The Hewes crab apple (Malus augustafolia) is one of the most well-known varieties in the history of American horticulture. Creighton Leigh Calhoun described this most famous of southern cider crab apples in his landmark book, Old Southern Apples: “Fruit very small, about one and one half inches (4 cm) in diameter, round; skin green, usually neatly covered with dull or purplish red; dots numerous, large, whitish, stem long, slender, and red in a yellowish cavity; calyx closed; basin shallow and small; flesh firm, fibrous, acid astringent. Ripe September/October.” In the deeper south it ripens in mid-August. An observer in the 1810s noted, “The trees bear abundantly, the fruit ripens late and is free of rot of any kind. The fruit is small and hard and therefore bears the fall from the tree without bruising. It grinds small and the pulp is remarkably tough, yet parts with its juice readily, and the must runs from the press very fine and clear.”
The juice of crab apples was traditionally intermingled with the must pressed from sweet apples to impart a tart edge to cider. The brightness of fermented cider largely depended upon a substantial admixture of crab apple juice, and the Hewes was the most ancient and revered of cider crabs in southern cider making. Consumed off the tree, the Hewes had a harsh, unpleasant taste; ground, pressed, filtered, and fermented, the Hewes crab apple had a fine bell-like brightness of taste, a mouth-filling presence, with its fruitiness ramified into a deep mellowness and a high sharpness. The latter was frequently described as “sparkling.” The final quality of the cider depended upon whether it was comprised exclusively with the Hewes crab must (George Washington’s favorite); intermingled with specific sweet cider apples such as the Harrison (from New Jersey) or the Taliafero (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite mixing apple with the Hewes); or added to a promiscuous crush of apples to supply a point of focus to the taste.
A cross between North America’s native wild crab apple and an undetermined European variety, the Hewes first appeared in northern Virginia in the first quarter of the 18th century. From the beginning, the Hewes crab apple’s value as a cider crab was recognized and celebrated. It was planted throughout the upper south throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, though its Virginia nativity was acknowledge by its nickname as the “Virginia crab.”
During its first century of employment, the Hewes crab apple was grown by individual planters for the home production of cider. In the second decade of the 19th century, the repute of the crab apple was such that it became a staple of the burgeoning nursery trade; crab cider became a general commodity in the eastern United States, prompting commercial-scale planting of the fruit. As late as 1888, pomologists in Illinois would claim “Of all the cider apples known, none are better than those called the Virginia or Hewes crab” (Daily Illinois State Journal).
This once ubiquitous cider apple became a victim of Prohibition in America in 1919. The ban on alcohol sales led to the collapse of the American cider-making industry, and the Hewes crab proved too pungent in its unfermented form to be used for the apple juice that began to be marketed as “cider” in the 1920s. As each decade of the 20th century passed, the old knowledge about mixing crabs with sweets in cider-making evaporated. All-purpose apples, or the old Winesap variety, went into the cider crush instead.
By the time of Prohibition’s repeal, the taste for cider had become passé. For the remainder of the 20th century, the cultivation of the Hewes crab apple reverted to the private maintenance of old orchards for domestic cider production. Historic sites concerned with the preservation of heirloom varieties of apples—Monticello in particular—maintained orchards. After the decimation of the variety by Prohibition, the Hewes crab apple survived because of a dozen or so plantings in the upper south. Thanks to the forethought of those conservationists, when the 21st century vintage cider boom took off, plant material was available for the planting of new orchards. In the 2010s, cider making began to emulate craft brewing, pushing producers to reclaim old ingredients and methods of manufacture and once again pay attention to the Hewes.
There are aspects of the Hewes crab apple’s growth—for example, its tendency toward biennial bearing—that inhibit large-scale cideries from adopting it, so the variety remains a very small niche product; but because it is propagated by cuttings or grafting, the Hewes crab apple can be replicated true to type. It is old and hardy, but has susceptibility to fire blight and certain viral diseases that afflict apples. Cider apples do not have to have the perfect configuration needed to market table apples, so the marring of fruit is not an issue, and the Hewes crab apple is productive when it bears, but since it tends to crop every two years rather than annually, the Hewes crab apple is less attractive to modern growers than other heirloom varieties.
In the current revival of cider-making in the United States, only a very few high-end cider-makers have attempted to revive the old formula of mixing crabs with cider apples, largely due to the scarcity of the Hewes crab apple. Of Virginia’s eight commercial ciderworks, only one employs the Hewes crab apple: even the cider makers in the Hewe’s traditional production area don’t have enough to make widespread use of the variety despite its extraordinary history and fame. If more growers give the Hewes crab apple a chance, the opportunity to restore delicious, historic varieties of cider gets stronger every day.