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Introduction to Cider Varietals

A beginners guide to choosing the right ciders for you

When it comes to wine, beer or cider you know what you like right? But when you choose something new to drink, at a festival, pub or taproom, how do you know you will like it? You don’t, but you can arm yourself with a small amount of knowledge that will put the odds in your favour for a pleasurable drinking experience. In this introductory guide Rachel Hendry introduces varietals, different types of apple used to create the apple juice from which cider is fermented, blended, packaged and sold to you. Photography by Amelia Claudia  & Bill Bradshaw

Rachel Hendry

A wine and cider writer, featured in Wine52’s Glug magazine, Pellicle magazine, Burum Collective and Two Belly. The mind behind wine newsletter J’adore le Plonk and an untiring advocate for spritzing every drink she can get her hands on.

Intro to Cider Varietals

A beginners guide to choosing the right ciders for you

When it comes to wine, beer or cider you know what you like right? But when you choose something new to drink, at a festival, pub or taproom, how do you know you will like it? You don’t, but you can arm yourself with a small amount of knowledge that will put the odds in your favour for a pleasurable drinking experience. In this introductory guide Rachel Hendry introduces varietals, different types of apple used to create the apple juice from which cider is fermented, blended, packaged and sold to you. Photography by Amelia Claudia  & Bill Bradshaw

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.

Varietal vs. Variety 

When it comes to buying and drinking cider, you may have come across the word ‘variety’ before, or ‘varietal’. The two are often used interchangeably and sometimes inaccurately so.  

You see, a variety is the term for a distinct type of apple within apples as a larger species (for want of a better analysis, an apple variety is the same as a dog breed). Varietal, on the other hand, is a descriptive term used to name a cider (or wine) after the singular apple variety in which it is made. 

To put the two terms into a sentence together: “I am drinking a varietal cider made from the Harry Masters variety.”  

Not so confusing now, is it? 

Varietal vs. Variety 

When it comes to buying and drinking cider, you may have come across the word ‘variety’ before, or ‘varietal’. The two are often used interchangeably and sometimes inaccurately so.  

You see, a variety is the term for a distinct type of apple within apples as a larger species (for want of a better analysis, an apple variety is the same as a dog breed). Varietal, on the other hand, is a descriptive term used to name a cider (or wine) after the singular apple variety in which it is made. 

To put the two terms into a sentence together: “I am drinking a varietal cider made from the Harry Masters variety.”  

Not so confusing now, is it? 

“Apples too, have personalities which lend themselves to different uses… some may be more suited to cooking, and others to eating, or drinking as cider or juice.”

— Rachel Hendry

“Apples too, have personalities which lend themselves to different uses… some may be more suited to cooking, and others to eating, or drinking as cider or juice.”

— Rachel Hendry

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Why Do We Have Varieties? 

So why are there so many types of apples confusing things in the first place? 

Well first off the apple itself is technically a member of the rose familyotherwise known as Rosaceae—alongside other fruit such as pears, cherries and raspberries. The first apple to be grown from this family, as far as extensive DNA analysis can tell, did so in Kazakhstan. It is in the mountains there that a variety called malus sieversii is found, where the malus domestica (modern domestic apple) can trace its origins too. Cool, right? 

Why Do We Have Varieties? 

So why are there so many types of apples confusing things in the first place? 

Well first off the apple itself is technically a member of the rose familyotherwise known as Rosaceae—alongside other fruit such as pears, cherries and raspberries. The first apple to be grown from this family, as far as extensive DNA analysis can tell, did so in Kazakhstan. It is in the mountains there that a variety called malus sieversii is found, where the malus domestica (modern domestic apple) can trace its origins too. Cool, right? 

It gets cooler. Apples are born with a genetic skill that means when they’re grown from seed, the apples will have mutated to be unlike their parents. This means that over time hundreds of different apples have been produced, apples that have mutated and adapted to as many diverse environments as there are varieties.

So just as humans have evolved over time, so have apples too. Which means there are now lots of different types of apples to eat and drink and talk about whilst doing so, making learning about cider all the more interesting. 

It gets cooler. Apples are born with a genetic skill that means when they’re grown from seed, the apples will have mutated to be unlike their parents. This means that over time hundreds of different apples have been produced, apples that have mutated and adapted to as many diverse environments as there are varieties.

