The recent growth in the U.S. hard-cider industry has increased the demand for cider apples (Malus ×domestica Borkh.), but little is known about how to manage orchard soil fertility best to optimize horticultural performance and juice characteristics for these cultivars. To assess whether nitrogen fertilizer applied to the soil can improve apple juice and cider quality, calcium nitrate (CaNO3) fertilizer was applied at different rates to the soil beneath ‘Golden Russet’ and ‘Medaille d’Or’ trees over the course of three growing seasons. The experiment started when the trees were in their second leaf. The trees were cropped in their third and fourth leaf. At the end of the first growing season of the experiment, the greatest fertilizer rate increased tree trunk cross-sectional area (TCSA) by 82% relative to the control, but this difference did not persist through to the end of the study. Yield and crop load were unaffected by the nitrogen fertilization treatments. Increasing the nitrogen fertilizer rate correlated positively with more advanced harvest maturity in ‘Golden Russet’ fruit, which resulted in greater soluble solid concentration (SSC). Fruit from the greatest fertilizer rate treatment had an average starch pattern index (SPI) that was 1 U greater than in the control, and an SSC that was 3% greater than the control. The fertilizer treatments did not affect juice pH, titratable acidity (TA), or total polyphenol concentrations. Yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN) concentrations were increased by nitrogen fertilization for both cultivars in both harvest years. The greatest fertilizer treatment increased juice primary amino nitrogen by 103% relative to the control. Greater nitrogen fertilization rates correlated positively with less hydrogen sulfide production during the fermentation of ‘Golden Russet’ juice from the first, but not the second, harvest. During the first year, cumulative hydrogen sulfide production for the ‘Golden Russet’ control treatment was 29.6 μg·L–1 compared with the ‘Golden Russet’ high treatment, which cumulatively produced 0.1 μg·L–1. Greater maximum fermentation rates and shorter fermentation durations correlated positively with increased fertilization rate for both cultivars after the second harvest. High treatment fermentations had maximum fermentation rates 110% greater, and fermentation durations 30% shorter than the control. Other horticultural and juice-quality parameters were not affected negatively by the CaNO3 treatments. In orchards producing apples specifically for the hard-cider industry, nitrogen fertilizer could increase juice YAN, thus reducing the need for exogenous additions during cider production.
Yeast assimilable nitrogen (YAN) can be a limiting nutritional factor for Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast when fermenting apple (Malus ×domestica Borkh.) juice into hard cider. Endogenous YAN concentrations in apples are often below the recommended thresholds to completely use all of the fermentable sugar and minimize the production of off-flavors, such as hydrogen sulfide. Cider producers supplement apple juice with exogenous nitrogen to increase YAN. Urea, commonly applied to apple orchards to increase fruit size and yields, was tested for its ability to increase endogenous apple juice YAN. Starting 6 weeks before harvest in 2017 and 2018, a 1% urea solution was applied to ‘Red Spy’ apple trees one, three, or five times to create low-, medium-, and high-rate treatments, respectively. Relative to the control, the high treatment increased YAN by 229% in 2017 and by 408% in 2018. More than 90% of the YAN in all juice samples was composed of primary amino nitrogen (PAN). Among all treatments, PAN mostly comprised asparagine, and as urea applications increased, the relative concentration of asparagine also increased. Aspartic acid and then glutamic acid were the second and third most abundant amino acids in all treatments, respectively, but comprised less of the total PAN as the number of urea applications increased. Soluble solid concentration, pH, titratable acidity, and total polyphenol concentration were not different among treatments. There was a positive correlation between increased urea application rate and the maximum fermentation rate, which resulted in a shorter fermentation duration. Increasing the number of urea applications was also correlated with greater hydrogen sulfide (H2S) production in juice fermented from fruit harvested in 2017 but not for fruit harvested in 2018. No residual H2S was found in the finished cider from any treatment. Increasing the number of urea applications was estimated to be less expensive than supplementing the juice with Fermaid O™. There would have been no cost savings if Fermaid K™ was used as an exogenous nitrogen source. Foliar urea applications were estimated to be more expensive than supplementing juice with diammonium phosphate. This study demonstrated that foliar urea applications can effectively increase YAN concentration in cider apples while not negatively affecting other juice quality attributes.