Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beer of the Week: Cider

Yeah, I know cider isn't beer. I debated naming this "style of the week" but didn't want to limit myself to BJCP styles (or have to dump a bunch of stuff into category 23). And now here I am thinking I should have gone with Style. Oh well.

Anyway. Now that our bizarre warm weather appears to be behind us, it definitely feels like the time of year for those comfy winter drinks. Winter Warmers, mulled wine, hot toddys, hot buttered rum - and cider. We're getting ready to make a few batches of cider and perry (pear cider) and wanted to try some true English cider so we picked up a bottle of Aspall Dry yesterday at Lukas in Martin City. Consensus? Both of us agree this is the best cider we've ever had, and at $6.99 per bottle it's a deal.

I've had probably close to a dozen different ciders, none of which are authentic cider styles (Wyder, Blackthorne, Strongbow, Magners, Ace, and so on). Real apple cider should drink more like a wine and have a completely different profile than its unfermented cousin. It should not taste like alcoholic Mott's, much like wine should not taste like boozy Welch's (well, good wine anyway). The typical cider options we have are poor examples of good cider; they're the Arbor Mists of the cider world. That isn't to say they're particularly bad, they're just not what I'd consider proper cider.

Apple cider should have a clear appearance, though it's still ok for it to be somewhat hazy for a more "natural" style. It should also be a bit acidic with a bit of tannin to provide body and substance to the cider. This is, I think, what is missing from most commercial ciders and why I tend to prefer the drier ones (Wyder's Pear & Strongbow Dry). The tannin really helps add some complexity to cider, much like hops add depth to beer.

Apple cider has a long history in both England and France, but enjoys its own legacy in the US as well (thanks to European settlers in the 17th century). While we're all familiar with common sweet apple varieties such as Fuji, Honey Crisp, or Braeburn, there are dozens of other varieties more suited to ciders - and definitely not good to eat. Apples are split into four categories: sharp, sweet, bittersharp, and bittersweet. Each contributes to different qualities in cider, and are typically blended to create a balanced taste in a cider. There are few apple varieties that contain all of the desired flavor qualities (sweetness, acidity, astringency/tannin), such as Kingston Black, and they're not easy to find. Therefore, nearly all cider you'll find out there is made with a variety of apples (just as many beers are made with different malts to achieve desired characteristics).

If you're interested in making your own cider, it's extremely simple to do so. We found an orchard out in Overbrook, KS that we'll be visiting next weekend to pick up both pear & apple juices. This year's harvest wasn't that great, but you can start making plans for next year. They publish their harvest dates on their website so that you can plan your trip around different varieties. Alternately, you can bring a bucket or carboy to Louisburg Cider Mill and they'll fill it for you. Just call them a few days in advance to make an appointment; they'll tell you what apples they'll be pressing and will arrange a time for you to come by and get the unpasteurized juice. (A note on that - you can ferment both pasteurized & unpasteurized juice. Each will result in different flavors and you might experiment with both to see which you like best.) If you don't want to wait until next fall, you can make cider from preservative-free apple juice at the store (preservatives will prevent fermentation).

The steps to make cider are pretty straight-forward:
  1. Buy juice & pour it into a sanitized fermenter
  2. If using non-pasteurized juice, add campden tablets (1 per gallon of juice) to kill any wild yeast or bacteria in the juice & wait 24 hours
  3. Pitch yeast
  4. Wait a few weeks for fermentation to finish & add finings for clarification
  5. Rack to another container, let clear a bit more, then package (keg or bottles)

The process can be much more complicated than this, but that's the basic concept. Using different yeasts will result in different cider flavors. Adding juice & halting fermentation will create a sweeter cider; adding acid, oak, or tannins will change the cider further. Of course cider can be either sparkling or still, and the addition of spices will add a seasonal flair to your finished product.

If you're interested in learning more about cider, here are some great references to get you started:
  1. BJCP Guidelines for Style 27
  2. BJCP Guidelines for Style 28
  3. Andrew Lea's book on Craft Cider Making
  4. Andrew Lea's website (now with frames!)
  5. Another well-regarded book on cider by Proulx and Nichols
  6. A great webcast on making cider with Jamil Zainasheff, Jon Pliese, and awesome guest Gary Awdey
I'll follow up at a later time on our own experiences making cider. My meads & braggot are coming along and I'll post more on that when they're ready to drink (just a few more months!). In the meantime... beer it is!


  1. I made some cider this fall with apples from my dad's orchard...I did the old fashioned way. Just juiced the apples and let the natural yeast and bacteria do the boiling whatsoever.

    It was so good I cultured the yeast in the bottom of the bottles and used it for homebrew.

    ogod luck!

  2. Yeah, I have no intention of boiling but I will be adding potassium metabisulphite to kill any wild yeast/bacteria so I don't ruin the stuff. I'm afraid of making 5 gallons of vinegar. :)

  3. apple cider vinegar is good for heartburn!!

  4. I'd call Fieldstone before you head out there. I seem to recall someone in the Lawrence Brewer's Guild saying the apple harvest was a little sparse this year.

    If you can find the Etienne Dupont Cidre Reserve around (probably only on the Missouri side), by all means give it a shot. It is aged in Calvados casks, good stuff.


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