What is the best yeast to use to make cider? The answer is simple. Whichever yeast creates the hard cider you most enjoy. Okay, I took the non-confrontational path but, it’s true. If you make cider you love from wine yeast, use it. If beer yeast makes the cider of your dreams, use it. If you love a wild or natural ferment, great! Here at PricklyCider.com, I am usually not out to tell you the right or wrong way to make cider. As long as you are making cider, the world is good. My goal is to help you make better cider and, the path to better cider is knowledge. Yeast are one of the factors in creating the essence of cider. The challenge is that commercially, we don’t really have many choices. It may seem like there are a lot but when you start really looking, you realize there aren’t many options.
We have beer and wine yeasts but, most commercially available yeasts are really just Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains. Yes, there are a lot of different strains and they can produce a range of flavors but, the genus is basically all Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Very few non-Saccharomyces yeasts are available commercially. The beer and wine industries haven’t needed them so the yeast producers haven’t provided them. Recently, some needs in the wine industry have started to be identified where non-Saccharomyces strains offer value. But, even with these situations, the approach is to use a Saccharomyces cerevisiae to finish a fermentation started by a non-Saccharomyces strain. Again, the yeast industry is focused on the wine market and not the cider market. This is why the wine industry has a lot of influence on cider production.
The wine industry has created the perception that fermentations should be fast and complete (uses all sugars). They are also often seeking a specific aromatic profile that is associated with the grape variety. This can be complex but, often has specific characteristics. For cider, I believe most of us would agree that a complex aroma profile is a good thing but, are we really looking for specific aromatic profiles or do we want diversity? Also, do we really want a quick fermentation that is complete? Quick fermentations are beneficial for large commercial producers because they can process cider faster and get it to market. It makes perfect sense that you want to minimize the time and ultimately, cost in your cider making process. But, does this speed make sense for the home or craft cider maker? I’m not saying commercial ciders are not good quality but, there is an element of quality tied to speed and it is not usually that faster is better. A similar argument can be assessed for the completion of fermentation. Many ciders have high acid levels. Does a complete (dry) ferment really make sense for cider? Wouldn’t a cider with some residual or natural sweetness make a higher quality product? The question is how can you create a cider with some natural sweetness. The sugars in apples are not complex. They are mostly fructose with some glucose and sucrose, which means that Saccharomyces cerevisiae will process all of them with the available nutrients.
The yeast you choose has a big impact on the rate and completeness of fermentation as well as the aromatic profile of your hard cider. The challenge for craft cider makers is the lack of options. Yes, there are a multitude of Saccharomyces strains available and you can make good ciders from many of these. However, cider is not beer or wine. Cider is cider, a fermented drink made from apple or pear juice. Generally speaking, I would like to produce ciders with complex aromas from apples that are locally available. I would like the option to produce ciders with some natural sweetness or ones that are dry. How do we do this? The answer has been with us since cider was first made. The problem is that we have let other industries define the questions and ultimately, the answers to what cider should be. Instead of saying we want to make highly complex and fruity ciders with some residual sweetness, we listen to the wine industry and say that you shouldn’t have residual sweetness and should use yeast that often has a fast vigorous ferment. The expectation is that fermentation should be performed by Saccharomyces or a handful of similar strong fermenting yeasts. We are told things like the sugars in apples are too simple and easily fermented and that all fermentation, even wild, is finished by Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. Basically, we are under the mindset that fermentation means Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast.
