Chaptalization… It sounds like a complex process with lots of things that could go wrong. However, it’s really quite simple. Chaptalization is the process of adding sugar to juice in order to increase the level of alcohol, %ABV, in the final fermented product. You may have noticed that I didn’t say it’s the process of making sweet wine or cider. That’s because it’s not about sweetness but alcohol. It’s name is derived from a French chemist that advocated for adding sugar to wine to increase the alcohol and preservation of the wine. It is also a highly regulated aspect of alcoholic beverages. In general, it is only accepted in wine from cold climate locations. Colder climates generally have fruit with lower sugars and higher acids because of the shortened ripening season. In these locations, grapes can struggle to produce enough sugars to reach an acceptable level. Chaptalization allows them to increase this and ensure they can meet a minimum %ABV.
So how does chaptalization impact hard cider? One could argue that it shouldn’t. In fact, many governments make that case explicitly. In the United States of America, cider or hard cider has specific criteria that need to be met in order for a product to be considered cider. One of those is the %ABV, which was recently increased to 8.5%. That is good because I have access to apples that will naturally produce above that. That doesn’t mean you can’t have ciders with higher %ABV, but you will be taxed like it is wine. Since most apples will easily meet the bottom end of the %ABV level and adding sugar to any apple juice will most likely result in it being above the legal limit of %ABV. Chaptalizing to make cider isn’t really needed, or is it?
I would argue that chaptalization does have a place in cider making and it is usually when using adjuncts. Someone will argue that it’s not cider if you use adjuncts and again, legally they may be correct. However, if you are like me and like making a variety of hard ciders, you might find opportunities where chaptalization helps. One of my favorite examples is a rhubarb cider or cyser. I love using locally grown rhubarb and prickly pear fruit in some of my ciders. However, both of these have sugars in the 1.020-1.025 gravity range. You could concentrate these juices to increase the sugar, which is what I usually do for my prickly pear juice. You could also chaptalize these juices to increase the sugar level to be more consistent with the apple or pear juice you are using. In that way, you will not be diluting the potential %ABV. One of my favorite ways to chaptalize an adjunct is including honey. That will make your drink a cyser and it will also impart aroma notes from the honey but those aromas can be an awesome combination, especially when using rhubarb.
Will chaptalizing or adding sugar make your cider sweet? Not really. Technically, there is a point where most yeast can’t ferment and so you could have some residual sweetness but that %ABV is usually well above 14% so it generally only makes it more potent. For apples, this really makes it wine and not cider. Chaptalization is generally used to address juice that doesn’t have enough sugar, whether that juice is from grapes, apples, or adjuncts. Are you wrong to chaptalize your juice? Who am I to judge? However, if you are going for a sweeter cider, you need another approach and should save the sugar for carbonation.
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