Hard Cider Tip #13: American Vs. French Oak

I was able to get a good amount of Newtown Pippin apples last harvest so I used this heirloom apple to make a variety of hard ciders. I made Pippin Magic and Merry Pippin (Cider of Gondor) with Newtown being the main apple. I also added some Newtown Pippin juice to my ice cider, Frozen Barrel. Lastly, I made another batch that was 100% Newtown Pippin apples. I decided to also test out a new filter on this cider. Let’s just say the filter worked a little too well. I continue to try to find a filter that works in my canister style filter system that will sterilize my hard cider. Most brew stores only sell a 1 micron nominal filter. I keep trying some smaller ones, but they often have a carbon element, which can strip out too much. You can see what I mean in the pictures below.

  • Newtown Pippin Hard Cider: Pre and Post Filtering
  • Newtown Pippin Hard Cider: Over Filtered

Always trying to find the silver lining, I thought this would be an excellent hard cider for a test. I started exploring the process of aging with wood, mostly oaks but also some other woods like birch, ash, and hickory. Given the clarity of this hard cider, I thought I should split this batch and age each with different oaks. For this test, I chose a heavy toasted American oak and a heavy toasted French oak. You might be wondering what the difference is supposed to be between the two.

French oak generally has a tighter grain and this is important because it impacts the rate at which tannins and flavor are imparted into the hard cider. For my test, I am aging the split batch with equal amounts for 5 weeks. Therefore, I should expect the hard cider aged with the American oak to have stronger flavors than the one aged with French Oak. What are those flavors? French oak is said to impart savory spices, dark bitter chocolate, and coffee. American oak is supposed to have stronger vanilla notes with sweeter spices and coconut. It is even said to have a dill element to it. The toast level matters as well.

New barrels or in my case spirals or chips that aren’t toasted will impart more raw or harsher tannins from the wood. Wood is a way to use an adjunct to impart flavor and tannins to a hard cider that may be lacking balance: like a hard cider that was over filtered. I used a heavy toast for this comparison. Toasting caramelizes the sugar in the wood and softens the tannins. It is supposed to add the perception of sweetness. However, you can also take it too far, which can bring back some of those harsher and bitter elements: think smoke and bitter coffee.

Many people think of wood as a natural part of the hard cider making process. I categorize it as an adjunct. Personally, I don’t see wood any differently than pineapple juice, hops, blueberries, or cinnamon. You are seeking to add color, flavors, and aromas to a hard cider, which is my definition of an adjunct. I enjoy adjunct hard ciders because they offer so many options and flexibility. Consider all the wood options you could use. Even oak has different types and then you can even debate terroir for the wood used. I am using hickory, ash, birch, and maple, but maybe I should try a mesquite or acacia wood since they grow here in the desert. The possibilities for adjunct hard ciders are endless and more important, tasty.

So, how did my experiment turn out? Let’s check out the standard tasting elements I cover in my book: The Look, The Aroma, The Taste, and The Finish. You can see from the following photos that the heavy toast added some color to the hard cider. Though I was surprised it wasn’t more. The left is the French and the right is the American and both are slightly darker then the original you can find in the above photos.

Hard Cider: French and American Oak
Newtown Pippin Hard Cider: French and American Oaked

My wife and I have been working on our hard cider palates and while we still have room to grow, we are developing a vocabulary that works for us. I know what she means when she says something tastes salty or when I say farmhouse or medicinal. Again, the American oak should be stronger because the grains are loose and will impart flavors faster. It should have more vanilla and maybe some sweeter elements. The heavy toast should make the tannins and flavors softer. Let’s look at our assessments.

I sampled these directly from my aging kegs at room temperature as I wanted to minimize the effects carbonation and colder temperatures can have on our tastes. The aromas we most noted between the two samples are listed below.

The Aroma

French Oak

  • Subtle
  • Oak
  • Vanilla

American Oak

  • Sweet
  • Smokey
  • Vanilla

So while they look similar, the aromas are definitely different. The America oak is bolder with a sweeter note to it. That makes sense if we consider the grain of French oak being tighter and it taking longer to impart it’s flavors. My wife and I are both definitely drawn to the bolder notes of the American oak. What about the taste?

The Taste

French Oak

  • Warm
  • Mild Vanilla
  • Slightly Tart and Bitter

American Oak

  • Warm
  • Vanilla
  • Caramel

Both have a warm note to them and I think this is attributable to the heavy toast on the oak. We picked up vanilla in both but the American oak is much bolder. Again, I think it goes back to American oak being more open grained and faster to contribute its flavors. We both picked up a caramel or butterscotch element in the American oak while the French oak was milder and slightly more tart and bitter. Lastly, what about the finish?

The Finish

French Oak

  • Medium
  • Slightly Tart
  • Slightly Astringent

American Oak

  • Medium to Long
  • Slightly Tart
  • Slightly Astringent

The finish was similar on both. There is some tartness and a nice drying astringency at the end. We both thought the American oak was a little longer. You can definitely see where the oak contributes to some softer tannins and this balances the acid from the apple.

Overall, I’m glad I over-filtered this batch and decided to do a comparison with oaks. We loved both but our current palate leans towards the American oak. It’s bolder, and we both enjoy bold adjuncts. This is an adjunct hard cider because the wood is imparting flavors and color. I also really enjoyed the heavy toast on the oak. It smoothed the flavors and sweetened it. I’d recommend both. I’m now excited to try the ash, birch, and hickory wood adjuncts I acquired. I am getting anxious for the fall picking season so I can do some more experiments. I declare this one a huge success!

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2 thoughts on “Hard Cider Tip #13: American Vs. French Oak

    1. I really liked it. I used some medium toast on a few earlier batches but because I filtered this one a little too much, I thought I had little to lose. I actually bought it thinking maybe it would add back some color. These two ciders have become my new favorites of last year’s harvest and last year was a really good year. I’m looking forward to hearing how your batch turns out.


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