Key Components of Cider
If you plan to produce a high quality hard apple cider, first be sure you understand about the main components of a hard cider. There are three main elements that are important for making quality cider. Sugar determines the alcoholic content of a cider and can be used to backsweeten acidic ciders. Acidity provides refreshing flavor and balances alcohol and sweetness. Tannins provide both astringency and bitterness to enhance flavor and mouthfeel.
Generally 10-17% of the juice (degrees Brix)
Sugar is extremely important for hard cider production. Sugar is converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast. The more sugar you start with, the more alcohol you will have in your finished cider. Most apple varieties have enough sugar to produce a hard cider of about 7-8% alcohol by volume (ABV). Most hard ciders are traditionally produced solely with the sugars in the apples themselves, with no additional sugars added. Various sugars can be added to apple juice before fermentation to fortify the juice and produce a more alcoholic cider (see New England Cider). Juice starts out very sweet. But, by the end of fermentation, all the sugar is gone, leaving your hard cider with just acidity and tannins. Some hard ciders are backsweetened by adding fresh or frozen juice or other sugars post fermentation to counterbalance alcohol or acidity.
Generally 0.5 - 0.7% of the juice (titratable acidity)
Acidity is a major flavor characteristic of hard ciders. Higher levels of acidity tend to brighten up ciders and make them pop. Low acid levels tend to leave ciders seeming dull and flabby. The major acid in apples is malic acid. Malic acid is sharp and tart. Think of sour, green apples. The acidity can sometimes be high enough to make your lips pucker up. Acidity balances sweetness, and adds a refreshing character to ciders. The percent acid (more commonly referred to as TA or titratable acidity) is important to cider because it directly affects how you perceive the acidity when you taste the cider. Higher TAs result in more acidic ciders. Most ciders fall between 0.5 to 0.7% TA. At The Beverage People we generally recommend a tighter target of 0.6 to 0.65% TA.
One of the most common cider problems I have come across working at a homebrew shop are acid levels in homemade hard ciders. Since most of the apples in Sonoma County are classified as culinary apples, many ciders made from local apples are extremely low in acidity, sometimes having less than half the recommended amount of acid. Using store-bought apple juice usually yields the same problem of not enough acidity. Fortunately the remedy is simple. We just add acidity back to the cider.
Acid adjustments can be done at any time, before or after fermentation. First you must measure the acid level in your juice or cider. This can be done easily and cheaply at home with a simple Country Wines Acid Test Kit. Once the acid level is known, a target acid level can be determined and the amount of acid needed can be calculated and added.
Generally 0.04-0.08% of the juice (400-800 ppm, also expressed as 0.4-0.8 grams/liter)
Tannins are complex phenolic compounds that can play a most significant role in hard cider mouthfeel. Tannins are a source of astringency. Astringency is that drying-out effect that you get on your tongue and in your mouth when you drink dark, black tea. Astringency enhances mouthfeel by making it feel as if the cider has more viscosity, even though it doesn’t. Sometimes high tannin levels can make it seem like there is an extremely fine powder in the cider. Tannins also produce bitterness that gives cider some of its flavor. This combination of astringency and bitterness combine to give ciders their lingering aftertaste, still noticeable after the cider has been swallowed.
Crab apples are usually high in tannins relative to culinary apples, which may have low enough tannin content that it might not even be perceptible. The relatively high tannin content of crab apples is what makes them so much better suited to producing more flavorful hard ciders. Golden Russet, Newtown, Wickson and Kingston Black apple varieties can be found locally here in Sonoma County and have good tannin levels for hard cider making.
Adding Tannin to a Low Tannin Cider: If you don’t have access to apple varieties with high tannin levels or are using store-bought juice, you may need to add tannins to your hard cider to enhance the flavor and mouthfeel. An easy way to add tannins to hard cider is with Stellartan G Grape Tannin, made from wine grape varietals. It is sourced from California grapes and will dissolve quickly into cider. This product became a staff favorite at The Beverage People based on group blind tastings. Small additions of Stellartan G to hard ciders can make up for low tannin apples and simulate the character of crab apples. Conduct a small scale dosing trial to determine the appropriate level of tannin to add to your beverage. Dosage range typically lies between 0.5-2.5 grams per 5 gallons (25-130 ppm). Keep additions small, generally not in excess of 3 grams per 5 gallons (150 ppm). A 1 gram per 5 gallons (50 ppm) addition is a relatively safe starting point to ensure you don't overdo it. If you'd like to get yourself acquainted with the practice of adding tannins to cider you may enjoy reading the results of a cider sensory study performed at Cornell University and published by the New York State Horticultural Society in Spring 2017. They demonstrated the capacity to make quality ciders with dessert apples (like many of us have access to!) and that different styles can be developed just by adding tannins to cider.