This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Cidercraft in slightly edited form. In my humble opinion, it’s a concise and authoritative introduction to the cider styles that enthusiasts in the United States and Canada currently have access to.
If this article doesn’t satisfy your curiosity about cider styles, check out glintcap.org/styles for a look at the style guidelines of the largest and most respected cider judging in North America.
It’s a great time to be a cider drinker. Cider is gaining shelf space at shops and markets and is appearing on bottle lists at restaurants and bars.
The dizzying array of choices can be thrilling to some. But the cider purchasing experience can just as easily be intimidating or frustrating to others.
Can you judge a cider by its bottle? Perhaps not. But here are a few guidelines to help you narrow your search.
Cidermakers in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa are free to innovate because they are not bound by centuries of established cidermaking tradition. If the product meets the legal definition of cider and can be sold at a reasonable profit, the sky is the limit.
Yet this lack of tradition makes it difficult for cider drinkers to know what’s inside the bottle. Compare this to the worlds of beer and wine. Beer drinkers recognize the difference between pale ale and stout because there is general consensus about styles of beer. Wine drinkers recognize the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling because there is general consensus about grape varieties that are best suited for wine.
But for cider, the conversation about styles has barely begun. And cider is not typically made with a single variety of apple, or even with an established blend of apple varieties. So what’s a cider drinker to do?
Thankfully, it doesn’t require as much detective work as you’d think. The clue for most ciders produced and sold in the United States and Canada is to look at how they are packaged.
Ciders available in similar packaging as craft beer—12oz or 22oz bottles, 12oz or 16oz cans, and on draft—typically fall into this category. Modern ciders are produced in large quantities and sold at attractive prices, often in line with what you’d pay for craft beer. You’re likely to find modern ciders in convenience stores, supermarkets, and casual restaurants and bars. Modern ciders are often refreshing and easy to drink.
Some modern ciders are made with apple juice concentrate, either from domestic or imported sources. Others are made with juice from commonly grown apple varieties such as Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, McIntosh, and Jonathan. These apples may be too blemished or misshapen to be sold in a grocery store, but they are ideal for making juice. The juice might be pressed from recently harvested apples, or the juice could be pressed from apples kept in refrigerated or controlled-atmosphere storage. In this way, modern ciders can be made year-round like beer.
Modern ciders can have an intense apple aroma. They will typically be medium-sweet to very sweet, even if the label claims the cider is dry or off-dry. Carbonation will often be medium to high, similar to what you’d find in beer. Yeast character is often unnoticeable, though ale yeasts can enhance the impression of fruit or spice in a cider. Alcohol content will almost always be below 7% ABV. In most cases, the overall impression is of sweet apple juice, not of fermented apple.
Many cidermakers use these ciders as a base to which they can add other flavors. Pears, apricots, cherries, peaches, and various berries can be added to create a fruit cider. Hops can be added to create a hopped cider. Cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and other spices can be added to create a mulled cider. The resulting ciders are often surprisingly interesting.
Ciders available in similar packaging as wine—750ml bottles are standard but 500ml and 375ml bottles are also used—typically fall into this category. These ciders are often inspired by Old World traditions, but possess their own New World flair. Traditional ciders are usually produced on a smaller scale than modern ciders and command prices on par with many wines. You’re likely to find traditional ciders in specialty bottle shops, upscale restaurants, and drinking establishments with a well-curated beer and/or wine selection. Traditional ciders often pair well with food and are typically more complex than modern ciders.
Some of the most exciting North American ciders are made with characterful apple varieties that have been proven to thrive in the various climates of the New World. Heirloom varieties that are especially well-suited for cider production include Northern Spy, Baldwin, Roxbury Russet, Golden Russet, Esopus Spitzenburg, Rhode Island Greening, Winesap, Newtown Pippin, Winter Banana, Arkansas Black, Gravenstein, and Wickson. European cider apple varieties such as Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey, Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Ashmead’s Kernel, Calville Blanc d’Hiver, and Medaille d’Or are also used.
