Wickson Crab – The Little Apple with a Big Profile

Apple Tales with Darlene Hayes

The highway north from San Francisco winds its way through car dealerships and commercial districts, eventually opening up to vineyards, narrowing from eight lanes to two as it passes out of farmed land and into the shadow of giant redwoods. Known chiefly today as the southernmost end of the largest cannabis growing region in the United States, Humboldt County, Calif., was also once the home of one of America’s most innovative plant breeders, Albert Etter, creator of the little powerhouse apple, Wickson Crab .

Albert Felix Etter (1872-1950) was one of 10 surviving children born to Swiss immigrant Benjamin Etter and his German-born wife Wilhemina (née Kern). Young Etter showed an interest in plants from an early age, beginning his first breeding experiments at age 7 and creating a new line of dahlias by age 12. In his mid-teens he abandoned formal schooling, inspired by biologist/geologist Louis Agassiz (1807) -1873) to learn from nature instead of books.

In the 1890s, Etter and several of his brothers staked a homestead claim to 800 acres in California’s Upper Mattole Valley wilderness, at least two days away from pretty much everything. It was densely forested, so the first order of business was clearing the land and setting up a sawmill to make their own lumber for building homes and barns. They had to hand-build a road to the nearest small town, Briceland. To improve and sweeten the soil they brought in goats, though the expert at the University of California, Berkeley, had lime suggested amendments were required and was more than a little dismissive when Etter rejected the idea.

Etter’s breeding experiments expanded. He had early success with strawberries, crossing established varieties with wild beach strawberries. Though common today, introducing wild plant genes into domesticated varieties was a radical notion during Etter’s time. The prevailing wisdom was that the best new cultivars came from crossing the best current ones, continuing the march to perfection not slipping backward into uncultivated savagery. Etter, however, had not come up through the formal university system and the narrowing of the mind that can come with it. He was willing to try unconventional approaches especially after they proved successful.

It is this mindset that he took with him into the breeding of new apples. He had particular goals in mind including scab resistance, fine juicy/crunchy flesh, and an apple that would can well. He was also looking for the next great variety for making “champagne” cider, according to the late Etter champion Ram Fishman. Etter had 450 trees in the ground by 1900, eventually testing at least 600 different cultivars. He wanted to know which would perform well there and be useful breeding stock, using those that didn’t make the cut as scaffolds for grafting later on. He had a host of well known varieties, but the ones that excited him most were the more obscure — Manx Codlin, Ananas Reinette and Northfield, for example.

It is anyone’s guess when the seed that became Wickson Crab was first planted. Though he frequently described his new creations in the many articles he wrote about his work, Etter didn’t name them in those articles, and what breeding notes he may have had disappeared in the 1990s.

The first written record of Wickson is a plant patent filed in June 1944 where Etter stated that it was a cross between “Newtown and Spitzenberg Crab.” Many have assumed that what was meant was a cross between the well known apples Newtown Pippin and Esopus Spitzenberg. Recent DNA analysis (unpublished) in fact shows that Wickson is not only unrelated to either of these apples, but does not, in fact, have a close genetic relationship to any apple sequenced to date. This is not a complete surprise given Etter’s known open-mindedness in selecting breeding material, but it does raise some interesting questions. What did Etter mean by “Newtown”? Did he really use Spitzenberg Crab, an obscure variety that seems to have principally been planted in the late 19th century Wisconsin?

It should be said that the other possibility is that what Etter wrote in his patent was simply wrong. Even in well-funded large breeding programs mistakes can be made or lost records. Etter was working alone on a shoestring budget more or less in the middle of nowhere, and may well have been more focused on the end results than on how he got there. He says as much in a 1922 article on apple breeding written for the Pacific Rural Press. “Truly, if I had more time to look after this work, I could keep better records, but as it is, it is more important to the great majority that they get these improved kinds than it is as to where or how they came into being.”

The mystery of Wickson’s parentage notwithstanding, it is a remarkable little apple that from its obscure beginnings has found its way into the hearts of cidermakers across the country. Etter’s patent describes it as “brilliant red, oblong in shape, and sugary sweet, highly flavored, and juicy.” He was absolutely right, though he could have also added bright with acid to balance all of that sugar. Its small size, less than two inches across, has kept it from being of much interest to large-scale growers. But if the many examples I tasted are any indication, Wickson is following in the footsteps of the famous Harrison and well on its way to becoming the next great American cider apple.

dry; honey, almonds, lemon juice, dried apples, almonds, toasted nuts, candied orange peel; sparkling
2014 | 7.5% ABV

dry; lemon curd banana melon lemon zest green apple skin fresh thyme white flowers apricot quince; sparkling
2018 | 6.9% ABV

dry; Meyer lemon juice, honey, baked apple, toasted almond, pear skin, anise; sparkling
2019 | 8% ABV

dry; lime zest, lemon zest, apple skin, green plum, salt, VA; sparkling
Undated | 7% ABV

dry; lemon curd, just ripe apricot, ripe apple, ripe pear, lemongrass; sparkling
Undated | 7.7% ABV

Dry, Meyer lemon curd, spruce tips, apricot, pear skin; sparkling
Undated | 8% ABV

dry; ripe cantaloupe, lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon curd, apricot, ripe apple, pineapple, mango, white flowers; sparkling
2017 | 9.5% ABV

dry; lemon, pear skin, grapefruit, dried twigs, VA; sparkling
2018 | 9% ABV

dry; Meyer lemon, lemon pith, plum skin, apricot, VA; sparkling
2019 | 9% ABV

dry; lemon peel and pith, lemon blossom, apricot, dried thyme, grapefruit peel; sparkling
2019 | 9.5% ABV

dry; rose, lemon curd, apricot, grapefruit, green herbs, pear, honeydew melon; sparkling
2020 | 9.1% ABV

dry; lemon peel, lemon curd, grapefruit peel and pith, fennel, just ripe apricot, green pear; sparkling
2021 | 9.5% ABV


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