Foxwhelp – The Mysterious Apple with a Big Reputation

Apple Tales with Darlene Hayes
Written by Darlene Hayes

There are a few apple varieties originating in England whose names revive the heart of the rice maker. One of these is Foxwhelp. It was a huge disappointment, then, when we discovered that apples kept under the name “Foxwhelp” in the official USDA apple collection in Geneva, New York—the source of grafting wood for many new orchards—were found to be something unrelated: a Fauxwhelp . There have been mutterings for some time about it not quite matching what was to be expected from the old descriptions; DNA analysis confirmed this.

It is a very old apple, cited by name in a number of English treatises of the mid-17th century on the tobacco industry, something that is reserved only for the best. As it seems to happen with all the popular apple varieties, 200 years later there were a number of newcomers named Foxwhelp: Bulmer’s Foxwhelp, Broxwood Foxwhelp, Black Foxwhelp, Red Foxwhelp, and Rejuvenated Foxwhelp. It wasn’t clear how closely they were related to the original, although it seemed like they all found their way into some farmers’ cider barrels.

Foxwhelp first arrived in the United States thanks to William Ellwood (1859-1946), professor and deputy director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station (1888-1904). He was sent on a research trip to England, France, and Germany in the late nineteenth century to learn about the European trade industry. He returned with enough information to write several treatises and a set of grafting wood for some of Europe’s most famous cider apple, including Foxwhelp. Sadly, all of Alwood’s research work has been nothing with Prohibition on the horizon. He moved on to other business, and the apple varieties he collected moved to another research orchard in Maryland, and mostly disappeared from people’s minds.

Foxwhelp then arrived in 1939 thanks to the Gloucestershire Hopwood & Sons Nursery, joining hundreds of other varieties grown at the USDA Plant Industry Station in Beltsville, Maryland. By 1963, Foxwhelp was being grown at agricultural experiment stations in Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, sourced from Join in Maryland, but also independently of the New York Nursery (Kelly Brothers) and Long Ashton Research Station in the UK. In the early 80s, it was advertised in the catalogs of many commercial nurseries, although who grew it and why is not clear.

Where did Fauxwhelp come from, then? Honestly, no one has any idea. There has been a state-supported agricultural experiment station in Geneva since the 1880s, and Foxwhelp was listed as part of that group in 1963. However, trees die, orchards are moved or signs switched. It is clear that at some point when the collection came under USDA control and was moved to its current location in 1986, mistakes were made.

Misidentification is common when dealing with very old apples. The hands of the orchards change, memories fade, records are lost. If cider made from the fruit still finds a place in the market, the grower may not be so reckless about perfectly tracing the name of the original variety. This fact has been brought home again recently. Several versions of Foxwhelp were imported from the UK in 2015 after Fauxwhelp was discovered. As they were about to leave their quarantine state, they also underwent a DNA analysis where it was discovered that one of them was a completely different type of cider apple (Ellis Bitter) and the second could not be Foxwhelp because one of its parents was a 20th century apple, Gla.

Why all the fuss about Foxwhelp? Historically, the cider made with it has been admired, albeit not without its complications. Robert Hogg, in his 1886 book Apple and pear as a vintage fruitOne of the seventeenth century writers quotes him as saying. “Apple juice for strength and a long-lasting drink is best made from a young fox…but it is not drunk until he is two or three years old.” Hogg goes on to say, “It will retain its full flavor for twenty or thirty years.” The secret to this amazingly long life wasn’t tannin, but acid, and plenty of it.

It’s Foxwhelp’s acidity that UK nominees claim, even today. It’s extremely useful in the mix, adding subtle brightness even in small amounts, and its ability to lower the pH aids in stability, a useful trait for a bell maker who uses little or no microbe-killing sulfurs during fermentation.

The size of Foxwhelp apples grown in the United States is still relatively small, so there are a few examples of a single varietal wine sold under the Foxwhelp name. It seemed reasonable, then, to include some sources in England for comparison. All of these were made from English ciders with what winemakers believed to be Broxwood Foxwhelp, and they were all as acidic as ancient writers would have led one to expect. Common flavors were lemon, pit fruit, apricot, peach and plum. The example from Little Pomona takes clear smoke from its years in a used Islay whiskey barrel, and its acids are somewhat more rounded, possibly due to the modified solera in which it was made starting in 2015. One American cider was similar in acidity profile to its British counterparts, but more Generic with the most ripe fruit flavours.

The second American example was quite different. Fruit flavors were more ripe and spicy, and the acid level, while perfectly balanced, was medium rather than high. This is not particularly surprising, as one can deduce from the source of the grafting wood that the apple used in this cider was not Foxwhelp, but Fauxwhelp. However, it is a very good wine, which I was happy to drink. In the end that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it? The miscellaneous name on the bottle may give you clues as to what to expect, but the true measure of pleasure comes from what’s in the glass.

Sweet medium lemon, apple peel, pear peel, yellow apple. brilliant
undated | 6.6% ABV

dry; lemon, lime, green plum, ripe apricot, tart green apple; Batilant
Harvest 2019, packed 2021 | 5.6% ABV

Oliver Cedar and Berry – Great Parton Farm Single Orchard – Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, UK

dry; lemons, green plum peel, barely ripe apricots, barely ripe peaches, green tart apples, lime, lemon peel; Still
2020 | 5.1% ABV

Little Pomona – Bromyard, Herefordshire, UK

dry; smoke, lemon, green plum, ripe apricot and peach, vanilla, cedar, sour orange; 2015 still reaped,
Bottled 2020 | 7.0% ABV

Eden Siders – Oliver Twist – Newport, Vt.

dry; lemon, green plum, green herbs, thyme, lemon peel, only ripe apricots; brilliant
Fruit grown in Lebanon, New Hampshire
2018 | 7.5% ABV

dry; bread seasoning, ripe apples, orange juice, orange peel, ripe peaches, apricots and hazelnuts; brilliant
2016 | 6.9% ABV

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