Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series about hard cider. The second, written by Chris Stamp, will focus on the nuts and bolts of cider production.
Two processes for making ice cider are depicted in this video produced by staff with La Face Cachée de la Pomme in Québec Canada. Click the image above to watch the video.
Within the past five years, hard cider has become one of the hottest segments in the alcoholic beverage industry. Sales of domestically produced hard cider tripled between 2007 and 2012, and today there are more than 150 cider producers across the United States and Canada. There is plenty of room for market expansion, as apples are grown across the country and can be made into a low-alcohol cider in many different locations by both winemakers and brew masters.
Recognizing the rising popularity of cider across the country, organizers of the Eastern Winery Exposition opted to include a half-day workshop that followed the main conference in March and addressed many aspects of cider. The different styles of cider, the varieties of apples used and various production issues such as yeast selection and stabilization were addressed by speakers from Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.
Defining hard cider
Historically, there have been four natural intoxicating beverages: wine, beer, mead and cider. Wine is fermented from grapes; beer is made from grain and hops; mead comes from honey; but what is cider? For those of us who grew up after World War II and before the 1980s, cider was a brown, cloudy beverage that had fresh fruity flavors from recently picked apples. And it definitely was not alcoholic (unless a bottle was left in the refrigerator too long and started to get “fizzy,” whereupon one’s mother always threw it out as “undrinkable”).
Our perception of cider was a direct result of a combination of factors from approximately 100 years of industrial and societal changes that culminated in Prohibition during the 1920s. While there has always been fresh juice from apples (also called sweet cider), Prohibition eliminated the other beverage made from apple juice: hard cider.
In the early days of our country, the colonists drank a lot of cider. Apples were abundant and cheap, and their juice was easily converted by fermentation into a hard cider or by distillation into applejack, otherwise known as apple brandy. In colonial times, cider was considered to be a healthier beverage than water, which was perceived as containing bacteria that could make people sick. By 1767, the annual consumption of cider in Massachusetts was 35 gallons per capita.
By the early 19th century, northern New Jersey was the Napa Valley of cider production; Essex County, N.J., alone produced 198,000 barrels of cider in 1810. While Thomas Jefferson tried valiantly to grow grapes in Virginia, his daily beverage was cider, not wine. At that time, wine was primarily imported, and consequently it was expensive and not available for consumption by the average citizen. Beer also was not as easy to make and was more expensive than cider.
The Industrial Revolution in the 1800s changed the kinds of beverages that people drank in the United States. As grain became more widely produced on farms in the Midwest, and mechanized equipment allowed for larger farms, beer became the daily beverage of choice, and cider fell out of favor. In addition, apple breeders in the 19th century actively worked to select apples for dessert and culinary uses, while the bitter, tannic and astringent qualities in apples that helped to produce good hard cider were consciously eliminated. By the end of the century, consumption of hard cider had dropped dramatically.
Other societal factors had an impact on cider, including the rise of the temperance movement in the late 1800s, which associated hard cider and applejack with brandy. In 1920 Prohibition officially put an end to the consumption of hard cider. Hard cider did not begin to re-emerge in the U.S. until the 1980s and early 1990s, and cider is now seen as a low-alcohol beverage with excellent potential for sales growth.
Both England and France have long traditions of cider production that go back hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Cider was made in England during the occupation by the Roman Empire; the cider used local crabapples and culinary apples brought to the country by the Roman legions. The style of cider depended on the apples available, local tastes and the methods used by the maker.
During the 17th century, English landowners made a conscious effort to improve cider apples so that the finished cider would have more similarity to wine produced from Vitis vinifera grapes. The long-term selection of domestic seedling trees that produced tannic fruit as well as the importation of some cider apple trees from France resulted in an increase in the typical astringency of cider so that it tasted more like wine.
In England, cider apples are categorized into four types according to their acidic and bitter/astringent taste (see English Cider Apple Categories, above). The acidity in apples is primarily due to malic acid, and the bitterness comes from phenolic compounds mainly located in the skins. The phenolic compounds also give the juice a darker color when it is oxidized.
English cider is traditionally fermented to dryness with the goal of avoiding infection. Fermentation takes place at 20°-25°C for one to four weeks, and the resulting cider is usually between 5% and 8% ABV (alcohol by volume). In England, where bittersweet apples with lower acidity and higher astringency are often used for cider, the absence of sugar and the lower acid results in a cider with a reasonable acid-sugar balance but with more apparent bitterness and astringency. This astringency becomes more significant in the mouthfeel as the acidity is less significant. The use of malolactic fermentation also reduces the amount of fruitiness in the English ciders.
