October 2, 2016

Prof Researches Apple Production in ‘Fast-Growing’ Hard Cider Industry

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The hard cider industry has grown in popularity over the last six years — and more than 850 percent in the United States, according to Prof. Gregory Peck, horticulture, who has been researching and improving hard cider production for the past four years.

Since arriving at Cornell as a tree fruit scientist in 2015, Peck has dealt mostly with sustainable fruit production — researching soil management, orchard management and organic production systems. He and his team, consisting of two graduate students, work hand in hand with apple growers, researching the orchard side of production.

“The goal is to find the optimal growing conditions for these trees in order to produce the kinds of apples the hard cider industry is looking for,” Peck said.

Although any apple can be used to create hard cider, there is a range of quality based on the type of apple, according to Peck. Dessert apples and culinary apples — such as Granny Smith apples — create acidic, sharp-tasting cider.

However, most growing hard cider apples tend to harvest more complex apples that are not palatable to eat. Peck said when these apples are fermented, they mix well with alcohol and create a desirable taste.

Peck said hard cider apple growers look for apples that have tannins — a chemical compound that adds “bitterness” and “astringency.” Once fermented, the tannins create what cider and wine makers call “mouthfeel.”

“[Mouthfeel] is when the product lingers longer when you taste it, adding a layer of complexity,” he said.

Traditional cider apples were more common in Europe, but as the industry grew, many apple farmers in the United States have decided to start harvesting these specialized apples as well, according to Peck.

Creating hard cider offers apple growers another avenue of profit for their product, Peck said. He added that the hard cider industry is the “fastest growing segment of the alcohol beverage market.”

While hard cider apple farmers have to address issues of apple disease resistance and storage life, their main problem is crop consistency, according to Peck.

“Many European cider varieties have a biennial bearing habit, which means that one year they have a lot of fruit and the next year no fruit at all,” he said. “[The biennial bearing habit] makes it hard for cider producers to use specific cider varieties when they only yield fruit every other year.”

Peck explained that he uses resources from many upstate New York facilities to conduct his research. He added that he is currently receiving funding from the New York State Apple Growers.

Peck also works for the Cornell Cooperative Extension program, where has taught workshops, held tours of apple farms and research centers and presented his research to many commercial growers.

He said he plans to continue researching and hopes his work will benefit apple farmers around the world.

In honor of Ithaca’s annual Apple Harvest Festival, Peck and his research assistants hosted a cider tasting on Oct. 2 at the Cornell Orchards from noon to four p.m. The public was able to mix different varieties of cider blends to create their own drink.