Few of these apple varieties are grown in any great quantity, so small-scale cidermakers often plant their own trees to ensure a steady supply. These traditional ciders are typically made just once a year, from apples pressed soon after the fall harvest, similar to a wine vintage. The art of blending different varieties to produce a balanced cider is of the utmost importance.
Few traditional ciders will be overtly sweet. Bone-dry to off-dry is common, medium and semi-sweet less so. Apple aroma can range from subtle to easily detectable. Acidity is necessary to keep the cider from being insipid, while tannin adds mouthfeel and complexity, even when present in only small amounts. Yeast character is typically neutral. Carbonation can range from still to sparkling, though most traditional ciders are are less carbonated than modern ciders. Alcohol content is typically 6-9% ABV. The overall impression is of an approachable but not overly austere beverage.
European ciders are still not widely available in most North American markets. But enterprising beer, wine, and cider importers are bringing more shipments across the Atlantic all the time.
If you enjoy complex aromas and bold flavors, ciders from England, France, and Spain might be for you. While these cidermaking traditions are different from one another in many respects, they do share one important trait.
Old World ciders typically use naturally occuring yeast that can be found on the fruit itself, on the milling and presssing equipment, and inside the fermentation vessels. This type of fermentation—referred to as wild or spontaneous fermentation—results in a markedly different flavor profile than cider made with yeasts that have been cultured in a laboratory.
If you have a sweet tooth but still crave some complexity, ciders made in Normandy and Brittany are worth a look. Most cidermakers in France use a technique called keeving that arrests the fermentation process before the yeast can convert all the natural sugars to alcohol. These sparkling ciders are packaged in strong glass bottles topped with a cork and cage. Ciders labeled as Brut are the driest, but will almost always be sweeter than dry ciders from other cidermaking regions. French ciders labelled as Demi-Sec or Doux will be sweeter still. Typical alcohol content is 3-5% ABV.
If you enjoy cider a bit drier and more austere, ciders made in England are worth a look. As with French ciders, most English ciders use tannic apple varieties known as bittersweets and bittersharps that contribute a pleasant astringency and bitterness to the finished cider. The dominant aroma and flavor notes are often spice, smoke, or in some cases barnyard. The mouthfeel will be similar to that of red wine. Many bottled English ciders are still, but modest carbonation is also common. Since English ciders are fermented more fully than French ciders, the typical alcohol content will be higher, usually 6-9% ABV.
If you enjoy your cider on the funky side, ciders made in Asturias and the Basque Country are worth a look. Sour beer lovers in particular will find much to like. Traditional sidra natural is packaged in a 700ml green bottle with a visible layer of sediment resting at the bottom. Unwary drinkers often try sidra natural and immediately turn up their noses. But when poured correctly—from as far above the glass as you dare and just a mouthful or two at a time—the vinegar vanishes and a refreshing cider emerges. Of note is that some of the best Spanish ciders available in North America are packaged in clear or brown bottles and will more closely resemble traditional New World ciders. Typical alcohol content is 5-7% ABV.
Armed with these basic guidelines, you can now intelligently navigate the wide world of cider. Be adventurous, take notes on what you like and don’t like, and don’t be afraid to try something new!
Sidebar — How to Taste Cider
Tasting cider is not so different from properly appreciating beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages. While there are a few basic guidelines that should enhance your tasting experience, don’t be afraid to bend (or break!) the rules to find out what works best for you.
Many tasting rooms serve cider in glasses designed for white wine. Most any wine glass—stemmed or stemless—will do the trick. Beer glassware that narrows toward the top is also desirable, as the tapering traps aromas that might otherwise escape.
As a general rule, dry ciders can be served warmer than sweet ciders. Bold ciders with tannin can be served warmer than delicate ciders without much tannin. If a cider seems too alcoholic, you might be serving it too warm. If a cider lacks aroma, you might be serving it too cold. Much comes down to personal preference.
Before diving in for a taste, swirl and sniff a few times before sipping. If you’re at a loss for words, consult an aroma/flavor wheel designed for beer, wine, coffee, or some other beverage that you’re familiar with. Spitting is rarely necessary, as a typical cider contains only half the alcohol of a typical wine.