I have sampled a few ciders over the years and I have worked to develop a more discerning palate. It hasn’t been easy. For many years, I wasn’t open to trying new things. However, I now seek out the new and unique, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. I do this partially as an opportunity to truly experience this wonderful world of ours but also to better understand aromas and flavors and develop my palate. I say all this because I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what makes a great tasting hard cider. I say all this as well because what makes a great cider from my perspective may not be appealing to you. That doesn’t mean either of us are wrong. We are just different. Also, rather than talk about what I like about ciders, I am going to turn this discussion on its head and talk about why I didn’t enjoy a cider. I will also share what I think caused it and how I would think it could be corrected. Let’s explore the three most commons tasting faults that I find in hard cider.
Which is worse, opening and pouring a new cider only to find it has this unusual aroma or no aroma? Personally, the hard ciders that scare me the most are those without any discernible aroma. You open them up and… nothing. The worse are adjunct ciders where you expect an aroma associated with the adjunct but find nothing. Aroma is so important to a hard cider because it and color often create a bias about the cider before you even taste it.
If I give you a cider that is orange, you might expect to smell citrus notes. Interesting enough, it might even smell of citrus simply because your brain seeks it out. If you don’t find citrus, you might even be disappointed. It’s amazing how tied our sense of smell can be tied to visual clues and it’s an important point to remember when making hard cider. If your cider doesn’t have aroma and you want to enhance it, include some apple peels in your primary fermentation. Not only will this impact your color but it will also increase the volatile esters in your cider. Peels have the highest concentration of ester producing polyphenols in the apple. You can also increase the amount of effervescence in your cider. The CO2 can capture and improve the release of volatile compounds that give your cider positive aromas. Another key way to add aroma to a cider is also the usual culprit for creating bad aromas: yeast.
Besides the apple varieties used to make your juice, the yeast you use has the biggest impact on what aromas your hard cider has and whether those aromas are considered positive or not. A great example of how yeast can produce different aromas is to review beer yeasts. You will find that many are Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains but they have vastly different flavor profiles. English ales yeasts are generally expected to create clean or maybe fruity flavors while saison yeasts are listed as creating spicy or phenolic flavors. Ultimately, there are yeasts capable of producing aromas all along the spectrum, from nothing to very funky. Different strains of yeast within the same genera will produce different aromas and flavors. Some of this is based on what compounds are naturally in the juice you are fermenting but ultimately, it comes down to how that particular yeast strain reacts in the environment. Some will provide more SO2 and some more sulfur compounds like H2S (rotten eggs). Temperature and nutrient levels factor into this process. If you find your cider is either lacking aroma or has an aroma you don’t enjoy, try a different yeast next time.
The second common tasting fault that I find in hard cider is a lack of balance. My palate prefers drier ciders but, I will also admit to having a sweet tooth. While I generally prefer to have my sugar in dessert, some ciders need sweetness to offset the large amount of acid found in many apple varieties. The usual faults that I find are either drinking a cider that is too acidic and dry or what is common with many commercial hard ciders, just too sweet. I have had ciders where there was over 15 grams of sugar per serving, which is quite a bit. However, they seemed semi-dry or maybe semi-sweet. Why? Because the apple had excessive acid or the cider maker added extra acid to balance the sugar.
The Super Yellow apple that I found has huge amounts of sugars but also extreme amounts of acids. The juice from these apples measures over 20g/l of acid with sugars hitting a specific gravity of 1.102. If you ferment that apple dry, you have a highly alcoholic cider. You’d also have a very tart and acidic cider unless you did a malolactic fermentation (MLF) or you use a yeast that converts malic acid during the fermentation. There are several options but a common one is Lalvin’s 71B yeast.
If you have a cider that is too acidic, you have a couple options. You can encourage MLF by leaving the cider age for a bit on the fine lees or you can add a lactic acid bacteria culture. If you know your apples are quite acidic, you could also inoculate with a yeast like 71B to balance the cider by reducing the acid. The next option is to offset the tartness with other flavors like oak, hops, or other fruit as an adjunct. Lastly, you can use sugar with some type of stabilizing process (pasteurize, preservatives, or filtering) or add a non-fermentable alcohol sugar like erythritol or sorbitol to balance the acid. Reducing the acid too much highlights the final fault that I find with some hard ciders: the finish.
You pour a cider and it looks amazing. You smell it and it smells just like it looks. You even take a drink and it’s got some nice flavors when you taste it. However, as you go to savor the finish, it either doesn’t have one or the one it has is somewhat unpleasant. It’s this lingering note on the back of your tongue that you wish would go away. I’ve had both situations. If you use apples low in acid or you reduce the acid level too much, you can end up with an insipid hard cider. These ciders are one of my least favorite. Give me a cider that is too acidic over one that finishes like water. Yes, you can have a cider that smells good and tastes good but feels and tastes like water at the end. It’s such a let down so make sure your cider retains enough acidic lift even if you have to add some malic or other acid blend, which is the easiest fix for this condition.
Having a funky residue that sticks to your tongue at the finish is almost as bad as lacking enough acid to clean your palate. This is usually the result of your yeast. Specifically, it is probably the result of how your yeast worked in your process. If the yeast ran hot, cold, low on nutrients, high on nutrients, or even just how it interacted with the apple varieties you used, that funky note is probably tied to the yeast you used in your process. Changing your yeast or your process will most likely change the result. Often your yeast is the easiest part to change for a home cider maker. The problem becomes what to do with the batch that isn’t to your liking. My favorite suggestion is age it with oak or another wood. You can get wood chips or even make your own. Consider giving them a toast to add some wood sugars. Either way, wood will often impart some nice flavors that can positively impact the finish. The other option is blending. You’d be amazed how blending ciders that have different and sometimes undesirable traits can combined to form an amazing cider. Start with small amounts and scale the blend once you find the right combination. It is definitely part of the art of cider versus the science.
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