Brandon Vriends tends to shy away from buying apples at the grocery store — which is completely understandable given the fact that he bites into about 20 apple varieties every day in the great outdoors.
"I'll bite into it and I'll go, 'Huh, that's very flavourful, or that's very dry,'" said Vriends, a fourth-year biology student at UPEI.
"An apple you bite into and it kinda makes you gag or want to vomit because it's so sour, or just leaves your mouth so dry you can't swallow, are actually the ideal cider apples."
While dessert apples are typically sweet, shiny and polished, that's not the type Vriends is looking for. Instead, he is teaming up with a local cidery for a research project that involves scouring the Island for wild apples that are more unpredictable, often a little banged up but make for delicious cider.
"Our mission is to find that perfect tree," said Sebastian Manago, the owner of Double Hill Cidery.
"What I'm most excited about is to get that unique flavour of cider that we can go to the cider competitions all across the world and say, 'This is a unique cider made from unique varieties in a unique method from P.E.I.'"
The hunt for red October apples
In a cidery so full of apples that the cool air already smells like pie — the so-called "perfect one" still doesn't exist.
Luckily for Manago, Prince Edward Island is full of wild apple trees and because most aren't self-pollinating, each tree grows fruit made up of entirely different DNA.
"Just like I'm different from my parents, there's part of each of them in me — and I look different from them, and I act differently from them. It's the same thing with apples, but on a more extreme scale," said Derek Plotkowski, a research consultant on the project.
"All of these wild apples are completely unique. There are no other varieties in the world like them."
I think Brandon has tested at least hundreds of trees. He's bitten into hundreds of different apples. — Sebastian Manago, Double Hill Cidery
Plotkowski's role in the research is still gearing up. So far, he's taught Vriends to identify the different flavours such as astringency, or bitterness, through exercises like sipping over-steeped tea.
"We drank it and it's horrible. It makes your mouth tighten up," Plotkowski said clenching his jaw.
Once the taste-testing is done, the best finds will be brought to the lab. Plotkowski will then help analyze attributes like the acidity, sugar levels and polyphenol concentration.
"There we will be able to identify our candidate trees."
To ensure those prized attributes remain intact, the branches — not seeds — from the top apple varieties will be grafted onto roots already in the orchard.
"I think Brandon has tested at least hundreds of trees. He's bitten into hundreds of different apples," said Manago with a laugh.
"Most of them are either too early, too acidic, not interesting, bland, not flavourful, lacking tannins but some that he's found are really really interesting."
With more trees left to check, Vriends isn't giving up yet.
"I found a few that I think could be added to the blend of ciders but I'm still on the hunt for the perfect apple," he said.
So as the extensive search continues for a fruit that makes you tighten your jaw and salivate at its mere thought, a reminder that maybe that sour apple tree in your yard isn't yielding bad fruit after all.
Perhaps it's just full of cider apples.