Cider, the Raboin’s set those two varieties aside for a small, specialty batch. They are releasing the cider made only from Garfield and Minkler apples on Friday, August 9 at the Brix Cider tasting room in Mount Horeb.  Having only made 25 gallons for this small batch, the don’t expect the cider to last long.