Truly a great apple

U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

Mention the Northern Spy to an apple loving Yankee and their eyes glaze over the same way they might when recalling their first kiss.

The Northern Spy is an apple that thrives up North and is the apple preferred for apple pie making in the American Northeast — which may also mean that it’s the apple behind the expression: As American as apple pie.

Because of this affinity with pie, some have speculated that the name was originally “Northern Pie”, but Creighton Lee Calhoun shares a different origin story in his Old Southern Apples: A Comprehensive History and Description of Varieties for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts that is far more interesting:

“The unusual name of this apple has caused speculation over the years. A letter to a gardening magazine in 1853 from Rochester, New York, had this to say:
The Northern Spy, or the Fatal Papers: A Tale of South Carolina
‘To the Editor: In reply to Mrs. B. who inquired about the naming of the Northern Spy apple, everybody here knows it was named for the hero of that notorious dime novel The Northern Spy, but no one will come out and admit it.’
According to the late Conrad Gemmer, an apple hunter and collector in Pennsylvania, ‘The Northern Spy was written anonymously, published su-rosa, and circulated among radical hard-core abolitionists circa 1830.’ The hero of the novel set up safe houses and helped runaway slaves escape to Canada.

Kite & String Cidermaker Garrett Miller brought our attention to Calhoun’s story while we were tasting his equally remarkable single varietal Northern Spy Charmat Method Cider in Interlaken, New York, just 50 miles from where the apple originated. In the glass the Kite & String Northern Spy shines with a golden luminosity that is similar to sunshine and on the nose it’s loaded with the fragrance of green apples — a semi-dry cider that is remarkably “apple-y” without cloying sweetness.

Tasting Kite and String Northern Spy Charmat Method Cider from our July 2017 Cider Session with the Maker

The growing region strongly influences the outcome of this apple and it thrives especially well in Northern climates, like Interlaken, and the mountains of Virginia, where a cooler climate predominates. According to Calhoun:

Mountain grown or northern grown, it is truly a great apple. Grown in warmer areas it lacks crispness and flavor and often rots on the tree.

While the Northern Spy apple originated in the East Bloomfield, New York seedling orchard of Heman Chapin in the 1840s, the original tree never bore fruit due to trunk damage inflicted by a hungry bunny. Fortunately for us, the root sprouts of the original tree were propagated by Chapin’s brother-in-law, Humphrey Roswell, which first produced the fruit we know today.

As a rule, the Northern Spy is late to bear fruit, taking up to a decade to produce its first harvest, and even then is late to bloom, often flowering two weeks later than most of other apple trees in the orchard.

Calhoun describes the flesh of the Northern Spy as being “tender, juicy, crisp, aromatic, spicy subacid,” qualities which also shine through in the predominantly Northern Spy Guinevere’s Pearls, a Eden Ciders Cellar Series release featured in our December cidrbox.

Tasting Eden Cider Cellar Series #4: Guinevere’s Pearls from our December 2016 Cider Session with the Maker
U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705 connects people seeking orchard-driven cider with the artisans who make it. Each month we visit a single, distinctive American heritage orchard — where small producers grow, harvest, press, ferment and refine their cider — and we ship their cider to our subscribers. We also sit down for a tasting with the maker, and we share that tasting with you at

p.s. When we say cider, we mean hard cider: Artful fermentations of heirloom apples by master cidermakers. You must be at least 21 to drink what we deliver, and you will be asked for your ID and signature at the door.

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