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Colorful St. Vrain Cidery Pours

Cider 101: Part 2

In this second installation of Cider 101 (go here if you missed part 1), we continue our journey into the interesting world of hard cider. Learn cider tasting principles to distinguish and describe its various flavors and aromas, which apples are best used for cidermaking and the main schools of cidermaking. Which kind of cidermaker do you think you are: traditionalist, modernist or experimentalist?

Cider Flavors and Aromas

Cider has come a long way in the US since its colonial roots. Today’s cidermakers understand much more about the biochemistry of apples and the science of fermentation. They know (and are even expanding) how to balance all the elements to yield a specific taste profile. Since cider flavor can vary so much, let us break down the basics for you.

Common Flavor Elements

Tartness is derived from the natural acidity of the apples and any other added ingredients that contribute (for example, cherries or berries). The malic acid in apples provides cider with its natural tartness, but the amount of this acid varies widely among apples. Too little acidity, and the cider will be insipid. Too much acidity, and the cider comes across as harsh and sharp. What constitutes too much or too little acidity varies among regional cider styles and personal preferences.

Sweetness refers to the amount of residual sugar or added sugar post-fermentation. As people attune their taste buds, they tend to go for drier ciders.

  • Dry = 0-1% of residual sugar
  • Semi-dry=1-2% residual sugar
  • Semi-sweet = 2-3% residual sugar
  • Sweet = above 3% residual sugar

Tannins are molecules that contribute bitterness (a taste) and astringency (a mouthfeel — in this case the perception that your mouth is drying out) to cider.  They add complexity and can act as a balancing counterpoint to the sweetness level of a given cider. Tannin sources in cider are the apples themselves (in cider-specific fruit), added fruit (e.g., blackberries or wine grapes), storage in oak, or other added ingredients like spices and botanicals.

Aromatics refer to the smell of the cider. Aromas in cider vary widely, from fruity and floral in unoaked ciders, to earthy or spicy in oak-aged ciders or ciders with added spices. A few examples are as follows. Fruity aromas include citrus, berry, tropical, cooked fruit. Floral aromas smell like perfume, juniper, rose, orange blossom. Earthy aromas can be described as cut grass, bell pepper, tea, tobacco, forest floor. Spicy ciders aromas include cloves, allspice, black pepper, licorice, cinnamon, cardamom.

Appearance refers to what you see happening in the glass. Use terms like clarity (clear, cloudy, hazy, bright), color (white, straw, amber, golden), depth (pale, dark, light, deep), carbonation (still, pettilant, sparkling) and viscosity (watery, thick, full-bodied, syrupy).

Mouthfeel describes the tactile sensations in the mouth when drinking cider. Ways to describe mouthfeel include body (the weight of a mouthful of cider and can be thin, medium or full), alcohol heat (from no apparent heat to hot, fiery in the mouth, warm at back of throat), creamy (smooth, coating), metallic (a tinny or coppery taste), or astringent (tannic, mouth-puckering, drying).

Swiftcider’s Tasting guide provides a good summary.

Apples Used in Cidermaking

There is no set formula here. In reality, any apple can be used. But for craft cider, apples are chosen to balance the following elements which make them desirable to ferment into complex ciders:

  • Sharpness (high acid, low tannin) like Granny Smith, Newton Pippin, Winesap
  • Sweetness (low acid, low tannin) like most dessert varieties
  • Bittersweetness (high tannin, low acid) rare in the US include Michelin (France), Brown Snout (England)
  • Bittersharpness (high tannin, high acid) also rare in the US includes Wickson Crab, Virginia Crab, Porter’s Perfection (England)

Ideally, cider-specific apples are apple varieties not grown on a large scale and are cultivated specifically for making into cider.

Cidermaking Variations

Focusing on what is done in the US today, there are 3 schools of American cider: The Traditionalists, the Modernists and the Experimentalists.

Traditionalists are orchard focused meaning to them great cider begins in the orchards  They blend apple varieties for balance. They believe in minimal intervention with the fermentation process. Often they use wild fermentation using the native yeast on the fruit meaning few or no additives at all. The final product frequently resembles English or French traditional styles of cider.

Modernists are process orientated. They like to control fermentation conditions, use cultivated yeast and use sulphites. They tend to have fruit-centric flavor profiles using targeted blends of specific apples to achieve this. The results are more modern and ‘designed’ cider flavors.

Experimentalists use diverse products and have the diverse products to match. For them, flavor is the goal. Tradition is not necessarily ignored but it certainly is not the priority. They frequently use non-traditional ingredients like spices, hops, tropical fruits, and spirit barrel aging.

Dig In More

To dig in deeper to cidermaking head over to our head cidermaker Dan Daughtery’s site We only scratched the surface in this introduction. Ciderschool goes more in-depth and gives guidance on cidermaking subjects we didn’t cover. Subjects like the cidermaking how-to process, apple blending specifics (what to do if your cider is too tart?!), and lists of good cidermaking apples.