The Flavor of 22 Heirloom Apples, Reviewed

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

We recently praised the flavor of Chestnut crab apples in our weekly Hot Five list. Peter Gillitzer of Milk and Honey Ciders spotted the post and sent us a note: He’d made an ice cider using those apples, and could he stop by and offer us a taste?

Yes, we said. Absolutely. The stuff was delicious, and it got us talking with Gillitzer about the galaxy of flavors, colors, and textures housed under the umbrella term “apple.” As non-cider-making civilians, we’re certainly aware that apples come in a few varieties — some better for pie, some better for eating, some the premium-priced Honeycrisp — but beyond that, it gets fuzzy. Fuji or Gala? Zestar or Red Delicious? Is the range really all that great?

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Last week, Gillitzer brought us a box of 22 different varieties — a scant sampling of the massive crate he receives annually from Eastman’s Antique Apples in Michigan — so that we could plunge in and taste this stuff for ourselves.

Eastman’s has an estimated 1,500 apple varieties, so we just scratched the surface of the surface of the surface here. The quick takeaway is this:

We, the general public, know nothing about the incredible potential of this fruit. Many obscure varieties have strange, enthralling, wonderful stories to tell, and they will never get the exposure they deserve until people start demanding weird apples.

The long takeaway (see below) is a collection of tasting notes on the 22 varieties, which include a few Gillitzer couldn’t identify. You may not be able to find all (or any? of these varieties on a regular basis, but they are listed here, regardless — a thumbnail glance at the potential of antique fruit. (For another story along these lines, read our profile of Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery.)

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Apple #1 (Yellow Bellflower): Tart and bright with firm flesh and big cells containing a ton of juice. This was one of the few straightforward eating apples in the bunch, and we savored it.

Apple #2 (Grimes Golden): The smallest core we’ve ever seen in an apple. Semifirm, with a sweet and spicy flavor — evocative of nutmeg and white pepper, with a sharp bite at the finish and a touch of numbing astringency.

Apple #3 (Dabinett): Soft without being mealy. We found the Dabinett to have a pronounced bitter finish, a “soapy” quality, and a black currant or mild pineapple flavor — which is to say both tart and earthy.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Apple #4 (Twenty Ounce): We figured that a huge apple would have a mild flavor, but not at all. The suitably named Twenty Ounce had a bold, tart, grapelike flavor with an earthy, musty, peachy finish. Quite a rollercoaster.

Apple #5 (Rusty Coat): The pear-like skin of the Rusty Coat conceals a — surprise! — pear-like interior. Its flesh is pleasingly firmer than a typical pear with an additional note of honey. Absolutely delicious, overall.

Apple #6 (Spice Russet): Tart and clean in flavor, not bitter, with a moderate amount of sugar.

Apple #7 (Coley): Tannic but mild overall, with a bit of earthiness.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Apple #8 (Knobbed Russet): The ugly, scarred exterior of this apple concealed an acidic finish and a complex, lychee-like fruitiness.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Apple #9 (Wickson Crab): Hands down our favorite of the bunch. Super high acid with a profoundly cherrylike flavor, these crabs were juicy, firm, and packed with flavor. A real delight.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Apple #10 (Jonathan): A bit mealy, with tart skin and a dramatic red interior. This guy was as neutral as they come, and really juicy. It could definitely moderate and even out a cider with edges that were too sharp.

Apple #11 (Iowa Snow): Really sweet with a pineapple-ish note of brightness and a pleasing, tart firmness.

Apple #12 (Etter’s Gold): Can you combine “floral” and “bomb” in tasting notes? We’re going to do it here: This thing was like being run over by a parade float bedecked in peonies and red grapes. An astringent finish was a startling conclusion to this tale.

Apple #13 (Shinko): Tons of sugar and floral notes in this apple, and a nice dry finish.

Apple #14 (?): A super-sweet finish, mealy flesh, and a tart middle made this apple a bit of an enigma. Bland overall, and not astringent. We wanted a little more definition from this guy.

Apple #15 (?): A floral, lemony flavor was at the heart of this mystery apple, which had super-soft, mealy flesh, and a generally soft-spoken nature.

Apple #16 (Stayman Winesap): The turn-to-paste texture of this apple couldn’t be more off-putting from an eating perspective, but the flavor was divine — gentle and floral, evocative of violets.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

Apple #17 (Calville Blanc d’Hiver): This thing tasted like a wonderful natural rendition of a Sour Patch Kid — a big bold flavor bomb, with a tartness that builds and builds.

Apple #18 (Kingston Black): Spongy and soft, with a perfumed flavor and undertones of clementines.

Apple #19 (?): Cute as the dickens, this semisoft little guy offered up little flavor beyond its bitter skin.

Apple #20 (Adams Pearmain): Sweet skin, a semicrisp texture, and a honeyed, slightly tannic flavor made this apple a class act.

Apple #21 (Golden Russet): The rough texture of this apple hides a sweet potato meets marshmallows meets honey interior. Sweet and earthy all at once.

Apple #22 (Yarlington Mill, not pictured): Sweet and honey-kissed with a neutral effect overall, and a skin that was a bit bitter.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

BONUS: Our Ten Favorite Apple Names from the Giant Box Received by Milk and Honey Ciders

10. Spike Anderson
9. Von Zuccalmaglio’s Reinette
8. Horneburger Pfannkuchen (Pancake)
7. Newton Wonder
6. Fieldstone Spy
5. King of the Pippins
4. Pasha Gmasha
3. Caney Fork Limbertwig
2. Stark Jumbo
1. Westfield Seek-No-Further

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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3 Comments

  1. Bridget 11/04/2015 Reply

    I love this. I think a great harvest party would be an apple tasting!

  2. J.M.earley 11/04/2015 Reply

    iI have tasted most of these apples right off the tree. You should try them right off the tree. Lovely and interesting tasting notes…

  3. Janae LeBar 11/05/2015 Reply

    I have picked and tasted these apples and they are beautiful and delicious.

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