So just as humans have evolved over time, so have apples too. Which means there are now lots of different types of apples to eat and drink and talk about whilst doing so, making learning about cider all the more interesting. 

What Use Do Varietals Have? 

Okay, so we know what an apple variety is and have a basic understanding of why there are so many of thembut what use does variety have to us? 

Imagine, for a second, your group of friends. All human beings, but with very differing personalities. Maybe some have very easy, warming senses of humour that always brighten your day, some may be fantastic listeners when you’re dealing with something difficult and others may be solid and reliable, you know you can always count on them. 

What Use Do Varietals Have? 

Okay, so we know what an apple variety is and have a basic understanding of why there are so many of thembut what use does variety have to us? 

Imagine, for a second, your group of friends. All human beings, but with very differing personalities. Maybe some have very easy, warming senses of humour that always brighten your day, some may be fantastic listeners when you’re dealing with something difficult and others may be solid and reliable, you know you can always count on them. 

Next time you go to buy cider, why not take a look at the varietals on offer? Pick one you know, or push the boat out and pick one that you don’t.”

— Rachel Hendry

Next time you go to buy cider, why not take a look at the varietals on offer? Pick one you know, or push the boat out and pick one that you don’t.”

— Rachel Hendry

Apples too, have personalities which lend themselves to different uses. On a broader scale some may be more suited to cooking, and others to eating, or drinking as cider or juice. Within that some varieties may ripen better than others, always providing sweetness, whilst some might have thicker skins, providing a texture that others cannot. 

Just like how your group of friends all have different characteristics that are not necessarily better than another, but provide a much needed balance of differences. Having so many varieties of apples means we can be certain to pick out ones that are best suited to certain roles. 

It would also be pretty boring if every apple were the samevariety is the spice of life, is it not?

Apples too, have personalities which lend themselves to different uses. On a broader scale some may be more suited to cooking, and others to eating, or drinking as cider or juice. Within that some varieties may ripen better than others, always providing sweetness, whilst some might have thicker skins, providing a texture that others cannot. 

Just like how your group of friends all have different characteristics that are not necessarily better than another, but provide a much needed balance of differences. Having so many varieties of apples means we can be certain to pick out ones that are best suited to certain roles. 

It would also be pretty boring if every apple were the samevariety is the spice of life, is it not?

Eating vs. Drinking 

So what makes some varieties better suited to being bought in our weekly supermarket shop and others to be listed as ingredients on our cider labels? 

Well to put it simply, some apples are nicer to eat straight off the tree than others. The apples that have a juicy balance of sharp and sweet are perfect for consuming as they are, but the others that have a much more bitter and astringent taste need the help of fermentation to make them interesting and palatable to consume.   

So if you’re having a hard time eating an apple raw then chances are it’ll make a far better experience as a cider! 

Eating vs. Drinking 

So what makes some varieties better suited to being bought in our weekly supermarket shop and others to be listed as ingredients on our cider labels? 

Well to put it simply, some apples are nicer to eat straight off the tree than others. The apples that have a juicy balance of sharp and sweet are perfect for consuming as they are, but the others that have a much more bitter and astringent taste need the help of fermentation to make them interesting and palatable to consume.   

So if you’re having a hard time eating an apple raw then chances are it’ll make a far better experience as a cider! 

Getting To Grips With Varieties 

Now comes the fun part. The best way to understand the individual personalities of cider apples is to drink them. 

Next time you go to buy cider, why not take a look at the varietals on offer? Pick one you know, or push the boat out and pick one that you don’t. 

What does it look like, smell like, taste like? How does it make you feel? Do you like it?  

Make notes if you fancy, or see if there’s any information out there to tell you more about it. Then next time you can either try the same varietal from a different place or maker to see how it changes or try a different one altogether.  

Tasting is always the best way to learn. I wish you nothing but fun as you embark on your varietal journey! 

Getting To Grips With Varieties 

Now comes the fun part. The best way to understand the individual personalities of cider apples is to drink them. 

Next time you go to buy cider, why not take a look at the varietals on offer? Pick one you know, or push the boat out and pick one that you don’t. 

What does it look like, smell like, taste like? How does it make you feel? Do you like it?  

Make notes if you fancy, or see if there’s any information out there to tell you more about it. Then next time you can either try the same varietal from a different place or maker to see how it changes or try a different one altogether.  

Tasting is always the best way to learn. I wish you nothing but fun as you embark on your varietal journey! 

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

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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