A enthusiasts guide to cider terminology
Talking about cider
Over time, as you try new ciders and perrys in pubs, taps and festivals you build a picture of what you do or don’t enjoy drinking. To understand why your palate responds in the way it does it’s important to learn more about the specific features and characteristics of cider and perry.
James Finch, AKA the Cider Critic, has put together this enthusiast’s guide to some of the slightly more complex terms and descriptors that you can use to unlock a more informed cider and perry drinking experience.
Acids and tannins
There are two main constituents of apples that dominate a cider; ‘acid’ and ‘tannin’.
- Acid, in the form of Malic Acid is present in all apples to varying degrees.
- Tannins, which are compounds mainly present in the skins and impart bitter and astringent characteristics to the cider.
Cider making and yeast
Cider is made in a very similar way to wine, in that it is fermented by yeast. Some makers add a commercial yeast to the juice to ensure a good, clean fermentation. It could be a cider, wine or even beer yeast strain. Others may decide to let ‘Wild Yeasts’ do the job. Yeasts exist everywhere, including on the skins of apples and on the pressing equipment. Cider makers who have been doing it for a considerable length of time may even have their own strains of yeasts unique to their equipment and cidery that give a unique flavour profile. Wild yeasts impart much more complexity to cider but are more unpredictable and so makers may use a combination of wild and commercial yeasts to achieve a balance.
As the yeast does its job it generates carbon dioxide which is let out via an airlock; the yeast then dies and collects at the bottom of the vessel as a cloudy, thick liquid, which is called the ‘lees’. Some cider makers will leave the cider on the lees for some time as it can impart flavours and help with maturing the cider. But in most cases the cider is ‘racked’ off of the lees into another container, leaving the lees behind. This may be done multiple times to make sure the fermentation is completely finished and no further lees form, leaving a clear final cider.
Acids, bacteria and fermentation
Some cider will undergo another fermentation process called ‘Malolactic Fermentation’. This is where malic acid (which apples are high in) is converted into lactic acid, which is a softer, creamier acid. This can either happen naturally depending on temperature and storage conditions or can be induced using specific lactic acid bacteria.
Cider naturally has a low pH (acidic) however there are still a number of ways it can become spoilt and undrinkable. The most common cause is through over exposure to Oxygen which will begin the process of converting the alcohol (ethanol) into acetic acid (vinegar). There are also a number of wild yeasts or bacteria that could create unpleasant flavours, so in order to preserve freshness, you will find that a lot of ciders and perries contain ‘Sulphites’.
Sometimes cider is also ‘Pasteurised’ (heated to 70oc for ~20 mins) to ensure there are no yeast cells or spoiling microbes left alive that could ruin the cider. This may be considered essential for some sweet ciders as residual sugar would lead to further fermentation and the potential for explosive bottles or bag in boxes!
All cider finishes ‘still’, so to make it sparkling in the bottle, some cider makers will ‘bottle condition’. However this will mean a small amount of lees forms in the bottom of the bottle, which is not harmful, just a tad unsightly for some compared to what they may be used to. Other cider makers (especially if pasteurising) may force carbonate, where carbon dioxide is pushed into the bottle of still cider before the cap is put on.
Other forms of carbonation include:
‘Method traditional’ or ‘ Méthode Champenoise’ (only used for champagne) – where the cider is primed with additional sugar and yeast to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The cider is then stored upside down in a riddling rack and rotated over a period of weeks so the lees collect in the neck of the bottle. The neck is then frozen and the cap popped firing out the frozen lees under pressure. The bottle is then topped up and re-capped or corked.
‘Pétilant Naturel’ or ‘Methode ancestrale‘ – where the cider is bottled just before fermentation ends so the last stage occurs in the bottle. This will create lees/sediment in the bottom of the bottle
Mainstream cider making terms I
Making cider from 100% juice is expensive and difficult to store, so a lot of the mainstream ciders you see in the supermarket or on tap at your local have undergone other process to increase storage time and maximise cost return.
There are two main processes used:
- ‘Chaptalisation’ – this is where additional sugar is added to the juice once it has been pressed so that when it ferments it achieves a much higher alcohol content. It’s not uncommon for it to be around the 14-15% abv mark. This is roughly double what a pure juice cider would achieve on its own, depending on the year’s weather. Because of the high final alcohol content, it can be stored for a lot longer. When it comes to readying the cider for sale, the producer simply waters it back down to the %abv that they want. Weston’s in Herefordshire use this process. So thinking about their Organic Wylde Wood cider which is 6%, this would have been chaptalised up to 12% before being diluted with 50% water to achieve the alcohol content for sale. This effectively doubles the amount of cider they can produce with a quantity of juice.
Mainstream cider making terms II
2. ‘Concentrate’ – this is where juice is boiled, to evaporate the water away leaving a thick high sugar syrup that will store almost indefinitely. This syrup is then re-constituted with water at a later date. However, it isn’t as simple as water is taken out and then put back. The law in the UK states that cider must be made from at least 35% juice, but that can come from concentrate. I won’t bore you with the maths, but effectively through using the concentrate method you can create a lot more cider with a lot less juice.
