This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Big Apple Episode, first released on November 10, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SOHAM BHATT: Ok. So welcome to Pine Hill Orchards. This is a multi-generational apple farm in Colrain, Massachusetts. I like to start in here, because not only is this smell something that’s just beautiful and hard to describe in words.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Can you describe it?
BHATT: You know, every time I come in here, I get hit with… Well, the obvious notes, it’s like ripe apples. But also underneath that is a sweetness and a floral almost rose-like smell. Years and years of apple juice in every corner. And apples kind of ripening in here have like, imprinted the whole space with this aroma.
GRABER: It probably won’t surprise you listeners that in honor of the fall, we are celebrating with an episode about apples!
NICOLA TWILLEY: Which our listener Soham Bhatt, who you just heard waxing lyrical about apple smells, has been campaigning to get us to make for years now. We, of course, are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. And I am Nicola Twilley, lover of good apples.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and we are also going to be tasting some amazing ciders this episode. As much as Nicky loves apples, that’s how much I love cider! The alcoholic kind, of course. The other kind is just cloudy apple juice.
TWILLEY: Long-time Gastropod listeners will know how I feel about alcoholic cider. It was the drink of choice for teenage me, back in binge-drinking Britain, and I am pretty sure it will never taste of anything other than vomit as a result.
GRABER: And so this is my personal quest: Can I convince Nicky that cider today is nothing like the cider of her youth, and instead is a thing of complexity and deliciousness?
TWILLEY: It’s good to have these kind of lofty goals. Only by trying and failing can you truly grow as a person, Cynthia.
GRABER: But of course that is not our only question this episode, though I’d be perfectly happy to spend the whole time drinking cider. No. We have many questions. Like how many thousands of varieties of apples used to grow in America, and why are there only a handful left in grocery stores today?
TWILLEY: Did the rest get lost? Or are they out there somewhere? And why on earth is one of the ones we got left with the Red Delicious, which is red but not delicious at all?
GRABER: Who is Johnny Appleseed, and what role did he play in the expansion of the American frontier?
TWILLEY: And back on my side of the pond, what does cider have to do with the true story of the invention of champagne. Trigger warning if you’re French.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of science, technology, and economics.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, I was kind of, I guess, an inadvertent midwife in that we, at the fellowship that we did back in, what year was it?
TWILLEY: It was 2013, although we agree, time has ceased to have any meaning. And that is Michael Pollan of Michael Pollan fame.
GRABER: He is indeed the inadvertent midwife of Gastropod, because Nicky and I were together at UC Berkeley that year, in 2013, at a fellowship run by Michael. That’s how we met.
POLLAN: And you discovered your shared love of science slash food. And, yeah, it’s one of the happier offspring of that fellowship.
TWILLEY: Obviously, if you’re into the stories behind food and farming, as we both are, Michael’s writing is pretty much at the top of your list. We’ve wanted to have him on the show forever. And this episode was the perfect excuse to revisit one of our favorite of his books: The Botany of Desire.
GRABER: In The Botany of Desire, Michael traces the stories of four plants and their intimate relationships with humans. One of those plants is the apple tree. And I don’t know about you, but when I think of apple trees, the first person I think of is Johnny Appleseed.
TWILLEY: This is a very American thing to think of. I’d never heard of him till I moved here. So, for our non American listeners, this is what Americans are thinking of when they think of Johnny Appleseed.
POLLAN: Well, they would probably have the Walt Disney image of Johnny Appleseed, which is of this, you know, barefoot guy on the frontier bringing goodwill, sweetness to people. You know, when people hear Johnny Appleseed, it’s, it’s very wholesome. It’s very, you know, uncontroversial. He’s a Disney character, right? Very soft. But actually, the real Johnny Appleseed—and I use that word advisedly because there’s so much we don’t know about him—is much more interesting.
GRABER: In his book, Michael traces Johnny’s path planting apples across the US, and we’re going to do the same here, but first—there weren’t actually apples growing here before Europeans arrived.
AMY TRAVERSO: There were crab apples that were here in the 1600s. But Native people did not have sweet apples.
TWILLEY: This is Amy Traverso, she’s the author of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, and a senior food editor at Yankee Magazine.
POLLAN: So apples are—you know, we think of apples as this American fruit and American as apple pie. And we identify closely with apples as Americans. But it turns out they’re not. They’re from Kazakhstan. Around a town called Alma-Ata, which means father of the apple.
TWILLEY: Alma Ata is now called Almaty, and it’s the largest city in Kazakhstan.
POLLAN: I’ve never been there but if you go, apparently you will see whole forests of apples, 50 foot tall apple trees, apples coming up in the cracks of the sidewalks. It’s like a weed there. And these apples, most of them look nothing like our image of the apple. I mean, there’s some the size of olives. There’s, there’s big brown ones. There’s, you know, just this incredible range and there are apple trees that are kind of prostrate and grow along the ground, and ones that grow vertically, and ones that have canopies. I mean, it’s just incredible diversity.
GRABER: But a lot of these apples weren’t particularly sweet or delicious, at least not to humans. They were dry and hard, so they’d survive the drop to the ground. And often the flesh was kind of bitter and acidic and tannic, because these chemicals were preservatives that would also help to fight off worms and insects.
TWILLEY: And that was all useful because the apples needed to be eaten by bears to spread their seeds. And if you would like to hear what the delight of a group of bear cubs that has just come across a pile of fallen apples sounds like, which of course you would, you need to be on our special supporters mailing list. Gastropod dot com slash support.
GRABER: Bears—yes there are a lot of bears in Kazakhstan—they love apples. But like humans, they also prefer sweeter ones, and larger ones, and even redder ones. These big, red, sweet apples sometimes appeared in all the different ones that grew wild. And bears chose those and helped spread their seeds. And so the bears helped select for just the kind of apples that we wanted: the large, sweet red ones.
