Cider Question: Do I need to use Campden (sulfite)?

The simple answer is “no”. Campden, potassium metabisulfite, sulfite, sulphite, or whatever name or compound you use, it is not needed. This is especially true if you are unsure why you are adding it. As a general rule, if you don’t understand why you are adding something to your cider, don’t add it. This is true for Campden, pectic enzyme, yeast nutrient, yeast, fining agents, or even sugar. There is truth to the statement that everything you need to make hard cider is contained on and in the apple. If you don’t understand why something would be added to the process, I strongly encourage you to leave it out or better yet, learn what it does so you can decide if you want to add it. For me, this is especially true for Campden or what I’ll just call sulfite.

Sulfite is a type of preservative. Yes, it is accepted as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) but, does that mean you should consume it? I mean while the EPA recommends no lead be in drinking water, they do allow water to be categorized as lead-free with some lead particles present(1). Do you want to drink water with some lead in it? Why do you want to drink cider with added preservatives in it? I don’t think you would consider adding Campden to your morning breakfast, so why would you add it to your juice or your cider? I am not saying that sulfites and lead are equivalent. They are definitely not. However, are sulfites as safe as they seem? Research has shown that people, especially asthma suffers, can have severe and even life-threatening reactions to sulfites(2). While considered GRAS, sulfite additions are regulated with limits established for wines in most every country. That means there is a recognized level where sulfites are not regarded as safe. You may also find it interesting that the decade of 1960-1970 saw an increase of up to 70% in the use of sulfites as a food preservative in the United States(2). Whether you believe general consumption of sulfites could negatively impact human health or not, I hope you can agree that the increased use of sulfites in foods means we are at least at a greater risk of exceeding the daily GRAS levels. It might be worth limiting the addition of sulfites, especially since the fermentation process naturally produces some sulfites already. Also, sulfites can support the creation of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). H2S is that wonderful rotten egg odor sometimes created during fermentation. So, why are sulfites often used to create wine and cider? Let’s explore the most common reasons.


Sulfites are antimicrobial. They help control the growth of various organism, especially bacteria and some molds. Grapes and the wine made from them can be infected by Botrytis cinerea, which create gray mold and noble rot. When this happens, sulfite is used to slow the growth of B. cinerea on the grapes. It does this by weakening the B. cinerea fungi and by restricting oxygen, which is needed for growth of the fungus. If you are using fruit that has obvious damage from mold or insects, treatment with sulfites would be appropriate. However, I rarely find home cider makers using damaged fruit in their process. There is this idea that adding sulfites will kill or inhibit the “bad” organisms. If this is why you are adding it, what bad organisms are you targeting and how do the sulfites target the bad and not the good organisms? If you are adding sulfites to fruit or juice, it should be because you have identifiable issues, mold or damage, and you want to inhibit these organisms. Just be aware that you are inhibiting all organisms so it is recommended that you plan to inoculate with yeast. Also, remember sulfites are pH dependent so your dosage varies based on the pH level of your fruit.

There is also a reason you would add sulfites after fermentation. The most obvious would be to stop malolactic fermentation, which is carried out by lactic acid bacteria. The addition of sulfites after fermentation doesn’t inhibit yeast. You can’t stop fermentation or even prevent it with sulfites. Sorbate, another preservative, must be added to create sorbic acid, which does inhibit fermentation. Both preservatives are added to create sweeter ciders by inhibiting the fermentation process when sugar is added as a sweetener. Sulfites restrict bacteria, usually lactic and acetic acid. If you want to slow or restrict the evolution of your cider caused by lactic acid bacteria or other bacteria that work anaerobically, you want to add sulfites. If you are trying to prevent aerobic reactions like those from film yeast and acetic acid bacteria, skip the sulfites and focus on preventing exposure to oxygen. Headspace and processing cider (racking, bottling, and such) can add oxygen. Also remember that there are restrictions to how much sulfite can be in your cider and more is definitely not better.

Another reason sulfite is added to juice or fermented cider is to reduce oxidative browning. When pressing apples, you may notice the juice changing colors. Granny Smith apples can produce a pale green juice but if you expose it to oxygen, it can become amber. These are oxidative reactions occurring with the polyphenols in the juice. Sulfites can prevent and sometimes reverse these reactions. If you want a pale or what I call silver cider, you want to eliminate the oxidative browning that occurs. You might think that sulfites would be perfect for this but, the best way to create silver cider is to encourage the oxidative browning before fermentation. Most of these are weak phenolic compounds that will readily precipitate. Oxidizing them before fermentation will encourage them to precipitate out and leave you with that clear silvery cider. Adding sulfites can reduce browning but for cider, we tend to either want that amber color or not. Unless you are like me using apple peels to add polyphenols, managing color tends to be binary. Personally, I also like to encourage the evolution of my ciders and that includes color. I would rather have a cider that changes as it ages and has fewer preservatives.

There are reasons for adding sulfites to your process but, they are usually exceptions. For most cider makers, there simply isn’t a need to add sulfites to your process. If I missed one, please let me know.


(2) S. L. Taylor and associates, Sulfites in Foods: Uses, Analytical Methods, Residues, Fate, Exposure Assessment, Metabolism, Toxicity, and Hypersensitivity, Advances in Food Research, Vol. 30, 1986

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