by Martin Lodahl (Brewing Techniques)
Renewed Interest in the Forbidden Fruit Brings a Heavenly Drink to Homes and Markets
Summertime is not only a time for light, effervescent beers, it is a time to consider the zymurlogical potential of other fruits of the earth. With apples falling off trees in abundance over the coming months, cider presents intriguing possibilities.
In every country in the world except the United States, the term “cider” refers to fermented apple juice. Due in part to the temperance movement and Prohibition, “cider” has come to mean both “hard” cider and apple juice in the United States. Cider is a traditional drink in regions of England, Ireland, Spain, France, and Scandinavia and is found in temperate regions settled by Europeans, such as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and Chile. Until the 1830s, cider was the most popular beverage in North America. It is still prevalent in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and British Columbia.
With the exception of small enclaves, cider remains an enigma, often remembered as a drink of poor farmers and drunkards. Such a perception of this noble drink is our unfortunate legacy. Many of us have tasted granddad’s cider, but cider can also be refined and elegant — akin to fine wine. Anyone with a gallon of apple juice can make hard cider, but it is difficult to make a good hard cider. One commercial cidermaker trained in winemaking has said it is more difficult to make cider than wine. Despite its rich history, cidermaking has become a lost art in the United States.
Cider is believed to have derived from the Basque country of northern Spain. The Basques apparently got the idea from wine exchanged with their Mediterranean trading partners. Cider then bounced around the northern coast of Europe. The Celts picked it up from the Basques en route to Britain and Ireland. The earliest written record of cider is Julius Caesar’s account of the Roman invasion of Celtic Britain in the year 55 A. D.
When German tribes pushed the Celts out of England, many Celtic Britons went to France, founding Brittany. The Vikings in Normandy learned to make it from the Britons. The Normans returned cider to England when they conquered in 1066.
Cider gained considerable esteem in the 1600–1700s when it was the drink of English nobility. During this time, aristocrats such as Lord Scudamore spent fortunes breeding apples specifically for cider. Some of these apple varieties were brought to the New World by colonists determined to carry on the traditions worth keeping.
By 1629, apple orchards were established in both the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies. According to cider historian Vrest Orton, “because the early apple crop in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had not been perfected into sweet, juicy, eating apples, most of the crop was used for cider”. In 1686, the Virginian William Fitzhugh’s orchard was home to 2,500 trees.
In Massachusetts in 1767, cider consumption averaged 1.14 barrel per person per year. Cider was given as daily fare to college students at Harvard and William and Mary. The President of Harvard recorded laying down 16 barrels of cider one fall. The first three U.S. presidents all drank cider. George Washington’s first political campaign expenses included 8 quarts of “cider royal.” John Adams drank a tankard of cider every morning, claiming it calmed his stomach and alleviated gas. On a diplomatic mission to France, Adams took along 6 dozen small barrels of cider (I guess he didn’t want gas upsetting delicate negotiations). At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson served cider at most meals. Until the 1830s, cider was the most popular alcoholic beverage in the Unites States.
Cider reached its political zenith with William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential election. Harrison, an aristocrat general running as a populist, made cider a central feature of his campaign. Not only was a barrel of cider the logo of his candidacy, on election day his party served cider to all who would vote for him! He won, of course.
While cider remained a farm drink, it was by no means poorly made. Orton cites a writer in the 1820s, shaming farmers into making cider as excellent as that made by the Shaker village in Canterbury, New Hampshire. The same decade found quality New Jersey ciders being exported to the UK.
Unlike whiskey and ale, cider was an accepted alcoholic drink. It was considered a temperate drink, served at all family occasions. “Even devoted pillars of the church, as well as most clergy and deacons, laid down barrels of cider against the winter evenings. These gentlemen would have recoiled in horror from strong drink”. Orton remembers an uncle, a Baptist deacon, drinking cider by the kitchen fire. “Had he gone into a saloon and imbibed whiskey or rum, the family would have been shocked beyond measure.”
Cider’s decline can be linked directly to this acceptance. As the temperance movement became prohibitionist, special cultural campaigns were conducted to wipe out the cider menace. One campaign was to make the term cider interchangeable with apple juice. The success of this effort is evident today.
Cider all but died as a commercial product with the advent of Prohibition. Apples are more expensive to cultivate than grains and are more difficult to store and transport. Facing stiff economic competition with beer and anticider propaganda, the industry died out, except for remnants of holdouts in New England.
