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.

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 taste-tests apples during the hunt. / Photograph by Pat Piasecki

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.”

Michael Lee and Brad Koehler scour branches for the Tinmouth. / Photograph by Pat Piasecki

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.”