The Hunt for the Tinmouth Apple
The ancient apple has the power to transform New England into the Napa Valley of hard cider…if only we can find it.
The best apple you’ve never had is out there. Somewhere.
It’s not the tough and tangy Granny Smith, beloved by the Beatles and surrealist painter René Magritte. 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. Maybe even Champagne.
At least that’s what Shacksbury cofounder 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. Considering the steep inclines and rolling hills, not to mention Davis’s unflinching lead foot, I immediately start to question my guide’s choice in vehicles. His matchbox-size Honda Fit is woefully unsuited for the rugged terrain, each divot and deer track jolting our legs up through the floorboards. A plastic Kansas City Royals travel mug is doing pirouettes in the cup holder, its murky contents sloshing angrily, just waiting to extricate itself in a dramatic baptism of my face and lap.
For years, Davis has been consumed by the hunt for a possibly apocryphal apple known as the Tinmouth. In his 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 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. But Davis keeps leaning across to point out promising wildlings, which, to my untrained eyes, look like everyday brush. 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. In fact, Davis is quite certain of it. We have no idea if we’ll be able to find it again—but this time, Davis has brought reinforcements. So if we can find the old orchard, Davis is sure he’ll be able to definitively identify whether these are, indeed, the apples he’s been searching for.
On a typical apple-hunting adventure—one with less urgency than this—Davis will pull over, yank an apple from its knotty branches, and chomp down. Taste-testing the fruit is the best way to see if it’s of the bittersweet variety, which Davis says has an “extra dimension” not found in most commercial ciders. Hard cider is the fastest-growing category of alcoholic beverages 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 mega-brands such as Woodchuck and Boston Beer Company’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 in particular 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 and property lines 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. By that analogy, Shacksbury is performing the same kind of pioneering work that was done by Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, and other post-Prohibition winemakers in northern California: resurrecting a hallowed region after a period of urbanization, reinvention, and neglect. If they’re right, they won’t just be players in the existing cider market—they’ll be creating an entirely new market from scratch.
While the Lost Apple Project has yet to turn a profit, it has become Davis and Dolginow’s obsession, and the heartbeat of the entire Shacksbury brand. “Down the road, when we have this bank of apples that no one else in the world has,” Davis says, “it’ll be a really valuable asset for us.” Which is why the pair has spent tens of thousands of dollars harvesting “lost” apples from feral fields and people’s backyards.
And it’s also why a caravan of cars, including Davis’s diminutive Honda Fit, is racing furiously toward the town of Tinmouth, Vermont, to see whether its eponymous fruit—perhaps the rarest cider apple of them all—is still out there.
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 catalogued 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, like biological rock fences. Sugar was still a luxury good then, and apples sated the hungry colonists’ sweet tooths. 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—hence 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 extremely easy, but cultivating a tree that bears palatable fruit is a rarity. 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. For instance, 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. Instead—if you were lucky—you’d get something like the Macoun, a cross between a Mac and Jersey Black, which was developed in the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, in Geneva, New York.
That’s why apple farmers focus on the stem, not the seed. When Shacksbury finds 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. “Grafting, for me, despite having learned the science of it and done it many times, still has this mystical quality to it that feels similar to certain aspects of religion,” Dolginow says. “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.”
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 managed to produce 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, 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 but for their names. Gone were the multitudinous arrays of what Ralph Waldo Emerson once called, with no small amount of pride, “the American fruit.”
Novelty was never the endgame. When Davis and Dolginow launched Shacksbury in 2013, they fully intended to follow in the footsteps of other cider makers using European apples. But that changed after they sampled a homemade brew created by their friend, a celebrated cheese maker named Michael Lee. Davis still recalls his first whiff inside that bottle as an epiphany: A seductive commingling of earth, mango, and hazelnuts, the cider had been made from so-called lost apples foraged near a Cornwall, Vermont, enclave called Gill’s Rock. “We were trying cider from all over the world at this point,” Davis says, “and [Lee’s] cider was hands-down the best I’d ever had in my life. Better than anything from Normandy or the Basque region. When I asked him how he’d done it, he told me he’d made it out of these wild apples near his house. I thought, Man, now how do you make a company out of that?”
Since that bombshell moment, Davis, Dolginow, and Lee have tasted hundreds, if not thousands, of Vermont apples. So far, they’ve rediscovered five that were once believed lost: Animal Farm, Saw Mill, Cutting Hill, Galvin Sweet, and Gill’s Rock. Fifty scions of each have been grafted onto rootstock at Cornwall’s Sunrise Orchards, where Dolginow used to work, and the juice from the foraged fruit was incorporated into Shacksbury’s “1840” cider (which they’re now calling “Lost and Found”). In its first vintage it won a prestigious Good Food Award.
