The Growler’s Field Guide to Cider, Chapter 4: Science and Definitions

Photo by Michael Tallman

Photo courtesy of 2 Towns Cider House

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Good cider starts with good soil. The acidity, porousness, organic matter, microbial activity, and structure of soil all impact what types of trees will grow and the quality and characteristics of the fruit those trees will produce. Ideal apple tree soil is granular, porous, and slightly acidic.

Planting a seed from a specific fruit—a McIntosh apple, for example—does not guarantee that a McIntosh apple will grow from that seed. Instead, orchardists must graft trees to know what they’re going to get. Grafting involves taking a branch (called a scion) from the variety of tree that needs to be duplicated and attaching it to a rootstock (the part of a tree that will form the root system of the new plant) of another tree by gluing or otherwise binding the two pieces together.

When deciding on which apple varieties to blend into a cider, the three key elements to consider are sugar, acidity, and tannins. The ideal mix for most modern ciders is approximately 75 percent sweet (high sugar, low acid content) and sharp (high acid content) apples, and 25 percent bitter (high tannin content) apples.

Cidermakers debate about when juice from the selected apples should be blended. Some say it’s best to ferment individual styles first and blend post-fermentation. Others say it’s better to blend the juice pre-fermentation. Regardless, the goal is to achieve the right balance of sweet, bitter, and sharp that best represents the style being made.

Following apple selection is the optional step of sweating the apples, or letting them sit in open air for about a week to soften them and concentrate their sugar content. Many cidermakers opt to put the just-harvested apples directly into storage instead.

Before pressing, the apples are washed and ground into as fine a pomace as possible—the skin, seeds, and stems are included, and add character to the future cider. After grinding, the juice is pressed from the pomace, gathered into clean plastic or stainless steel vessels, and funneled into fermentation containers.

At this point, many cidermakers add enough sulfites (sulfur dioxide) to the juice to kill unwanted yeasts and bacteria (though some “good” yeasts will remain). Labels in the U.S. and Europe must contain the statement “Contains sulfites” when sulfur dioxide is detected at a level of 10 or more parts per million (the legal permitted limit in the U.S. is 220 parts per million).

It’s now time for fermentation. First, the yeast—both ambient ones found on apple skin, equipment, or in the air, and commercial yeasts added to achieve specific dryness levels or flavor profiles—converts the juice’s natural sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Next comes malolactic fermentation, when bacteria ferment sharp malic acid into softer lactic acid. This step is optional, but it can help smooth out cider that is too acidic and tannic at the end of the first fermentation. If a cidermaker wants to retain natural sugars or prevent malolactic fermentation, they can stop fermentation early by lowering the temperature of the liquid, which stunts the yeast’s activity.

Once fermentation is complete, the juice is transferred into second fermentation tanks or bottles to be carbonated. Many ciders are also filtered or infused with a fining agent such as gelatin or pectic enzyme at this point, to make them as clear as possible before being transferred. Additional sugar may be added back into the cider at this step, too, if the cider is too dry. This is called backsweetening and is often done using honey or unsweetened fruit juice.

Most ciders are carbonated before being packaged. There are four primary options when it comes to carbonization: forced carbonation (carbon dioxide is injected into the liquid); méthode traditionnelle (additional sugar and yeast are added to bottled cider, resulting in second fermentation; bottles are then stored neck-down and, when the dead yeast settles, the sediment in the neck is expelled); tank method (additional sugar and yeast are added and the cider undergoes secondary fermentation in a tank); and pétillant-naturel (the cider bottle-ferments but, rather than removing the dead yeast and sediment, it stays in the bottle, creating a cloudy final product).

Once the cider is filtered, carbonated (or not), and bottled, its remaining lifespan is determined by the types of apples that were used to make it. Like wine, not every cider should be aged. Ciders made with apples lacking the necessary tannins should be consumed within a few months. Those made with higher tannin apples can be aged up to a few years.

Cider, according to its technical definition, is “fruit wines derived wholly (except for sugar, water or added alcohol) from apples.” If it has effervescence created solely from secondary fermentation, it’s defined as “sparkling”; if its bubbles come from forcing carbon dioxide into the liquid, it’s “carbonated.”

Natural Cider is cider from Asturias and the Basque Country in Spain, and other regions in which wild yeasts and similar apple varieties and production techniques are used to achieve a dry, funky flavor profile. Also called sidra natural or sagardo naturala.

Heritage Ciders are made primarily from multi-use or cider-specific bittersweet/bittersharp apples, with wild or crab apples sometimes used for acidity/tannin balance. They are generally higher in tannin than Modern Ciders and lack the malolactic fermentation flavor often found in Traditional Ciders.

Traditional Ciders encompass those produced in the West Country of England, Northern France, and other regions in which cider-specific apple varieties and production techniques—slow or arrested fermentation, malolactic fermentation, fermenting and aging in wood barrels—are used. English styles tend to be dry and austere, whereas French styles are richer and sweeter.

Modern Ciders are made primarily from culinary apples. Compared to other styles, they are generally lower in tannin and higher in acidity.

Grafs have no cut-and-dry definition. It’s a hybrid cider-beer beverage made from mixing apple juice with beer wort and then fermenting it with whichever yeast variety offers the desired flavors. Sometimes called fruit beer or apple-based beer (and sometimes spelled “graff”), they are widely interpreted by cidermakers and brewers, and range in flavor from apple-forward to malt- or yeast-dominant.

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.