TWILLEY: And so then people who tasted those bear-approved apples turned into apple fans too—and not just the locals. Because that area of Kazakhstan was right in the middle of the Silk Road, an incredibly important trading route that stretched all the way from China to Europe.
TRAVERSO: Imagine stumbling across, I mean, you’re living in a world with no sugar, right? Or at least, it’s very rare. That kind of sweetness is extremely rare, and very fleeting, and you stumble across a forest where you find these fruits that are sweet. And that actually keep well, I mean, not a lot, you know, a lot of fruits that you might find in that same forest, like apricots, will rot very quickly, whereas an apple would last for weeks, or maybe months. And so people would pocket them and bring them to the next trading port or the next trading town. And they really spread that way.
TWILLEY: And they flourished wherever they spread. Because apples have a couple of botanical superpowers.
TRAVERSO: Apples are unique in that they easily interbreed with the native crab apple species of whatever region they end up in. And so those crab apples would then splice in the genes that allowed them to survive in their climate.
GRABER: So that’s super useful, those local crab apples had genes that would be perfectly suited to the local environment. But everyone told us that’s not the apple’s only special skill.
BHATT: Apples are what we call extreme heterozygotes. So that means that they don’t grow true to seed. You take an apple seed, you plant it in the ground, it doesn’t come out the way that you want it to.
TRAVERSO: And so when you plant that seed from a Granny Smith tree, or a Granny Smith fruit, you’re not going to get a Granny Smith tree, you’re gonna get something new.
TWILLEY: Humans are heterozygotes too—our children are not clones. But apples take it to the next level.
GRABER: Apples have a particularly large genome, and on top of that, they have a wider variety of variations of each gene. Like, say we have a small handful of options for blood type—those are all different variations of a blood type gene. But if an apple were to have a blood type, they might have dozens.
TWILLEY: And then they have all those variations for almost every gene. So you can imagine the almost infinite different combinations.
POLLAN: It’s probably one of the reasons that apples have adapted to so many different environments. Because think about it, if you plant apples from seed and you’re getting all this diversity, all these different qualities, you are more likely to hit upon the exact combination of qualities you need to thrive in a given environment. Just by the, you know, luck of the draw, when you’re planting thousands and thousands of different apples, you’re going to hit on ones that are going to be really well adapted, that are not going to have insect problems, that are not going to have disease problems and that are going to thrive in your environment. This is the value of sex, right, sexual reproduction is that you create variety that allows you to evolve.
TWILLEY: One of the values of sex, certainly.
GRABER: But apple sex and apple extreme heterozygosity and apple-crab apple hook-ups—all this means there are lots and lots of genes that might come out of any one seed, and it’s pretty unlikely that any new tree will grow truly delicious apples. That’s just not to the apple tree’s advantage.
TWILLEY: So when a really good apple shows up, humans have to intervene and get rid of all the fun sex in favor of cloning. Which in apples is called grafting—you smoosh together a branch of the apple you like, say like a Granny Smith, to the trunk of a different apple tree, and hey presto, you have yourself a clone. Now that tree is a Granny Smith tree, and you can do the same again if you want another, and so on forever, and you no longer have to play the odds on the appleseed lottery.
POLLAN: The ancient Chinese figured out grafting thousands of years ago. The Greeks and Romans grafted apples. They had their varieties. And Europeans had grafted trees.
GRABER: And the Europeans brought those delicious, hard, sweet, long-lasting apples, and their apple-grafting techniques, with them to America! And specifically to Boston.
TRAVERSO: They came over with the English on boats. The first apple on record was grown on land that is now Beacon Hill by Reverend William Blaxton, and it was called the Blaxton’s Yellow Sweeting. But Blaxton got into a lot of conflicts with his Puritan neighbors. And so he ended up moving to Rhode Island and his orchard was lost.
TWILLEY: Most people agree that the oldest American named apple that you can still get today is also from Massachusetts. Specifically Roxbury, which is in Boston.
BHATT: Let’s grab a Roxbury Russet here.
GRABER: Soham picked one off a tree to show me.
BHATT: Roxbury Russet named after a place: Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1630, around 1630, 1640. In the backyard of Joseph Warren, who, whose grandchildren would go on to be Revolutionary War heroes, founders of Harvard Medical School.
TRAVERSO: So one of the things one of the ideas that I just love when I look at an apple, say like a Roxbury Russet that dates from about the 1630s, this apple comes from a tree that comes from a tree that comes from a tree that comes from a tree, that was the original tree. I mean, it’s a cutting of a cutting of a cutting of that tree, going back to the 1600s.
GRABER: Amy says the Roxbury Russet is one of her top three apples of all, and this is someone who’s written an entire book of apple recipes.
TRAVERSO: CRUNCH Mmm. I love this apple because to me, it tastes like it tastes like a lemonade that you would make with lemons, pears and honey. It has this really bright acidity but a very rich sweetness underneath it. And that kind of floral pear aroma going on. It’s pretty juicy. And furthermore, it has this russeted skin. It’s almost like a brown netting over the green, the green skin. But russeting to me imparts like a slightly nutty flavor.
TWILLEY: The Roxbury Russet is a genuinely great apple. It has everything I want in an apple. Nice job America!
GRABER: I’m not an apple obsessive the way Nicky is, I can kind of take them or leave them, but I admit that I did fall in love with the Roxbury Russet!
BHATT: The other really cool thing about Roxbury Russet, which is I think the other reason why they selected it was that it keeps really well. You can tell by how hard it is, you can tell that the structure of it’s quite, you know, burly. That keeps pretty much until March in a regular—like if you put in a potato cellar kind of setting, where it’d stay cold throughout the winter. So you would get the ability to eat something really fresh and really sweet throughout the entire winter.
TWILLEY: So I’d say apples are off to a pretty good start in their new home in North America. But as everyone knows, to crack America, you need to go big or go home. Apples needed a hero.
GRABER: And as most Americans have probably heard, the key character in this chapter of the American apple story is Johnny Appleseed—formerly known as John Chapman.
