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The Process of Cider-Making: Part 1

It still amazes me how many people are unfamiliar with the cider-making process and even more so, the end product itself. At least once a weekend, without fail, a customer will wander into the bottle shop and say, “Oh, I don’t like cider.” After convincing them to at least take a sample of our hand-crafted product that we’ve cared for and nurtured for the past nine months, I get the response, “Wow! that’s pretty good!” Of course, cider isn’t for everyone and, as with everything in the world, there will always be those who dislike. However, it seems like the general public (in Ontario, at least) still lacks the basic knowledge surrounding cider.

These series of posts serve to provide a basic understanding of the process of cider-making and the hard-cider drink itself. This is not meant to be an exhaustive look at the history of cider, or the many different types, but just to scratch the itch of curiosity and inform the budding cider connoisseur.

Naturally, the best place to start is the apple. For an in-depth exploration of the etymology of the word visit John’s blog post here. According to the British system, there are four different classification of cider apples, sweet, sharp, bittersweet and bittersharp [1]. Apples fit into a category depending on their level of acidity and tannins. Tannins are a natural compound found in wood, leaves and on the skin of apples and grapes that affect taste, complexity and mouthfeel of cider and wine. For more information on tannins visit this link. A low level of acidity results in a sweet apple and a high level of tannins is a bitter apple [1]. Without getting too specific a good cider generally requires a combination of all types of apples.

“Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider”

– Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire.

In North America, we’ve only been growing apples for a short amount of time. Those familiar with the tale of Johnny Appleseed know that he introduced apples to America in the early 19th century, just a mere 200 years ago [2]. Those apples were not the same as the apples we eat today, however. Varieties that were well established as eating-apples in other parts of the world were not able to grow in the harsher climates of North America. This meant that they had to be grown completely from seed, making the resulting fruit highly unpredictable [2]. These early apples were known as spitters and were much more likely found in a cider barrel than on someone’s kitchen table [2]. Unfortunately, prohibition ended the popularity of cider and with it many cider-specific varieties of apples were lost. In fact, the proverb, “an apple a day, keeps the doctor away” was a marketing push by apple growers during prohibition in an attempt to recover lost apple sales [2].

The process of growing an apple may not be as simple as you expect either. As a child, we had a group of wild apple trees growing in the field beside our house in between the family business and my home. Every day I’d walk the path that wound through the trees to get to school and observe the many nuances of nature. Before I digress too far I’ll make my point. I remember my dad explaining that if I planted an apple in the ground a new apple tree would grow in that spot. Since then I assumed that when an orchard wanted to plant more trees they would just bury more apples in the ground. But no that is completely wrong. If that were true every orchard would grow a different variety. In fact every tree would produce a unique variety with different taste and colour characteristics. For example, when an orchard wants to grow another McIntosh tree, they must use the process of grafting to essentially clone the tree onto a new rootstock. This means that every single McIntosh (or any apple variety) tree in existence can be traced back to a single original tree! Read my other blog post about grafting for more information.

The resurgence of the apple came in the form a juicy, sweet, crisp apple that we all know and love today. This type of apple is referred to a dessert or table variety that was traditionally more likely to be eaten raw than to wind up in a pie or cider. These apples are the most common types found in orchards across Ontario. Created by trial and error, through research in Minnesota (Honeycrisp) [3] or accidentally stumbled upon in a farmer’s fence row (McIntosh) [5], these table varieties have become the gold-standard for apples in North America [1]. Unfortunately, many of these apple’s don’t contain the tannins (or bitterness) that gives cider a strong body or mouthfeel [1].

From this day forward it shall be known as Noel.

– Colin Campbell

Recently, orchards are starting to plant traditional English cider varieties like Dabinett and Kingston Black. In fact, some of these varieties are in such high demand that nurseries are sold out for the next 2-3 years. Campbell’s Orchards is planting both of these varieties in the Spring of 2018 specifically for Apple Falls Cider Co. The late Grant Howe, founder of The County Cider Company in Waupoos was ahead of his time and started planting these cider-specific varieties back in the 1990s [4].

