The best apple you've never had is out there. Somewhere.
It's not the tough and tangy Granny Smith. It's not the Honeycrisp, the de rigueur dessert apple of the 21st century. And it's definitely not that rubbery Red Delicious, loitering year-round in your supermarket produce aisle.
Instead, this transcendent orb is unassuming, mottled, and misshapen, its flesh dense and mouth-puckering — what orchardists affectionately refer to as a "spitter." But when pressed and fermented, it could blossom into liquid gold. With time and expertise, its nectar could become as layered and as nuanced as the great wines of France's Loire Valley.
At least that's what Shacksbury co-founder and cider maker Colin Davis is telling me as we careen around blind corners and gun down half-finished roads in Cornwall, Vermont, a rural hamlet 40 miles south of Burlington. For years, Davis has been consumed by the hunt for a possibly apocryphal apple known as the Tinmouth. In the 1905 book The Apples of New York — still considered the bible for self-proclaimed "apple geeks" like Davis — legendary horticulturist Spencer Ambrose Beach described the Tinmouth as "sprightly" and "peculiar" tasting. But today, that vague characterization is all that remains of the forgotten fruit; about a century ago it mysteriously vanished from New England, and therefore from the world.
Finding the Tinmouth, and other lost species of cider apples, is a large part of Shacksbury's business. As Davis steers us through fields of sugar maples and other deciduous trees, it's hard to make out anything distinguishable in the gnarled overgrowth, let alone a grubby, golf-ball-size apple. We've been here once before: About a month ago, Davis brought me along with a small group of friends to a hidden, overgrown grove of wild apples — located deep in the woods on private land — that looked suspiciously like Tinmouths. We have no idea if we'll be able to find it again — but this time, Davis has brought reinforcements.
Hard cider is the fastest-growing category of alcoholic beverage in the United States; it's projected to become a billion-dollar industry within the next several years. Until now, most of that growth has been driven by mass-appeal megabrands such as Woodchuck and Boston Beer Co.'s Angry Orchard, which tend to favor saccharine ciders made from common dessert apples like the McIntosh.
Despite the lure of easy profit, Davis and his business partner, David Dolginow, have never tried to capitalize on the lucrative sweet-cider trend. Instead, they've embarked on a far more ambitious — if not quixotic — quest for perfection. Their goal with Shacksbury, and with the company's offshoot, the Lost Apple Project, is essentially to bring America's greatest apples back from the dead, scouring Vermont roadsides and pastures for forgotten strains that once lined the roads of Colonial New England.
Like Sangiovese grapes in Tuscany, or pinot noir in Burgundy, apples such as the Tinmouth typically thrive in a single region. That's why Dolginow sees New England — and its once vaunted concentration of the world's greatest apples — as, potentially, the cider-making equivalent of Napa Valley.
It's difficult to fathom how important the apple was to early America. Today, industrial-scale farming has squelched biodiversity, so that the broader market is dominated by just six varieties: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Granny Smith, and McIntosh. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, American nurseries cataloged more than 16,000 different named apples, and as many as 7,500 American varieties. Apple trees were everywhere — particularly in New England, where they were used to mark property lines. Sugar was still a luxury good then, and apples sated the colonists' sweet tooth. But far more important, most apples were grown to make America's national beverage: hard cider.
Up until Prohibition, Michael Pollan wrote in The Botany of Desire, in rural areas "cider took the place not only of wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water." It's easy to see why: Until the 1900s, most water was contaminated with bacteria. Beyond issues of sanitation, cider was America's homegrown answer to wine — our native grapes weren't sweet enough to ferment. And just like European wines, American ciders could be incredibly complex, even nuanced — that's why Thomas Jefferson grew cider apples at Monticello, where Hewes Crabs are kept to this day.
Cider, not snacking, was the real reason John Chapman — better known as Johnny Appleseed — was flinging seeds and setting up nurseries through the Ohio Valley and the Midwest in the early 1800s. Growing apples is easy, but cultivating a tree that bears palatable fruit is rare. Most of the chance seedlings that germinated in Chapman's wake weren't fit for his tin-pot hat — but they were plenty suited for a decent quaff, or even a nip of applejack. In fact, Chapman couldn't possibly have known what he was growing. Apples are extremely heterozygous, meaning each seed contains the genetic makeup for a completely new and different type of apple tree. If you were to plant a seed from a McIntosh apple, the one thing you could be sure of is that the sapling it produced wouldn't be a McIntosh tree.
That's why apple farmers focus on the stem, not the seed. When Shacksbury growers find a choice wildling — a wild apple tree, out in the brush — that they want to duplicate, they have to cut a scion, a branch with buds, and graft it onto the rootstock of an existing apple tree. This is, essentially, the art of cloning. The technique hasn't changed significantly in hundreds of years, and it requires a skill that, even today, wows its practitioners. "The fact that you can take one stick, wrap it in grafting putty to this other stick, and they grow together…it's a tiny miracle," Dolginow says.
Early colonists had the foresight to bring over scions of their favorite European trees, but many of the grafts failed in the harsh New England climate. The millions of seeds they planted, on the other hand, flourished in their new home. Some 7,500 new varieties took root — several times what Europe had produced in 3,000 years of cultivation. In the colonies, apple farmers identified the best of the new seedling trees, then grafted and propagated them in nurseries. The first of these distinguished new American cultivars, the Roxbury Russet, was discovered just outside of Boston in 1645.
