What I Learned in Cider Making School

I had my first hard cider at a gastro pub in Harlem, New York. I was excited to be able to have something from the tap since I don't like beer. After I tried an apple, then a pear, then, at a subsequent visit, an elderberry-flavored cider, I knew I had found my drink! Living in a state that celebrates its apples, I wanted to know more about this sweet nectar of the gods.

Hard Ciders Trends - Small is Big

Like beer and wine, cider comes from producers both big and small. Woodchuck, Angry Orchard and Johnny Appleseed are three of the major US brands, selling over 18 million cases of mostly 12-ounce bottles in 2015. All of the bigger brands, however, have seen their sales decline in recent years, due in part to the rise in craft ciders. While harder to come by, craft ciders are rapidly increasing in annual sales. The industry is second only to craft beer in its growth, with a similar focus on quality ingredients and an exploration of new flavors - everything from spices like ginger and cinnamon to fruit like pumpkin and peach to hops.

It was with this craft spirit and flavor-filled sense of adventure that I decided it was time to make my own. How hard could it be?

Hard Cider Is Just Fermented Apple Juice, Right?

Making hard cider can, in fact, be as easy as letting apple juice ferment in a jar. So, I read up on cider making, bought a kit with all the necessary equipment (a one-gallon jar, an airlock, a siphon tube and a package of yeast) and trotted off to my local farmers' market to get preservative-free cider (the fermentation process doesn't work well when the juice contains preservatives). I put it all together and waited.

When it was done I bottled it and poured myself a glass, anxiously anticipating that first sip and it was...off. I didn't know exactly what was wrong with it but I knew it wasn't right. As it turns out, making good hard cider takes a little more work. I needed some instruction, so I turned to the professionals at Cornell University's Extension Center.

Their class - Cider & Perry Production: A Foundation - held at Finger Lakes Community College in Geneva, New York, was just the ticket. It was an exploration of what cider is, how to make it and how to evaluate it. Learning about, making and drinking lots of cider was just what I needed, so off I went with 25 other newbie cider makers. Here's what I learned.

The Definition of "Good" Varies by Country

Like most things culinary, the definition of good varies by country and region. Many apples grow only in certain regions. Given that, plus differing production methods, some of which date back for centuries in Europe and Asia, it's easy to see how cider taste profiles and preferences can vary. For example:

  • France, which produces the most cider - or cidre - of any country, likes it sweet and bubbly. By law, cidre can only be made from apples and pears.
  • Sidra from Spain is typically made from green apples using the flavors of vanilla, plum and honey and has a slightly vinegary flavor. Sidra is typically served in the "long pour" style (with the bottle held about three feet above the glass) to aerate the sidra and create bubbles.
  • The Brits like their craft cider made from locally grown apples using traditional production methods. It's typically dry and often has strong flavors that don't necessarily have wide appeal, at least not for an American palate.
  • Then there's the US. We like what some European drinkers refer to as "Kool-Aid cider." If your only experience tasting cider was one of the bigger US brands, you might be turned off to this flavor because it's so sweet, so it's worth checking out regional brands. The craft and farmhouse styles tend to be drier and more wine-like than the sweeter, mass-produced kind, and the craft makers are more willing to experiment with unusual flavor combinations like pear and rosemary. Plus, regional ciders are more reflective of local apple varieties.

The History of Cider Making in the US

When America was a young country, cider was the drink of choice. In fact, many early colonists brought apple trees with them to continue their traditions of cider making. Many small towns had their own cider and each had a flavor distinct to that town. For many, cider was safer to drink than the local water supply, so people drank it prolifically. Children drank a lower alcohol version called ciderkin.

Unfortunately, the temperance movement nearly caused the destruction of apple farming in the US. Most of the 15,000 named varieties grown here since 1804 are extinct, and only 15 kinds of apples (think Red Delicious and Gala) account for 90 percent of US production.  

Many trees were cut down and orchards abandoned in the name of sobriety. This is why, as you drive through farmland all around the country, you often see abandoned roadside orchards. Interestingly, many cider makers are either reviving these orchards or scavenging what apples they can. There is even a movement to reclaim, or at least catalogue, as many old varieties as possible.

Good Cider Comes From Quality Apples

Many of the large, industrial cider makers in the US use apple juice or juice concentrate, much of which is imported from China. Bigger companies need predictable products that produce guaranteed flavors, but to really appreciate regional variety and unique flavors, you have to understand how different apples impact the flavor of your juice and how that will affect your cider, regardless of whether you press your own juice or use pre-pressed.

