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biennial blessings

Posted by Michael Phillips 
biennial blessings
December 23, 2020 07:53PM
A grower out in British Columbia asked me about including Baldwin in his cider orchard. This heirloom variety has a strong tendency to bear a decent crop only every other year no matter what you do thinning-wise or choice of rootstock. My consulting advice verbatim:

The biennial bearing factor should not be so relevant to a cider maker, in my opinion. An apple like Baldwin that gives a phenomenal crop every other year that you in turn are putting in a bottle with shelf life is an apple worth having. You are going to find other wonderful cider apples have a biennial tendency without aggressive thinning... but all you need to do is not thin so much and live with it! There's no rule handed down by the cider gods that if a tree doesn't crop every year that you in turn made some kind of mistake in planning your orchard.

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire
Re: biennial blessings
December 25, 2020 03:34AM
There are so many moving parts to factor that I don't know what to say, but you are absolutely right that a good cider will last for years so annual production is not an issue - It could theoretically even out. (Luckily, this is one issue in which the nature of cider supports the nature of apple trees because Lord knows we tend to make it more complicated than that!)

I, personally, love the tides between big and little years, but I struggle with allowing myself to take the year off like the trees. Its those damn artificial pressures Man has created! But even if I can’t escape our self-created prison of steady work and production, I think there’s important and great value simply in acknowledging that our demands on the trees and on ourselves is unnatural.

In the end, that doesn’t help in this decision at all, except that sometimes we gotta go against what makes sense. If the grower in question really wanted Baldwins but market pressures were against them, I would lean in favor of doing what you want. It might not make the most sense, but it does make some sense.

Andrew Brennan
Aaron Burr Cidery
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Wurtsboro, NY
Lower Hudson Valley
Zone 5a
Re: biennial blessings
January 08, 2021 09:40AM
I will first speak to the value of Baldwin as a cider apple. It grows quite large and healthy fruit for us here in WA , just south of BC, so a similar climate. It ripens quite late, early November in 2020 and is a very good culinary apple. However, it does not have much tanin or interesting aromatics. I know it is a traditional cider variety but I've been contemplating top grafting to another more interesting cider apple. We sell to a cider maker who mostly has dessert apples available and our apples add a lot of value to the mix.

Most of our trees are biennial and I don't mind that. As it has turned out, our harvest each year is pretty close in volume, the trees take their turns each year and it has balanced out the work load pretty evenly. The trees that bear annually are very much in the minority. Some of our biennial trees are starting to have a light crop in their off year, The amazing loads of fruit in the "on" years is really astonishing!

Vista Ridge Orchard
Zone 8a in Washington
235 Cider and heritage apple trees, 72 varieties,
Re: biennial blessings
January 25, 2021 06:01PM
I took a cider business and marketing class some years ago as I was getting ready to begin licensed production. One of the speakers said to forget about trying both to grow apples and make cider--that to make cider and money (or money and cider) one had to bring juice in from growers rather than spend time in an orchard growing just the right apples you wanted for cider. I think that is correct advice if you want to make money from commercial cider sold in a can. But if you want to make beautiful, elegant cider that derives its identify and flavor from the very apples in it, the only way to go is with apples you grow (unless you have access to small volumes of single variety juice). That a Baldwin is heavily biennial is not a barrier to planting if you otherwise like what it does for your cider. I don't have any experience growing it or using it in cider. I like eating it. And I like making cider from the extraordinary diversity of apples we're lucky to have and given a chance to make cider from some Baldwins, I probably would.

Good cider in bottles keeps and keeps. I'm still selling cider made with apples picked in 2016 and bottled in 2017. And I haven't made any Pitts' Bitter for two years because the combination of trees (seedlings and Stayman-like late apples) has not aligned correctly. Unless you heavily invest in dwarf trees and hyper-manage an orchard, you're always going to have significant variations in production from tree to tree and year to year, as Karen says. And a blessing as Michael says. It's how the trees tell you they need a break, a respite, a breath, some space. I've an old homestead orchard on Colorado's western slope I'm lucky to forage apples from and at this point in its life I'm lucky to get a biennial crop and thus feel twice blessed in a year like 2020 when all the stars align and it yields a bumper crop of apples. Next year will certainly be different and I look forward to whatever opportunity the orchards give me.
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