One important point to make here is that adding water to cider is not only done by the mainstream makers to increase profit or consistency. On a good year with lots of sunshine it is not impossible for cider to naturally make +8%abv. Not everyone wants to drink a cider that strong and so some makers will add water to bring that abv down. As a loosely general rule if your cider is less than 6% it likely has water added to it, or if it is a fruit cider then it will be diluted with the additional fruit juice or syrup.
Fruit cider is taxed differently (higher as a ‘made wine’) to apple cider or perry and if it goes over 4% abv the duty rate is considerably higher, hence why many are around the 4% mark.
General cider making terms I
Cider and perry is going through a revolution, similar to craft beer and, as part of that there are many new makers starting up, many older ones embracing new techniques and also a bucket load of new terms. So here’s a few and the general gist of what they mean.
‘Real cider‘ – this term has been coined to refer to ciders made from pure juice (no concentrate & no chaptalisation). In some circles it goes further; such as no pasteurisation (mentioned earlier) or no artificial sweeteners. But in general it means it is all juice.
‘Craft cider’ – this term is exploited considerably, especially by some of the mainstream producers. For example Weston’s in the yearly cider report refer to themselves as a craft producer. Also Bulmers released an ‘orchard pioneers’ series which they referred to as ‘craft’. Essentially it’s more about packaging appearance than the product, so be wary.
‘Full juice’ – this is similar to ‘real cider’ in that it is used to describe ciders made solely from juice (no chaptalisation and no concentrate). However, it doesn’t prevent the addition of water or the addition of other fruit juice.
General cider making terms II
‘Fresh pressed’ – a marketing term really, all cider should be fresh pressed except perhaps those made from concentrate.
‘Fine cider’ – this one is a rabbit hole and doesn’t really have a definition or consensus, unlike ‘fine wine’. In general it is currently used to describe more unique, or limited run ciders or perries in larger sharing bottles.
Styles of cider
Cider comes in many shapes and sizes, but in general there are two types you will come across; a ‘blend’ or a ‘single variety’.
- Blend – this is where the cider is made from more than one variety of apples. It is favoured by many cider makers as it allows them to balance flavours using apples with different properties. For example adding a ‘bittersharp’ variety to a ‘bittersweet’ one to add more acidity to the cider.
- Single Variety – these ciders are made from the juice of one variety of apple.
You will find that many cider makers make a product that comes in ‘Sweet’, ‘Medium’, or ‘Dry’. These are created by adding sugar, unfermented juice or sweetener to the finished cider, usually none for dry (but increasingly many are adding a small amount), a little for medium and some more for sweet.
Naturally sweet ciders
There are also methods that can create naturally sweet ciders without adding any sugar to the juice or final cider. The cider is sweetened by ‘residual sugar’ left after fermentation finishes.
- ‘Keeving’ – common in France and making a comeback in the UK, this process involves starving the yeast cells of vital nutrients so that they die off before the fermentation ends, leaving some of the natural fruit sugars behind. This process can occur naturally if the temperature is right during the initial stages of fermentation or can be forced using specific additives. Essentially the nitrogen that yeast needs to do its work is bound to the pectin in the juice which then floats to the top as a brown gel (le chapeau brun). The cider maker at the exact right time (it’s very precise otherwise the whole process can be lost) racks off the clear juice from underneath this brown hat and a long slow fermentation occurs.
- ‘Arrested Fermentation or Multiple Racking’ – in this process the cider is frequently racked into a new container during fermentation leaving behind yeast cells and nutrients until there is not enough left to complete a full fermentation. This leaves some of the natural sugars unfermented.
- ‘Pétilant Naturel’ or ‘Methode ancestrale’ – as well as being a method to carbonate, a Pet Nat cider can also be a little sweet. By causing the final stage of the fermentation to occur in the bottle you can also create an environment (high dissolved carbon dioxide) where the yeast cells cannot survive after a while and so die off leaving some of the natural sugars.
Sometimes, unfortunately due to poor methodology, processes or hygiene cider can develop faults. Here’s three common ones to look out for:
- Acetic – this occurs when too much oxygen gets to the cider resulting in alcohol converting to acetic acid or vinegar. We all know what vinegar tastes like so it’s fairly easy to spot, however it may be present in small amounts on purpose as some makers like a little acetic acid in their ciders (at least that’s what they say…).
- Sulphides – this is a rotten egg smell and can result if the yeasts don’t have everything they need to do their job. You sometimes get a similar smell if the maker has added a little too much sulphite to preserve the cider. Some people are more tolerant than others to this.
- Mustiness – this is caused by mould contamination usually from pressing rotten apples or pears. Although may also occur in damp cideries or poorly stored barrels. It’s not pleasant at all.
- Mouse – so named because the aroma and taste resembles wet wood shavings, newspaper/cardboard like the inside of a mouse cage. It’s caused by certain bacteria, so good cleanliness and use of sulphites can prevent it. Perry is oddly more susceptible and not everyone can detect it.