Often referred to as hard cider in North America to differentiate alcoholic cider from non-alcoholic apple cider, cider is a globally consumed fermented beverage usually enjoyed chilled or over ice and made in most cases from apples or some other fruit such as pears.
It’s distinctly tart and yet sweet, enjoyed by many instead of beer or a cooler on a hot summer day. It’s one of the most refreshing alcoholic beverages, and its low ABV is a happy accident since it goes down as easily as juice.
A Festival of Apples
The long-standing traditions of wassailing the apple trees or bobbing for apples is very near and dear to the hearts of cider producers. Autumn is a prime time due to the abundance of apples in their orchards, and so cider festivals are often organized to pay homage to this tart fruit. It provides the producers with a fun opportunity to pick their apples but also to showcase their cider creations to the locals paving the way for larger sales next year. Despite summer being cider’s most prolific season, autumn is the time for many bars and pubs to focus on cider specials and events to capitalize on this traditional festival.
How It’s Made
Although any variety of apple can be used to produce cider, in most cases it’s actually a cider apple that’s grown specifically for the beverage. Traditionally, the apples would be pressed using a horse-drawn cider press, but for most ciders produced today, it’s done by machine with the only memory of this fancy press being in the form of small statues often seen as garden ornaments or flower features.
Once the best apples are hand-picked from the orchards, they are ground into pomace either by hand, mill, horse-powered or by machine. The pulp from the apple is then sent to a cider press and formed into layers that the producers refer to as “cheeses into a block”. The entire process is done rather quickly to eliminate oxidation of the pomace, and the press pushes down on the layers to extract all of the must from the pomace. Once all the juice is strained off, it’s transferred to either closed casks or open vats to ferment. Unlike other spirits, cider is fermented at a very low temperature of just 40–60 °F. This slows down the process but keeps the most delicate aromas from the apples that would otherwise be lost. Before all of the sugar is consumed, the must is racked and placed in new vats leaving the dead yeast cells at the bottom of the old one. The new vats are filled to the brim to eliminate any air which prevents acetic bacteria from forming and this second fermentation is what produces the small amount of carbonation we enjoy from the bottle. While most ciders are quite natural, some producers do add extra sugar at this point, and it’s not uncommon for the cider to be racked again into a new vat if it’s too cloudy. At this point, depending on what type of flavor the producer wants to impart, they might add some additional apple juice or other fruit flavoring to the cider. For most ciders, the average fermentation process takes about three months at which point it’s ready to be bottled and sold. However, despite it being ready, many producers opt to age their cider in casks or vats for up to three years giving it a much fuller body and aroma. If desired, some vats will even be blended to produce a more tantalizing cider for the specific region that it’s expected to sell in. Prior to bottling, a little more sugar might be added to give it an extra sparkle. While most ciders come in beer style bottles, they actually taste nothing like beer, yet are often enjoyed by the same demographics.
Like wine, beer and many spirits, the flavor profile of ciders can differ quite dramatically. Some are quite tart and dry whereas others are very fruity and sweet. They range in color from almost a light straw yellow to a golden amber and even dark brown. Usually, the change in color is due to the filtration between the pressing of the apples and the fermentation process. However, it can also be due, in part, to the apple selected. While most ciders are sparkling meaning they have some carbonation, others are enjoyed flat. In North America, the average cider purchased resembles a light white wine in color, whereas in parts of Europe it’s the dark brown ciders that are favored for their more robust flavor profiles.
While cider is used for a number of other spirits and liqueurs, the actual cider drink doesn’t always include just apples. Recently many producers have turned to pears to create new ciders and focused on branding the drink to its predominant female demographic.
In Europe, cider holds a longstanding history said to be even more popular than wine back in the 12th-century. Today, it still remains a popular beverage consumed both cold and warm. Despite cold cider being popular in North America during the summer months, in Europe it is equally popular during Christmastime and throughout the winter. In Austria, cider is usually made at home as most farmers have an apple tree on their property. Served with food, it’s a staple drink throughout much of the region.
In Belgium, cider company Stassen SA has created new variations of cider including raspberry, cherry, and blackcurrant flavors. Even Stella Artois beer has created its own cider in a region that has managed to really diversify its flavor profile.