POLLAN: Well, he was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, in a year I don’t actually remember. So you’re going to have to help me with that one.
GRABER: We’ll help on the date and the Massachusetts town, which is actually pronounced Leominster. That’s the fault of your people, Nicky.
TWILLEY: These ridiculous British names. And the date is 1774. Back when the colonies still belonged to Britain.
GRABER: Johnny Appleseed moved out to Ohio when he was in his 20s. That doesn’t sound like a big deal move today, but back then, it was pretty adventurous of him.
POLLAN: Now, the frontier then was Ohio. We think of Ohio as a middle, but it was the edge. It really was the beginning of what, at least, white people thought of as the frontier or the wilderness.
TWILLEY: But colonists were starting to encroach on the native land. In 1803, Ohio became a state and the legislature immediately started handing out chunks of territory to all comers.
POLLAN: So when you got your grant of land from the government or the state or whomever, you had certain obligations, you had to prove that you were improving it and that you were going to stay put.
GRABER: And how did you prove that you were quote improving the land and that you were going to stay put? Well, first you put a fence on it, as we discussed in our Moo Dunnit episode about cows. And then you had to plant an apple orchard.
POLLAN: It’s not something anybody would do unless they had some intentions to stay put. They weren’t just speculating in land. And it was a sign of settlement. It was a sign of domestication, civilization. But where were you going to get your apple trees? Well, Johnny Appleseed would establish these nurseries, and he made an effort to be out ahead of the settlers.
TWILLEY: Johnny would get a mush of seeds and apple cores thrown out by a cider mill, and he would stick it in a dugout canoe, and tie that to another canoe and then float down the Ohio River to find a promising new patch of land.
POLLAN: So like a real estate developer, he would make a kind of judgment as to where the next wave of settlement was likely to be. He’d buy or squat on a piece of land and he’d cultivate it and plant his apple trees and they would be ready when the settlers got there. And he would sell them for a couple pennies apiece.
GRABER: Johnny was a great businessman, but he didn’t necessarily look the part, at least not by today’s standards.
POLLAN: He liked sleeping outside. He would sleep in tree stumps. Although there was one story of him going to a tree stump, you know, a hollowed out sycamore tree, and and finding some bear cubs inside and not wanting to disturb them, slept out in the snow. He was also famous for not wearing shoes. And this is very much part of his image, that he had a kind of intimacy with nature that that few of us do. And his feet must have been incredibly gnarly. And boys would marvel at the condition of his feet and he would show them to the boys.
TWILLEY: There are all sorts of stories. That he only ate honey, berries and cornmeal mush, that he wore a pot lid for a hat, that he put out his campfire one time just because it was killing mosquitoes.
TRAVERSO: He was a Swedenborgian missionary, who believed that the world was literally an expression of God, every element of the world was a manifestation of God’s consciousness.
POLLAN: But he was welcome in everybody’s house. He was legendary in his own time. And people would have him in for meals. He would end up preaching to them. He would use his entree as the guy who could sell you some apple trees to get a meal. And then afterwards regale you with some theology.
GRABER: And as you might expect from such a character, Johnny wasn’t selling the popular Roxbury Russet or the Blaxton Sweeting that he’d grafted onto a different apple tree stump.
TRAVERSO: So he did not believe in grafting he believed that God set it up so that we plant things from seed. And that’s what we do. We don’t, we don’t stray from that.
POLLAN: For me, what unlocked Johnny Appleseed was learning that he was planting apples from seeds.
GRABER: I never thought about it, but it is right there in his name! Appleseed!
TWILLEY: Which is interesting because, as we now know, apples grown from seed are usually bitter and tannic and weird. But maybe the Ohio homesteaders had no choice. It was Johnny’s seedlings or nothing.
POLLAN: And then I found out that you could buy grafted apple trees in the wilderness. In Marietta, there was a nursery selling grafted trees.
GRABER: Right there, in Ohio, on the Ohio River, at the edge of the colonies, someone was selling grafted sweet apple trees.
POLLAN: So isn’t that odd? Why would he be selling these kind of useless apples? Well, then it dawned on me that those apples were good for making cider and nothing else.
GRABER: In fact they were perfect for cider, and that’s exactly what people wanted them for. They were a little bitter, a little tannic, they made your cider way more interesting.
POLLAN: Because the apples that we clone and that we’ve bred are bred for sweetness, primarily. And in cider you want something more than that to make a really tasty cider. So that was kind of my aha moment. He was planting cider orchards. That’s what the colonists wanted from him. He was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier, and that was precious. And suddenly his image as this wholesome Disney character gets a little bit more complicated.
TWILLEY: Bringing alcohol to the frontier sounds great. Who doesn’t want a drink at the end of a long week of homesteading? But Michael says that in colonial America, cider was more than just a Friday night treat.
POLLAN: I don’t think we appreciate what an important drink hard cider was. But if you’re in like the northern tier of the United States or in England, grapes don’t do very well. Wine is difficult to produce. Or it’s just very low quality. There’s not quite enough sugar in the grapes that grow in the northern tier. So the main source of alcohol is either grain, which you can distill and, you know, make white lightning and other grain alcohols. But that’s difficult and somewhat dangerous. It’s so strong. And then you’ve got cider, which is pretty easy to make. And is a wholesome drink. So wholesome, in fact, that it was—people drank more cider than they drank water in colonial times.
GRABER: In fact, John Adams, who was the very second president of the new United States, he said he loved to drink cider every day, and he was known to have a cup of the stuff before he even had his breakfast.
POLLAN: So you would give your children hard cider. I mean, doesn’t have a high level of alcohol. And people would have it, you know, three meals a day.
TWILLEY: Cider was like the Swiss army knife of booze on the frontier. Yes, it was hydration, but that’s not all.
