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The apple harvest is looking good this year. You may have heard on the news recently that this year's total crop of commercial English eating apples is expected to be the highest tonnage in more than 20 years, at 160,000 tonnes! We hope your trees are looking bountiful too!
So, how do you really know when your apples are ripe? “The apple will fall when it’s ripe” - it’s an old country saying but apples don't just fall when they are ripe, as you will see below. There are some quite easy ways to tell when your apples are ripe and ready for pressing, eating or cooking.
Why do apples need to be ripe for pressing?
Using ripe apples for pressing, whether for juice or cider, is important as it maximises flavour and juice yield. It also ensures the full sugar potential of your apples, which is particularly important when you come to fermenting for cider (more on this below!).
When are apples ripe?
Here are a few clues to help you determine whether your apples are ripe and ready to use ...
Apple trees will shed some fruits prematurely usually in June and July as part of the natural fruit thinning process known as 'June Drop' - these apples will be hard, sour and not suitable for anything.
Apples falling during the our typical harvest time in this country (any time from from September to November, depending on a number of other factors!), however, can be a good indicator or ripeness, but there more failsafe methods you can use:
This is by far the easiest way of determining apple ripeness. Pick a sample apple from the tree and cut it in half. If the apple is ripe the pips should be dark brown. If the pips are pale or just brown then the apples need to stay on the tree for longer. Windfalls should be tested in the same way and only those with dark brown pips should be used for juice and cider making.
You can also tell whether an apple is ripe by the ease in which it can be removed from the tree. Cradle a large fruit in the cup of your hand and gently twist it off the stem. If the apple is ripe it will readily fall into your hand. This is the best way to harvest fruits for storage as they are less likely to be bruised (as windfalls can be) and so will keep better. If you have to pull when picking your apples and/or you are breaking twigs then they are definitely not ready - pulling should be avoided as you can damage the tree and reduce the following year's crop! Fruit picking tools are available to help with picking hard-to-reach apples - see below.
Know your apple variety! This will help you to identify the typical time of ripening. This is easier said than done, however, as it is highly likely that your trees weren't planted by you. Apple varieties are either early, mid or late ripeners. Early varieties can ripen as early as July, and late varieties can ripen well into November. Once you know your apple varieties you can find out the likely time of ripening through sites such as a Fruit ID, which includes 23,000 varieties! Remember, however, the variety alone doesn't determine the ripening time - the seasons, the part of the country you live in, and the micro-climate of your orchard and garden will affect ripening times.
If you have no idea what apple varieties you have (and you have the time), you can use Fruit ID to help identify them. Alternatively, Brogdale Collections offer a fantastic fruit identification service for a small fee.
It’s generally a good idea to label your trees using a metal label stuck into the soil beside the tree. Producing a named garden plan is also a good idea.
Other Factors to be Aware of!
Remember that apples on a tree may not necessarily be ripe at exactly the same time. Those that are in the sun tend to ripen first.
Never use rotten apples for pressing or making cider out of. The golden rule is that you don’t press what you wouldn’t want to eat, although for cider making small blemishes won’t matter.
Don't be afraid to blend different apple varieties when pressing. All that matters is that the apples are ripe. Our favourite is a blend of cooking and dessert apples, which gives a flavour-packed balance of tanginess and sweetness.
Ripeness is particularly important for cider making. Ripe apples contain the highest sugar levels and it is these sugar levels that will determine the potential alcohol of the finished cider. Andrew Lea, cider and apple juice author, explains how the apple’s natural process of converting starch into sugar continues even after falling or being picked from the tree and that it is desirable that this process is complete before fermenting the juice into cider. For this reason, he suggests that apples for cider making are stored for a period of 2 to 4 weeks, and confirms that are ready for crushing when they are 'sufficiently ripe for the thumb to be pushed easily into the fruit'. See 'The Science of Cidermaking' on his excellent Wittenham Hill Cider Portal for more information on cider making. See the How to store your apples section below for guidance on storing.
To gather up windfalls you can use the Apple Wizard and Flexitub.
To help with picking from the tree, you can use the comfortable Harvesting Bag as its soft but strong construction is gentle on the fruit and it's shoulder straps allows you to keep your hands free for picking - you can also rinse the apples while in the bag!
For apples that are high up and difficult to reach the Wolf Fruit Picker and Telescopic Handle are both ideal, or the stable Orchard Tripod Ladder.
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