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Cider faults: A drinkers guide

Most of the time, the cider or perry in your glass will be a delightful, flavoursome joy of a drink. But what happens when it goes wrong? And why does it go wrong in the first place? In this article, I’ll be taking you through some of the common, and less common faults, found in cider and perry. We’ll explore some of the biochemistry behind what’s happening and talk about how they can be prevented. But this isn’t a guide for cider makers (at least, not alone). This is about empowering you as a consumer to know what’s going on in your glass, and why sometimes it’s just not as good as it should be.

Susannah Mansfield 

Landlady of the Station House in Durham, and bottle shop and tap room Fram Ferment. Certified Cider Pommelier

Beer dispense containers 

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Emma Inch

A CAMRA member since 1997, John is volunteer with a keen interest in the technicalities of beer dispense, a GBBF bar manager, editor of Manchester’s Beer Buzz magazine and sits on CAMRA’s Technical Advisory Group.

Faults as undesirable flavours and visual appearances

One of my strongest memories of cider is of one I tried after closing time at a festival I was working. A friend had been sent by the cider bar manager to pick a box of cider and bring it to the hospitality truck we were sitting in to warm us up on what had been a very busy, but freezing, night. The errand-runner had no idea what they were looking for and so picked a box at random.

It was the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted in my life. Of rotten eggs, dead rats, and hairy goats. In hindsight, I’m now certain it had every fault in the book. If that had been my first experience of full juice cider, I’ve no doubt it would have put me off for life.

A fault is a flavour (or visual appearance) in a finished cider that is not considered desirable. The vast majority of faults in cider are due to microbial action of one kind or another, but what we can taste or smell is a volatile chemical compound. Mostly, they are not harmful to humans – but simply unpleasant.[1]

On the face of it, cidermaking is a much simpler process than brewing. A brewer determines the eventual flavour of the drink by manipulating ingredients, temperatures, timings and choosing yeast strains. A cidermaker’s job is subtler: to provide an environment that encourages the yeast (whether a selected yeast chosen and pitched by the producer or wild yeasts from the juice, press, and cider house) to ferment in the manner the cidermaker chooses; and to suppress any microbes and control any environmental factors that might cause problems. (There are of course many other choices to do with fruit variety, quality, fermenting vessel, and so on, all of which will also impact on the eventual flavours in your glass and which Gabe Cook explores here.)

Faults as undesirable flavours and visual appearances

One of my strongest memories of cider is of one I tried after closing time at a festival I was working. A friend had been sent by the cider bar manager to pick a box of cider and bring it to the hospitality truck we were sitting in to warm us up on what had been a very busy, but freezing, night. The errand-runner had no idea what they were looking for and so picked a box at random.

It was the most disgusting thing I’d ever tasted in my life. Of rotten eggs, dead rats, and hairy goats. In hindsight, I’m now certain it had every fault in the book. If that had been my first experience of full juice cider, I’ve no doubt it would have put me off for life.

A fault is a flavour (or visual appearance) in a finished cider that is not considered desirable. The vast majority of faults in cider are due to microbial action of one kind or another, but what we can taste or smell is a volatile chemical compound. Mostly, they are not harmful to humans – but simply unpleasant. [1] 

On the face of it, cidermaking is a much simpler process than brewing. A brewer determines the eventual flavour of the drink by manipulating ingredients, temperatures, timings and choosing yeast strains. A cidermaker’s job is subtler: to provide an environment that encourages the yeast (whether a selected yeast chosen and pitched by the producer or wild yeasts from the juice, press, and cider house) to ferment in the manner the cidermaker chooses; and to suppress any microbes and control any environmental factors that might cause problems. (There are of course many other choices to do with fruit variety, quality, fermenting vessel, and so on, all of which will also impact on the eventual flavours in your glass and which Gabe Cook explores here)

Identifying and naming faults

As we will discuss, many faults arise from similar issues in the cidermaking process, so it’s reasonably common that, where there is one fault, there may be several. As a drinker, it is worth being able to identify and name faults. It means that when you dislike a cider, you can identify whether it’s a stylistic dislike, or a defect.

So let’s consider common faults in more detail:

Acetic Acid

Acetic acid is one of the most common faults you’ll find in cider and perry. I can virtually guarantee that if you are interested enough in cider and perry that you are reading this article, nerding out on faults, you will have tried an acetic cider.

It’s also one of the most hotly debated. Many ciders, especially those from the West Country and Spain, do contain acetic acid in perceptible amounts [2], and some people are used to it and enjoy it. Some argue that acetic acid in very low quantities [3] adds to the character of the cider. However, there is also a vocal school of thought that says that any perceptible acetic acid is undesirable and off-putting to new drinkers. 

Identifying and naming faults

As we will discuss, many faults arise from similar issues in the cidermaking process, so it’s reasonably common that, where there is one fault, there may be several. As a drinker, it is worth being able to identify and name faults. It means that when you dislike a cider, you can identify whether it’s a stylistic dislike, or a defect.

So let’s consider common faults in more detail:

Acetic Acid

Acetic acid is one of the most common faults you’ll find in cider and perry. I can virtually guarantee that if you are interested enough in cider and perry that you are reading this article, nerding out on faults, you will have tried an acetic cider.

It’s also one of the most hotly debated. Many ciders, especially those from the West Country and Spain, do contain acetic acid in perceptible amounts [2], and some people are used to it and enjoy it. Some argue that acetic acid in very low quantities [3] adds to the character of the cider. However, there is also a vocal school of thought that says that any perceptible acetic acid is undesirable and off-putting to new drinkers.

“Acetic acid is one of the most common faults you’ll find in cider and perry… if you are interested enough in cider and perry that you are reading this article, nerding out on faults, you will have tried an acetic cider.”

— Susannah Mansfield

“You get soft, almost wine like aromatics, refeshing… acidity and apple driven, when you try Kent and Eastern style ciders”

— Alison Taffs

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Acetic acid in UK ciders is usually the fault either of bacteria from the acetobacter family, or apiculate (airborne) yeasts. These microorganisms are found everywhere, in the atmosphere, and on the legs and bodies of fruit flies (aka beer flies aka vinegar flies). Acetobacter require aerobic conditions (i.e. they need oxygen) to grow and live, and hence grow on the surface of ciders exposed to the air, forming jelly-like sheets that are the beginnings of a “mother” for vinegar production.

Acetobacter metabolise the alcohol produced by yeasts in the cider to acetic acid. Because they require oxygen to do so, the simplest way of ensuring that a cider remains clean of acetic acid is to store it in an oxygen free environment – i.e. keeping fermentation and storage vessels topped up with little headspace and airlocks topped up with water. Its really important for the cidermaker to monitor this, as over the slow fermentation and maturation period there will be some volume lost from the cider – through evaporation if it’s a porous fermentation vessel, for example.

There is, however, another biochemical pathway to finding acetic acid in your glass, involving malolactic fermentation caused by lactic acid bacteria[3]. This group of bacteria is often encouraged by the cidermaker to convert malic acid into lactic acid (which can help soften some sharper notes in the cider and give a softer mouthfeel) but can also sometimes convert citric acid into acetic acid. This is the mechanism usually thought to be at work in Spanish ciders, and is also common in perries, as pear juice tends to be higher in citric acid than cider.

Cider lexicon Pt.1

Check out part 1 of Gabe Cook’s a Cider lexicon

Knowing Cider & Perry Styles

Watch Pomellier Jane Peyton’s video guide to cider and perry styles

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