Here is some miscellaneous interesting information I’ve collected about hard cider:
What is hard cider?
Cider is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from fruit, typically apples (although cider from pears is often included, if 100% from pears, in the U.S. it is typically then called “perry”). Hard cider is not beer (which is yeast-fermented malt flavored with hops), and “apple ale” is a type of beer, not cider. In other parts of the world “cider” refers to the alcoholic beverage, while in the U.S., “cider” or “apple cider” is often non-alcoholic unfiltered apple juice, and “hard cider” refers to the alcoholic type. It is currently the fastest growing beverage (not just alcoholic beverage). The market leader by far is Angry Orchard, which is actually relatively new, having been started in 2011 (especially compared to Woodchuck which has been around since 1991, and Ace which has been around since 1993).
What is hard cider made from?
Traditionally, only apples & yeast. Sulfites may be added to kill bacteria or wild yeast. Sugar may be added for further fermentation. Often the sweeter ciders in the U.S. are back sweetened, meaning some type of sweetener is added after fermentation, such as apple juice concentrate, or just unfermented apple juice. Many ciders are flavored/infused here in the U.S., to add complexity to ciders made from dessert/supermarket apple varieties, due to the lack of traditional ciders apples. Fruit, hops, spices, etc. Some of the more commercial ciders unfortunately include flavoring & coloring, and may even use high fructose corn syrup to aid fermentation, and cheap imported apple juice concentrate to backsweeten. Without grains, hard cider is typically naturally gluten-free, which is one of the reasons it has become more popular (a beer alternative). Hard cider is not distilled (that would be apple brandy).
What are some types of hard cider?
Besides the spectrum from dry to sweet, there are many different types of cider. They may use dessert/supermarket apples, heirloom varieties, traditional cider apples, or a mix. Some are quite plain. Other are infused with flavors (other fruits such as cherries are common, but it can also get quite exotic, from ginger to mint to Siracha). They can be sparkling or still (non-carbonated), and carbonation can be either forced or natural. Barrel aged is a favorite of mine (see below). Rosé cider is an interesting variety, typically made with red-fleshed apples (like Alpenfire Glow and Snowdrift Red), but sometimes the term is used when some other sort of fruit is added to give it a pink tint. Some include hops. Others are similar to white wine (like Alpenfire Dungeness). Ciders can also be styled as they are traditionally made in a certain country (similar to beer), such as English, Spanish, and French. A cider can also be a single varietal, made with only a single variety of apples (such as Pippins), instead of a combination of apple varieties as most are.
Where should I buy hard cider?
Even with its current popularity, the selection at supermarkets and small liquor stores can be quite limited. Some are better than others though. In some parts of the country folks are hard pressed to find anything but the most ubiquitous national brands. Here are some options:
- Large liquor stores (such as Total Wine & Bevmo). Large selection and low prices. Total Wine’s cider selection in my area includes a large number of local ciders as well.
- Supermarkets. Many folks purchase their cider when they are on their weekly grocery run. I’ve even seen cider (including craft stuff) at both Costco and at the drugstore (Bartells).
- Independent bottle stops. Selection may be more unique and service can be more personal, but prices may be higher.
- Straight from the source, the cidery. Here you get the inside scoop, possibly from the cider makers themselves. Attend a tasting and pick up bottles (or growlers) of what you like the best.
- Cider bars which offer bottle sales. If you are lucky enough to have one in your area, take advantage of it!
- Local tasting events which offer bottle sales. Taste ciders, then buy what you like. An example of this is Cider Summit, which is an event currently in Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and San Francisco. These can also be much smaller scale, with only a handful of cideries, or ultra small scale, such as a store tasting one type of cider.
Are hard ciders made with the same type of apples we find in the store?
Some (especially more commercial) ciders are made with common eating apples with names we would recognize, but traditionally, cider is made with cider apples. These are types you wouldn’t want to eat (nicknamed “spitters” as they are more tart & bitter), and are specifically grown to make cider. Hundreds of apple varieties are grown in the U.S. specifically to make cider (WA & NY are the top two producers of cider apples). Most ciders use a blend of apple varieties, but some are single varietal. There is actually a shortage of cider apples in the U.S. so many craft cideries have their own orchard. The craft cidery industry here in the U.S. should be changing in the coming years as more cider apples are available and used in cider.
What is the difference between hard cider and apple wine?
Technically, apple wine is anything higher than 5.5% ABV, but in practice the cutoff is often higher. Some folks consider a cider to be an apple wine when sugar is added to increase the ABV.
Can you mix hard cider with anything?
Yes! A popular mixed drink with cider involves cinnamon whiskey. Another involves beer (Snakebite). A drier hard cider can also stand in for sparkling wine, especially when one wants a drink with less alcohol.
What is the deal with barrel aged hard ciders?
Barrel aging a cider can add different flavors. Oak barrels are common. Fermenting cider in oak was actually quite common before stainless steel tanks were invented. Often the barrels are previously used, such as after holding whiskey or bourbon, which also adds flavor in addition to the wood. Three specifically unique barrel aged ciders come to mind, Wyder’s Reposado (pear cider aged in tequila barrels), Crispin Venus Reigns (pear cider aged in red wine barrels), and Alpenfire Smoke (a boozy rich complex cider aged in whiskey & mead barrels). The time in the barrel can vary anywhere from months to years, and the potency of the effect of the barrel is temperature-dependent (hot weather ages it quicker) and size-dependent (a larger barrel will take longer to impart flavors).
Why do I see an ingredient list & nutrition facts on hard cider when I don’t on beer & wine?
Apparently cider at 7% or less ABV is governed by the FDA, while beer & wine are not, but this doesn’t seem consistent, as I’ve seen some craft ciders under 7% without nutrition facts. 7% is also the current cutoff for a higher taxes (see my writeup on the CIDER Act). The requirement for an ingredient list & nutrition facts may vary by state or by cidery size? I haven’t been able to get a clear picture of why this isn’t consistent, and would be interested in an answer.
If you are interested in some guidance on tasting hard cider, here is an interesting tutorial.
Definitely check out the Schilling Cider Tasting 101 video series if you’re into videos.
Here is a great detailed manual on cider production and orchard management from the Pacific Northwest (Washington State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho).