What Is Cider?
Alcoholic cider, also known as hard cider, has gotten increasingly popular in recent years. Hard ciders don't have the yeasty, hoppy taste of beer, though they have roughly the same amount of alcohol along with plenty of bubbles to enjoy. Because of that, they're an excellent alternative alcoholic beverage to craft beer.
How much do you know about the alcoholic drink that is cider? It turns out that it's got a fascinating history. Here are some unfiltered facts. See what we did there?
To some, it might seem that hard ciders are relatively new. However, the history of cider goes back centuries. Traditional cider comes from apples, and because of that, nobody really knows its true origin; apples grow all over the world. Still, historians have determined that cider may date back to ~55 B.C.
Hundreds of years ago, cider (and perry) makers used whatever apples (and pears) grew in their region, quote often crabapples. They, crabapples, have a bitter taste, so early ciders tended to be considerably drier than our local and commercially available ciders are.
There are records from the time of Julius Caesar that reference cider, specifically stating that Britons were making cider from native crabapples. Spain was creating its own cider around the time of Christ. In fact, cider became so popular following following the Norman Conquest of England that it unhorsed beer. At the time - and for most of their history - apples grew in cooler climates like those found in Western Europe. Unfortunately, Europe and Great Britain were notoriously bad at record-keeping, so we don't have an exact decade or society of origin.
When Europeans began arriving in New England in the 1600s, they brought apple seeds and began to plant trees to bear fruit. Though by the late 1800s, beer had become the more popular alcoholic beverage in the United States as the country transformed from an agrarian society to an industrial one.
It should be no surprise that the regions in the United States known for producing the best ciders are also the regions known for apple farming. Vermont and other the New England states along with New York are long heralded for their cider making. The Pacific Northwest is another powerhouse in the cider game, with Washington (of course!) leading the pack. States like California and Colorado produce some excellent craft ciders as well.
Styles & Types of Cider
For most of its history, the style and type of cider wasn't of much concern, as the apples available to cider makers were extremely limited. Globalization, shipping, and the proliferation of the internet (for the increase in information transfer) helped push cider variety to the forefront.
There are three primary styles of cider: Modern, Heritage or Traditional, and Old World. Less common are specialty-style ciders that don't adhere to the guidelines on the other three. Each style has at least one subtype of cider.
This is to say nothing of Non-alcoholic cider, which can be made to be boozy; just check the New York Times cooking section to find a mulled cider recipe if you're interested. And, Apple cider vinegar, which we won't dive deep into here, which is made from cider, the benefits of which are countless.
Modern cider-making uses culinary apples like Gala, Golden Delicious, Fuji, McIntosh, and Granny Smith apples. They tend to have a strong apple taste and aroma, and range in color from bright gold to pale yellow, and from very clear to hazy. These ciders are also sweet even when their labels claim they're dry - sometimes even very dry. While there are truly dry ciders out there, modern ciders aren't among them. Besides that, you don't have the yeasty flavor that you get with beer, even though cider production does require yeast.
Modern cider's alcohol content is generally between seven and nine percent ABV. What you get with modern cider is a very sweet, highly carbonated drink that can satisfy a wide variety of tastes and desires. Types of cider that fall under this style include New World, New England, cider blends with other fruit, cranberry and apple come to mind, and spiced cider.
Traditional or Heritage Cider
A cidery will produce these ciders on a smaller scale than modern ciders and use both culinary and true cider apples in their manufacture. Those apples include Baldwin, Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet, Winesap, Winter Banana, Wickson, Gravenstein, and Rhode Island Greening, among others.
If you've never heard of these types of apples before, it's probably because you usually don't eat them. They aren't planted and cultivated in any significant quantity, meaning there's a limited supply of them. They generally only make their way into hard cider, although you might occasionally find some at a farmer's market.
These ciders aren't considered to be sweet cider. They tend to range from off-dry to bone-dry. You will, however, get a cider that pairs well with food.
Canada has a particular heritage cider they make with the McIntosh apple, which they call "loyalist-style" and they manage to make it much drier than modern ciders that use McIntoshes.
Types of heritage cider include ice cider and apple wine.
Old World Cider
You'll usually only find Old World cider in Europe as it is typically not produced in North America and local craft beer & cider specialty shops don't import it. When you think of Old World cider, you think of the English and the French. Old World cider has complex flavors and aromas when compared against heritage and modern ciders. European cideries use yeast that's already growing on the outside of the fruit and in the equipment used to mill and ferment the juice. The result is an entirely different set of flavors than what you get with yeast grown in a lab.
The flavor profile of Old World cider depends on the region where it is crafted. Cider from England has a slightly smoky flavor, tending to be dry and a bit astringent. On the other hand, France produces sweeter ciders. One of the ways they do this is through a process called keeving. Keeving is a slow and arduous fermentation process that prevents part of the yeast from transforming the natural sugar into alcohol, resulting in extra sweetness.
Old World cider may not have much of a presence in North America at the moment, but that's changing. It's growing in popularity, and we're importing more all the time.
Specialty ciders take hard cider and play around with it. These ciders are spiced, wood-aged, hopped, and use extra flavors from berries, passion fruits, and other fruits. While the sky isn't necessarily the limit on these, it's not far off.