Cider is in the midst of a worldwide revival. Cider sales are growing yearly by 40% in the UK and France and 100% in the United States. In the UK, cider sales equal over 5% of beer sales. As a percentage, this is equal to imported beer sales in the UK or the United States.
In the Unites States, cider is fast becoming the new “micro” phenomenon. According to documents posted by the Commonwealth Cider Company on the internet, “Domestic producers have experienced sales increases of 130% per year over the last five years. In 1990, 115,000 nine-liter cases were sold in this country. By 1993 this number had grown to 357,000, and by 1994 sales had nearly doubled to 606,000. Over one million cases were sold in 1995. The leading domestic manufacturer projects that annual sales may reach 75 million cases within the next decade”.
Farmhouse: Although not as common as “draft” style cider, farmhouse cider (also known as traditional cider) is what most people make at home. If pressed (no pun intended), I would define farmhouse cider as fermented apple juice, still and usually dry, containing nothing added to lower its alcohol level.
Because of the low levels of sugars and nutrients found in apples relative to other fruits, alcohol levels in natural ciders range from 6 to 10%. Usually special cider apples are used in making the farmhouse style. These apples contain high amounts of malic acid (the “tart” in apples) and tannins. Often, the cider is fermented and aged in oak barrels as a wine might be.
Draft cider: The cider you find in stores is called draft cider. This style is relatively new, dating to the mid-1960s. Light and effervescent, it was a commercial invention designed to save the dying English cider industry by competing with lager beers. In many ways, draft style is to cider what the commercial lager style is to ale.
The cutting of cider with juice or water is the primary difference between the farmhouse and draft styles of cider. Fermentable sweeteners are often added to the juice blend, enabling fermentation to produce alcohol levels as high as 14%. The fermented cider is filtered, then diluted with fresh apple juice, apple (or other fruit) concentrates, or carbonated water to a desired alcohol content, usually 4.5–6%. This process takes about one month. Like high-gravity brewing of beer, this method provides a cost-effective way to produce large volumes of cider.
Another distinction is the apple variety used. Whereas farmhouse ciders use acidic and bitter apples, draft style cider relies on dessert apples. These apples are the type you find in supermarkets. Sweeter and less acidic, they make a milder tasting cider.
In cider circles, draft cider is controversial. Traditionalists, such as CAMRA’s cider affiliate APPLE, snub the draft style, calling it soda pop. Draft cidermakers rightly point out that had the industry not developed the draft style, there would be no cider industry.
French: As with many things French, cidre falls into its own category. Cidre is a sweet, effervescent drink, legally containing no more than 4% alcohol. Accomplished through a process called défécation, making this cider calls for separating much of the nutrients (pectins) from the fermenting juice. Calcium chlorate is added at 500 ppm. The pectins are sloughed off from the juice and rise to the top, buoyed by the bubbles of fermentation. Once the chapeau brun (brown hat) has hardened, a suction hose is pushed through the crust, and the clear fermenting cider underneath is drained into another tank to finish fermenting. This défécation of the pectins limits the growth of yeast and lowers the possible alcohol levels. For example, a dry French cidre will contain only 4% alcohol, retaining far more flavor of the fresh juice than a farmhouse cider does.
Cidre is widely considered to be the premiere cider style. Unfortunately for Americans, cidre is classified as a Champagne by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The consequent higher tax rate has eliminated cidre from the U.S. market. On the bright side, cidre is produced not only in Normandy and Brittany, but in Quebec as well, making a trip above the border more enticing for people living in the northeastern United States.
Wanting to make cider is a lot like wanting to make beer or wine — you have a multitude of styles from which to choose. Before you begin, you must first decide which style of cider you would prefer. This article can cover only the basic styles; like beer and wine, volumes can be devoted to individual style types.
If you are interested in homemade cider, you have great flexibility in experimentation. Commercial production will most likely make you focus on the draft style. Once a style is decided, what flavor profile do you want? Sweet? Dry? Tannic? What acid levels do you prefer? All this will be important when you select your apple varieties.
Selecting your apples: Apples that make perfect cider are few and far between. Of the 1,152 varieties of apple trees sold in the United States, only 3 — the Ribston Pippin, Golden Russet, and the Kingston Black — are considered desirable for a varietal cider. Unless you are in the enviable position of having access to these particular varieties, blending several apples with desirable characteristics is the best way to go. Your local extension agency will be able to put you in contact with apple growers and can possibly help with information on local cider apple varieties. Most of the growers will be offering the most popular variety of eating apples, but you will often find some selling more interesting varieties as well.
