What Makes a Cider a Cider?
"If its clear and yeller that's juice you got there feller.If its tangy and brown then you're in cider town!"
Growing up, apple juice was always a go-to drink for me. Nothing was more anticipated than my favorite dinner, chicken cutlets with honey mustard, with a glass of cold, sweet apple juice on the side. Growing up in a farming town meant that we ate pretty locally. Which in turn meant that I was always getting the freshest that the season and mother nature had to offer. So began my confusion when in the fall the store-bought apple juice would disappear from the cupboards and fresh-pressed, unpasteurized cider started filling the fridge. What's the difference I wondered, though not too deeply because the sweet cider was much sweeter than the juice and I wasn't one to complain about that!
Dad used to take a jug or two, sometimes a whole carboy, towards the end of the season and "let it get zippy"... as he used to call it. Alcohol in my home wasn't taboo, but it wasn't coveted either. It just was. And so I didn't really give it much thought, that hard cider, until I went away to college and happened upon the upstarts of the craft brewing scene. And, by extension, craft hard ciders. So as I began to discover more, learning about apple wines, and sweet cider, and hard cider, the question began to form: What really makes a hard cider, a hard cider?
In reality there are two distinctions taking place here: Firstly, what differentiates a cider from a juice. And secondly, what makes a "hard" cider different from apple wine. To really pull apart what makes a cider a cider, we have to start at the beginning. As the quote above touches on, sweet cider tends to have a much different color than its "juicy" cousin. The much darker brown-red hue of sweet cider is because of the difference in production between cider and juice, and that process is what truly separates one from the other. With cider, there is very limited filtration that takes place and in most places also no pasteurization, making this "raw, unfiltered apple juice" both tangy and rich in color.
With juice, much of the apple pulp has been filtered out as well as degraded during the pasteurization process. The removal of these solids make it a much clearer, paler yellow than sweet cider. In terms of flavor, the latter tends to be much more robust (because the small particles of apple haven't been removed). So then there is the question of what makes a hard cider a hard cider. Any type of fruit (anything with sugar, really) will ferment and turn into an alcoholic drink. So, just as my father and so many other Yankees have done through the ages, letting that sweet cider sit un-refrigerated allowed the yeast to begin the metabolic process of converting sugars into alcohol. I've written more about that process here. According to the US government, a cider must be two things: 1. Made from apples (in recent changes pears are now included; perry)
2. Contain less than 8.5% ABV But in the eyes of this cider enthusiast, there's a caveat for ciders made with other fruit. If real fruit was fermented in the process, and there is still apple present, but the alcohol does not exceed 8.5%, I'll consider a Blueberry Cider to be a cider as well. Anything above 8.5% is a wine in my mind! But there are no hard-and-fast rules to this aside from what the Feds say: Ultimately it will be up to you. Connecticut is filled with both cideries and fruit wineries, and can make for great exploring. Check out Drink CT Cider's detailed listing of cideries to find one in your area, or to visit on your next trip to the Nutmeg State!