Cider made by large cider producers in England (and the United States), sometimes known as “macro cider,” is made from a high-Brix blend of apple juice or app le juice concentrate, water and sugar. The English cider apples may be included as freshly pressed juice or as specialty apple juice concentrate evaporated from unfermented apple juice. In the late 1990s and early 21st century, a price war between the leading English producers led to the replacement of a sizable portion of the apple component in cider with sugar and water. The increased use of chaptalization and dilution resulted in inferior quality ciders that significantly damaged the reputation of English macro cider.
French cider has a lower alcohol content than English cider (between 2% and 5% ABV) and usually has some residual sweetness. In the cider-producing regions in northwestern France, the residual sweetness is the result of a traditional technique known as keeving. This is a precipitation process in which a calcium salt (traditionally a mixture of chalk and salt) is added to the apple juice prior to fermentation. The natural pectin methyl esterase gradually converts the soluble pectin in the juice to pectic acid, which combines with the calcium to form an insoluble calcium pectate gel. As fermentation begins, the pectate gel is slowly pushed up by the fermentation gases and forms a brown cap known as the “chapeau brun.” Some of the pectin combines with the juice protein and tannins and drops to the bottom. The clear juice between the cap and the sediment can then be pumped or siphoned into another container to continue fermenting.
Many of the nutrients, a substantial number of yeast cells and most spoilage microorganisms in the juice are left behind in the cap and the sediment. As a result of keeving and temperatures below 60°F, fermentation of French ciders is extremely slow and may take as long as a year to finish. The goal of keeving is to remove nutrients from the juice to ensure a slow fermentation into a cider that can be bottled with some residual sweetness without the occurrence of refermentation after bottling.
French cider is frequently bottled in Champagne-style bottles with deep punts and mushroom corks held in place by wire cages. Because the cider is bottled before fermentation is totally finished, it has a natural sweetness from the residual sugar and also higher levels of carbonation.
Most of the apples in the United States today are grown for dessert and culinary purposes. As a result, many of those varieties are not suitable for cider production; they lack the tannins, acid and astringency to make a flavorful cider. However, as the popularity of cider has increased, so has the demand for apple varieties whose only function is to provide juice for hard cider. These cider apples often are small, unattractive, hard, bitter and astringent, but those qualities translate into interesting and distinct hard ciders.
Gary Awdey, president of the Great Lakes Cider & Perry Association, noted at the Eastern Winery Exposition’s Cider Workshop that while some American cider apples are more tannic than the culinary apples, the level of astringency in American apples is generally much lower than that of English and French bittersweet and bittersharp cider apples. Consequently, even when blends are made of juice from culinary apples and cider apples, cider in this country tends to be more on the sweet side.
American hard cider is defined not so much by a particular style or styles, but by the way the cider is produced. As in England, larger companies in the United States make “macro cider,” often using non-traditional ingredients and processes, including apple juice concentrates, sugar, water and various flavors. Mass producers have packaged cider in 12-ounce bottles, which puts cider in direct competition with beer in the marketplace. The production cost of beer is much less than the cost of making cider, which has put cider at a cost disadvantage. Only the largest producers with the economy of scale and widespread distribution can compete in this business model.
Craft cider, on the other hand, is more traditional. These hard ciders are fermented from the juice of crushed apples and are often variety dependent. Many craft cider producers either grow their own heirloom apple varieties or seek out orchards that grow apples with a range of flavors, bitterness and astringency.
One of the advantages for craft cider makers is the relatively inexpensive cost of apples. A bushel of apples may be purchased for as little as $4.50, and that bushel will ultimately yield approximately 13.5 liters of cider, or 18 bottles. If each 750ml bottle sold for $15, the gross revenue would be $270, or less than 25 cents per bottle for the fruit.
The craft cider producers use more typical wine-production processes to make their ciders. Like grapes, the apples are crushed or milled, pressed, cool fermented, stabilized, filtered and packaged. The process usually moves quickly, with a short turnaround time between fermentation and packaging in order to make sure the cider is clean and fresh.
While some small cideries started selling their cider in 12-ounce bottles, many have switched to 750ml bottles, which can command a higher price. One winery, Hauser Estate Vineyards in Biglersville, Pa., packages their Jack’s Cider in 12-ounce cans.
In Vermont and Quebec, Canada, some wineries are now producing ice ciders. These ciders follow the model of ice wine production: The apple juice is frozen, often utilizing the naturally cold weather. As the juice thaws, the ice is left behind, and cider is fermented from the juice that now has sugar levels of approximately 35° Brix. Ice cider, sometimes called apple ice wine in Quebec, will often have a residual sugar of 15% to 20% and an alcohol level of 10% to 13%.
Regulation and taxation for different alcohol levels
State and federal regulatory agencies have a definite impact on the styles, pricing and marketing of hard ciders. The alcohol level of a hard cider affects the rate of taxation and, in some states, can determine where the cider can be sold. For example, in Pennsylvania, because the alcohol level is similar to that of beer, hard cider can be sold through beer distributors.