Southern Ontario is apple country — fertile soil near the Great Lakes is great for growing. Yet apple production has dropped considerably in this province, from 310 million pounds in 1979 to just 217 million pounds in 2015.
Meanwhile, cider sales are booming in Ontario. The LCBO saw a 54 per cent increase in sales of locally made cider in 2015–16. Ontario’s craft cider makers are hoping that their growing business will increase demand for locally grown fruit, which would in turn improve business for Ontario growers.
But not all apples are created equal. Some cider makers would like to see their increased buying power result in the resurgence of traditional European cider apple trees in Ontario, which many believe will help them produce a better product.
The problem is, introducing new apple cultivars on a large scale is not a simple task.
What’s in an apple?
Dozens of cultivars grow in Ontario, but most are dessert apples (also known as table apples), such as McIntosh, Empire, Red Delicious, and Gala — which some think are best suited to eating, rather than fermenting.
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When choosing what fruit to use in their product, cider makers consider the balance of sweetness, acidity, and tannin (which imparts a dry, astringent taste). Some believe cultivars native to England and France — Kingston Black, Brown Snout, Michelin, Muscadet de Dieppe — balance these three flavours best, and they're trying to improve access to those cultivars in Ontario.
“You can make very good ciders out of dessert fruit; a lot of people are,” says Grant Howes, owner of County Cider Company in Picton. “But I found early on in my career — 20 years ago — the best ciders I’ve tried were traditional fruit, and those apples came from either Normandy or Somerset.”
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European settlers introduced apples to North America in the 17th century, and they soon started making cider with them. “Cider was the number-one beverage,” says Thomas Wilson, owner of Spirit Tree Cidery in Caledon and president of the Ontario Craft Cider Association (OCCA). “Because there was no excess grain, and anything that could be grown was fed to cattle, horses, and people.”
Wilson says cider consumption was so widespread, most farmsteads had orchards to support production of the drink. Yet greater and more diverse agricultural yields — plus waves of European immigrants who preferred beer and spirits — caused cider’s popularity to wane. By the end of Prohibition in the United States, in 1933, most of North America’s traditional cider apple trees were gone, as apples better suited to eating and cooking became growers’ top priorities.
Back from the brink
With cider making a comeback in Ontario, some producers are trying to bring those traditional trees back.
John A. Cline, associate professor in the University of Guelph’s department of plant agriculture, has been testing about 30 varieties of such trees at five sites across the province (with the OCCA’s help).
“It’s just the second year growing,” Cline says. “The winters are cold here — colder than France and England. Some will probably not do well, because of winter injury. Others might get disease very easily. But I’m sure some will do quite well.”
Howes explains that it’s important to learn how the apples will fare in various regions, because “different areas are producing apples of different flavours, different acidities, and kinds of differences that really add a terroir to your final product.”
Obtaining the trees was difficult. They’re still found natively in Europe, as well as in a New York State germplasm (a collection of living seeds, tissues, and genetic material) — but because those specimens aren’t virus certified, they couldn’t legally enter Canada. Instead, Cline sourced virus-certified varieties from Washington State.
He got the rest from a British Columbia repository and from private collectors: “Home gardeners who are really into weird trees that they’ve got them from who knows where,” he explains. “It’s amazing how many are coming out of the woodwork who have little orchards in their backyards.”
If Cline demonstrates that these varieties can thrive in Ontario, then his test specimens could be grafted onto other trees.
Worth the graft?
Even if Cline is successful, who knows whether Ontario fruit growers will want to take on these cultivars.
Brett Schuyler, owner of Simcoe’s Schuyler Farms, thinks growers are wary of joining the juice-apple business, which collapsed back when concentrate juice from China and Chile became popular in Ontario’s grocery stores, displacing locally grown products. “So now today, when you get asking about producing juice apples and cider,” Schuyler says, “you get a lot of negativity from the older guys, because of the history.”
Schuyler says Ontario can produce quality apples, but he would be more comfortable investing in cider trees if the government would change regulations to make cider production more financially attractive. For instance, he wants the provincial government to change the tax structure for cider so producing local ciders would be more financially attractive.
He adds that there are horticultural risks that come with planting more cider trees, as well as financial ones. “A lot of the apples that they want for cider are very prone to fire blight,” Schuyler says. “So now I’m sitting here with an apple that’s not necessarily grower-friendly. And if I’m going to grow an apple that’s hard to grow, I might as well plant some Honeycrisp and get the high market returns they’re getting.”
If cider makers in Ontario want traditional apples, they may have to grow them on their own. Some are already doing this — including Howes, who started grafting European trees onto his own in 1997. He tested about 25 cultivars before deciding that four traditional apples worked best for him.
But should other producers decide to follow his lead, it’ll be a while before consumers see the fruits of their labour: Cline says it can cost up to $20,000 per acre to plant a high-density apple orchard, and it can take seven years for the trees to deliver a full harvest.
Shortly after this article was published, TVO.org learned that Grant Howes died suddenly a few days ago.
Photo courtesy of Shimya Suzuki and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)