TRAVERSO: So then what you could do, if you wanted to have a more potent drink is you could take that fermented cider and freeze it, the water separates out of the juice as it freezes. And then you just kind of scrape off the water layer and you have a much more concentrated alcoholic beverage. And if you do that enough times, you end up with a sort of applejack, a very rustic kind of apple brandy in a way. I mean, it’s not really brandy, it’s not how you make brandy, but it was a form of distilling. And with enough alcohol concentration, now you’ve got something that could be used as an antiseptic. As you know, if you had, god forbid, had to have some kind of surgery, you could drink a lot of it right before. An antiseptic and an anesthetic in a way. And then if the cider instead, if you turned it into vinegar, now you’ve got a means to preserve your harvest. So it’s doing so many things.
TWILLEY: So yeah, it’s not surprising that Johnny became such a legend.
GRABER: In Michael’s book The Botany of Desire, he tries to trace some of Johnny’s path—he even goes out on a canoe in Ohio. And he finds some trees that might have been descended from Johnny’s original ones.
TWILLEY: Because not all of Johnny’s seedlings would have been spitters—the bitter apples that are only good for cider. When you plant that many thousands of apple seeds, some are going to be apples that taste good straight off the tree.
POLLAN: We don’t know for sure that we can, like, say that an apple planted by Johnny Appleseed turned out to be a really important commercial apple. But given the number of apple trees he sold and the areas in which they were planted, a great many important apples came out of those cider orchards. I mean, you’ve got hundreds of trees. And the people who own these orchards had their eye out for the edible apple, for the special apple.
GRABER: People wanted apples for everything, and they wanted all kinds of apples. Sweet ones for snacking, tart ones for baking, tannic and bitter ones for cider. Some would ripen earlier, some later, some dried well, some kept fresh for longer, some were perfect for animal feed.
POLLAN: But make no mistake, if we hadn’t been drinking so much cider and planting orchards full of inedible apples, we would not have had this golden age of apples that we had.
TWILLEY: And it was a golden age. Remember that when Europeans first arrived in America, there were no sweet apples. But by 1900, there were so many that the Department of Agriculture decided they needed to count them all.
TRAVERSO: And they found that once they omitted the repeats and the apples that had multiple names, they still have 14,000 apple varieties being grown in the US. So we went from zero to 14,000.
POLLAN: So there was a kind of golden age of the apple where everybody had a cider orchard, everybody in the country. And they’d be looking for a great apple. And these nurserymen would come and introduce them. And they’d promote them and hype them in various ways.
GRABER: These new hyped apples had the greatest names, they were named after places, or people, or characteristics of the apples: The Black Gilliflower, the Twenty-Ounce Pippin, the Westfield Seek No Further, the Peach of Kentucky.
TWILLEY: There’s Norton’s Mellow, Moyer’s Prize, the Ladies’ Favorite of Tennessee, the Bread and Cheese, the Cornell’s Save Well, and the Paradise Winter.
GRABER: You could hit it seriously big if you found a great apple in your orchard, and it had some fantastic marketable characteristic, and you gave it a name, and a local nursery helped you sell it.
TRAVERSO: And the 19th century was a time when new apple varieties were kind of like the hot thing, it was kind of like the tulip craze in Holland. If you could find a great apple variety growing in your orchard and could market it, you could really make some money.
POLLAN: And of course, the most successful was the Red Delicious. When they first discovered the Red Delicious—and I think it was farm, a cider orchard in Ohio where somebody spotted it—called it the Hawkeye because of the unusual shape at the bottom. But then a nurseryman named Stark said, Oh he had a much better name for it: Delicious. A name he’d been carrying around on a slip of paper in his pocket, waiting for just the right apple to pin it to.
TRAVERSO: And so the Stark brothers bought the rights to market that Delicious apple and it was an apple that was streaked with red, but not solidly red.
TWILLEY: And apparently it was also actually delicious. Whereas nowadays it is all red and not delicious at all. So what happened?
POLLAN: The original Red Delicious is somewhat different than the one we know. And the reason is that over the years when people were taking clones, they would take it from the branch with the reddest fruit.
TRAVERSO: And they’re called sports, they’re just variations within the same variety. And the farmers would notice that, Hey, that’s a prettier looking apple than the streaky ones. And they would sell a little bit better at market. And they also noticed that some of the apples would occasionally have slightly thicker skins, and that made them better keepers and more easily to transport on trains, you know, to the east. And so those apples began to be favored. And so the farmers would then cut grafts from that branch instead of the other branches.
POLLAN: So over time, the Red Delicious has gotten more red and less good, because if you pick for one trait, you’re probably ignoring another trait. And in this case, it was taste and texture.
GRABER: What’s weird to me is that the Red Delicious was the apple available when I was in elementary school wayyyy back in the 1980s, and it’s still one of the most sold apples today. I’d argue it’s not the most eaten, because it’s gross.
TWILLEY: Exactly. You take a bite and you throw it away. Whereas that Roxbury Russet—oh yeah. I’d have a second of that.
GRABER: In fact, you did.
TWILLEY: So why isn’t the Roxbury Russet and all the other hundreds of delicious sounding apples like the Ladies’ Favorite of Tennessee—why aren’t they in supermarkets?
POLLAN: Prohibition, in a word. When Prohibition started, the apple tree became a target because in people’s minds, the apple was associated with alcohol. It wasn’t associated with health or, you know, the wholesome image that we have of it today. And, you know, the symbol of Carrie Nation, the great Prohibitionist, her symbol was an ax. And that wasn’t just about destroying stills or or saloon doors. It was about chopping down apple trees.
TWILLEY: So that was that for cider orchards. But what about eating apples?
POLLAN: The apple had to be rebranded during Prohibition, if it was going to survive. And so they hired an advertising firm, the industry did. And came up with this wonderful slogan, which all of us have learned: An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
GRABER: Of course you all know that was just branding, not science. But even so, the varieties of eating apples that were available, that was shrinking, too.
TRAVERSO: And we began consolidating the number of varieties as we opened up railway lines out to the West Coast where apples grew very well and they started to dominate the market.
