We cannot start a discussion about making homemade apple cider without first talking about the apples themselves. From a cider maker’s perspective there are two different categories of apples, culinary apples and crab apples.
In the US, most of what we think of as apples are actually culinary apples. Culinary apples are the apple varieties that are best for eating. Think of a crunchy, sweet, red apple in your lunch or aromatic pies common in the fall. Chances are if it’s an apple you eat, it’s probably a culinary apple. Common varieties include Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Gala, and Fuji. In Sonoma county, one of the most common culinary apple varieties even gave rise to the common name for a local highway, the Gravenstein. Culinary apple varieties are good for eating because they have relatively high sugar (making them sweet), high acidity (making them sharp and crisp), and low tannin content (making them have little to no bitterness or astringency). Unfortunately, the characteristics that make an apple good for eating are not the characteristics that make an apple good for fermentation.
The best apples for making hard cider are commonly referred to as crab apples. Crab apples are the traditional apple varieties of the past that are often referred to as heritage or wild apples today. Crab apples are not as common because they do not taste as good as culinary apples. They are lower in sugar, lower in acidity, and higher in their tannin content than culinary apples. Since they are less desirable for cooking, they are not as widely planted today. Most orchards contain culinary apples and probably little to no crab apples.
Before we get into what distinguishes one cider tradition from another, I'd like you to be sure you understand about the main components of a hard cider. Please review here my discussion of sugar, acidity, and tannins. These are the three main elements that are important for making quality cider.
Hard ciders are classified first by the types of apples that are used to make them. Hard ciders made with culinary apples with low tannins are called New World Cider. New World Ciders have nothing to do with a region, only with the varieties of apples used to make them.
Hard ciders made with crab apples or apples with high tannins are Heritage Ciders. Heritage Ciders are further divided into style by country of origin, such as English, French, New England, or Spanish. These are traditional styles of cider making that evolved before modern times. They differ greatly from country to country, and even from region to region within a country. Heritage ciders are traditionally made with one hundred percent crab apples local to the area.
Each of the major traditions use different fermentation techniques, as well as storage methods, and also tend to use certain bottle types for packaging. To get an idea of the differences, consider this comparison of New World and European style cider including English, French, and New England style ciders.
Pick up any commercial cider at any local grocery store and you most likely bought what is known as New World cider. In fact, New World ciders are probably what you think of when you think of cider. They are generally carbonated, sometimes almost champagne-like. They are fruity and aromatic. They have noticeable acidity and are moderately alcoholic between 5 and 8% ABV. Often, New World ciders are sweet to taste.
New World ciders are made with culinary apples that have low tannin levels. The lack of tannins results in ciders that are lighter in body and mouthfeel. Low tannins also mean they lack bitterness. The practice of controlled and clean yeast fermentations, and avoidance of bacterial or wild fermentations, leads to retaining more of their fruit character. Sometimes small amounts of crab apples are added for some acid and tannin contribution. Higher levels of acidity make the ciders refreshing without being puckering.
To make New World-style ciders, first start with culinary apples. Common varietals in our area of Sonoma County include Gravenstein, Macintosh, Golden Delicious, and Jonathan, but almost any sweet culinary apple will work. Most store-bought juice should be fine for making New World-style ciders. Your juice should start between 11 and 16 Brix. Make sure your TA is between 0.55 and 0.7 to create perceptible acidity. Neutral yeasts like Prise de Mousse and DV10 champagne yeasts will produce ciders with no fruity, estery aromas and will allow the natural aromatics of the apple to dominate. White wine yeasts such as M2, QA23, or Fresco can be used to produce fruity aromas to enhance the aromatic quality the cider.
