Rothwell said the U.S. industry not only needs more apples, but better varieties. And those varieties need to work for the three main parties: cider makers, growers and nurseries. Cider makers want varieties that are small, high in tannins and either bittersweet or bittersharp. Growers want disease-resistant, high-yielding, consistent croppers. Nurseries don’t want to bud thousands of different apples. What all three groups need to do is agree on the 10 or 20 varieties that work best for all, she said.
“We need to figure out how to whittle thousands and thousands of apples down to something that’s manageable.”
Keep in mind that this is the growers' view. I was reminded of the first time I toured a hop field back in the late 1990s. I asked a grower which varieties he liked best, and he started ticking off an idiosyncratic list of unrelated types. When I asked why, he said the same thing these growers did--those were the varieties that produced the most pounds per acre and gave him the fewest pest and disease headaches. Of course, those varieties aren't what drive the beer industry, much like the highest-producing cider varieties may not be what cider makers want.
But the larger point is right: there are hundreds of cider varieties out there, and growers and cideries aren't sure which ones to select. The next difficulty? Growers don't know which varieties will do well in which regions.
There are plenty of traditional hard cider varieties in other parts of the world, but their availability in the United States is limited, and little is known about their growing habits or susceptibility to disease – especially fire blight and apple scab, Rothwell said. An MSU research team is working to develop best recommendations for planting and managing hard cider orchards, as well as coming up with the best recommendations for (regionally specific) cultivars.When I toured Kevin Zielinski's orchards, he showed me the different (mostly French) varieties he'd planted. Many were healthy and robust and produced wonderful cider apples. But not all of them. Some just didn't flourish. And Normandy's climate is quite similar to Oregon's. If not every variety can flourish here, what about the very different climates of Michigan or New England? We just don't know.
And then there's the expressiveness of the fruit. When the pioneers of Oregon winemaking started planting vineyards in the 1970s, they quite reasonably took their cues from California and planted grapes that grew well in Napa. But Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes don't pop here in the cooler climate. It took growers years to discover that pinot grapes flourish in this climate and produce amazing wines.
Upshot: it's not going to be a quick process.