With the largest and most diverse collection of apples used in cider making under its care, Somerset cider maker Thatchers has been partnering with the University of Bristol in a ground-breaking project that is using DNA fingerprinting techniques to identify apple tree varieties.
With many old and heritage varieties of apple trees beginning to disappear, the project is using genotyping – a process that compares DNA to find the differences in genetic make-up – to identify different varieties of cider apples.
Led by Professor Keith Edwards from the School of Biological Sciences and post-graduate student Alex Graham, scientists from the university visited Thatchers’ Exhibition Orchard to gather leaf samples for genotyping and thus identification. The biggest collection of apples for cider making in the country, Thatchers’ Exhibition Orchard contains hundreds of different varieties of apple tree, many of which were saved from the Long Ashton Research Station when cider research stopped in 1985. The researchers have also been out to other Thatchers’ orchards to gather samples, helping them create the largest database of apple tree fingerprints in the world, with over 2,500 genotypes present.
Chris Muntz-Torres, Thatchers Farm Manager has been involved in the project since its inception. “This is such a fantastic piece of research which will help us understand even more about the trees in our orchards. As with any research, you’re not always sure what’s going to be found. Although we think we know about the trees in our Exhibition Orchard with detailed plans we’ve compiled over the years as new trees have been planted, you never know, the research may identify variety that’s been lost and now rediscovered. That would be such an exciting find!
“By using the DNA technique to tell us more about the pedigree of each variety in our Exhibition orchard, we hope to be able to start creating new varieties of apple for cider making with the characteristics that we love as cider makers.”
Professor Edwards says, “By taking a leaf and fingerprinting it, we are in effect creating a barcode for that tree. And from that we are able to produce a reliable process for easy identification in the future. By visiting the UK’s most influential orchards, such as at Brogdale, The National Botanic Garden of Wales, and the Thatchers Exhibition Orchard, we’re creating a database that will be a valuable resource like no other for all cider makers.”
The researchers also asked local communities to send in leaf samples from unidentified apple trees in their gardens or allotments to help in the project.
“This is a 20-30 year process,” adds Alex Graham, who has collected some 2,500 leaf samples for the research. “The results will tell us what varieties we have now and the pedigree of each, assisting with future breeding of new varieties, perhaps high in tannin, or disease resistant. We need to make sure this knowledge is secure for the future of cider making.”
Family cider maker Thatchers Cider has over 500 acres of its own orchard in Somerset. By choosing its apple varieties carefully, and ensuring an exceptionally high standard of fruit grown in its orchards, Thatchers cider makers have created a distinctive style for its products, helping it grow to be the largest independently owned cider maker in the UK.