Thanks to a perfect storm of seed and soil, the golden age of apples had arrived. By the mid-19th century, Americans were achieving fame and fortune just by finding the next Red Delicious or Grimes Golden. It was an era some called, appropriately enough, the Great Apple Rush. Unfortunately for the apple, the rush didn't last. Soon, beer and wine surged in popularity, Prohibitionist Carrie Nation's hatchet came calling, and grocery chains began demanding monocropped uniformity. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the apple had been reduced to a few baking varieties — the sweetest, shiniest, most lipstick-red among the thousands.
Elevated by industrial demand, these dessert apples choked out some of the most exquisite cider apples ever recorded. Unique specimens that could thrive only in New England were driven to the brink of extinction. In places like rural Vermont, a few hardy stragglers were swallowed up again by the forests, forgotten except for their names.
Apple foragers rely on a combination of rough forensic evidence, historical data — some of it available only in ancient nursery catalogs, old newspaper articles, books like Beach's out-of-print tome — and even some educated word of mouth. It's more Sherlock Holmes than James Watson.
As it happens, word of mouth is why we're all racing around Tinmouth today, on 500 idyllic acres owned by Adam Guettel, an ardent conservationist and Tony Award–winning composer and lyricist. (His grandfather was Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame.) The tip, Guettel told us, came from a "Washington Irving–type character" named Marshall Squier, a local farmer whose family has been in Tinmouth for generations. Squier believes that the town's once-famous apple resides somewhere in a wild orchard on Guettel's land.
Ryan Yoder, a wild-eyed farmer from neighboring Danby, has heard the rumors as well. Five years ago, he spotted some feral trees on the Tinmouth property, then spent more than a year tracking Guettel down in Manhattan, hoping to harvest the fruit for his cider-vinegar business. He's been here before and hopefully can lead us back to the old orchard. And this time out, Davis has brought along Windfall Orchard's Brad Koehler. A sweet-cider maker and horticulturist, Koehler grows dozens of ancient heirloom varieties in Cornwall — including one called the Windfall Golden.
After about 30 minutes, we come across our first stand of unpruned apple trees, and our ragtag party begins picking samples from the rough rows of budding fruit. Tasting is a major step in identifying wild trees, so no branch goes unplucked. Yoder bites into a particularly vegetal sample that smacks of asparagus and immediately spits it out, chucking the half-eaten orb into the brush.
Tree after tree reveals some variation of a McIntosh or Rhode Island Greening — good apples on any other day. But Koehler, our resident expert, is growing increasingly frustrated. "This is why they say in our field that finding an apple like [the Tinmouth] is a 10,000-to-1 proposition," he says. "It almost never happens."
Ahead in the distance, we hear Yoder hollering, "This way!" and the rest of the party takes off in a dead sprint. Davis and I find our way blocked by a wall of vegetation so dense and nettlesome that it seems impenetrable without some sort of heavy machinery. After squirming through a brambly tunnel, we emerge onto a muddy, blue-black clearing. Even on a sunny August afternoon, the panorama is shadowy, hushed, and cool. Errant shafts of sunlight break through foliage high overhead, framing a tree larger than any of the others we've seen on Guettel's property. Its brawny trunk looks like three trees entwined as one. "This is the old orchard I was telling you guys about," Yoder says.
Koehler spots one of the few apples at eye level and gingerly extracts it, careful not to let it escape into the dead foliage crackling beneath his feet. "This is definitely the most promising thing we've seen all day," he says. "See how it has a matte finish and just a little bit of russeting?" He pierces the apple with his front incisors and shuts his eyes in contemplation. Then he takes another bite, and another, until he's gnawing it to its core. "The flavor seems right!" he cheers.
Yoder and Davis immediately drop to their knees and begin searching the underbrush for their own Tinmouth as Koehler barks at us to find more specimens — but all of them appear to be dangling about two stories over our heads. Overjoyed as a prospector in sight of gold, Yoder shimmies up the tree and steadies himself on a high branch. The limb groans under his weight, showering loose bark and debris. He crawls on his belly to a small parcel of apples and carefully shakes them free.
We scramble for the fallen apples. This is the moment we've all been waiting for. But no sooner do I bite into mine than Koehler lets out a devastated sigh. He's found the faintest streak of pink curving down the shoulder of one of the tree's apples.
For a few pained seconds, we all stare at one another, slack-jawed and confused. "What?" Davis asks. Koehler breaks the damning news: Regardless of the season, the Tinmouth would never have a hue other than green or yellow.
The silence is palpable. I watch as Yoder, Koehler, and finally the Shacksbury founders slowly walk single file out of this secret garden until we find ourselves at the base of the hill peering up at the red barn where our journey began.
"So how disappointed are you?" I ask. Davis shields his eyes from the punishing sun and looks back at me with his toothy, infectious smile. "Oh, we'll keep looking," he says. "The search will never end."
First published in Boston magazine, October 2015. Copyright © 2015 Metro Corp. Reproduced with permission.