We have a range of specialist hard-cider apple varieties, as well as mainstream apple varieties that can be used in hard-cider blends and for sweet cider.
Apple trees for making hard cider (including cider trees, apple trees, and crab-apple trees)
In England and France hard cider is almost exclusively made with apple varieties that are grown solely for hard cider production. These are primarily traditional varieties which produce juice with the specific qualities needed in hard cider blends. The apples are often quite late flowering and ripening and cannot be eaten - they are tannic and unpalatable. They are often classified by their tannin levels, the most tannic being known as "bitter".
Other mainstream varieties might be used in cider blends in England, notably Bramley (to provide acid and for its copious juice) and Cox (which adds a rich sweet flavor). Some small producers are beginning to experiment with hard cider using other mainstream varieties - but for the most part English and French cider is dominated by the use of the traditional hard-cider varieties.
English hard cider is usually made from a blend of cider apples, indeed the selection of juices from different varieties with different tannin and acid levels is part of the art of English cider-making. However some varieties, notably Dabinett and Kingston Black, yield a balanced juice which is sometimes used to make "single varietal" hard cider.
Perry or pear cider is growing in popularity in England, and as with hard apple cider, is made with traditional perry pears varieties. These pears are very tannic and not edible, they are grown exclusively for their juice.
The specialist English hard cider and perry varieties tend to grow best in the cooler climate zones in the USA, because for the most part they do not develop properly in areas with long hot summers. For example, on the east coast, you should be successful in NY and PA but VA is perhaps too warm.
Sweet apple cider in England is made with mainstream apples, sometimes blended and sometimes using single varieties. Cox, Kidd's Orange Red, and russets such as Ashmead's Kernel and Egremont Russet are popular for sweet cider in England. In France sweet cider is made primarily with Golden Delicious apples.
In contrast the American tradition is to use mainstream eating or cooking apples which are known to have interesting juice qualities for both sweet and / or hard cider production. In addition, American hard cider often makes use of rich-flavored crab apples such as Wickson Crab or Hewe's Virginia Crab. In some ways these fill the role of the specialist hard-cider varieties in English cider production, lending extra levels of acidity and tannins, providing body and structure to the finished drink.
If you happen to be reading books about cider in England or France you may find the terminology confusing. In England hard cider is known simply as "cider", and sweet cider is known as "apple juice" - so the word "cider" always refers to an alcoholic drink.