I remember my first encounter with the “serious physiological disorder” called watercore. I was at an heirloom apple event in New Zealand, staring at a table full of old British varieties trying to decide which one to buy and eat first. I settled on a little russeted apple called Pitmaston Pineapple and once in hand, I took a large bite out of it. The inside, to my surprise, looked like this:
The taste was very sweet. A different kind of sweet, though, and it took me a year to come back around to figuring it out. This variety of apple, along with many other varieties, is susceptible to a “disorder” called watercore.
To the dessert grower, this “disorder” is bad news. Most people don’t want to bite into an apple which appears to have a water-soaked flesh because we’ve been taught that anything other than the usual white-crisp-juicy is to be avoided. However! I’m here to tell a different story, potentially one for the watery underdogs. A hopeful cider apple story.
First, let me give you some background on watercore…
To the apple industry, watercore is considered a “nonparasitic disease,” where the apple appears to have a water-soaked flesh. This “disease” takes shape in all apple growing regions of the US and seemingly has a few variants:
Caused by a lack of water or droughty conditions
Caused by a combination of genetics, the fruit being mature or overly mature, and sunscald due to intense heat.
Low calcium in your soils (which could go back to genetics since there are some calcium hungry cultivars, like Albemarle Pippin, which is known for watercore)
Why is it considered a disease? The brunt of it comes down to long-term storage. Apple packing houses aren’t able to store the apples with severe watercore because the tissues will eventually start to break down, causing the flesh to turn brown (and thus marked as unsaleable). Another reason why it’s a bit of a bother to the apple industry is detection. Aside from some relatively recent research on detection methods, watercore has remained undetectable by the apple industry without the use of a knife (or teeth) to cut into the apple.
Like with the other apple diseases affecting the US, those with watercore are deemed as waste and dumped. In my affinity for looking at common diseases as heroes of value-added products rather than boons to the established industry, I’m excited about watercore. Here’s why:
The area above that looks water-soaked is actually where the apple has flooded its air spaces with a solution of sorbitol, a non-fermentable sugar alcohol which is not technically a sugar. According to Claude Jolicoeur’s Book, The New Cider Maker’s Handbook, sorbitol has a sweetening effect that amounts to about half the effect of white sugar. This means that when a cider or perry (cider made from pears) is fermented dry (the yeast eat almost all of the available sugar and convert it to alcohol), the presence of sorbitol would still have a sweetening effect on the dry cider (because it doesn’t ferment).
The idea of a completely dry cider with a nice, fruity, slightly sweet finish is very appetizing to me and happens to fall in line with my low-input management thoughts from fruit to bottle. Here’s my thought process (and some background story) on this one:
A long time ago, I was helping out in a cider house and they were sending a finished cider through a sterile (sulfited) filter to both strain the yeast from the bottle, but also to prevent any yeast that managed to slip through from reproducing. I was asked to taste the water being sent through the filter to detect the sulfur taste and the very moment when that sulfur water hit my lips, I was struck with an immediate and very scary asthma attack. That day I learned that I’m in the 1% of Americans who are actually allergic to sulfites and ever since, I’ve been a canary in a coal mine with respects to unbound sulfites in alcohol and suffice it to say, I’m not a fan of the additive. It has ruined many a cider/beer/wine for me due to my lungs closing up.
But why the use of a filter soaked in sulfites in the first place? When a cider is fermented dry, there is little fear of the cider/bottle of cider becoming unstable because all of the sugar in the cider has been consumed and turned into alcohol. If cider is bottled and has both alive yeast and sugar, the cider will continue to change in taste as the yeast convert the sugar to alcohol and more carbon dioxide is being created, which has been known to cause exploding bottles. In this situation, the sterile filter was being used because the cider was going to be backsweetened (the addition of sugar after fermentation) with apple concentrate to give the final product some sweetness (Americans love sweet). To recap: Backsweetening + yeast= off flavors and potential explosions. Backsweetening + filter + sulfites= a sweetened cider with less fear of re-fermentation.
What does this have to do with sorbitol and watercore? A higher presence of sorbitol in a cider means my cider can be fermented completely dry (free of sugar) while maintaining a minimal sweetness without fear of re-fermentation. Eliminating this fear of re-fermentation means that I can eliminate sulfites from the back end of my cidermaking process.
Watercore= Higher Sorbitol Content= Residual Sweetness in a Dry Cider With Less Chemical Inputs. ding. Ding. DING!
Ok, so let’s say that I’m sold on experimenting with this sorbitol/cider thing and I want to grow fruit in order to make this product. Being in the South, I have a lot of hope for achieving such a thing because the causal agents are: Intense heat, lots of sun (sunburn), low calcium, droughty conditions, and genetics.
In designing an orchard and keeping sorbitol production in mind, I would entertain the idea of going towards more of a dwarf set-up, perhaps even a trelli$ set-up on a southwestern facing slope. We’re talking steaming hot, dry, with the trelli$ed fruit being exposed to intense sun. On top of that, the apple system would be on irrigation which would allow you to regulate the amount of water and when to apply it. I’d also layout the orchard in a way which would drain quickly (maybe even a keyline design ;-)). Next, I’d choose varieties which are prone to watercore and also those that tend to hang on the trees rather than drop (which is a good genetic trait for apples in the South, anyways). Apples heading towards being overripe are at risk of watercore, so those that hold on are perfect candidates.
If you wanted to experiment with trying to intensify sunlight into a non-trellised tree, I would still try and have super quick water drainage off your site and have a SW aspect, but you could also try some extreme things like spraying all the leaves off your tree in late summer. I’ve done this for reasons of reducing vigor by using a 501 biodynamic prep, which I sprayed in late summer and managed to burn a BUNCH of the leaves off the tree…on purpose. I think the trick with this is in having a very vigorous tree and also determining the point of no return for apple ripening (if such a thing exists). The spray I applied in mid-August slowed the ripening scheme, which doesn’t help my sorbitol thoughts. However! It makes sense to me that reducing the leaf load on the tree would certainly help the sun scald situation.
I’ve never heard of anyone trying to grow apples with watercore on purpose, but why not? In straying from dessert fruit growing, managing for a certain product like cider could give regions like the South a distinctive taste in their products. We often think about this in terms of varieties and landraces, which are certainly a part of it. But let’s try and capture our environment and create a truly unique product which describes our place in every way.
*This essay has been in the works for far too long and I decided to push it through today. I’ll likely go back over it an link to things stored on my computer and correct spelling/grammar.*