Of course, in France, cider is a very popular beverage and is even used as a hallmark in the famous Calvados brandy. Click here to read our brandy guide.
In Germany, cider is usually called Apfelwein, meaning apple wine and is quite tart and sour but well enjoyed throughout much of its regions.
Cider enjoys popularity throughout much of Europe. Of course, Britain is the epicenter of cider where it’s been a staple of the monarchy for more than a thousand years.
Today, the United Kingdom consumes more cider than anywhere else in the world. It’s served on tap at many pubs and restaurants and is a fixture on the shelves at liquor stores throughout the land. There are close to 500 cider makers in the UK alone, and its production makes up more than 60% of all cider produced in the EU.
Dangers of Cider
Unfortunately, cider is one of the most commonly abused alcoholic beverages. While the term cider is obvious in many parts of the world, in places such as North America and Asia it is often misconstrued as being non-alcoholic and, therefore, accidentally served to children.
In fact, even in my home, while writing this article my wife asked our three-year-old if she wanted to try our “juice” not realizing it was alcoholic. Thankfully I managed to stop her before our daughter was able to take a sip.
It’s important for parents, especially in regions where cider can refer to a non-alcoholic beverage, to double check before giving their children, the elderly, recovering alcoholics or people on medication cider. Since many ciders taste just like juice, it can be quickly consumed causing harm to those unable to handle alcohol. Not only can it result in intoxication, but for the very young or at-risk, it can cause severe damage to vital organs and can even result in death.
In Canada and the United States, cider is a growing trend with companies popping up all over the map and producing it. However, unlike much of the rest of the world, it is usually referred to as “Hard Cider” in North America whereas cider means the non-alcoholic version of the drink.
Like craft beers, since cider only requires apples to produce, many home brewers are creating their own versions of cider and despite it being a fairly historic drink, it’s crept up into the mainstream crowds of modern America.
There are quite literally thousands of different ciders produced all over the world. Here is a very small selection of some of my favorites that I hope you’ll enjoy.
Doc’s Hard Apple
One of the only ciders that really makes you feel like a man, there’s something nostalgic in a very southern Americana kind of way. It’s the kind of cider that makes me want to trudge out into the woods with an ax in one hand and cider in the other. This is that kind of cold, refreshing beverage you can drink while camping or in the comfort of your summer home on Cape Cod. There’s something really down to earth about this cider, and it makes me go back for more. It’s a riper apple flavor with stronger notes of tartness and sugar wrapped with a taste of wet moss and limestone with a hint of leather. It’s worth every sip.
Crispin Venus Reigns
When Crispin sent me this limited release, barrel aged pear cider I was a little hesitant. They’ve also sent me four other ciders that really weren’t anything special, but this particular cider is made from the Colfax golden pear wine and aged for 26 months in red wine casks which gives it this robustly fresh pear flavor with bursts of jam and ripe berries framed by notes of sherry. It has beautiful hints of vanilla and honey with the warmth and spiciness of a strong red wine. As far as ciders go, this is one of my favorites and if you can find it, buy it.
Mckenzie’s Lazy Lemon Hard Cider
Citrusy without the bite, this is a rather unique and fragrant cider that any citrus lover will love. The lemon cuts through like you’d expect but almost has the kiss of an orange like a Meyer lemon. It’s a fruity, yet tart summer drink that’s perfect for a lazy day at the cabin.
Julian Hard Cider
A staple on the west coast, Julian’s hard cider offers a range of craft ciders worth your attention.
A traditional English cider, Strongbow is made from a hand-selected blend of 50 different cider apples which all play a part in creating its dry, crisp and refreshing taste. It’s a really elevated traditional cider and one I think you’ll enjoy.
Cider is an elevated beverage for the average beer or cooler drinker. Don’t let one cider fool you into giving up on the drink. Since, like wine, it’s range of flavors is so vast, you’ll be sure to find one you enjoy. One great benefit to a good cider is that you can often find one that will pair with any food from raw oysters to a barbecued pork shoulder or even dark chocolate. Try a selection of different ones and I’m certain you’ll have a new summer drink. Just make sure your wife doesn’t offer any to your three-year-old. What’s your favorite cider?