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The Cider Dilemma

Dry, medium, sweet has tended to be the extent to which cider has been classified. Not very impressive for a drink that boasts so much history, dozens of apple varieties selected specifically for cidermaking and a regional heritage that reflects distinct cider profiles.

Classification is important. Principally, it guides customer expectation. Classification also allows the quality of one cider to be gauged against another (although this will always be a subjective process). Currently most consumers are faced with a wall of bottles and cans that simply state that they are cider. In bars and pubs one drink is generally available under the cider tag. We  need to do better.

Wines and beers are classified according to well established and complex taxonomies. These have three basic strands. In wine they are variety, vinification method and terroir (appellation). Beer loosely follows the same strand – replacing vinification with technique, and variety with malt and hops.

Internationally, despite a growing interest in cider, little progress has been made to develop a lexicon that properly describes the drink. The introduction of a “New World” or similar category does little to enhance the old English west counties, east counties classification – the former being made from higher tannin cider and the latter from culinary apples. There is likely a range of reasons why cider classification has not been given the intellectual effort is deserves.   

Firstly, the vast majority of drinks sold under the cider banner would struggle to make a legitimate argument as to why they fall under that banner in the first place. If one assumes that cider is a wine made from fermented apples, then can a drink that contains the equivalent of 35% apple juice made with concentrate, has most of its alcohol derived from cane and not apple sugar, is sweetened with yet more cane sugar, acidified and combined with cucumber and lime, be classified as a cider? The most polite descriptor to attribute to these ciders is “industrial”. Unfortunately too many ciders sold under the “craft” banner are in reality just small scale imitations of these industrial products.

Currently, in most jurisdictions, drinks made in this way carry cider labels unchallenged.  Not only do these “alcopops” lay waste to the credibility of well made cider, but because of the extent to which they dominate the market, they make intelligent cider classification meaningless.

A second phenomenon that hinders classification lies in the type of apples used to make cider.  The majority of ciders are made from apple varieties that are not really fit for purpose. Why?   

Because these apples are cheap. They are the waste product of the table apple industry. Apples the wrong shape, colour or size that didn’t make the grade for the supermarket checkout. There are two key reasons why these apples make poor cider. Firstly, modern apple varieties are selected to be easy to grow, to look good and not to challenge the modern consumer. These bland apples were never intended to be used to make cider, and to compound this, table apples are generally unripe when picked so that they store and have good shelf life.  We used to grow a few rows of Cox’s Orange Pippin. Our fruit was harvested over a month after the “export” pick. Good cider, like good grape wine, is made from tree ripened fruit. What quality beer is made from reject bread from industrial bakeries.

The vast majority of ciders (in NZ they fall under the New World cider category), are made from such fruit on a rapid cycle, with no regard to maturation. They are  bland, one dimensional and have little to differentiate between them. They do little to spur the development of a cider taxonomy that reflects what cider should be.