Given the limited yields of New England’s lost apples, Shacksbury supplements its business by buying fruit from Sunrise Orchards. Today, more than half of its annual production is dedicated to two bottled ciders, “Farmhouse” and “Classic,” both of which are dominated by baking apples such as Jonagolds and Spartans. They’ve also embarked on a series of collaborative projects using heirloom fruit from Herefordshire, England, and the Basque region of Spain.
The Tinmouth, of course, could help change that. But as I weave through Vermont with Davis and Lee, I wonder how they’d know for sure that they’d found it. The trees we see all produce waxy, green fruit, the only distinguishing feature being perhaps a smattering of white lenticels, some russeting, or a slight sunny-side blush. Which makes me wonder: Can anyone be certain that the apples used in Shacksbury’s “Gill’s Rock” are actually unique, and not some run-of-the-mill crab apples?
It turns out the proof is in the minutiae—science stripped to the power of deduction. Genetic testing would do us no good, since there isn’t an existing database of ancient apple DNA against which to compare our samples. Instead, 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 and less 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, his permanent residence, in the hopes of harvesting the fruit for his growing cider-vinegar business, and of further exploring Guettel’s stretch of land along the Taconic Range. 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, who emerges from Yoder’s ramshackle white minivan outfitted in knee-high waders and a floppy bucket hat. A sweet-cider maker and horticulturist, Koehler grows dozens of ancient heirloom varieties in Cornwall—including one called the Windfall Golden. Back in 2007, Koehler began to suspect that the Windfall Golden might be misidentified—and that it could actually be the Tinmouth. He’s since become New England’s de facto Tinmouth expert, as a result of the countless hours he’s spent hunting for a wild specimen to compare next to his propagated Windfall Golden. Now, as we head into the woods, he’s finally on the cusp of finding one.
Guettel meets us outside a red barn, which he’s converted into a picturesque music studio with a sweeping view of the surrounding valley—a verdant expanse of towering red pines studded with grain silos and weathered headstones from an ancient cemetery plot. As the owner of this sprawling estate, Guettel is more than happy to regale us with stories about the property, including the recent discovery of a deep mountain cave and boxes of dynamite buried beneath the barn. But he is reluctant to follow us into the deep woods, which he acknowledges are teeming with inch-thick thorny vines and wild parsnip, a poisonous plant that causes phytophotodermatitis: scalding blisters that intensify when exposed to sunlight.
After about 30 minutes, we come across our first stand of unpruned apple trees, and our ragtag party begins picking samples up and down 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. Meanwhile, Davis bites down on an apple so tannic that he recoils visibly, bringing to mind Henry David Thoreau’s description of an apple “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.”
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 and pulls me aside. “This is why they say in our field that finding an apple like [the Tinmouth] is a 10,000-to-1 proposition,” he confides. “It almost never happens.”
As we burrow further into Guettel’s woods, we find ourselves waist-deep in a field of pungent wild oregano, bergamot, and barbed gooseberries. None of us can escape the voracious mosquitos, which are undeterred by our incessant swiping and slapping. At one point, I look down and see the spindly bloodsuckers feasting on each knuckle of my right hand. Yoder, talking to no one in particular, maintains a rambling monologue about the workingman’s plight, his disheveled beard now buckshot with apple fragments. From a tangled thicket he pulls an Esopus Spitzenberg—a favorite of Henry Ward Beecher—and gnaws on its floral, lychee-like flesh. “This orchard is like a pack of Marlboro Reds,” he proclaims. “Flavor country.”
For half an hour, Davis and Lee repeatedly approach Koehler with yellow-green specimens, the monotonous color of most apples in early August, hoping they’ve found the Tinmouth. Each time Koehler dismisses them with the same crushing verdict: “At this point in the season, it would be lime green.”
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. Using Yoder’s voice as a beacon, we eventually find a trampled, meandering path beneath a pear branch propped 2 feet off the forest floor.
After squirming through the 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, and its sinewy parasol of branches shrouds us in a wide, perforated dome. “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, turning it over in his palm. “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 frantically 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.
As the fruit plummets and ricochets off the ground, 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, his gangly frame now slouched even farther, as if the weight of Koehler’s sudden grief were draped over his shoulders.
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 three 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.”
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/article/2015/09/29/tinmouth-apple/