I am a big advocate that hard cider should reflect your local area. If you are lucky enough to live in England, France, Spain, or even some places in the US that have cider apples, maybe local hard cider would means a traditional cider. That could be dry, tannin-rich and farmhouse, keeved and sparkling, or still, acidic, and sour. If you are like me and live somewhere cider apples are just something you dream of having someday, you are often looking for adjuncts to enhance the culinary or eating apples you can readily find. That doesn’t mean your cider isn’t REAL or won’t be good. It also doesn’t mean your hard cider shouldn’t reflect your local area.
In the US, there is a technical definition of what cider means. However, this is generally a tax question. The US government has a reduced tax rate for alcohol drinks that meet the cider definitions. Other countries are similar. For the sake of this article, I am defining cider as an alcohol drink consisting mostly of apple or pear juice. If you add 30% by volume of raspberry juice to apple juice and ferment it, I’m calling that cider or hard cider. My goal is really to get you to think about hard cider as a local drink.
If your backyard has a Red Delicious apple tree, should you consider making hard cider from it? What else are you going to do with all those Red Delicious apples!?! The question is what else do you have growing in the backyard? You can make a great cider from Red Delicious apple. It won’t necessarily be a single variety Kingston Black that your mate in Devon, England, makes. But it can be good and it can reflect where you live. For me, REAL cider is REAL local. Let’s explore how you can make a great local hard cider using two of the most ubiquitous apples in the world: Red Delicious and Granny Smith.
The first challenge with any apple is understanding it. I know I can be a little excessive with my apple database and apple data but it really does provide you a good understand of your apples. If you know how much sugar is in your apple, you understand your potential alcohol level. That starts to give you a sense for how strong the alcohol level will be and it’s impact. How would you treat an apple that has a specific gravity of 1.042 versus one with a gravity of 1.102? Yes, there are apples with both those levels. I just juiced one that was 1.102. You next need to know the total acid level. The pH can help you, but you really want to know the grams of malic acid per liter in your apple. If you have an apple with 3 grams per liter versus one with 22 grams per liter, it again impacts how you would approach making a hard cider from it. A cider made with apples that have 22 grams per liter will be pretty harsh if you have don’t have any residual sugar.
However, it’s just not about sugar and acid. It is also about tannins and aroma. Tannins can be bitter or they can be astringent, causing your mouth to dry. Try eating a few raw walnuts or sucking on a tea bag after you pull it out of the cup or kettle. For aroma, consider an apple that taste fruity, lemony, or spicy. Haugaun apples, now branded Autumn Glory, is said to have a cinnamon note. Ambrosia apples are another great example or an aromatic apple. Overall, if you don’t understand the apple in your literal or proverbial backyard, how can you know how to use it to make good local hard cider? You can’t, so whether you create and maintain an apple database like me or you simply taste it and assess it, you need to understand your apples.
Your Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples won’t be exactly like the ones I have assessed but they will be similar. The soil, water, sun, temperature, fertilization, and orchard practices impact the apples characteristics but in general, Red Delicious will be sweet, low acid, and have some tannins. Granny Smith apples will tend to be more tart and acidic with low tannins. Granny Smith will actually have good sugar levels but because we have a lot of acid, it’s masked.
If these are the two apples in your backyard, how could you make a good hard cider. Let’s explore the options you have available.
Red Delicious could be viewed as a medium bittersweet apple and Granny Smith as a Sharp. Blending these in a ratio of 70% Red Delicious to 30% Granny Smith, could give you a reasonable blend of sweet, acid, and bitters. You will probably be low on the bitter tannins but you could correct that by peeling some of your Red Delicious apples before you press or juice them and adding these peels to your fermenter. K. Thompson-Witrick and associates (1) have shown that the peels of a Red Delicious have approximately 4.5 times the amount of phenolic compounds as the flesh and the flesh is slightly below a Harrison, which is a classic American bittersweet apple. Including peels from four pounds of your fruit per gallon will increase your tannins and make your cider more amber in color. This is a way to create a nicely balanced cider from your backyard apples. However, it might still be missing another key element, aroma.
Another great way to create local hard cider is by including other local ingredients or adjuncts. Look around where you live. Check out the local farmer’s markets. What fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, or plants are prominent in your area? I live in the Southwestern United States. We have citrus, cactus, manzanita berries, oak and mesquite trees, and yucca plants. The list is actually even more extensive but you might start to see options for adding these local adjuncts in your hard cider. There are even things that aren’t necessarily natively local but still grown locally. I can find locally grown rhubarb, pumpkin, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and even the ancient fruit called medlar, which dates back about 3,000 years and is believed to have originated in Persia.
Local adjuncts are great ways to enhance and create a unique local hard cider. Consider pressing whole oranges or grapefruits and include it in the primary fermentation. Chop up some manzanita berries, boil them in a little water and include them in your primary fermentation. Make a cyser by adding raw local honey like mesquite to your primary. In general, you can add them to these adjuncts to your primary or secondary/aging process to impart local flavor. I have various examples in my recipe section but the options are limitless. Let’s explore some specific examples.
Consider Granny Smith or similar tart, sharp, acidic apples you have in your backyard tree. What could you do to make a great cider from this type of apple? One option is to think about a chardonnay or champagne style hard cider. Create a hard cider from your apples and when you age it, put in some toasted oak cubes. You could either bottle it with low carbonation to be closer to a chardonnay or make it sparkling like a champagne. This would be like my ‘En Chêne hard cider. Another method could be to add berries or berry juice to it and then stabilize it by pasteurizing, filtering, or using sulfites and sorbates. This will give you some sweetness to balance your acidic hard cider along with the aromas from the berries. That is how I make my Rockin’ Raspberry cider.
However, what if you have Red Delicious or similar apples that are low in acid? Adding adjuncts with acids, like citrus, rhubarb, cranberries, prickly pear, or similar fruits and vegetables can help bring a bland cider alive. It can also add aromas for additional dimensions. Check out my Prickly Apple cider or my Bitter Red as examples. The goal is to balance the phenolics from the apple with acid and aroma. Adding the peels of the Red Delicious to other ciders can actually help bring balance to a hard cider that is low in tannins and astringency. This would be like my Pippin Magic cider.
So, can you make a good local hard cider? Absolutely! I personally think the best hard ciders are always local hard ciders.
(1) Characterization of the Polyphenol Composition of 20 Cultivars of
Cider, Processing, and Dessert Apples, K. Thompson-Witrick, K. Goodrich, A. Neilson, K. Hurley, G. Peck, A. Stewart, J. Agric. Food Chem. 2014, 62, 10181−10191
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