September 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Resurgence of Hard Cider

Approaches to commercial cider production in New York and Vermont

by Chris Stamp
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series about hard cider. The first, written by Linda Jones McKee, focused on the history of cider in North America.

As noted in part one of this series (“Ancient Beverage to Hot New Trend,” Wines & Vines’ July 2013 issue), hard cider sales have tripled across the United States and Canada during the past five years. In her July 2013 article, Wine East editor Linda Jones McKee discussed why what was once the New World’s most-popular alcoholic beverage all but disappeared from this country. This second installment about hard cider, or simply “cider,” will focus on the various styles and production techniques.

While this article uses “hard cider” and “cider” interchangeably, it is important to note that the U.S. government defines “hard cider” as “a beverage made from fermented apples of less than 7% alcohol.” Any drink with alcohol greater than 7% but less than 14% is technically a wine (apple wine, in this case), but the term “cider” is now allowed in place of “apple wine.” Federal rules regarding taxation of cider/hard cider are based on carbonation levels and alcohol content; therefore, they are an important consideration in product design and price point.

Although cider is a fermented beverage not wholly dissimilar to grape wine, there are some important differences. The chemistry of apple juice combined with consumer habits and expectations present special challenges not ordinarily faced in the production of grape wine. Cider makers must contend with a number of factors that make cider less stable or limit the available tools that winemakers typically enjoy.

Cider is a low-alcohol beverage, generally ranging from 2% to 8% alcohol. While this lower alcohol content is one of cider’s charms, it leaves it more vulnerable to a host of microorganisms. Combined with potentially higher pH levels, high malate content, residual sugar and less tolerance for SO2 additions (due to carbonation and shorter bottle aging), cider makers must exercise great care throughout production to avoid spoilage.

Méthode champenoise style: Eve’s Cidery
Cider makers Autumn Stoscheck and Ezra Sherman own and operate Eve’s Cidery in Van Etten, N.Y., where they grow the majority of their fruit on 20 acres of orchard. Of that, 12 acres are 40-year-old trees, many top-grafted to cider varieties. Two acres are eight-year-old cider apples and two are three-year-old cider apples with the remaining acres planted this year. Total annual yield averages about 5,000 bushels—or 125 tons.

Like other craft cider makers I spoke with, Stoscheck and Sherman stress the importance of apple varieties in the quality of the cider. While they grow and use about 60 different varieties of apples, Stoscheck says they have certain “work-horse” varieties. For example, in the early season Ellis Bitter is a major bittersweet blending component. Some other major varieties include Chisel Jersey, Dabbinette, Northern Spy, Golden Russet, Bramley’s Seedling and Medaille d’Or. Not all are blended. They produce two varietal ciders: Northern Spy (sparkling) and Kingston Black (still).

Stoscheck says that most cider drinkers expect bubbles, and consequently only about 10% of their production is “still” and the rest is sparkling, produced through bottle fermentation. Stoscheck describes her style as “minimalist.” As a rule, she adds no sugar to the cider except as primer for the secondary fermentation in the bottle and as dosage at disgorging.

Pressing usually occurs immediately after harvest, except on occasion when the fruit is lower in sugar than they like, in which case they leave the apples in crates to allow further ripening, a procedure foreign to grapegrowers. They blend the varieties at pressing to achieve an acceptably low “healthy” pH. Ideally they like to see a pH of 3.0, but sometimes they allow it to go as high as 3.75 for certain varieties. The juice is not settled or clarified, but immediately inoculated with DV10 yeast. Nutrient levels are typically low; to reduce stuck fermentations and potential reduced sulfur problems, they use yeast hydration nutrients and add yeast nutrients to the juice. The cider is allowed to ferment out at 60°F. Primary fermentation is usually complete by late fall or early winter. It is not unusual for the fermentation to stick near the end.

After a short settling period, the cider is racked and receives 20-30 ppm SO2.
Because of the high malate content in apples and its susceptibility to lactic acid bacteria, the cider makers add lysozyme as a precaution. Protein instability is common, requiring some level of bentonite fining. Treatment with bentonite must be withheld at least a week to 10 days after the lysozyme addition, as bentonite deactivates lysozyme. After the bentonite settles, the cider is racked again and given a tight pad filtration.