Even those using wild ferments are complicit to the problem of defining what cider yeast should do. They may argue to do a wild ferment and that all you need to make great cider is the natural yeast on the apple. But, is that really true? What yeast are they really using? I would say that Saccharomyces yeast is like a dog. Like dogs, Saccharomyces has evolved to both serve humans and be served by humans. The relationship works for both parties. The problem is that we don’t even know where Saccharomyces evolved from. We have sequenced its genome but, still haven’t been able to identify where it originated. We use it because it seems to be a great organism that works perfectly or, at least it does for many commercial applications like wine, beer, bread, and biofuel. But, does it really work perfectly for cider? It’s like saying that the only animal companion humans should have is a dog. Don’t get me wrong, Saccharomyces and dogs are great. But, go tell the cat that the dog is better. It will ignore you, clean its face, and then jump down and tell you it’s time for dinner. Non-Saccharomyces yeast are like cats, they aren’t the obvious choice if we are trying to herd cattle, sniff out explosives, or provide security. But, are cats any less beneficial? Give me a cat any day for protecting grain from rodents and as a heating pad for my lap. We need to look at the true needs for cider making and begin asking new questions.
For years, non-Saccharomyces yeasts were labeled spoilage organisms. They were considered inferior fermenters and organisms that should be killed or inhibited. This fits with another practice, the over usage or perceived need for sulfites (Campden). Maybe we should turn the entire concept on its head. What if instead of Saccharomyces being the ideal fermentation yeast, it’s actually the spoilage yeast or the creator of faults. What if the best yeast for cider is really non-Saccharomyces strains. History and those cider makers using wild or natural ferments would say that non-Saccharomyces yeast like Lachancea thermotolarens, Pichia kluyveri, Kazachstania zonata, and Zygosaccharomyces rouxii are the real yeast that should be used to ferment cider. These are just a few examples of non-Saccharomyces yeast that have been producing cider for thousands of years because they are the yeast actually found on the apple versus the invasive spoilage yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, that is only found in dirty human environments. Notice how with just a few simple words, the entire notion of what is the right yeast can be turned on its head. But, maybe that bold statement isn’t that far off the mark.
Note that spoilage or faults really just means undesirable or different from the expected. It doesn’t actually mean that it will become rotten or spoiled. If the desired or expected is to have a cider with complex aromas and the potential for some residual sweetness, non-Saccharomyces yeast are a better options than Saccharomyces strains. Saccharomyces cerevisiae becomes a spoilage yeast in this scenario. Our goal would be to find ways to kill or inhibit these spoilage organisms. We would want to ensure only the complex non-Saccharomyces strains were the yeasts that fermented our cider. Do non-Saccharomyces really produce complex aromas and residual sweetness and, if they do, how could we inhibit the Saccharomyces strains that may be out there waiting to spoil our cider?
In the next article of this series, we will explore what research and my experiments with non-Saccharomyces strains are starting to tell us. But, to not keep you too much in suspense, yes, non-Saccharomyces yeast create complex aromas. The research (1, 2) and my own experiments confirm it. Do non-Saccharomyces yeast produce more residual sweetness? Again, research (1, 2) and my own experiments say yes, they do. The challenge I am finding is how to best control that pesky spoilage yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Or, maybe it’s less about controlling it and more about enabling the non-Saccharomyces. Look for the next article in the Non-Saccharomyces Yeast series, Complexity & Sweetness.
Understanding how yeast create great cider will help you make better cider. Knowledge and sharing it is why I wrote my book, launched this website, and provide products and recommendations on The Shop page. It is why I started offering non-Saccharomyces yeast strains in the Cider Yeast section of the shop. If you are interested in supporting PricklyCider.com, check out the shop. As with everything, my goal even with the shop is to help you make better cider.
(1) A. Gutiérrez and associates, Evaluation of non-Saccharomyces yeasts in the fermentation of wine, beer and cider for the development of new beverages, J. Inst. Brew., 124, 389–402, 2018
(2) J. Wei be associates, Characterization and screening of non-Saccharomyces yeasts used to produce fragrant cider, LWT – Food Science and Technology, 107, 191–198, 2019
Did you enjoy these tips on making hard cider? Check out my book to learn more ideas and information on making and enjoying hard cider. It will help you develop a process that matches your desire and equipment. It will also show you how to pair cider with food to maximize your experience. You can find it as an eBook and a 7×10 paperback on Amazon or a 7×10 paperback on Barnes & Noble. Click on these Links to check them out.