(NOTE: Hard cider is called simply "cider" in all countries except the US, a practice which is, undoubtedly, a relic of the attitudes about alcohol after Prohibition. Most countries call non-alcoholic cider "juice.")

There are two types of apples - dessert and cider. True cider apples are hard to find in the US after the devastation caused by Prohibitionists. But cider apples are important because they provide tannins that help ensure a well-balanced blend that contains the right mix of sweet, bitter and sharp flavors. Most apples grown in the US are the sweeter, dessert-style apples (used for cooking and eating). Sweeter apples don't make a sweeter cider, but a higher sugar content could result in a cider with a higher alcohol content. As a single variety, these apples produce cider that is fairly sharp and lacks the body produced by the tannins in cider apples, so blending is important.

A Few Steps to Making Hard Cider

  1. Juicing: If you are making your own juice, your first consideration is the type and availability of apples. Blends are best and some cider makers prefer to ferment single variety ciders and do the blending after fermenting. Juicing apples involves grinding them and pressing them, plus any other steps to prepare them (like freezing or "sweating" to get more juice or a higher sugar content).
  2. First Fermenting: The juice goes into a fermenting container along with enzymes to help it clear and (usually) sulfites to keep wild yeast and bacteria from growing. Adding sulfites is important because, unless you understand what you're doing and are willing to take a risk with your juice, you might end up with cider that has off flavors and is undrinkable (like that first batch I made). Then the desired yeast, and often yeast nutrients, is added. Just as with wine and beer making, different types of yeast produce different flavor profiles and different qualities such as effervescence. The first fermentation happens until the sugar content drops and the alcohol content reaches a desirable level (the yeast eats the sugar and converts it to alcohol).
  3. Second Fermentation: After the first fermentation, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to a month, the cider is bottled or transferred to another container for a second fermentation - this is when all the good stuff happens. Given plenty of time, most ciders will get smoother and develop complex flavor profiles, and the process takes patience. It's typical that a cider started in November or December might not be fully matured until the following summer. Some ciders take years to fully develop!
  4. Blending and Bottling: Following a second round of fermentation, the cider is blended, flavored, filtered and often stabilized (but not everyone takes all of these steps) for bottling. Carbonation is added either through CO2 gas infusion or is obtained by adding more sugar and yeast, which causes CO2 gas to build up in the bottle.

Keep it Clean, Keep it Clean, Keep it Clean

An important part of the cider making process is cleanliness. Cleaning and sanitizing everything - from fermentation containers and equipment, to bottles - is key to avoiding problems with your cider. This is especially true if you plan to let your cider sit on a shelf for a while before you drink it.

How to Evaluate Hard Cider

After I started drinking cider, I made a hobby out of trying different brands, types and flavors, even getting my family in on my new obsession. I've tried many of the big, national brands as well as smaller, regional craft brands as I come across them. What I've learned is, ultimately, the best cider is the one you like to drink. But if you want to be able to compare one to another, it helps to know how to properly evaluate them.

The process is similar to evaluating wine - appearance (clarity, color, effervescence), smell (fruity, woody, grassy, etc.) and taste (there are many descriptors and they are subjective). In the course of the class and visits to cider makers in the Geneva, New York area, I probably sampled about 30 different ciders, including French (my favorite), Spanish and English and a few brands local to the Geneva area.

I also learned through the class that I am a supertaster, so to me, bitter flavors taste very bitter (not everyone is a supertaster - it has to do with the number of taste buds on your tongue and is genetic). This can make some ciders undrinkable to me.

If you'd like to have a cider tasting and find out what it's about, here's a quick guide to tasting cider and here are instructions for setting up a proper cider tasting event.

Now Go Drink Some Cider!

With its popularity rising, hard cider is becoming easier to find and many liquor stores and grocery stores carry an ever-increasing selection, from the industrial brands to local varieties. Cider production is especially popular in strong apple producing states - like New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Oregon - that have state laws that favor production. There are also restaurants and tasting rooms that feature cider opening around the country.

So go out there and try some cider. Be adventurous, gather your friends together, hold a tasting and find the ciders you like. Or, if you're really feeling adventurous, be a part of the fermenting craze and make your own, and appreciate the fact that you're taking part in a tradition that dates back to the Romans in 55 BC. Sustainability never tasted so good.