How We Make Cider – Part One

The Apple, the Harvest and the Pressing

In this series of four pieces we look at How We Make Cider and Perry – alcoholic drinks fermented from apples and pears respectively. The UK is still the largest producer and consumer of these drinks although other countries are catching up fast!

The apple

Apple variety is a defining characteristic in cider; the best ciders are made with cider specific varieties. Like wine grapes, cider apples have the tannin, acid, sugar and aromatic precursors necessary to make a complex fermented drink. These characteristics are sometimes contained within one variety, but more often are blended.

Apples used in cidermaking are classified as bittersweet, bittersharp, sweet or sharp. These terms don’t explicitly include the sugar content of the apples, though this is also an important factor in cidermaking as it drives the alcohol content of the finished product. 

A variety such as Dabinett or Yarlington Mill is called bittersweet as it has a low level of acidity and a high level of tannin; others like Kingston Black or the lipsmacking Foxwhelp are classified as bittersharp as they contain high levels of both.

A sharp such as Braeburn is high in acidity but low in tannin; in a Cider made from ‘eaters and cookers’, a cooking apple such as Bramley could be considered a ‘sharp’.

A Sweet Coppin or Sweet Alford apple is categorised as sweet due to low tannin and low acidity. The term doesn’t necessarily refer to its sugar content relative to other apples, but more to the perception of sweetness, because of this lack of sharp flavours. In an Eastern Counties acid led cider using eaters and cookers, apples such as Discovery would be classified as sweet.

For Perry, there are two classifications: Perry Pears are rich in tannins, with varying degrees of acidity and sweetness (though all Perry Pears retain some sweetness after fermentation due to a natural sorbitol). Table pears which are very low in tannins are sometimes used to produce a Pear Cider, sometimes called a modern Perry.

The harvest

Craft Cider is a seasonal drink, it gets made just once a year during the apple harvest.

Chris Hewitt (Dunham Press Cider) and Nicky Kong (The Crown & Kettle) harvesting apples ( ©Richard Withecombe)

Unlike apples bound for the supermarket, which are often picked before fully ripe to prolong shelf life, for cider ripeness is critical. Part of the skill of an Orchard based cider maker is knowing exactly when to harvest, by hand or from the ground, to attain optimum sugar and flavour levels.

Harvesting season can be roughly divided into two halves, early and late. The early apple varieties such as Major and Foxwhelp start to ripen in early to mid-September. The later varieties such as Dabinett and Yarlington Mill tend to start coming in late-October to mid-November.

Pressing is in three important stages; first scrupulously cleaning the apples, second using a scratter to break up into a pressable pulp, and third pressing. At home chopping up apples or using a hand scratter and a hand press will produce a low yield of juice. The more powerful the press, the higher the juice yield that can be achieved.

Factory produced ciders

Industrial cider making does not follow the seasonal nature of craft, orchard-based, cider making. Therefore, it manipulates the process in several ways, one of which is very prevalent. This is to use concentrated apple juice, which can be stored and fermented year-round by industrial processes.

With the growth of many industrial fruit ciders, we have seen an increase in use of bulk concentrates and as more fruit or concentrate is brought in from the world market, orchards in the UK are in further decline. This is a trend which stretches back several decades due to other factors such as improvements in agricultural techniques and technology, causing the price of apples as a commodity to consistently fail to rise even in line with inflation. For UK apple growers, it is an uncertain future.

The actual apple content required in UK ciders is shamefully low; a paltry 35% minimum.

Even worse, fruit ciders are regulated differently as ‘made wines’ for which there is NO minimum juice content. Virtually all “Fruit Ciders” regardless of production scale or quality of ingredients are diluted to 4% abv because of exorbitant tax bands above that.

There are exceptions such as Tom Oliver’s At The Hop range  and Turners Elderflower, both coming in at 5.5% abv. Here the makers have made the decision to not add more water or unfermented juice to hit the 4% mark and have taken the hit on the extra duty this alcohol level incurs. This takes a degree of integrity as a cider maker and, in my view, should be recognised and celebrated.

Part Two of this series – Terroir and fermentation – will appear in the March 2020 issue of Beer Buzz