Hard Cider Tip #27: Clear or Cloudy Juice

To make the best hard cider, should juice be crystal clear or should it be cloudy? Have you even thought about it much? If you have read some of my other articles, you probably know that these types of esoteric questions often run through my head. In my quest for knowledge about all things cider, I found some interesting articles and information about the clarity of wine that I feel are applicable to hard cider so I thought I’d share some of my crazy thoughts on the subject.

I confess that early in my hard cider making journey, I bought a gallon of highly filtered organic juice. None of the books or information that I had read at the time mentioned anything about how filtered apple juice would perform in making cider. But, I inherently believed that hard cider needed to come from cloudy unfiltered juice. My logic was that it’s those little pieces of solids and compounds floating around in fresh pressed juice that allow you to make a more flavorful cider. However, never one to back down from an opportunity to experiment, I bought that gallon of filtered juice with a plan to try it and see what happened.

As far as experiments go, it wasn’t one of my memorable ones and definitely not an “aha” moment. I think the biggest learning was that it fermented like most unfiltered juice I’d used and during the process became just as turbid as other juice before finishing and settling out. Also, it didn’t appear to result in a clearer hard cider, which seemed to be related to the yeast I used. It also didn’t seem to be exceptionally bad or different from the unfiltered juice I used. What I did learn and continued to explore was the impact that yeast has on the flavor of my hard cider. It wasn’t until I started reading a lot more about fermentation and yeast that I discovered more information about what happens to grape must that is clarified during fermentation. I believe these are the same fundamental responses that apple juice and hard cider will have.

First, it’s always good to remember that you have two main styles of wine: white and red. There are sweet, sparkling, fruit, and a multitude of other options but at the fundamental level, you have dry white wines and dry red wines. White wines tend to be macerated less and processed to create fruity esters and aromas. The goal is to unlock the varietal elements in the grapes. Winemakers also want white wines to be, well, white or colorless. On the other hand, red wines are generally focused on phenols. These are the tannins that create bitter and astringent flavors and aromas that are earthy, spices, or even let’s say barnyard. They still come from the grape but the process tends to pull these from the skin and seeds. Of course, the process is also focused on making them red or burgundy.

Juice with natural settling ready for fermentation versus juice after pectic enzyme treatment and racking.

How does all this relate to whether your apple juice should be clear or cloudy? As I often say, “it depends”. It depends on whether you want to try to create a silver cider that is clear and fruity or if you are trying for a tannin rich cider that is amber or dare I say red. Understanding how and why grapes are processed to make white wine versus red wine gives us insight into what we can expect with apple juice. Specifically, let’s explore the element of juice clarity but first, let me define clarity. In this article, clarity is about the amount of suspended solids in the juice. How turbid it is. I am not defining it as much in the color of the juice, whether it’s yellow, green, gold, amber, or some other shade. Clarity in this regards is about how easy it would be to see through the juice. That turbidity is apple pulp, pectin, proteins, polysaccharides, and a multitude of other components suspended in the juice.

You might think that solids, or at least some small pieces of pulp, pectin, and other compounds would aid in adding flavor to hard cider. It can but maybe not in the way you think. Pectin when it breaks down can release fruity esters but an over abundance of pectin in your juice can cause a haze to form. Also, apple pulp and solids can harbor more bacteria and natural yeast. These solids provide a rich micro environment for the bacteria and yeast to grow. This will impact that flavor profile of your cider. Usually, it will create more phenolics, fusel alcohols, and various acids that overwhelm those fruity esters and flavors. Removing solids and breaking down the pectin will generally create a hard cider that is fruitier and potentially clearer, which is often how white wine is processed. This could drive us to conclude that we should all be using ultra-filtered juice to create really fruity and clear hard ciders. But, is that always the case?

Pad Filter System: Used to clarify cider and remove yeast.
Pad Filter System: Used to clarify cider.

First, yeast has a big impact on clarity. Flocculation, which is the ability for yeast to form a mass, impacts whether a yeast will stay suspended and create a haze or not. Having solids suspended in the juice can help yeast flocculate to these and drop out of suspension so using an ultra-filtered juice doesn’t guarantee a clearer hard cider.

Second, all those suspended compounds provide nutrients needed by your yeast to ferment. Stripping the juice of all of these can result in a stuck fermentation or creation of “off flavors”. Nitrogen is required for living organisms and yeast must have it to reproduce. Ultra-filtration strips nitrogen from the juice, like keeving and racking. However, yeast are resourceful and if they can’t get nitrogen easily, they make it through complex reactions. These complex reactions are often what create fusel alcohols, compounds, or precursors to compounds that can form undesirable flavors.

Lastly, not everyone wants fruity hard cider. Some want phenolic, tannin-rich, sour, and other earthy notes in their hard ciders. Ultra-filtered juice will tend to suppress some of these complex flavors. Just as there are white and red wines, there should be fruity and phenolic hard ciders. Suspended compounds found in apple juice will help enable more flavor complexity.

As I often find, I have argued myself around in a circle again. The reality is that like most things in life, excess on any direction is never a good thing. Suspended solids are often measured in turbidity units and for wine, it is recommended to have some suspended solids. This is usually lower for white wines and higher for red wines. That rule of thumb would seem to apply for hard cider as well. If you want to make a fruity cider versus a phenolic one, use pectic enzyme, rack off the np juice from the pectin sediment and even consider filtering your juice to remove solids. Otherwise, consider the phenolic characteristics cloudier juice offers. However, being one to always question, I would encourage you to explore how the clarity of your juice along with the yeast you use impacts the cider you make. I am sure there is a great cider just waiting to be discovered from either an ultra-clarified juice or a fermenter full of apple pomace that is naturally fermenting away. Go out and experiment! There are no wrong answers.

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