The Garden State was a player in the hard cider industry until the prohibition era. Today, a Rutgers researcher is taking it upon herself to identify how New Jersey can get back in the game.

Megan Muehlbauer, a Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station agent, currently has more than 30 varieties of apples growing on a Pittstown farm, to see how well they'd grow in New Jersey's challenging climate.

Obtained from a USDA repository in New York, the heirloom varieties being analyzed by Muehlbauer are small and tart, and typically aren't ideal for farmers to sell directly to consumers at farm stands. Generally speaking, the sweet apples you pick off New Jersey orchard trees in the fall wouldn't contribute to the flavor and complexity of true hard ciders.

"They have a different type of yield, the sizes of the apples are different, the flavors of the apples are different. So it's kind of a new game for growers," Muehlbauer said.

If research can narrow the list down to five varieties that produce promising yields and handle disease pressure really well, Muehlbauer said, she's made a solid contribution to the industry.

"One of the most important things we can do is help farmers make informed decisions about what they plant," she said.

Muehlbauer's research, in part, has a goal of helping farmers transform their existing orchards into quality cider producers, instead of ordering trees from a nursery. Research has already uncovered some encouraging results; using wood from the desired new varieties and grafting it onto existing apple trees, there's been no evidence so far of disease such as fire blight.

New Jersey's hard cider industry dates back to colonial times and was prosperous for generations until it ended during prohibition. A couple farms in the state are currently producing cider, but this is the first time Rutgers has tried to grow heritage varieties to boost the industry.