When you go to a farmer, ask for seconds or culls. Since you are making cider, you don’t need picture-perfect table apples. This will cost far less than buying apples in the store and helps the farmer sell fruit that would otherwise go to waste. What you want is clean, undamaged fruit.
There are several characteristics to look for in developing your blend. First, sugar level is the most important consideration, because it will be the base of your blend; Red Delicious and Macintosh are common base apples. Second, you need an apple that adds acid levels to the cider. Acidity gives cider complexity and protects it from harmful bacteria. Newton Pippins and Granny Smiths are good examples of acidic apples. Third, include aroma apples; Cox’s Orange Pippins and Newton Pippins are both good aromatic apples. A fourth and optional characteristic is astringency. This is important for the farmhouse and French styles, but is not common in the draft style. Most classic cider apples have high levels of tannins, some so high as to make them unpalatable for eating. Newtons have the highest levels of tannins of any commercial apple. Crab apples are also a good source of astringency.
A common blend consists of 50% or more sweet, 30% or more acidic, 15% aromatic, and 5% astringent apples.
Pressing and handling the juice: A mill to press your apples is a necessity, and a chopper to grind the apples beforehand comes in handy. Cleanliness is important. Use a sulfur dioxide solution (standard in this industry) to clean all the equipment before and after use. Cider is highly susceptible to infections, especially to acetic acid bacteria, which produce vinegar. Most cidermakers add sulfur dioxide to the fresh juice to prevent infection, although some experts claim that well-pitched yeast will protect the unfermented cider. Most also add sulfur dioxide to the finished cider. Unlike beer, cider is never boiled.
Always reexamine your apples before pressing, and throw out any damaged or rotten fruit. Then wash them, grind them, and press them, cores and all. Collect the juice in containers and pour it into the fermentation vessel. It is important to press as much juice as quickly as possible and to seal it from air. Oxidation not only exposes the juice to undesirable bacteria but also turns it an unpleasant brown.
Selecting a yeast: The U.S. market offers no specific cider yeasts, though some cideries have isolated their own “wild” yeast from those growing on apples. Depending upon the characteristics of your particular apple juice blend, you have a wide range of yeasts with which to experiment. Apple juice contains amounts of fermentable sugar comparable to those of a mash, so beer yeasts can be used. Other characteristics allow for the use of many white wine yeasts, and some cideries have effectively cultivated wild strains. Commercial cideries in the United States currently use wine, ale, lager, mead, and wild yeasts. The most commonly used are various Champagne yeasts, which are preferred by both draft cidermakers and home brewers. Champagne yeasts allow a quick, clean fermentation that complements the draft style. The traditional English “scrumpy” (slang for farmhouse) ciders use ale yeasts.
One fun experiment is to take five 1-gal jugs of your juice and add a different yeast to each one of them. The differences among these sub-batches is startling and will give you ideas and direction for future cidermaking ventures.
Fermentation: It usually takes one to two months for a cider to finish primary fermentation. Draft cidermakers using Champagne yeast can complete fermentation in one month. Ale yeasts take a bit longer.
After fermentation is complete, there is a divergence in tasks. The young cider used in the draft style still remains a bit sharp, allowing the cider flavor to withstand blending with juices, sweeteners or dilution with carbonated water. Farmhouse and French style ciders are aged, often in oak barrels. One English cider we tasted had been aged three years in sherry casks!
There is a distinct shortage of technical information on cider in the United States. The American Cider Book by Vrest Orton (recently reissued, new publisher unknown) is a social history of cider written by an old New Englander in the 1970s and is a must for any cider-maker. Two manuals on making cider are also available. The oldest and most comprehensive is Cider, Sweet and Hard by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols, which not only covers how to make cider, but also orcharding. Paul Correnty’s The Art of Cidermaking isn’t as definitive, but it is a better read, obviously written by and for someone who is serious about cider. If you want only one book on cidermaking, the choice is a toss-up; they are complementary in many ways.
A growing amount of cider information can be found online. The e-mail list, Cider Digest, is a must for cidermakers. Dick Dunn deserves kudos for moderating this excellent list for the past 600 issues. For back issues and information on subscribing, ftp to ftp://ftp.stanford.edu/pub/clubs/homebrew/cider. Two websites stand out. The Real Cider and Perry page is based in England and has a wealth of information on “real” (a.k.a. farmhouse) cider. Page owner Gillian Grafton is a home brewer and home cidermaker, so the page presents a detectable emphasis on the making aspect of cider. Our own web page, Cider Space, attempts to link all aspects of cider together. Cider Space provides links to commercial cideries, histories of cider, data bases on cider apples, and much more.
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