At this point, the cider is ready to receive the priming sugar. Any ciders that have residual sugar from primary fermentation are analyzed for glucose and fructose. The amount of priming sugar added must take into account any sugars left over from the primary fermentation. It is also important to be sure the types of sugars are balanced before attempting the secondary fermentation. Most yeasts prefer to ferment glucose and fructose on a 1:1 ratio. While sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose (50/50), dextrose is just another name for the monosaccharide D-glucose. Stuck fermentations usually present a wine with a larger balance of fructose. Knowing the residual glucose and fructose levels, a cider maker can calculate what sugars should be used for priming to best promote a complete secondary fermentation.

At Eve’s Cidery they add sugars to achieve a total of 12.9 g/L, enough to produce slightly more than 3 atmospheres of CO2. After the sugar addition, the cider is sterile pad filtered and bottled in 750ml Champagne bottles with encapsulated yeast. The cider is left in tirage only long enough for the secondary fermentation to complete, whereupon it is hand disgorged. The dosage generally includes 25-30 ppm SO2 and varying amounts of sugar, depending on the particular product. Additionally, their sweetest ciders may receive some sorbate. The wine is finished with a Champagne cork and wire hood and retails for $15 per bottle. According to Stoscheck, they could sell three times their current production and are expanding their orchards to help meet that demand.

Carbonated cider: Earle Estates Meadery
Winemaker/cider maker John Earle and his wife Esther own and operate Earle Estates Meadery in Penn Yan, N.Y. They have been making excellent fruit wines for 20 years. In contrast to Eve’s Cidery, Earle’s approach to cider is more akin to beer than Champagne. He sources apple juice grown and pressed locally. The apples are held in cold storage and freshly pressed as needed, allowing for a fresh supply of juice throughout the year. Earle selects the highest acid juice from his supplier, and the pH of the juice is usually about 3.5. Like Eve’s Cidery, Earle does no clarification of the juice, agreeing that clarification results in a loss of flavor in the finished product. Juice typically ranges from 14.6° to 16° Brix, which he adjusts to 18° Brix and then inoculates with Epernay II (aka CEG, Cotes des Blancs). There is no pre-fermentation SO2 addition to the juice.

Fermentation proceeds at 60°-70°F until it reaches the target alcohol level of 5%. Refrigeration is used to arrest fermentation. The cider is allowed a short time to settle before receiving 50 ppm SO2, racking and DE filtering through a plate and frame. Unlike Eve’s Cidery, Earle does not employ a secondary fermentation for carbonation, instead choosing to force carbonate the cider in his 300-gallon Zahn & Nagle carbonation tank. After adjusting the free SO2 to 40-50 ppm, he adds 200 ppm sorbate and filters the cider through sterile pads and a 0.45µ membrane into the carbonation tank. The cider is chilled to 28°-30°F and carbonated. Earle gives the cider a week or more at around 10psi, believing slow carbonation allows for better bubble integration and retention. The freshly carbonated cider is counter-pressure bottled in 750ml sparkling wine bottles and finished with a crown cap. It retails for $9.99 per bottle.

Méthode ancestrale: Bellwether Cidery
Bellwether Cidery in Trumansburg, N.Y., is owned and operated by husband and wife Bill and Cheryl Barton. The Bartons started the business in 1999 after being inspired by travels through the cider regions of France. Like other cider makers I spoke with, Bellwether purchases freshly pressed juice year round from a local supplier. They also have a small orchard planted to traditional European cider varieties. Bellwether produces 10 different varieties of cider, both still and carbonated, ranging from very dry to semi-sweet, as well as a cider blended with tart cherry juice. Like Eve’s Cidery, 90% of their production is carbonated. The Bartons agree with the other producers I spoke with that most consumers expect bubbles. Bellwether produces a number of force-carbonated ciders in a fashion similar to Earle Estate, but they also produce a portion in the méthode ancestrale. These ciders are bottle conditioned but not disgorged as in méthode champenoise.

 Barton emphasizes the importance of blending different varieties of apples to achieve proper balance with respect to phenolics, acid, pH, Brix and flavor. He appreciates the bitter-sweet and bitter-sharp European varieties for their phenolics but believes they generally benefit from blending with some higher acid North American varieties such as Gold Rush. Unlike some producers who like to move the fruit from the orchard immediately to the press, Barton stores the apples for a period of time to reduce the starch and increase the sugar content.