Spiced ciders and ciders made with other fruit fall into this style, as does rosé, which a cider company can make from apples with pale pink centers. Makers can also produce rosé ciders using grape skins, rose or hibiscus petals, other red fruit, or food-grade dye.
Cideries can use any apple fit for consumption to make cider. Some makers prefer to mix "eating apples" with cider apples, and others prefer to stick exclusively to cider apples. Apple choice is among the most important parts of the cider production process.
Processing the Apples
The first step is to grind the apples down, or scratt them, into a pulp. That pulp is then transferred to a press that creates layers known as cheeses, which create a block. After that, the layers go between pieces of haircloth alternating with ash-wood slats.
At this point, it's put under increasing pressure to squeeze out all the juice, leaving nothing but the pomace, or crushed pulp, behind. The apple juice goes through a coarse-hair sieve and then is placed into a vat or closed cask.
When the fermentation process begins, juice or fruit blending, pH measurement, and more might happen first. Also, temperatures are measured since fermentation occurs between 39 and 61 degrees Fahrenheit.
At that point, fermentation begins. Depending on the cider style in production, fermentation is either stopped at a certain point to maintain sweetness or when it's time to rack the juice into new vats.
The fermentation process produces excess carbon dioxide early on, and then certain compounds form that affect the cider's quality, including alcohols other than ethanol and esters.
After the fermentation process is complete, the cider gets racked into new vats. Dead yeasts have a tendency to stay in the bottom of the old vats. Cider-makers also try and leave as much live yeast behind in the old vats as possible to ensure their cider's future batches' quality.
Certain types of bacteria are harmful to the cider, so the clean vats get filled all the way up to ensure there's as little air as possible inside. The remaining yeast produces a small carbon dioxide layer that prevents air from getting inside, creating a little bit of carbonation in the cider itself.
The cider-maker may repeat the entire racking process if the cider is too cloudy. Depending on the cider, though, including its filtration, you might see a little sediment in the bottom of the bottle, which is normal. Cider also has added sugar in it to help increase carbonation.
The Final Product
Cider is usually ready for bottling and sale after fermenting for three months, although it's not uncommon for it to mature in vats for up to three years. Ciders from different vats using different apples might get blended together depending on the market's prevailing tastes. Other flavors are added during this time, as well as some more sugar for extra sparkle in bottled cider.
How a cider mill sells its products depends on a variety of factors. They can use the champagne method, but that's expensive. More often, they'll either sell it in casks or beer-type bottles, the latter of which produces a little extra carbonation. However, if you're feeling festive on New Year's Eve, pick up a champagne-style sparkling cider and give it a try.
Tannins, acids, and sugar are all used in producing hard cider. Different apples have different tannins, producing differering levels of astringency, which in turn produces differing flavor profiles.
There are several acids in cider as well, which add a slightly sour undertone to cider. They also help to preserve the cider since there are microbes in it that could breed out of control. The most prevalent acid is malic acid, which makes up roughly 90 percent of all the acids found in apples. It contributes to the tartness that you taste in hard cider, and its levels usually determine whether apples are ripe for harvesting. Lactic acid plays a role, too, and forms during fermentation. It reduces the acidity of the cider somewhat and rounds out its flavor.
Sugar is almost a given since yeast requires sugar to metabolize during fermentation. They eat the sugar and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The amount of fermentation determines how sweet the cider is. The longer the yeast is allowed to work, the drier the cider will be.
Sulfur dioxide makes its way into cider because it inhibits microorganism growth and extends the cider's shelf life. Nitrogen plays a crucial role as well. It helps the yeast grow and supports the fermentation process.
The quality of the cider produced depends heavily on the yeast. They might select a yeast that begins the fermentation process at specific sugar concentrations, pH level, or even temperature. Some might also choose a yeast that can out-compete existing yeast in the juice or produce a particular mouthfeel or aroma.
There are also wild yeasts that carry out fermentation. These yeasts live on the plants themselves and can start the fermentation process all on their own when there are enough of them. There's an astonishing amount of diversity among wild yeasts, which produce many of the flavors cider-makers and drinkers enjoy.
Usually, craft cideries put their cider through two rounds of yeast to get the proper flavor and create the carbonation that makes hard cider so good.
How to Serve Hard Cider
The best temperature at which to serve hard cider is 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That allows the flavor to come through. If you're serving it on tap, make sure to clean out the tap line before using it. If you are going to regularly serve cider at your bar or taproom, consider dedicating a tap line, that way you won't have to work so hard to remove other flavors from the line before you start serving your cider.
Bordeaux wine glasses work best for drinking hard cider because they allow for aeration and swirling, while the shape of the stem prevents your hands from warming it up too quickly. Chilled pint glasses work well in a pinch.
If you enjoy hard cider, you might enjoy it even more now that you know how many different ciders there are and how they're made. Whether you pair it with food or drink it on its own, you get a bold fruity flavor with just enough alcohol to mellow you without the hoppy, yeasty taste of beer. And, if you need a suggestion, try Tips Up from Stowe Cider, it's quite delicious.