The Australian cider market has seen a rapid expansion over recent months with new products popping up faster than my Nan can knit a blanket. While on a whole the resurgence of interest in Australian cider is a good thing, how does the quality of these new Australian products stack up with their international cousins? Can we describe these products as ‘artisan’ or ‘craft’, or is the whole resurgence nothing more than a clever marketing exercise?
To answer these questions we first need to understand exactly what cider is, or should be. Over the next few weeks I will be writing a series of articles describing different aspects of cider, it’s production and more importantly it’s consumption. But to get the ball rolling let’s look at some of the basics.
Most people know that cider (or hard cider as it’s known in the USA) is an alcoholic beverage produced from the fermentation of apple juice. What few people in Australia realise is that cider has more in common with wine than beer. Cider is not ‘brewed’, it is produced by fermenting the naturally occurring sugars from within the apple, similar to the way the naturally occurring sugars from the grape are fermented and matured to produce wine. Cider typically varies in alcohol content from 2% abv to in excess of 8% abv depending on style. Different styles of cider are typically based upon traditions from cider producing regions.
A quick note on apples. While cider can technically be made from any variety of apple, there are apple varieties known as cider apples that have historically been used for cider production and in my opinion are still critical for achieving a balance in the final product. These apples are smaller in size than your common table varieties and are categorised by their levels of acid (sharps), tannin (bitters) and sugar (sweets). Blending different proportions of cider apple varieties allows the cider maker to balance the flavours in the finished product. Like a well crafted beer, cider benefits from being balanced with bitterness and mouthfeel being desirable, but still retaining a crisp dry finish.
It is important to realise that cider is more than just a sweet fizzy drink like an alcopop, it can be a sophisticated and complex drink of varying styles. Traditionally style has been determined on the apple cultivars that have been grown within a specific region. Style is also influenced by historic production processes used by cider makers and can be further categorised as either sweet or dry, and sparkling or still. A brief summary of some of the most popular styles are detailed below;
West Country – The most-consumed cider style in the world and the style that most craft cider maker seek to emulate. West Country cider generally has a tannic bitterness from the inclusion of true cider apple varieties. The finished product is generally dry and can have distinct flavours from malolactic fermentation, such as leather, mousy or spicy. The style should exhibit minimal or no acidic sharpness and as such should not be tart. West Country cider, which is cloudy in appearance, is often referred to as Scrumpy cider and generally ranges between 5% – 8.5% abv. Commercial Examples – Henneys Dry Cider, Weston’s Olde Rosie, Weston’s Premium Organic.
French Style Cider (Cidre) – Generally from Normandy and Brittany, Cidre is normally lower in alcohol and slightly sweeter than British West Country examples, although tannic bitterness from French cider apple varieties should be present. During fermentation, the cider is treated via a method called ‘keeving’ which preserves some of the natural sugars prior to bottling and results in a sweet, sparkling but low alcohol cider of between 2% – 5% abv. Commercial Examples – Domaine Dupont Organic Cidre, Dumanoir Brut Cidre De Normandie, and Cidrerie d’Anneville Binet Rouge.
European Cider – A cleaner and sharper tasting cider produced from apples that are not bitter. The resulting cider will have a thin body and mouth feel. European ciders usually have a tart sourness, although they can be sweetened after fermentation. There are many sub-styles that fall under this category such as Apfelwein (Germany, Switzerland and Austria), East Counties cider (East UK) as well as still ciders found in Basque country. Commercial examples Aspell Crisp Draught Suffolk Cyder and Keiberger Apfelwein
Sweet and Sparkling Cider – A broad description that encompasses much of the commercial offerings and what most Australian’s would recognise as cider. Often made from apple concentrate and additional sugar rather than pure juice pressed directly from apples, these could be more accurately described as glucose wines. There are a number of well known sub-styles such as sweet, dry and draught, and Irish style. Irish style differs in that it is sold in a larger measure and served over ice. Strongbow, Magners and Bulmers are commercial examples.
Perry – Sometimes labelled incorrectly as ‘pear cider’, Perry is beverage which is related and produced in a similar manner to cider but uses the juice from pears instead of apples.
So what should you look for in a quality cider? Firstly you should look for products that are made from apples rather than apple concentrate. Secondly you should look for products that contain cider apples rather than common Australian table varieties. Be wary of products which claim to be made from ‘Red Delicious’, ‘Pink Lady’ and ‘Granny Smith’ . Generally these table varieties will produce a thin and insipid cider rather than a flavourful and full bodied one. Finally, to gain an appreciation of what cider should taste like, there are a number of British and French products available in Australian liquor outlets which are worth sampling…all in the name of research and education
Next time I will cover ‘Real Cider’ and cover some of the Australian products which fall under this definition.