If you’ve read a beer menu lately, chances are that a few hard cider choices were nestled under the lagers and IPA’s. Boozy apple cider is being promoted – hard – as the new party kid on the block. In fact, hard cider – or in Europe, simply “cider” – has been around for ages…
A Brief History of Cider
In Roman times, cider was being made in Celtic Brittany and in northern Spain, where it was discovered by Caesar’s armies. During the Middle Ages, war (again) brought cider from France to England where it became the most popular drink after ale – by most accounts France is the largest cider producing country but England still has the highest per capita consumption!
US cider dates back to colonial times – apples were bountiful in New England and apple cider was a drink of choice for adults and children (alcohol being then potentially safer to drink than water). Colonists sometimes worked out barter arrangements and would pay bills with barrels of hard cider, a practice remembered from medieval English times. Thomas Jefferson brewed cider and Ben Franklin quipped, “He that drinks his cider alone, let him also catch his horse alone.”
But cider’s popularity waned in the late 1800’s as people migrated to cities, leaving orchards behind while the Midwest increasingly farmed grain and brewed beer. Largely ignored through the 20th century cider got rediscovered a few years ago as a gluten-free alternative to beer – with a craft-beer-like small-batch aura. Beverage conglomerates quickly cashed in on the millennial trend – Stella Artois Cider is Anheuser–Busch and Angry Orchard – the largest US producer – is Sam Adams, for instance.
Making Boozy Apple Cider
Beer, cider and wine all are born from fermentation – yeast is added to grains for beer, to grapes for wine, to apples for cider (cider can be also made from other fruits, such as pears). The basic steps from apples to cider are simple – but as always art and skill are in the details…
🍎 First, apples are pressed into raw, unfiltered juice (called “must”). It takes a lot of apples to produce juice – a bushel of apples (over 40 pounds of fruit) yields about 3 gallons of juice! Apples are not peeled – their skin contains the acids, tannins and other compounds which give a cider its character.
Unlike wines, ciders are rarely made using only one or two fruit varietals. While crabapples and varieties grown for cider making are rich in acids and tannins, they lack the complexity of grapes and are blended to create more complex flavors.
🍏 Yeast is then added to the must to ferment sugars into alcohol – commonly a white wine yeast or champagne yeast strand. Fermentation takes no more than a few weeks – similar to the fermentation time of wine (aging is an entirely different matter). But cider apples hold less sugars than ripe grapes, which is why most ciders have lower alcohol (2-7% ABV ‘alcohol by volume’) than wines (mostly 10-18% ABV). Higher alcohol ciders do exist: English “scrumpy” cider reaches 12%.
Yeast is a fungus, a live single-cell organism. Whether added to grain, grain flour, or juice, yeast absorbs sugar and breaks it down into alcohol and CO2. For beer, wine, or cider, the must is placed in a closed but porous fermenter – alcohol remains but CO2 is released. (Fermentation may be allowed to continue after bottling, trapping the last bit of CO2 to create sparkling wines, beer, and cider.) In contrast, when bread dough is placed in a warm oven, alcohol evaporates but CO2 remains within the dough, making it rise.
⏳ Most ciders are not aged more than a few weeks, if at all – Few are aged more than six months.
The Language of Cider Types
US vs the World – In the US, “apple juice” is filtered, pasteurized juice, often sweetened; “cider” is unfiltered juice; “hard cider” is alcohol. In most of the rest of the world: cider is alcohol and juice is not!
Dry, Off-Dry, Semi-Sweet – Cider designations have no rigid criteria. But generally speaking, dry hard ciders have little residual sugar (less than 0.5%) and therefore higher alcohol. Off-Dry ciders typically hold 1-2% residual sugar, semi-sweet (or semi-dry…) ciders contain 2%-4% sugar – sweeter ciders are less acidic, smoother, with more body and a richer apple flavor.
French, English, Spanish ciders – English ciders, made primarily from bittersweet apple varieties, tend to be drier. French-style cider tends to be a little sweeter and champagne-like – a process called keeving is often used to control fermentation time and achieve a precise amount of dryness. The yeasts used for Spanish-style ciders (“sidra”) lend them a tart, slightly vinegary feel, similar to sour beers – they are sometimes called “funky ciders.”
A Little French
🏴“Cidre Brut” is dry cider, “Cidre Doux” is semi-sweet cider. Most French ciders are sparkling “cidres bouchés”, corked Champagne-style.
🏴 Unlike other countries, France defined criteria for cider-making which result in a fairly predictable flavor profile. French ciders following these regulations get to display “Appellation D’Origine Contrôlée” (AOC) or “Appellation D’Origine Protégée” (AOP). (There is no practical difference between the two.)
🏴 Famous origin designations are Cidre de Normandie, Cidre Cotentin, Pays d’Auge from Normandy and Cornouailles et Cidre de Bretagne from Brittany.
🏴 Calvados is a hard-liquor drink distilled from cider – it is to cider as brandy is to wine.
🏴 Pommeau is an aged “aperitif” mixed from Calvados and unfermented cider must to an alcohol level around 16% ABV. Until recently it was only produced in France, but some US cider makers – such as Tamworth or Orchard Hill – are now branching out into it.
Where to Start
Finding the right cider for your taste will unavoidably require trial and error. We won’t name names but in all honesty, we found many store-bought ciders to lack in flavor, smoothness and subtlety. There are hundreds of craft brewers, but with no clear classifications by varietals, ciders remain a dizzying array of tastes. At this time last year, Food&Wine published a list of “30 Best Ciders”…
If lack of familiarity is an issue, start with Angry Orchard’s Walden Hollow corked cider. Or look for French cider with AOP/AOC designations to figure out which regional idiosyncrasies fit your palate best. If you want a high-level recommendation, Brittany’s Domaine de Kerveguen has been served at the French presidential palace for a quarter century.
But be adventurous now that you know what to look for.