To add moderate to high carbonation to your New World-style cider (between 2.6 and 4.6 volumes of dissolved CO2) add 1-2 oz of corn sugar per gallon at bottling time as food for the yeast. Be sure to use strong Champagne bottles if you go above 1.4 oz per gallon---beer bottles may explode! For reference, beer is typically carbonated to around 2.6 volumes. To make your cider sweet on the finish, add potassium sorbate at a rate of 0.25 oz per 5 gal. to prevent the yeast from re-fermenting any sugar added. Then add sugar to taste. Remember that if you also want to carbonate your sweetened cider you will need to force carbonate in a keg because you have added sorbate to inhibit fermentation. I would recommend using fresh juice or making a simple syrup with cane sugar and water. Perform small tests by using bench trials to try and compare different mixtures of sugar and cider. Try varying levels of sweetness until you find the right level for you. Then scale up how much you need for your entire batch. When back sweetening, don’t use more than ½ lb of cane sugar per gallon. Noticeable but moderate sweetness can be achieved with 1-2 oz cane sugar per gallon.
INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO MAKE NEW WORLD CIDER
English ciders are made with crab apples with medium to high tannin content. They are usually dry to medium-sweet and full-bodied. They tend to have a long mouth finish because of the high astringency due to high tannin levels. The acidity will be lower than New World style due to malolactic fermentation which reduces the dominant malic acid into less acidic lactic acid. English ciders often have no appreciable apple character to them due to the dryness of the cider and the use of malolactic fermentation. Carbonation levels range from still (not carbonated at all) to champagne-like. Common apple varietals include Kingston Black, Stoke Red, Porter’s Perfection, and Nehou. Alcohol content tends to be between 6 and 9%, with starting sugars between 12-18 Brix.
English ciders commonly go through malo-lactic fermentation (MLF). MLF is the process by which bacteria convert malic acid, which is sharp and tart, into lactic acid, which is relatively soft and mild. MLF tends to soften the perceived acidity of ciders and wines by removing much of the sharp acid bite of malic acid. It also tends to reduce the perceived fruitiness.
In the presence of tannic apples, MLF commonly produces ethylphenols which are evident as other flavors: spicy/smoky including smoked meat, phenolic, and farmyard/old-horse. These flavors are common and desirable in English styles, but are not required to be English-style. The tannin MLF character should not dominate the cider’s flavor and aroma. If the farmhouse character is too strong in English-style ciders, it is considered a fault and may indicate contamination by Brettanomyces. Sometimes the farmhouse character of English ciders is mistakenly attributed to the addition of Brettanomyces. However that character should come purely from MLF in the presence of high tannins.
To make English-style ciders it is best to start with high tannin crab apples. Kingston Blacks can occasionally be found here in Sonoma County. If you do not have access to high tannin crab apples, use whatever varieties you have available and add tannins to the juice in the form of Stellartan G Grape Tannin. For more information on adding tannins refer to our Key Components in Cider discussion. If you want that smoked ham accent that is characteristic of English-style ciders, MLF must occur in the presence of tannins, so tannins should be added to the juice before MLF. The Beverage People carries malo-lactic bacteria cultures from three different companies from 5 gallon packets to 66 gallon.
English ciders are also traditionally fermented in wooden barrels. However, English ciders should not have strong wood character because the barrels were traditionally old, neutral wine barrels. WineStix makes small toasted oak staves that come in either American or French oak and in a variety of darknesses of toast. Since oak shouldn’t be a strong character in the cider, I recommend using the light toast WineStix. WineStix recommends starting with 1 stave of oak per 5 gallons. I would recommend cutting a stave in half and starting with that. It is easy to add more oak. When the desired amount of wood character is achieved in the cider, rack the cider off of the oak to prevent continued extraction.
INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO MAKE ENGLISH-STYLE CIDER
French ciders are similar to English ciders. They are made from medium to high tannin crab apples. They tend to be noticeably sweet to balance the tannic astringency, from 2% residual sugar to above 4%, and tend to have an appreciable fruit character to them. This can be the result of backsweeting the ciders with fresh juice. Traditionally, this is the result of the French technique of defécation or keeving. Enzymes are added to the juice to minimize its nutrient content, and no nutrient additions are made. This slows the fermentation and makes it easier to stop the fermentation before all the sugars have been fermented. Less vigorous fermentation means that less aroma is driven away by the production of CO2. This results in greater retention of the fruit’s native character. Carbonation is commonly between beer carbonation to champagne-like, ranging between 2.6 and about 6 volumes of CO2, respectively.
