I was reading a post from someone who was making a batch of hard cider. I’m not sure what hard cider recipe they were following, but they added sugar to the juice. The impression I got from the post and several comments was that people expected the sugar to make the hard cider sweet and less harsh.
Unfortunately, that’s not really how it works.
Fermentation is the conversion by yeast of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). Adding more sugar doesn’t make a hard cider sweeter, it makes it more alcoholic. Generally the higher the alcohol, the more aging a hard cider needs to mellow. Sugars can be critical to the mouthfeel and flavor of a cider. They can provide balance to acid and tannins. But you generally only need a small amount.
If you are adding sugar, you are really just chaptalizing the juice. In winemaking, some regions struggle to produce grapes with enough sugar to reach the target alcohol level so sugars are added. This is called chaptalization.
The same can be done for hard cider, but the real question is why would you do it. Hard ciders are targeted to have 4-8% alcohol by volume and I’ve yet to see an apple or a juice that wouldn’t naturally produce a hard cider at this level. You can get higher levels but those would be special cases. If you are adding sugar to apple juice, you are really only increasing your alcohol. You are not going to get a sweeter hard cider.
If you want to have a sweeter hard cider, you will have to perform an “intervention” to stop the fermentation of the sugar. In other words, you will need to do something to the hard cider to prevent the sugar from fermenting, or you will need to add sugars that won’t ferment.
Let’s first review the actions you can take to stop sugar from fermenting.
- Adding Sulfites: Hard cider and wine have naturally occurring sulfites but you can add sulfites (e.g. Campden tablets), to neutralize yeast and prevent fermentation. This is done during the back-sweetening process used by most commercial cideries. I don’t use sulfites and my hard cider recipes won’t include them because they are a preservative. I try to avoid preservatives. Also, they are really only needed if you don’t want a dry hard cider. If your hard cider has sugar in it when you bottle, you will need to add sulfites or risk further fermentation and over pressurized bottles (boom).
- Pasteurization: If you have sugar in your hard cider when you bottle it but didn’t add sulfites, you had better pasteurize the hard cider. This is done by heating the cider to a specific level long enough to kill off all the yeast. The down side is that it can effect the taste, and you need really strong bottles if you are pasteurizing hard cider with a lot of carbonation.
- Filtration: The last way to prevent sugar from fermenting is to filter it. By removing the yeast that converts the sugar to alcohol, you can create a sweet hard cider. However, you run the risk of leaving some yeast behind or contaminating the hard cider, which allows it to ferment again. I filter some of my berry hard ciders where I add fresh juice but I also personally monitor each batch because I am making it on a smaller scale.
The other way to have a sweet hard cider is to make sure the only sugars remaining are not fermentable. Yes, there are sugars or sweeteners that won’t ferment. So, how can you sweeten with sugars that don’t ferment?
- Back-sweeten: Back-sweetening is the process of adding sugars to a hard cider after it has fermented and before you package it. If they are like most sugars and fermentable, you need to neutralize the yeast. However, you can also use sugars that don’t ferment. You can add natural and even organic sugars that won’t ferment. These include Stevia, which comes from a plant, and Lactose, which is from milk. Others include Xylitol and Erythritol, which can both be found as organic and non-GMO. Be aware that Stevia is very potent and the Lactose can be cloudy while Xylitol and Erythritol can cause digestive issues if too much is consumed. However, they are reported to have a cleaner aftertaste. Also, most artificial diet sweeteners will not ferment and could be used.
- Pear Juice: The most natural way that I have found to add sweetness to hard cider is to include pears or pear juice in your hard cider. One of the various sugar Pears contain is sorbitol, a natural sugar that won’t ferment. Adding a few pears when pressing juice can provide you just enough residual sweetness to balance the acid and tannins in many hard ciders. You also don’t have to worry about your bottles over pressurizing. Note, if you make a cider from 51-100% pear juice, it’s technically a perry. Perry and cider are natural partners and this is why I often include pears in my hard cider recipes.
- Keeving: A process commonly used in France. The goal of keeving is to remove all the nutrients in the hard cider. This starves the yeast, and while there is sugar available for it to process, it can’t because the cider doesn’t contain enough nutrients to convert it to alcohol and CO2. Keeving isolates the nutrients as the fermentation progresses and through racking, allows you to have a sweet hard cider. It can occur naturally, but that doesn’t happen frequently so you have to follow a defined process to get consistent results. This includes adding various compounds to the hard cider. I have not yet created a hard cider recipe for keeving. I do try to starve some of my hard ciders of nutrients in order to obtain a naturally stuck cider.
If you want a sweet hard cider, adding sugar to the juice before and even after you ferment will probably not give you the results you desired.
My recommendation on the safest and easiest way to add sweetness to a hard cider is to include pear juice in the primary fermentation. If you still need it sweeter, add some organic Stevia or Erythritol right before bottling. I also recommend developing your palate to appreciate drier hard ciders.
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