TWILLEY: Apples had started to take over the high desert parts of Washington state. This is not rainy coastal Seattle. This is inland, where it isn’t rainy at all.
TRAVERSO: And that is because these very dry regions have rivers running through them so you can irrigate your orchards. But because they’re so dry, you don’t have a lot of the same pests that we have in the northern parts of the country, the Midwest and the Northeast. You don’t have the same, you know, codling moth problems and various blights that farmers here have to contend with. And there’s such abundant sunshine, that apples just grow very big and very sweet there.
GRABER: These are not great apples. West Coast apples don’t have the same type of crispness or acidity or even flavor that you’ll find on the East Coast or Midwest. But because of the particularities of the climate there, those hot days and cold nights, they do turn out super red.
TWILLEY: As the industry got bigger and more commercial, the growers in Washington started developing standards to grade the apples, and the standards were based on size and color, and the best apples were big and red, and so that’s what ended up in the store, even though those are never the best tasting apples.
GRABER: And like Michael said, while we were losing tasty apples, we were also losing cider apples. Part of it was Prohibition, but it’s also because we were losing a taste for cider.
MARIA KENNEDY: As agriculture starts to specialize, in particular areas of the country where it’s easiest or best to grow particular things, then not everybody still has an orchard, and the practice of making cider becomes less and less important.
GRABER: Maria Kennedy is a folklorist at Rutgers University who studies cider. She said people moved to cities, and drinking water became safer, and you didn’t have to make your own alcohol in your backyard because you could buy it.
KENNEDY: And then, especially as German immigrants come into the country, and these German immigrants have all this brewing heritage and technology, the movement really, even before Prohibition, moves towards beer, just because it’s easier to make and transport and sell, in some ways. Because apples are really, they’re like grapes, they’re a seasonally dependent resource. Whereas grain, once you’ve harvested, harvested it, you can store it, transport it, buy it, sell it, and make beer out of it just about whenever you please.
TWILLEY: And so, Prohibition aside, what really did cider in was just people choosing this new lager beer instead. America became a nation of Budweiser drinkers and Red Delicious eaters.
GRABER: So depressing. But there has been a resurgence just in the past couple of decades both of apples and of cider.
BHATT: Yeah. So I’m Soham Bhatt. I am the co-founder and cider maker for Artifact Cider Project here in Florence, Massachusetts.
TWILLEY: We started this episode with Soham and Soham is one of people who started the cider resurgence.
BHATT: I do remember my first epiphany with cider. So I think, if I was going to think back to…. Let’s say I’m 21 years old. I’m in college. You know, people would bring it to like parties and things like that when we were all hanging out. But back then, it was generally either Magner’s or Woodchuck, which is a local brand around here. I was indifferent to it, let’s say.
GRABER: At the time, like most American college students, Soham wasn’t choosing his alcohol for the evening because it tasted great. But once he was out of college, he started to discriminate a bit more.
BHATT: And so the first time I had a cider that really made me pause was from this company, West County Cider. I had read a story about them, I think it was in The New York Times, around Thanksgiving. And I said, Colrain, Massachusetts? Like I grew up in Massachusetts. I’ve never even heard of this town before. And these guys have been making cider there since 1984. I was like, why don’t we, why don’t we see this anywhere? And I scoured the city looking for a bottle of this West County Cider.
TWILLEY: Soham was living with his best friend Jake, the same guy he would end up starting Artifact with. And he brought this precious bottle of West County Cider home so they could try it together.
BHATT: I still remember standing in our kitchen when we cracked that bottle. It was a, you know, a 750 ml bottle, cork and cage, clear glass with this amber golden cider inside of it. Crystal clear. And when we had it, I mean, it was eye opening. I never had a cider like that before. Never had a cider that dry before, that carbonated, like naturally sparkling, flamboyant aromatics.
GRABER: That bottle of West County Cider reminded him of champagne, and so he and his roommate started cracking a bottle of cider whenever they wanted to celebrate. It was special.
TWILLEY: Soham started seeking out small exciting ciders from around the world. He was working as a biotech engineer at the time—so next thing you know, he decided to start experimenting himself and making it at home.
BHATT: And then eventually that became a business. You know, we started out just the two of us with our own money and all that stuff. And it was more a side project for fun.
GRABER: And then in 2014—the very same year that we launched Gastropod—Soham and his partner founded Artifact Cider. This was just at the start of the cider renaissance in the US.
BHATT: Back then, I would say there were a handful of ciders available, mainly probably a handful of imported ciders and then a handful of kind of locally made locally made ciders, either from California or the West Coast, and then just a couple from from the Northeast.
GRABER: Soham’s headquarters are a couple hours away from Boston, and so on a recent crisp beautiful New England fall Sunday, my partner Tim and I drove out to visit. We started at Pine Hill Orchard with him, it’s one of the main orchards that he partners with. We walked past the people doing pick-your own, and even past the commercial pickers. We went to the secret part to see the apples almost nobody else gets to try.
BHATT: So these are the apples I was telling you about. That they don’t sell these wholesale. They don’t sell these in different, in stores. These are mainly for cider makers. So, over 10 years ago, about 15 years ago, some of these were planted by West County Cider. Others, like these, those two rows over there were actually grafted by us three or four years ago now, for our own cider use. We’ve also got some blocks over there, which have our first trials with foraged apples. So like locally discovered, newly discovered fruit. And then back here, we have some of the… we call them “heirloom.” I like to call them just rare apples because there’s not that available.
TWILLEY: So you’re probably sitting at home with tears in your eyes right now, thinking poor Nicky, she didn’t get to go on this fun apple adventure, and she loves apples, this isn’t fair.
GRABER: Let me just say that this is in fact what Nicky was saying to me at the time.
TWILLEY: Right. Because it isn’t fair, and I am sad, but you and Soham did mail me some apples and some cider, so I will put away my tiny violin. One of the coolest apples Soham shared is called the Redfield.
