Single Variety Cider: The Kingston Black Apple Shows Its Character

kb1There is a case to be made that the Kingston Black apple is the King of Cider Apples. It has long been recognized as one of the few apple varieties that possesses the requisite levels of tannins, acidity and sugar to create an outstanding cider without blending juice from different apple varieties.

This begs the question, what can be expected of a cider that is produced from and labeled as 100% Kingston Black? This was the question myself and a collection of excellent cider palates set out to explore recently when we all sat down to taste 13 different Kingston Black ciders produced from around the globe.

Classed as a “Bittersharp”, the Kingston Black possess both good amounts of tannins and acid and appears relatively small and darkish red. It has been a staple in English cider orchards since at least the beginning of the 19th century and has always been prized by cidermakers.

Though I can’t confirm this, it is reasonable to conclude today that the Kingston Black is the most common apple used to make a single variety cider.

What I was looking for in tasting through these 13 ciders was a thread of common characteristics that ran through all the ciders we tasted. Perhaps a common aroma or flavor profile or texture. I was looking for something distinctive that would help me create expectations for ciders I knew were made with a large percentage of Kingston Black or exclusively with Kingston Black apples.

What I concluded was this: There is little that can be said about the aromatic or flavor profile of Kingston Black ciders, while on the other hand nearly all the ciders we tasted had a very nice balance of acids and tannins. What is important to note is this: though there was no commonality among the aromas and flavors delivered up by these 13 Kingston Black ciders, this does not necessarily mean that Kingston Black apples are not prepared to deliver up a common flavor and aromatic profile. Rather, it means that cidermakers are not consistent in the way they handle their cidermaking. This should not be a surprise.KB apple

My conclusions also say nothing about the impact of terroir of place of origin and the characteristics of the Kingston Black ciders. In order to determine what kind of expectations one ought to have from Kingston Black cider produced from Finger Lake, West County, or Sonoma-grown apples, one would have to study a number of ciders produced from individual regions. And we did not do this.

However, consider that despite the variation in the origin of the ciders we tasted (Sonoma County, Oregon, Maryland, New York, England), the ciders most definitely displayed generally excellent balance, structure and texture.

My favorite examples of Kingston Black cider from the tasting included:

Sheppy’s Kingston Black (Somerset): Beautiful structure with sweeter and underripe apple notes, a touch of barnyard and grassy notes

Whetstone Ciderworks Kingston Black (Vermont): Ripe apple and citrus notes with a hint of funk on the nose, with a beautiful tannin/acid balance that carries along the unripe apple, citrus and earthy flavors

Farnum Hill 2013 Kingston Black Reserve (New Hampshire): A more acid driven Kingston Black with nice finishing tannins that all wraps around aromas of cooked/saucy apple and sweet spice aromas leading to flavors of cooked apple, lemon and earth

Tilted Shed Kingston Black (Sonoma County): Lifted and fresh sweet apple aromas, clove and hints of funk on the nose. Dense and rich flavors of cooked apple, slightly bitter notes and hints of wood with a beautiful balanced texture.

Slyboro Kingston Black (New York): Bright ripe apple and lime aromas. Dried apple flavors, hints of bitterness and a touch of woodiness. Very good tannin/acid balance with a long finish

Cider Riot Kingston Black (Oregon): Complex aromatic notes of cooked apple, Grand Marnier liqueur, sweet spice notes. Cooked apple flavors are sustained by a big tannic structure.

Redbyrd Orchard Kingston Black (New York): Baked apple and nutmeg aromatics, leading to tart apple flavors, big citrus notes and hints of the barn. Acid driven structure with supporting tannin.

The future of single variety ciders and of Kingston Black ciders is likely a limited one. The limiting factor is access. Cider apples remain in relatively short supply despite the increase in cider apple plantings over the past five years. In addition, the market for such well delineated ciders is limited to the Hyper Cider Geek wanting to explore something different.

However, the exploration of single variety ciders by curious and conscientious cidermakers is critical to the industry, particularly in the United States. Understanding how individual apples react to different terroirs only advances the critical knowledge serious producers must build to better understand how to produce better and more interesting ciders.

10 Responses to “Single Variety Cider: The Kingston Black Apple Shows Its Character”

  1. Darlene Hayes

    I glad that you got so much out of the Kingston Black tasting that I put together, Tom. It took quite a lot of time and effort on my part to source and obtain examples from so many cider makers across the country, and I am very grateful to those that have been willing to talk with me about their orchards and cider making practices as well as sending me away with cider. I’m also grateful to you and the others that could spend an afternoon tasting them with me. I’m still accumulating information, but in the end I believe that we’ll be able make some general statements about terroir and how it affects this apple.

    Reply
    • Larry Harrison

      Excited by your comments about terroir, as I think Kingston Black might be particularly sensitive to the location of the tree. I grew one KB for a number of years here in Yorkshire (England) and did not get the flavours I hoped for, whereas Yarlington Mill (bitter-sweet) grown on the same ground is superb. I know of no systematic study of cider apple terroir, and will follow your work with interest.

      Reply
  2. Natalie Porter

    Interesting stuff! I’m new to ciders and the apples that make them up but very eager to learn all that I can. I’m a central Illinoisan and have had some luck finding less common – heirloom apples but this isn’t really a hot spot for apple growers. I wonder how many of the flavor profiles are carried from raw Kingston Black apples.

    Reply
    • Darlene Hayes

      Much of the flavor undoubtedly comes from fermentation products. That being said, I did have a couple of raw apples grown in two quite different parts of the country. One tasted distinctly of orange, which all noted in the cider from that maker; the other was more tart and spicy. The people that grew that one didn’t make a Kingston Black last year, but one could discern similar flavors in a cider made not far from them.

      Reply
  3. tomwark

    Darlene:

    Easily one of the most interesting and useful cider tastings I’ve ever done. I’ll be interested to see what you can conclude about terroir from the tasting. I’m not sure we had a representative example of ciders from any region to make an informed judgement. Additionally, there are issues of harvest date and cidermaking procedures that can too easily skew things. That said, understanding how terroir impacts apples and character is the holy grail.

    Tom…

    Reply
  4. Bill Lyon

    I think it’ll take me a while to digest this… And I’m interested to hear what Darlene Hayes comes up with too… But right now I’m reminded of a 1990’s study that tried to determine which programming language was the most efficient, or had the “best” performance. Turns out that the skill of the programmer (in terms of algorithms and data structures) trumped, by far, the choice of language. That is, a good programmer using a crappy language still usually came out on top.

    So, you tasted ciders from a pretty impressive group of “programmers”. Maybe their techniques end up overwhelming any common aromas/flavors or terroir-driven differences? Maybe the actual apple doesn’t matter that much – aside from getting the balance right? Maybe..

    But no, at least not always … because I keep thinking about SV McIntosh ciders.

    Reply
  5. Kate

    I’m jealous! Kingston Black single varietals are quite rare, as the apples are rare, and I’ve been told cidermakers find it cost prohibitive to make a SV. I’ve only been able to sample one so far (from Whitewood, which was amazing) and picked up a bottle (from Dragon’s Head) which I haven’t opened yet.

    Reply
  6. Hugh

    I love a good Kingston Black cider. I cant think of any Aussie examples. Single variety ciders are a great way show off a technique or a terrior. Wine has been doing it for years, their must be a loyal niche market for this type of product.

    Reply
  7. Magnus

    Rather, it means that cidermakers are not consistent in the way they handle their cidermaking. This should not be a surprise.

    Or

    “Your results may vary” Which is an excellent thing. It means we can be pleasantly surprised.

    Reply

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