Hard Cider Tip #17A: Understanding Sweetness (Method Part 1 of 3)

So you enjoy making hard cider or maybe you are thinking about trying to make your first batch. Either way and like most things in life, it’s good to have a plan for your hard cider endeavors. Do you want to find that one hard cider you love and make a special batch every year for a holiday? Do you like making a new hard cider every month, and never want to make the same one twice? Do you want to understand every possible method out there for making hard cider? Do you just want a simple method for making hard cider that won’t turn all your closets into fermentation warehouses?

For first time hard cider makers, I generally recommend a method or recipe I’ve posted called “My First Cider”. It attempts to minimize the equipment and cost required to make good hard cider. However, the goal isn’t to pull off a soufflé in your first attempt at cooking eggs. It’s really a training exercise. It’s about giving you a basic method or process for making hard cider that will allow you to grow and expand if desired. Maybe your next step will be pressing your own apples or trialing different yeasts. It could also be aging or adding some adjuncts as part of a secondary process. The key question is really where do you want to go on your cider journey? This will lead you to your method for making hard cider.

However, the same question should be asked to someone who has been making hard cider for years. Have you reached the destination you sought for your cider journey? Have you mastered your method and gotten all the equipment you need? I have a lot of equipment and I still “need” more. Ultimately, even if you have been making hard cider for years, I bet there are different ideas and areas you would still like to explore. Maybe your method is solid but maybe it’s time to add a new dimension or two.

So, whether you are making your first hard cider or your 100th, I created a 3-part tip discussing ways you can explore new methods for making your hard cider. For this post, I’m focusing more on the various processes and not specifically on the ingredients or adjuncts. I will discuss the ingredients and processes more in general terms and when they specifically impact a method. I assume you understand that hard cider is about converting apple juice into an alcoholic beverage through fermentation using yeast. But, you really need to consider the available options for getting the most out of your apples, yeasts, and processes. This will help you develop and evolve your method. Sweetness, Flavors, and Carbonation are the three main areas I want to explore. Let’s first explore Sweetness.


There are really a couple ways to explore sweetness. You can ask how sweet you like your hard cider, or you can ask how acidic is your juice. The total acids in your juice impact how the sugar in your hard cider will be perceived. A great example are “sour” candies. I like to think of sour as vinegar but definitions allow for sour to also be excessively tart or acidic. Most sour candies are made with two basic ingredients, which are sugar and acids (malic, tartaric, and citric… sound familiar?). While the sugar is the first ingredient and the largest quantity, the sour or acid is what dominates the taste. This brings up an interesting consideration when you consider the “dryness” of a hard cider. Like wine, “dry” refers to the amount of residual sugar in a cider and is usually less than 3-5 grams of sugar per liter. However, a hard cider with total acid of 4 grams per liter could have some sweetness if the cider had 4 grams of sugar per liter, even though it could be defined as “dry”. The reverse is also true. I have had hard ciders with over 60 grams of sugar per Liter that taste semi-dry. That’s because the total acid could be 15-20 grams per liter. The point is that sweetness is dependent on both sugar and acid. Though you can measure these two elements, there is a perception issue involved.

Therefore, as you plan your hard cider recipes, you should work to understand the sugar and the total acid. This means you should invest in equipment to measure sugar and measure total acid.

Sugar Measurement

  • Hydrometer – Consider a Tilt Hydrometer
  • Refractometer – Easiest to use but requires an adjustment calculation once alcohol is present
  • Tilt Hydrometer: Used to actively measure the sugar level in juice and cider during fermentation.
  • Refractometer for Measuring Specific Gravity

Total Acid Measurement

  • Titration Kit – Wine kits can be adjusted to calculate in malic acid versus tartaric
Titration Kit
Titration Kit

So, you can measure your sugar and total acid but how do you make a cider sweeter tasting or less sweet. While there are nuances that will impact the perception of sweetness, the main contributors are sugar and acid. If you like sweeter hard ciders, you need to understand how much acid is in your apples and ultimately your cider to get a feel for how to recreate that sweetness by adjusting the sugar and acid.

Reducing sugar is generally not a concern. You simply let it ferment more. However if you accidentally had too much, you could blend it with a hard cider that is more acidic. You could also add malic, tartaric, or another acid to reduce the perception of sweetness. These acids are available at fermentation shops, Amazon, or even your local grocery. To increase the sweetness, you can add non-fermentable sweetener like erythritol, stevia, xylitol, lactose, sorbitol or similar. Again, available at your grocery, fermentation shop, or Amazon. Otherwise, you will need to stabilize your hard cider by removing, killing, or suppressing the yeast.

You can reduce the yeast through cold-crashing but this won’t remove it all or even stop the yeast from fermenting. Fining may also reduce some yeast, but will not remove all the yeast. The only clear way to remove yeast is by filtering and you have to use a small enough filter (usually 0.5 micron or below) to capture yeast. Most filters for home use are rated at a nominal rating. This is the average particle size it will capture but it will allow a significant amount of larger particles to flow through so you have to use what are known as sterile filter pads to ensure you remove the yeast. You can purchase filtration systems for home hard cider making from Amazon or fermentation shops. Recognize that you will also need a keg system or pump to use most filter systems.

Killing yeast is done through heat or pasteurization. Pasteurization can generally be performed with many standard kitchen utensils like a large stock pot and a thermometer. Ideally, you would create a small platform on the bottom of the pot so your bottles don’t sit directly on the heat source. The bottles need to reach 161F (72C) for 15 seconds. You can pasteurize at lower temperatures for longer times. Heat kills the yeast and ensures your residual sugar won’t start fermenting again. Just be aware that you need to use strong bottles because CO2 that is suspended in your hard cider at room temperature will be released at higher pasteurization temperatures. A bottle of hard cider conditioned to 3.0 volumes of CO2 could see internal pressure over 110 PSI during pasteurization. As a reference, your car tires are only 30-35 PSI.

There are a few ways to suppress the yeast in your cider to protect and prevent the sugar from being fermented. The most prominent and used by most commercial cideries is done by adding preservatives. This is usually sulfites and sorbates. Just using sulfites won’t be enough to ensure the sugar you add doesn’t get fermented. The yeast and other micro-organisms (bacteria) remain in your hard cider. Adding sulfites (usually Campden tables) locks up available oxygen to prevent aerobic reactions in the cider while the sorbates (usually potassium sorbate) dissolves to create sorbic acid that inhibits micro-organisms from fermenting the sugar. These preservatives are added right before you back sweeten with sugar and bottle. You can purchase Campden tablets and potassium sorbate from Amazon or a fermentation shop. No additional equipment is really needed.

The other means to suppress yeast is by removing the nutrients in your juice or hard cider. The most common method that people have heard is keeving. This is where the partially fermented hard cider is racked off the lees on the bottom and a nutrient rich cap that is formed on the top. There are known additives that can be used to try to enable this process and you can get them from a fermentation shop. However, in most hard ciders, the lees provide a continued source of nutrients as the fermentation progresses. Racking the cider off the lees while there is still sugar remaining can suppress the yeast’s ability to process sugar and stop fermentation. This leaves a hard cider that has some natural residual sweetness. I use apples that are from unirrigated and unfertilized trees. These naturally have lower nutrients that trees that are fertilizer and irrigated. I also don’t use yeast nutrients. Low nutrient juice that is racked can cause yeast to be suppressed by lack of nutrients and stop fermentation. A good siphon is your main tool to add in racking. You could use a conical fermenter that would aid in the removal of the lees without needing to rack. These can be found on Amazon or a fermentation shop.

Siphoning Devices: Racking Cane & Auto-Siphon
Siphoning Devices: Racking Cane & Auto-Siphon

The final way to suppress yeast is by using yeast that is not capable of fermenting all the sugar because it can’t live once the alcohol reaches a specific level. Low attenuation is more prominent in brewing beer where yeasts won’t process all the malt sugars. However, apples are mostly filled with highly fermentable sugars or at least highly fermentable with common wine and beer yeasts. However, some ale yeasts start to die around 8% ABV, which means that even if there was sugar and nutrients available to ferment, the yeast will died before they can process it. They are actually suppressing themselves because of the alcohol they produce. Wild yeast are another interesting dynamic in making naturally sweet hard ciders. Because there may not be a dominate strain, many yeasts are competing and converting the sugar. If a yeast that is not highly tolerant to alcohol or that won’t ferment all the available sugar takes the dominate position, you may also find yourself with a naturally sweeter hard cider. This is an interesting dynamic about wild fermentation. It’s like planting an seed from an apple, you never really know what you are going to get.

The last method for adjusting sweetness is to reduce the total acids. Not all acids are the same. Malic acid, which is the most common acid in apple juice can be converted to lactic acid. Lactic acid is a weaker acid and converting malic to lactic acid will reduce your total acids. This can be done either by using a yeast in the primary fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid, Lalvin 71B is an example, or by converting it in a secondary fermentation process known as malolactic fermentation or MLF. MLF can occur naturally while aging for a long time or can be induced with the addition of a lactic bacteria strain. Both of these methods will reduce your total acid and improve the perception of sweetness in your hard cider. You can find these yeasts and bacteria through Amazon or a fermentation shop.

Therefore, as you consider how sweet you like your hard cider, you need to understand the total acid of your cider and whether you need some sugar to balance it or whether you should try to reduce the total acid. You have a variety of methods and equipment at your disposal to achieve this goal from filtering to yeast selection and racking. Part 2 of this series will explore Flavors and how you can go about adding flavor and the various equipment you could use.

Did you find part 1 of this 3 part post interesting? Follow my blog so you won’t miss the final 2 posts or any of my posts on making and enjoying hard cider.

It is that simple and there is no catch. I’m not going to sell your email or bombard you with unwanted requests to buy things. It will also give me a way to respond if you have questions about hard cider or need help with a batch. Stay safe, drink cider!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.