BHATT: Redfield is famous for CUTS APPLE its red flesh.
GRABER: It is a beautiful reddish pinkish color inside, it’s not white like every other apple I’m used to. Apparently red-fleshed apples are pretty rare. And it tastes completely different, too.
GRABER: Ooh! Wow! That is really tannic.
TIM: It’s almost like a cranberry. Yeah. Really interesting.
GRABER: Yeah, once I get past the tannins, you get the berry notes to it.
TIM: It reminds me of like a cranberry relish—my mum used to make that with apples and the cranberries.
GRABER: It’s like a little mouth drying, but it has all those berry notes. Mm.
TWILLEY: I put my Redfield in an apple crisp and just that one apple turned the whole apple layer pink! It was gorgeous. But Soham says the Redfield is special for more than just its color. It has regular apple acidity but it also has citric acid, which is unusual.
GRABER: So ciders from Redfields have great acid and tannins and some cranberry notes. But Soham likes to play with lots of flavors in his ciders, and some of the apples they come from, well, they sound better than they taste.
BHATT: This is a Reine de Pomme.
GRABER: The queen of the apple.
BHATT: Yes, which I think you’ll enjoy. So try that.
TIM: Your face is great.
GRABER: It’s like—
TIM: You’re totally perplexed.
GRABER: Yeah! It’s, it’s sweet. It’s almost like bubblegum sweet, but super bitter at the same time. CHEWING
TIM: That is so strange. CHEWING, LAUGHING
BHATT: Not really great for eating. So this is when you start getting into apples that were traditionally used for cider making.
TWILLEY: This one I didn’t get, but it doesn’t sound like I missed out. There are dozens of different kinds of apple trees at Pine Hill Orchard—and they bear super dark purple apples and rough skinned green ones and heart shaped tannic ones. But that’s just the tip of the apple iceberg.
GRABER: One man in Iowa is on a quest to document all the thousands and thousands of North American apples that ever existed. His name is Dan Bussey.
DAN BUSSEY: I really got hooked on the, on the names of the apples, that’s what I think really drew me in. I just found them fascinating: Blue Pearmain. Red Astrakan. Black Amish, all kinds of things that I thought were just really fascinating. And I wanted to try every single one. So it sort of got me interested in: I want to know more about these. I want to know more about where they came from.
TWILLEY: Dan started going to the library and digging up all the apple books he could find. And he came across a copy of the USDA’s book from the early 1900s—the one that was supposed to list all the apples in America at the time—all 14,000 of them.
BUSSEY: And it was frustrating, because you’d certainly have an apple that was say, yellow with red stripes would be abbreviated YRS. Well, there were literally a thousand apples that were YRS, what makes this one different from another one?
GRABER: So Dan started cross referencing those apples with other reference books. There were some doubles.
BUSSEY: Every once in a while I run across one that is obviously the same thing. An apple like Ben Davis, which was the most popular apple before the Red Delicious, probably is known by 60, 75 different names, at least.
TWILLEY: But mostly, Dan just kept finding more and more different apples. So he decided he needed to publish his own book, The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada.
BUSSEY: It’s a sizable doorstop. It’s seven volumes. Each is between five and 600 pages each. That includes 16,350 named varieties.
GRABER: Dan’s doorstop was published in 2014—the same time as both Gastropod and Artifact launched, apparently it was a pretty good year.
TWILLEY: The book was the culmination of 30 years of apple hunting. But Dan couldn’t quit.
BUSSEY: Now with internet libraries, I’m able to find resources that I never thought I could. And I know I’ve found since the book came out, over another thousand varieties to add to it.
GRABER: So okay, is that it? Have all the North American varieties that ever were named, have they all been found?
BUSSEY: No, no, there’ll be ones that we’ll never know about.
TWILLEY: No rest for the wicked. But what I care is, how many of these sixteen-thousand plus apples are still around for me to eat?
BUSSEY: So if I had to put a guess to it, maybe 20% still exist. That might be it.
GRABER: Of course they’re not easy to find. We ordered a dozen different ones from Scott Farm in Vermont, they have 130 varietals they grow. Some of the apples were sharp and acidic, some were super sweet and floral, some had nutty notes to them. I particularly loved one called D’arcy Spice.
TWILLEY: I loved the D’Arcy Spice! I turned my apple delivery into a fun daily quiz game for my husband Geoff. My favorite was the day I had him try the Winter Banana apple and the Ananas Reinette—Ananas is French for pineapple.
TWILLEY: All right, we have two different apples here. Both of them, in fact, are named after different fruits. And your challenge that you do not get a choice about whether to accept or not is to tell me which fruit, which other fruit are they named after? So go.
GEOFF: All right. Apple number one. Let’s see what you’re named after, little guy. EATING Mm hmm. Very soft texture. Very creamy. It does taste very appley, though. I’m going to maybe, maybe say it’s a banana. EATING Let me try this other little guy. What are you little fella? EATING Mmmm. Much crisper. Very different. Mm hmm. I’m gonna say the first one, the little guy here, that’s a banana apple. And this other little fella is a pineapple apple.
GRABER: I’m impressed!
TWILLEY: And you are today’s grand winner.
GEOFF: Yes. Thank you. I want to thank my agent. I want to thank my manager. I want to thank the Academy.
TWILLEY: How about your wife?
GEOFF: Oh, I forgot about my wife.
GRABER: Tim has loved trying the different apples, too, and I think he’s settled on Roxbury Russet as the one he’s going to look for in local orchards from now on.
TWILLEY: But Tim and of course Dan Bussey, they’re not the only one looking for apples. Amy says there are people who make a career out of it.
TRAVERSO: My favorite apple detective is a guy named John Bunker. He will get, he will literally post wanted signs around the state with a description of an apple he’s heard of, but he can’t quite find, but you know, maybe he reads in an old notebook or hears from somebody that their grandfather grew this apple and they haven’t seen it in years. He’ll post wanted posters around the state. Or people will ask him to come to their farms and identify fruit that they, you know, that’s just been growing there forever. And they don’t know what variety it is. And he has really brought back varieties that were, you know, almost forgotten.