They tend to be rather sweet, full-bodied and rich. The acidity will be lower than New World style due to malolactic fermentation which reduces the dominant malic acid into less acidic lactic acid. The spicey, smokey, farmhouse character of MLF in the presence of tannins is most common, but is not required. Just as with English ciders, MLF character should not be pronounced and actually should be milder than most English ciders. The tannic character should be moderate, but mostly as astringency providing mouthfeel, not as bitterness. Common apple varieties include Nehou, Muscadet de Dieppe, Reine des Pommes, and Michelin. Alcohol content tends to be low due to the practice of stalling the fermentation and leaving some sugars unfermented. ABV is usually between 3 to 6%, with starting sugars between 12 and 16 Brix, and ending sugars between 2 and 5 Brix.
To make French-style ciders, use high tannin crab apples. French style-ciders should have a noticeable astringency to them. If you don’t have access to high tannin crab apples or are using store-bought juice, use what you have and make up for the tannins by adding them back in the form of Stellartan G Grape Tannin. Residual sweetness as well as astringency from tannins are key. To reduce the nutrient content before fermentation, consider treating the juice with Claril SP, a mixed fining agent which will settle out an assortment of solids and allow you start the ferment with very clean, nutrient reduced juice. Ferment with yeasts that don’t have a high vigor and will ferment slower, such as Epernay II. Also, keep fermentations cooler if you can, fermenting your cider at the low end of the yeast’s temperature rating. Yeasts that produce estery aromas should be used to help enhance the fruity character. The best choice at The Beverage People would be Epernay II wine yeast, a common choice for rosé wines which has a reputation for being relatively easy to stop before it ferments dry. To stop the fermentation early, a notoriously tricky practice, bring the temperature of the fermentation down below the range of the yeast. This should be as cold as possible, preferably refrigeration temperatures. After a couple days of “cold crashing”, transfer the cider off of the yeast sediment carefully and cleanly, leaving the stalled yeast behind. You should do this once the brix have reduced to about 5 brix or less.
To get the spicy, smokey, farmhouse character of MLF add malo-lactic bacteria cultures to your cider after primary fermentation is complete. MLF must occur in the presence of tannins, so tannins should be added to the juice before MLF. For more information on adding tannins refer to our Key Components in Cider discussion. The Beverage People carries malo-lactic bacteria cultures from three different companies from 5 gallon packets to 66 gallon. MLF character should be less pronounced in French-style ciders. Allow MLF to proceed until desired amount of MLF character is in the cider. Then attempt to arrest MLF with a combination of cold temperatures, sulfite, and Bactiless fining agent---again, cold crashing will be useful since MLF bacteria prefer temperature between 65 and 80 degrees F. If you put the cider in the fridge for two weeks, the MLF bacteria should go dormant. Adding sulfite should help inhibit or kill the MLF bacterial. Bactiless is a product used to prevent or stop bacterial fermentation. The combination of those three factors should halt MLF.
French ciders were traditionally sometimes aged in neutral, used wine barrels. Compared to English-style, however, the French ciders would not be aged as long and would not show as much character development from the wood.
For carbonation, we recommend kegging this type of cider. Due to the presence of high residual sugar, you should add potassium sorbate at a rate of 0.25 oz per 5 gal. to prevent the yeast from re-fermenting. Sulfite the cider to prevent continued bacterial fermentation. Then keg, chill, and carbonate the cider. Carbonate to between 2.6 and 6 volumes. If you want it bottled, you can transfer from keg to bottle with a counter pressure bottle filler, and you will have a shelf stable French-style cidre!
INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO MAKE FRENCH-STYLE CIDER
New England ciders are made with characteristically high acid New England apple varieties such as Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet, Golden Russet, and Baldwin. New England ciders are also known for being relatively alcoholic because of different kinds of sugars being added including corn, cane, brown, molasses, honey and even raisins. Alcohol levels are usually between 7 and 13%, making them noticeably stronger than their European counterparts. These sugar additions also contribute flavors to the cider. These ciders are traditionally rather dry, but can be sweeter when balancing higher alcohol levels. They should have some tannin character and should have moderate acidity. Traditionally, these ciders were often aged for some time in oak barrels. The barrels often came from local distilleries when they were done with them. Therefore, many New England ciders will have some spirit character to them in addition to the sugar additions’ character. Original brix should be between 14 and 24 Brix. New England ciders do not commonly go through MLF.
To make New England-style ciders, ideally you want to start with New England apple varietals. If you don’t have access to those, high acid, moderate tannin apple varieties should work. If using culinary apples or store-bought juice, you will need to add acidity and tannin. Tannin can be added in the form of Stellartan G Grape Tannin. Add just enough to have some astringency. For usage recommendations, refer to our Key Components in Cider discussion. If you are new to testing titratable acidity, a simple starter kit, Country Acid Wine Test Kit, is available to measure the TA of the juice or finished cider. Our staff can help you understand how to perform a TA test. You probably want a TA between 0.6 and 0.75%. Add enough sugar of your choice to bring the original brix to between 14 and 24 Brix. Choose a yeast that can handle your desired alcohol content. Champagne yeasts can handle high alcohol fermentations but produce no fruity esters on their own. DV10 champagne yeasts is a great choice for this type of cider---it will produce ciders with no fruity, estery aromas and will allow the natural aromatic of the apple to dominate.
If you can, age stronger ciders in barrels previously used for aging spirits. The Beverage People often gets shipments of used whiskey barrels. Get some friends in on the project and age your cider in one of them for a more authentic character. If barrels are not an option, try soaking staves of oak like WineStix. WineStix are toasted oak that can be soaked in a jar of your favorite spirit until saturated. Then take the stave and add it to the cider until the cider reaches a desirable amount of spirit character.
When it comes to bottling, dry and carbonated is good choice, though backsweetening may be desirable if the cider has higher ABV with noticeable alcohols that need to be hidden behind sweetness. Carbonation can range from still (no carbonation) to high carbonation.
INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO MAKE NEW ENGLAND STYLE CIDER
Spanish cider has a long history and is much different than any of the other cider styles, both New World and Heritage. Spanish cider covers a large range of ciders, but there are no current style guidelines for Spanish ciders as of now. To quote the BJCP Cider Style Guidelines, “Spanish cider does not yet have a style definition because there is presently insufficient appreciation and understanding, as well as a lack of commercial examples of known quality for reference.” We don’t really know what Spanish ciders are. Spanish ciders are a unique category, with two main traditions. Asturian Spanish ciders tend to be less tannic, less acidic and more fruity and floral in character. Alternatively, Basque Spanish ciders tend to have an earthy, yeasty, smokey notes. They are not fruity like Asturian ciders.
Something unique to Spanish ciders is that they often contain relatively high levels of volatile acidity (VA). This VA is acetic acid, or vinegar, which gives them a notably sharp, tart character. Acetic acid usually come from exposure to air and vinegar bacteria. Some commercial examples exhibit the characteristic smoky, spicy, farmhouse aromas that come from MLF in the presence of tannin.
We have not yet developed recommendations for making Spanish-style cider. Imported commercial examples that I found ranged between 6 and 8% alcohol. They all had VA, were carbonated, and were slightly farmhousy in aroma. If you pursue this style, be sure to let us know how it goes! Experiment and play around. Perhaps, in time, this style will become better understood and we may benefit from the Spanish traditions here.