The Vintage of Hard Cider

Do hard ciders have vintages? Regardless of whether you are legally allowed to define a vintage, like wine, on a bottle of hard cider, my question is really about what impact the “vintage” or year the apple was grown has on a hard cider. If you are using juice from the store, vintage becomes irrelevant because you can’t really track your apples. If you are buying the juice from your local orchard, vintage could begin to have meaning because you can talk to the person who pressed your apples. They might be able to tell you if they used the same blend, from the same trees or not.

However, the best way to assess vintage is when you pick your own apples from the same trees year after year. Just like wine grapes, you can begin to understand the impact that weather and terroir has on the apples that are produced each year. Wait a second. You might be asking what I mean by terroir. Let me start with my definitions of vintage and terroir.

I like to think of the vintage as the year the fruit was grown and harvested. For me, what impacts vintage are the things that could change year to year. This would include the weather, the fertilization practices, and the technique used in fermenting the juice. If you use the same hard cider recipe each year and follow the same process, the variation from the technique should be minimized. You are really talking bout weather and fertilization. If the same fertilization approach is followed, again the variation is minimized. That leaves weather and while you can augment rain with irrigation, it’s hard to address changes in temperature and sunlight.

For me, terroir is about the soil and physical location. For hard cider, it’s the location the apple tree is planted. I know some definitions are broader and include things like weather. I understand why weather is included because the physical location also defines the weather but if we defined a hypothetical scenario where you had two orchards sitting next to each other on two hills but one hill was a different soil composition, the terroir would be the variation from the soil since the weather would be identical.

When making hard cider, I like to think of terroir as the variation I would get from the soil or physical location of the apple trees. Arkansas Black apples grown in Arizona have a different terroir compared to ones grown in Arkansas. The vintage of the apples grown in either location will also create variation based mostly on the weather from year-to-year in each location.

Let me try to summarize. If you make the same hard cider recipe each year using apples from the same trees, should you be able to define your hard cider with a vintage? I say yes. The apples might be larger or smaller having more or less water, higher or lower sugar and nutrients. All of this will impact your hard cider, maybe slightly, but it will impact it. Should you be able to define your cider by its terroir? As it relates to the previous year’s vintages, I say no. The soil and location didn’t change from year to year. Now, if you and your friend, who lives on that theoretical hill next door used the same hard cider recipe and swapped some Arkansas Black hard cider from this year, I’d say yes.

While I enjoy creating new hard cider recipes, there are a few Traditional style hard ciders that I try to make each year. Black Magic hard cider, made from Arkansas Black apples is one of those. Therefore, I’m always interested in how the cider changes from year-to-year. It’s always an interesting experiment to save a bottle or two of last year’s hard cider to compare to the next year’s vintage. Sometimes, I do tweak the technique, which is what I did between 2018 and 2019. But, even that is an opportunity to learn. If I don’t try new things, I don’t risk screwing something up but I also don’t learn much.

Black Magic Hard Cider Vintages
Black Magic Hard Cider Vintages

I served Black Magic hard cider with my wife’s creamy garlic Parmesan shrimp fettuccine. As usual, I made my friends work for their dinner. They had to assess and vote on the best vintage: 2018 (left) or 2019 (right). Like some of my tests, there was no overwhelming consensus besides everyone needing more samples to test. I think that is what you call a successful failure. What I was trying to assess were three technique differences in my 2019 vintage and whether I should use them again.

  1. Centrifugal juicer versus masticating juicer: I had a juicer failure mid-juicing in 2018 and had to finish using a centrifugal juicer. The juice oxidized more than normal when using my masticating juicer and I wanted to see if this had an impact.
  2. Aging to clarify versus filtering: I normally let this cider naturally clarify through aging but I got a large amount of Newtown Pippin apples in 2019 and needed my kegs to process everything. Therefore, I filtered the hard cider so I could bottle age it but keep it clear.
  3. Still versus light carbonation: I packaged my 2018 with very low carbonation, near 1.0 volume CO2. For 2019, I targeted slightly higher at 1.5 volume CO2.
Black Magic Hard Cider: Comparing Vintages
Black Magic Hard Cider: Comparing Vintages

While I didn’t have a clear winner, I did come away with a plan for next year.

  1. Don’t overly worry if I have to use my centrifugal juicer. Also, if I want a slightly darker color, I may want to try the centrifugal juicer again.
  2. Do whatever to let it naturally clarify. Go buy another keg if I need more kegs, but let this hard cider clear on its own.
  3. A little carbonation goes a long ways. I’ll be going for the 1.5 volume of CO2 again in 2020. It helped bring out the aromas without distracting from the hard cider. The 2018 vintage came off a bit flat when compared to the 2019.

Year-to-year comparisons are a great way to assess hard cider vintages, especially for Traditional style hard ciders. If you have a hard cider recipe that you want to make every year, keep a bottle or two hidden away for comparison. I’ve secreted a few of these so I can do another assessment next year. Shh… Don’t tell anyone or they will be hunting them.

Remember, you can find the hard cider recipe for Black Magic as well as others in the hard cider recipe section. If you have questions about making hard cider, check out my hard cider tips sections or my book. I’ve added quick links to all these below.

Quick Links:

It’s that easy. No, I won’t sell your email or blitz you with a bunch of request to buy things. You will simply get a link to my articles and an easy method to communicate with me if you have questions or need help with a batch of cider. Thanks for reading, stay safe, enjoy cider!

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