TWILLEY: The fun part of the orchard where Soham took you and Tim, Cynthia—some of those were trees that Soham bought from John Bunker. John has a nursery where you can buy some of these rescued long forgotten apple trees yourself.
GRABER: Soham ordered tannic cider apples from John, and those types of cider-apple apple trees are getting a lot of attention these days. Because the whole cider industry has kind of exploded since Soham got into it.
BHATT: Between 2014, 2013 and 2016, there was a big boom in the cider industry, in the United States at least. It went from a really small, you know, couple of million dollar industry to close to a billion dollar one almost overnight.
TWILLEY: This is the second coming of cider in America, but the same way apples aren’t American originally, nor is cider. Colonists brought apples over from Britain, like we said, and people there had figured how to make cider a long long time before they set sail for the Americas.
GRABER: But apples aren’t originally British, or even European. Apples themselves are originally from Kazakhstan, as we’ve also said. Seems logical that cider-making would be as old as apple growing. So we were wondering, did people there make cider too?
JAMES CROWDEN: No, they didn’t. This is the weird thing.
TWILLEY: James Crowden is the author of many books about cider. And he said a few years ago, some cider friends of his went to Kazakhstan to see whether there was any trace of cider-making, and surprisingly enough, there wasn’t.
CROWDEN: We scratched our heads and the general opinion was that because the Kazakhs were and still are, some of them nomadic, there was no way they could have made cider. Because you’d have to press it, you’d have to have machinery, you’d have to store it. And if you’re moving on, somebody would nick it.
GRABER: We don’t know exactly where and when the first cider was made—James says there’s some evidence that ancient Romans were making cider in Britain and northern Europe, where apples thrived and grapes didn’t do quite as well, but part of the problem is that the language is a little fuzzy.
CROWDEN: The terminology becomes a little confusing because the word “wine” was used for cider until at least 1650s, 1670s. So sometimes when they’re referring to wine, and you know, it’s not a wine area, they may well be referring to cider.
TWILLEY: The terminology cleared up in the 1600s, and in fact the 1600s was a big century for cider in the UK.
KENNEDY: So John Evelyn, who was a pretty prolific author and member of the Royal Society, a founder of the Royal Society. He is advocating for the planting of orchards specifically so that people can improve their agricultural practice on their estates, and contribute to this project that he lays out of having cider be the national wine of England.
GRABER: Maria says a bunch of rich noblemen at the time heeded his call. They had orchards, they had cider, they were all amateur scientists, and they started experimenting. They wanted to make the cider even better, even more refined. They wanted to make it into England’s national wine.
TWILLEY: And they had a vital technology to help them do that: A new stronger type of glass bottle, invented by another member of the Royal Society in 1628.
GRABER: Because here’s the thing. If you brew some cider in a barrel, it might get a very light sparkle on it. But once you put it in a strong bottle and shut the bottle tight, yeast can keep eating the sugar and farting out carbon dioxide, but instead of dissipating into the atmosphere, that CO2 can get trapped in the liquid. Plus the yeast also keep releasing even more flavor compounds. So the cider gets bubblier and more complex.
CROWDEN: So it’s the glass, which is the fundamental thing, the glass making. Without good, strong, dark, fairly ugly glass, you can’t have a secondary fermentation.
TWILLEY: But now the British had good strong ugly glass. And so they could make what we’d now call pet nat—this fizzier version of cider that has gone through a second fermentation in the bottle.
GRABER: But then some brilliant Brit or Brits, it’s not clear exactly who did this first, but somebody got the brilliant idea to put in some extra sugar in the cider before corking up the bottle. The sugar gave the yeast even more to snack on and so the resulting cider would be even bubblier and even more aromatic.
TWILLEY: James read us a couple of sentences from a book by yet another Royal Society member called Ralph Austen. James says this is the first written description of what we now call the méthode champenoise—the method for making champagne
CROWDEN: “This is the crunch, put into each bottle, a lump or two of hard sugar or sugar bruised.” So he’s writing in 1653. And there’s a second edition in 1657, and you’ve got it there: “Cider sugar, corks and bottles.”
GRABER: And it’s a good fifty years before the French monk Dom Perignon supposedly invented this exact same method to make champagne. James’s point is that the Brits did it first. The méthode champenoise—the champagne method—was actually invented in England, to make cider better.
TWILLEY: And the resulting sparkling, aromatic cider really was fit to be Britain’s national wine—at the time, a contemporary wrote that they had quote turned cider from an unregarded windy drink fit only for clowns and day laborers into a drink for kings, princes and lords.
CROWDEN: “I have tasted of it three years old, very pleasant, though dangerously strong. The color of it when fine is a sparkling yellow like canary of a good full body and oily. The taste like the flavor of perfume of excellent peaches. Very grateful to the palate and stomach. It comes into the glass not pale or troubled, but bright yellow with a speedy vanishing nittiness as the vintners call it which evaporates with a sparkling and whizzing noise.”
TWILLEY: That sounds delicious. And of course I am very proud that my people and not the French are the inventors of the méthode champenoise. But this fine wine version of cider—it doesn’t sound anything like the horrible super fizzy sweet stuff I grew up drinking to excess as a teen in the UK.
GRABER: That’s because James says after a few hundred years of glory, cider turned bad.
CROWDEN: Cider was very popular, from 1650s onward, and only really fell out of favor when the breweries became bigger and bigger.
TWILLEY: Part of why it fell out of favor, especially after the Second World War, was that cider and beer and really everything started being made out of the cheapest ingredients possible.
CROWDEN: They had to keep up with the cheapening of beer both with its content and with its quality. And with its production. Anyway, the long and short of it was they started using apple concentrate in the 60s, they also started using glucose or maize corn syrup, which was a way of getting the sugar.
