Cider curious? Here’s what you need to know

Hard apple cider has a long history in the United States. The Pilgrams drank it instead of bacteria-infested water.
Hard apple cider has a long history in the United States. The Pilgrams drank it instead of bacteria-infested water. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Makers and marketers of America’s original alcoholic beverage try to mix in education with their apple-based product. They call it clearing up “cider confusion.”

What makes cider “hard” vs. just plain apple juice? Is cider some kind of fruity beer or more like wine? How should cider be served?

With the explosion of new hard ciders available in California and other apple-growing regions, the mixed-up nomenclature has many consumers scratching their heads, especially when sampling such blends as blood orange or pomegranate cider. What’s in this stuff?

“The number of cider makers in the U.S. is growing exponentially and so has the cider category,” said Alan Shapiro of the Cider Summit, a series of major regional festivals devoted to hard cider. “It’s like the craft beer movement happening all over again.”

About 4,000 cider fans and “cider curious” newcomers turned out for April’s Cider Summit at the Presidio in San Francisco. Other summits are held in Portland, Seattle and Chicago.

Like another twist on farm-to-fork, cider tends to draw the most interest in major apple-growing regions, such as Apple Hill near Placerville, and the Pacific Northwest, home to so many Washington apples. Why not? It’s the original branch-to-bottle beverage.

The more consumers know about cider, the more they become intrigued, Shapiro said. “It’s all in the blend. There’s such a variety of tastes and flavor profiles. … (The festivals) are part of the tasting and education process; it very much mirrors the craft beer category 20 years ago. We’re educating drinkers.”

Here are some facts and trivia to savor while sipping some cider this fall:

How “hard cider” got that name: This is an only-in-America distinction. Elsewhere, the alcoholic beverage made from apples is simply “cider.” Before Prohibition, apple juice used to be known as “sweet cider.” Juice makers dropped the “sweet” from their product and sold it as “cider.” Meanwhile, “hard cider” was used by the federal government as the official term for ciders containing up to 7 percent alcohol.

So what’s nonalcoholic cider? That term is still popular – especially at apple farms with their own cider presses – for fresh-pressed (usually unfiltered) apple juice. That differentiates it from apple juice made from concentrate. “Sparkling cider” is nonalcoholic carbonated apple juice from concentrate. That’s different from alcoholic “bubbly cider.”

Cider is more like wine than beer. Cider is made of all fruit plus yeast; no grain, no malt, no cooking. It naturally ferments like wine grapes but contains less alcohol because the apples start with less natural sugar than grapes. Most hard ciders contain about 6 percent alcohol, more than beer but half of most wines.

It’s all about apples. Although they may contain different juices or flavors in blends, ciders are primarily apple juice, 95 percent or more. When blended, apple juice allows such flavors as citrus, blackberry or pear to dominate.

It takes a lot of apples to make cider. On average, 36 apples are needed to make one gallon of hard cider. Angry Orchard, the nation’s No. 1 hard cider maker, estimates two apples per 12-ounce serving.

Cider apples aren’t for munching. They have pucker power. The best varieties for cider making contain tannin, the same substance in wine grapes and some persimmons. These apples are great for fermenting but not eating raw out of hand. Cider apples are classified as bittersweets (with high tannin and sugar content), bittersharps (with high tannin and high acid), sweets (sugar but no tannin), and sharps (high acid, which makes them sour). In addition to sugar, cider needs acid to ferment cleanly.

Popular cider apple varieties aren’t found in supermarkets. Among them are Kingston Black, Gravenstein, Golden Russet, Bramtot, False Yarlington, Foxwhelp, Hangdown, Chibble’s Wilding, Kentish Fillbasket and Glory of the West. Interest in heritage fruit has helped preserve some of these heirloom varieties that were almost wiped out during Prohibition. Most ciders blend several varieties to get the right balance of acid, tannin and sweetness.

Cider shouldn’t be served too cold. The proper serving temperature for most hard ciders is 50 to 60 degrees. That allows the full flavor to come out. But ice-cold cider can also be refreshing, particularly on a hot day.

Cider can be used in cocktails. Its high acidity makes it a great mixer with other ingredients.

Cider has deep roots in America. The earliest colonists brought cider-making traditions with them from England, where cider was consumed for centuries. The Pilgrims drank cider because bacteria-filled fresh water could be lethal. In 1776, one out of every 10 New England farms had its own cider press.

A cider a day. John Adams, the nation’s second president, drank a tankard of cider every morning for good health. He lived to be 90.

Johnny Appleseed spread joy of cider. The real life John Chapman, a pioneering nurseryman from Massachusetts, lived from 1774 to 1845. Nicknamed Johnny Appleseed, he didn’t scatter seeds; he planted apple trees from New England to the Great Lakes States of Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Those trees provided cider-making apples, libations for pioneers and a potential income for growers.

Cider was America’s favorite alcoholic beverage in the 1800s. But the temperance movement targeted the nation’s “demon orchards” and nearly wiped out America’s supply of cider apples. Three out of every four of the country’s apples trees were destroyed or removed during Prohibition (1920-1933) because there was no market for cider-making crops. Only sweet apples used in cooking or eating fresh survived.

England still loves its cider. The United Kingdom has the world’s highest per capita consumption of cider (about 26 pints per person per year). Before the late 1800s, cider was good as gold; British estate owners could partially pay their workers in cider. Cider remains popular in several other European countries, too, particularly Spain.

America is starting a cider renaissance. Sales of hard cider in the U.S. have gone up fivefold in four years, according to beverage statistics, but it still represents less than 1 percent of U.S. beer sales.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington