The hunt for the perfect cider apple: How one group is leveraging experience and ingenuity to create new apple cultivars, ripe for a premium export industry

The roadmap for developing a billion-dollar cider industry started at home, on a lifestyle plot in Tamahere. Here, John Powell was faced with a problem: abundant trees producing a plethora of apples, none of which his family was interested in eating.

So as the old saying goes: When life gives you … apples, make cider. (Humour us!)

That’s exactly what John did 12 years ago, little knowing that he’d develop a life-long love for cider. He began to travel the world, taking courses, meeting cider makers and eventually creating the Cider Collective, Cider School in the Waikato.

Throughout his learning and exploration, one thing stood out: It was nearly impossible to buy good cider apples in New Zealand.

While New Zealand growers breed delicious eating apples (Gala, for instance), there are currently no New Zealand apple cultivars bred specifically for cider-making. Eating apples tend to be too sweet, and lack the depth and tannins needed to produce the complex, premium cider consumers are demanding*.

From here, an idea was born: John partnered with renowned apple breeder Allan White (think Jazz and Envy apples) to create Cider Apples NZ, with the mission of creating new cultivars of cider apples, the type that will excite cider drinkers around the world and create a new, premium export market for New Zealand.

To do so, they’ve created an accelerated cider apple breeding programme in the Hawkes Bay, to reduce a typically 15-year breeding process to just 7 years.

In year 2 of the programme, the team already have over 5,000 seedlings. To their knowledge, it’s the largest cider apple breeding programme in the world, and thanks to Agmardt Funding – the fastest.

As they pollinate, germinate and then grow the apples, they’re looking for a single variety that creates crisp, delicious cider, with just the right mix of tannins and stunning aromatics.

On top of the accelerated breeding programme, the team are also developing IP that will allow rapid screening of apples for cider potential.

While there is huge potential to develop a billion-dollar export industry, John sees benefits well beyond just the numbers:

 “There are so many environmental benefits – unlike eating apples they don’t have to look perfect, which means less waste. Cider apples allow growers to reduce chemicals and orchard management to one third the of cost of a standard orchard. There are carbon sequestration opportunities for pastoral farmers.

There’s also a great provenance story, which consumers are demanding more and more of; we can trace each apple to the orchard and its grower.

And we’re future proofing against climate change, developing varieties that can perform well in warmer climates.”

This mix of innovation, risk-taking and future proofing attracted AGMARDT funding from the get-go and John says the team would have struggled without it.

“We’re indebted to AGMARDT; often in the early stages of a start-up, your rate-of-progress is so dependent on funding. [The team] have been so easy to work with, the process was straightforward, and the funding has given us the opportunity to do more.”

John and Allan are also working closely with commercial cider makers through the Cider New Zealand Association, including Carmen Gray from Elemental Cider and Simon Pearce from the Cider Factorie.

In January, AGMARDT supported their trip to CiderCon in Chicago, USA; it’s the largest cider industry conference in the world, attracting more than 1,000 cider professionals.

Here, the team had the invaluable opportunity to build international relationships and better understand the global cider industry as well the type of characteristics consumers will value in future cider apple cultivars – all knowledge they’re applying to their current work.

Asked if we should be a planning to sip a new range of palate-pleasing new ciders by 2029, John is very optimistic:

“We have the knowledge, the competencies, the skillset here in New Zealand. We have great apple growers and wine-making expertise we can leverage. And, we have thousands of seedlings, out of which I believe we’ll create the perfect cider apple.”

*Premium-plus categories in beer, cider, wine, spirits and RTDs all showed growth in 2022 – with cider up 11% — according to data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. Premiumization continues to drive US alcohol sales.