GRABER: And that led to cider’s demise.
TWILLEY: The demise, followed by the resurgence. Which was too late for teen me, sadly, but a little ahead of the US—James says things started to look up for cider in the UK in the early 2000s, and now there’s a whole craft cider renaissance in the UK too.
GRABER: Cider’s been doing pretty well, and as I’ve discovered over the past few years of extensive tasting here in Massachusetts, there are a lot of really delicious ciders around. Soham makes many different kinds. Including one that isn’t for sale yet—it’s basically a cider champagne, just like what James was describing, and it’s made entirely from Roxbury Russet apples, the ones that are the oldest in America.
GLASS, POURING FIZZY DRINK
GRABER: It’s like pear champagne to me. Even though it’s made of apples. LAUGHS
TIM: And it’s got this sort of woodiness to it. It’s, it’s sort of like, hay bales and dry fruit.
GRABER: Wow. It’s so interesting. It’s fantastic.
TWILLEY: Soham does make a bunch of pretty sweet and apple-y ciders at Artifact, because that’s what people are used to, but increasingly, he’s making funkiers things like that Roxbury Russet champagne you tried, Cynthia.
GRABER: Or ones that are more tannic. I loved a cider you can buy in cans called Wolf at the Door, it reminded me of the cider they make in northern Spain. It’s super funky, and really delicious.
BHATT: It started out as a, let’s say, a cider of rebellion. I kind of got sick of making the juicy stuff, even though, you know, I’m proud of it. But I wanted to make kind of a cider maker’s cider. And that’s the kind of stuff right out of a tank. Just bone dry. Give it to me straight. As much tannin I can get. That’s the kind of stuff that we like.
GRABER: I totally love it, but Soham says it’s the kind of cider that a lot of new cider drinkers have to be trained up to.
TWILLEY: And Soham says, it’s still early days for the new American cider scene. Even though there’s been this huge boom, it’s still totally tiny in the overall alcohol universe. He says just one or two out of every hundred drinks bought in the US is cider—maybe a little more in New England.
GRABER: But because it’s small but growing, it means there’s a lot of space for trying things out.
KENNEDY: There’s this profusion of experimentation in the United States. Maybe that’s the thing that makes it stand out more than anything else, is that people are willing to try anything.
GRABER: This is one of the things I love about cider—it’s like wine, it can taste like so many different things. People add hops for a citrusy bitter note, they try out lots of different kinds of yeasts.
KENNEDY: I mean, the willingness to experiment is just limitless. And the willingness to try different kinds of apples and different kinds of fruit and different kinds of fermenting and production technologies.
TWILLEY: Soham learned his craft by copying British cidermakers and French and Spanish cider traditions. But now he’s focused on figuring out what a Massachusetts cider should taste like—which apples, pressed which way, aged and fermented how? There are so many possibilities.
BHATT: You know, this is a ten year project. So in a decade or so, I can hopefully tell you that we’ve made a cider truly of place. I think we’re still figuring it out, which is the exciting part of it. It’s like I’m looking ahead at the gulf, you know. And I, it’s like the whole world is still in front of us.
GRABER: This is a bold vision, but he needs drinkers, and that’s why he makes a wide variety of ciders. The sweeter appley-er ones are meant to ease in new drinkers, but I knew that wouldn’t work for you, Nicky. So we asked Soham what to do.
BHATT: Well, I think that, I think you need a kind of cider shaman. It would be like trying to ask how to get into wine. And I think the only thing I can say is, the only way you’ll get into it is by trying it and seeing what you like and what you don’t like.
TWILLEY: Soham put a bunch of his ciders in the mail to me—some ones you can buy and some ones you can’t and even some you didn’t get to try Cynthia, just so I wouldn’t feel too left out. And so I got to work. But I didn’t want to drink alone, so I once again press-ganged Geoff into service, even though he is also not a cider fan.
TWILLEY: What are we gonna do?
GEOFF: I believe we’re gonna try some ciders.
TWILLEY: How do you feel about that?
GEOFF: A little apprehensive, but excited.
GRABER: And so, million dollar question, have you been converted? One of my absolute favorites Soham sent me home with is one that isn’t out yet, it’s called Secret Squirrel, which is a joke because his colleagues say he squirrels away all the fun new ciders he’s working on. Did you try it?
TWILLEY: I got to that bottle on night three of the great cider conversion project. Geoff had dropped out by this point and returned to his preferred beverages, beer and wine. But I was determined to get on this sophisticated cider train now I’m a grown up.
TWILLEY: So I have Secret Squirrel here, which I have high hopes. POUR It is darker and not as fizz. I mean, I like a fizz, but…. But this is definitely. This is definitely my favorite so far. It’s still a little… honestly a little kind of vinegary or a kombucha note that I am not crazy about. But on a hot summer’s day. You know? I could be convinced.
GRABER: We still have work ahead, but I’ll take that. I know that so many of you listeners right now are yelling at us—what about all the new apples with those super explosive names like Cosmic Crisp and Galactic Crisp? Don’t you worry, we’ve got you covered—at least if you’re a Gastropod Superfan because that is in our Superfan newsletter! gastropod.com/support.
TWILLEY: That plus like we said a video of bear cubs eating apples that is this season’s must-watch TV. And thanks to all of you who do support the show—this year of all years, it is making all the difference.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Soham Bhatt, of Artifact Cider Project, Amy Traverso, author of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, Michael Pollan, author of many books including The Botany of Desire.
TWILLEY: Dan Bussey, apple detective and author of The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada, folklorist Maria Kennedy, James Crowden, author of Ciderland and other books. We have links to all their books and drinks and work on our website gastropod dot com, as well as a link to the farm where we bought our apples, in case you want to do an apple tasting of your own!
GRABER: Thanks as always to superstar Gastropod fellow Sonja Swanson. And to the Sloan Foundation for their support of our coverage of science and technology.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with something much more savory. Literally.