While primary fermentation still takes place on the lees, he uses pectic enzymes in the juice to improve settling and filterability later on. The fresh juice receives about 50 ppm SO2 to control wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria. When required, juice Brix is adjusted up to 16° with cane sugar. Barton says he is always experimenting, but EC1118 (Prise De Mousse) is his favored yeast. He regularly uses hydration nutrients when preparing his yeast for primary fermentation and adds nutrient supplements to prevent H2S. However, he noted that excessive diammonium phosphate can produce “Jolly Rancher-like” aromas that he prefers to avoid. Fermentation is carried out at 50°-55°F. Upon completion, the cider is racked, lightly sulfured and tight DE filtered.

His primary fermentation techniques are identical whether the cider is to be force carbonated or bottle fermented. Only as the cider nears bottling do the two processes diverge. Cider destined for bottle conditioning is maintained at a low SO2 so as not to impede a secondary fermentation. The day before bottling, the cider is primed with 14 g/L sucrose, and the starter culture is prepared by rehydrating 0.5 grams per gallon of dry EC1118 to be bottled. Through the course of the day, cider is added to the culture to acclimate the yeast until the inoculant is built to about 10% of volume. The next day the active culture and cider are combined, mixed well and immediately bottled in 750ml Champagne bottles and finished with a crown cap. No additional nutrients are added, as they promote too much yeast growth, resulting in excessive lees in the finished cider. Unlike Bellwether’s other ciders, the bottle-conditioned cider is aged one to three years before release. Barton explains that the yeast needs time to fully autolyse. As it ages, the acid softens and the wine takes on a sweeter, more balanced palate. Bellwether’s bottle conditioned cider retails for $16.95 per bottle.

Head to head with the beer market: Vermont Hard Cider Co.
Vermont Hard Cider Co., maker of Woodchuck Hard Cider, the largest selling hard cider in the United States, has been making hard cider since 1991. The broad presence of their products has no doubt played an important role in growing the market for cider.

Vermont Hard Cider Co. does not press apples, but strives to incorporate as much local and regional juice as possible. They select juice within certain specifications, typically with higher acid levels. The juice is generally around 3.3 pH. If acidity is low, they will adjust it with malic acid. Target Brix is around 17° and may be augmented if necessary. Before racking, the juice is treated with enzymes to eliminate pectin and break down starches. They inoculate with a Champagne yeast and control fermentation temperatures to below 75°F. The cider is fermented to dryness. Upon completion, the cider is cross-flow filtered to clarify and eliminate any protein instabilities.

Depending on style, finished alcohol ranges from 5.0% to 6.9%. After blending and sweetening to a particular style, the cider is passed through 0.65µm filter then a 0.45µm membrane prior to bottling. Their hard cider is considered “still” and has an upper limit of 3.92g/L of carbonation, which they achieve through in-line carbonation on the way to a counter-pressure filler. Twelve-ounce bottles are their main package format, but they also package in 12-ounce cans, 750ml bottles, 22-ounce bottles and various keg sizes. The finished cider is usually around 3.6 pH. The entire production cycle, from inoculation to filling, can take as little as eight days.

Vermont Hard Cider Co. is in the process of adding bottle pasteurization capabilities that will enable them to market a majority of their Woodchuck products as “all natural.”

The future of cider
The different styles and techniques employed by U.S. cider makers produce remarkably different products that can appeal to a wide range of tastes. I believe the market will continue to expand as large cider producers—including international brewers—throw their advertising clout behind this once largely ignored beverage.

The styles and economics of cider production are closely tied. If cider hopes to compete with beer, labor-intensive processes like méthode champenoise are not viable options. However, most boutique producers package in 750ml wine bottles to command prices similar to wine. Some larger operations, with greater economies of scale, have adapted production techniques to provide adequate margins to allow penetration into the highly competitive beer market. The increasing presence of cider tap handles at bars and restaurants bears witness to cider’s growing popularity in North America. With freshly pressed apple juice now available all year-round, wineries might find opportunities to increase their bottom lines by utilizing tank space during the “off-season.” Anyone considering this would do well to understand that cider production comes with its own set of challenges as well as rewards.

Chris Stamp is president and winemaker at Lakewood Vineyards in Watkins Glen, N.Y. He started his career in wine as winemaker at Plane’s Cayuga Vineyards in the Finger Lakes, and in 1986 took a position as enology research and extension associate at the Ohio Agricultural Research Development Center in Wooster, Ohio. When his family opened Lakewood Vineyards winery in 1988, he returned to New York to become the winemaker there.

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