Just recently, Colin, Sophie and I took a walk to the back of the orchard. While enjoying the cool, crisp, fall air we stumbled upon an apple tree stuck in the middle of a fence row. Without any proper pruning, this tree looked gnarled and haggard, yet somehow managed to fight its way through the wild grapes and the prickly ash that intertwined its limbs. We noticed that it still had apples on it’s limbs! Damaged by the frost, they didn’t look so good. But Colin didn’t hesitate to find one that was protected by some leaves on the ground. After biting into it, he declared, “It’s not that bad”. We inferred the tree must be a relative of the Northern Spy, based on the location of the tree and the late hanging fruit. It wasn’t very sweet, very tart and dry. Colin declared that from this day forward it shall be known as Noel. Maybe one day we’ll make a cider out of it.

Cider-makers take what we can get and thus the majority of the ciders produced in North America use these table varieties. This can still result in some phenomenal ciders. An important point to note is that, generally, cider comes from apples that people don’t want to eat [6]. Therefore some of these “traditional” cider-apple varieties may have just been bad-tasting apples that, after fermentation, turned into some half-decent cider.

Cider comes from apples that people don’t want to eat.

I’ll say that above point again. Generally, cider comes from apples that people don’t want to eat, or more accurately, cider comes from apples that orchards can’t sell fast enough. A small blemish, odd shape, scab or some other unsightly characteristic on an apple will make the cider bin it’s new home. John would like me to stress the point that these apples still taste perfectly fine and there is nothing wrong with them except esthetically.

Also, plenty of good-looking, perfectly fine eating apples go into the cider press just to keep up with demand. There are other reasons to press apples as well, an old bin of apples that are losing their firmness, or an overstock of a certain variety can cause an orchard to turn on the press. Therefore, it’s usually in the orchards best interest to not be pressing cider, because that means the apples are selling well. A bushel of eating apples will yield much more profit to the orchard than the same amount of apples turned into sweet cider. This line of thinking, however, may be a thing of the past as the demand for hard cider continues to increase [6].

Growing an orchard specifically for cider production can be beneficial to the farm. Because cider-apples don’t have to be the best-looking, farmers can spend less time and money maintaining that crop. An added bonus is that grounders are actually allowed to be used in fermented cider. Grounders or windfalls are the apples that naturally drop from the tree. This happens when the apple has reached the end of it’s growing stage which means it’s usually a nice, big, juicy apple. Unfortunately, in Ontario (and most of North America), these apples are not allowed to be sold as eating apples or used in sweet-cider because of the off-chance that they contain pathogens from bird or deer excrement. Instead, they are sold as deer-apples or used as feed for farm animals. However, the alcohol produced during fermentation acts as a natural sterilant and kills the potentially dangerous bacteria.

In fact, hard cider was once the go-to healthy drink for families on the wild frontier of Canada and the US in the 1800s. Hard cider provided a safe, stable beverage for people in a time where water from a well, river or stream may contain harmful pathogens like cholera, and e-coli [2].

Growing apples is a much more complicated and different process than one might think. All processes of producing hard-cider are important, but this one must be held in high regard. In the next post we will discuss picking and pressing.

Jalicoeur, C. (2013) The New Cider Maker’s Handbook. Chelsea Green
Pollan, M. (2003) The Botany of Desire. Random House
Seabrook, John (21 November 2011). “Crunch: Building a better apple”. The New Yorker.
May, G. (January, 2011). “Waupoos artisan apple farmer borrows from grape growers to produce award-winning artisan ice cider for ‘The County'”. My New Waterfront Home.
Boyle, T. (2011). Hidden Ontario: Secrets from Ontario’s Past. Dundurn.
Roberts, O. Ontario Apples in Demand for Craft Cider: The New Farm. The Star.