Apples are grown in abundance here in Northern California, destined for many different uses. Gravenstein is by far the most common and the earliest, along with Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Jonathan and Pink Lady. Some varieties, due to their sugar, acid and tannin content, are better suited to making into hard cider than others. Most apple juice blends (store-bought or otherwise) can be adjusted if they fall outside of the ideal ranges with additions of sugar, water, acid /neutralizer, tannin, or fining agents. But as with wine, the less the cider maker has to tamper with the juice, the better.
By the numbers
Palatable ciders generally contain around 5-9 % alcohol by volume (A.B.V.). This number is directly related to the amount of sugar that is in an apple and its juice. Sweeter apples will make stronger, higher alcohol ciders. The amount of sugar can be easily measured in juice with an inexpensive hydrometer or refractometer which correlates to the potential alcohol. Apples containing 14-17% sugar by weight (degrees Brix) will make a hard cider with this approximate alcohol content.
Another principal component of hard cider is the amount of acid that it contains. Is it tart and puckery? Or is it flat and flabby, lacking brightness? Acceptable ranges of acidity are generally in the 0.5-0.7% range. Using a quick and easy acid test kit, the amount of acid can be determined in just a few minutes. Let’s say an apple juice tastes great; it’s complex with both sweetness and tartness. This, surprisingly, may not make the best cider since all of the sugar that is balancing the acid in the juice will be fermented into alcohol, leaving the cider very tart. Avoid making single-variety cider from apples that have acid levels above 0.75%. Those apples may be best in cider made from a blend of apples.
A titratable acidity test kit is different from a pH meter. Titratable acidity is more closely correlated with acid taste than is pH.
Tannin levels should also be considered when making hard cider. A good range is 400 - 800 ppm (also known as 0.04-0.08% or 0.4-0.8 grams/liter) measured in terms of tannic acid. Unfortunately, there is not a practical way to measure tannin content on the home-scale. For starters, cider makers can use their own palate to judge tannic character. Does it have an astringent drying effect similar to that of sucking on a black tea bag? If so, it has high tannin content. Apples in these ranges, such as Kingston Black and Wickson, can be hard to find in Sonoma County, but luckily there are excellent tannin products that can be added to the juice or the cider to add this elusive complexity.
StellarTan G is a grape tannin which perform wells a tannin addition for cider.
A Perfect Cider Apple would contain…
14-17% sugar (degrees Brix)
0.5 - 0.7% total acidity
0.04-0.08% tannic acid (400-800 ppm, also expressed as 0.4-0.8 grams/liter)
Stellartan G Grape Tannin is stocked at The Beverage People and is a good choice. It is sourced from California grapes and will dissolve quickly into cider. 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. Keep additions small, generally not in excess of 150 ppm. A 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.
Now that we know what the ideals are, below is a list of a few apples that fall near these ranges---keep in mind that most apples do not fit into each category perfectly. Blending can be a valuable tool and skill when making hard cider. Blending can be done pre- or post-fermentation, allowing for different varieties to ripen at different times of the year. Unfermented juice can also be frozen awaiting the ripening of its blending partner. Apple juice jugs with tamper-evident caps are available for purchase at The Beverage People and can be used to store juice in the freezer.
Baldwin: Medium acid, medium sugar, medium tannin. Good choice for single-variety cider.
Gravenstein: Medium to high acid, medium sugar, low tannin; great aromatics. Consider blending 10-20% of a low acid apple such as Fuji, Rome Beauty, Gala, Braeburn, or Honeycrisp.
Golden Delicious: Medium acid, medium sugar, low tannin. Young ones tend to have bright acidity, fully ripe ones have less acid, but more honey character.
Golden Russets: Medium acid, medium sugar, medium tannin. Excellent cider apples.
Kingston Black: High sugar. Potentially high acid and high tannin too. Popular single-variety cider apple. Hard to find.
Gala, Fuji, Braeburn, & Honeycrisp: These are all sweet, low acid apples. They are great additions to tart blends, but can make a pretty boring cider on their own.
Apples meant for eating are generally sweet and low acid.
Pink Lady: High acid, high sugar.
Wickson: High acid, low sugar. Adds great depth and brightness to a blend. Use in small amounts, <10% in blends.
Newtown Pippin: medium to high acid, high tannin. Good for bringing tannin content to a blend.
Granny Smith: High acid, low sugar, low tannin. Sugar mellows with very ripe fruit.
Blends are your friend!
Beyond blending different varieties of apples to make an interesting cider, other fruits can be added to the fermentation as well. A popular one here at the shop is to add strawberries to the fermentation (1-2 pounds per gallon). I recently added blackberry puree to a cider that I had sitting in a carboy for a year along with some Brettanomyces Lambicus (a special order yeast), known for it’s cherry pie character, with delicious results. We have many recipes and ideas here at the shop for other ways to spruce up your homemade cider. Add honey to your juice and make Cyser! Add pear juice to the apple blend and make a Cider-Perry! The possibilities are truly endless.