Cider tastes very different to apple juice, although the flavour of cider does depend upon the types of apple variety used. Cider flavour also depends on the growing conditions and the cider-making methods.
The finest ciders have a depth and complexity of flavour that can rival the finest vintage wines.
Perhaps surprisingly, the alcohol in cider is not its most important taste component. The finest ciders certainly tend to have higher alcohol levels but it is not straightforward to guess the alcohol level just by tasting the cider. Alcohol imparts a depth to a cider and contributes to the overall complexity of flavour.
Here we will consider the key flavours of ciders and the factors that influence those flavours. We will start with what are usually the most dominant flavours, what we might call the “Big Three”.
For most people the single most obvious taste factor for cider is its sweetness. This roughly corresponds with the amount of fruit sugars in the cider. Drier tastes indicate less sugars, whereas sweeter tastes correspond with more sugars.
Each of us has a preference for the general level of sweetness – and this usually varies according to whether the cider is being drunk on its own or with food. Again, this is very similar to the situation for preference for wines.
Perceptions of sweetness vary greatly between individuals. When we offer tasters of our cider at food festivals, exactly the same cider can be described as being “dry” by one customer and “sweet” by the next. That means that, whilst the words on a label are a helpful guide to the taste most people will experience, individual tastes can vary considerably.
Each person usually has a range of sweetnesses that they like. Even a person who says they like the driest possible cider would find a cider that is bone dry (ie. no sugar at all) a challenge to enjoy. Similarly, pretty much everyone has a level of sweetness above which it would start to feel sickly.
The second key flavour is the sharpness of taste which roughly corresponds to the amount of acidity in the cider. Apples contain malic acid (the word malus is Latin for apple) – so apple juice and the cider made from it contain acids. Just like with sweetness, each person has a range of acidity that they like. If there is very little acidity people usually perceive the cider as being rather flat and uninteresting. If there is too much acidity a cider can seem too sharp. The amount of acidity is influenced by the types of apple that go into the cider and, to a lesser extent, the cider making process.
A key taste factor for cider is the bitterness or astringency that is contributed by the tannins (also called polyphenols) in traditional cider apples. Tannins are the substance that give mouth puckering dryness in fine red wines or in strong tea. This is the flavour that is most characteristic of traditional craft ciders and distinguishes them from many commercial ciders which are low in tannins. As with all taste preferences, people vary in how much tannins they like in their ideal cider. Even the most enthusiastic lover of traditional tannic ciders would be put off by an exceptional level of tannic bitterness. A cider totally lacking in tannins is usually perceived as being somewhat lacklustre and lacking complexity. The amount of tannins in the cider is influenced very heavily by the type of apples that go into the cider.
The “big three” flavours of sweetness, acidity and tannins, are not, of course, the only flavours that contribute to the overall taste experience of the cider. There are many other natural flavour compounds that come from the apples and the cider-making process that play a role.
We have already mentioned alcohol. Some of the many other naturally occurring flavour compounds in ciders include esters, acetic acid, aldehydes, ketones, volatile phenolics, acetals, dioxanes and sulphur compounds.
Together, all these different flavour components influence the taste of the cider.
Just like with the other factors, a little can be very helpful in contributing to a pleasing depth and complexity, whereas too much of any one flavour reduces its appeal or can even make it undrinkable. For example, an excess of volatile phenolics can taste like a farmyard – not appealing to many!
Of course, when we drink cider we experience all of the various taste perceptions at the same time and the reality is that they influence each other to some extent. So, for example, a given level of acidity in a cider seems less sharp in a sweet cider than in dry cider.
Like most things, it is complicated when you look at the details – but the big picture is that it is all a question of balance between the different flavour compounds – particularly sweetness, acidity and tannins . It is important that no flavour compound is present in excess.
Commercial v. Craft Ciders
Commercial cider makers spend a very considerable effort in making their ciders as identical as possible from batch to batch. The benefit for them is that the customer knows exactly what they will get and the automated processes reduce costs. The downside is that the necessary automated industrial repeatability leads to a product that tends to lack finesse and complexity. In contrast craft cider makers work on a small scale and hand-craft a cider that will vary somewhat from season to season and batch to batch but which can achieve a level of complexity and balance that cannot be achieved on an industrial basis.
Tasting cider for bottling Vale Ciders
Every Spring, around the time the apple blossom is starting to develop on the trees in our orchards, we taste all the different batches of cider that have matured over the winter. The purpose is to evaluate the taste characteristics of these “Base Ciders” and decide how we will combine them to produce the bottled (and draught) ciders from the previous autumn’s harvest. There are some scientific measurements we make but the gold standard is taste.
We taste each sample and assess for the appearance, aroma (“nose”) and key taste flavours and check that there are no unacceptable “off-flavours”. On the basis of this testing we decide which batches to combine to get the right balance for the various ciders we make – including our traditional ciders, fruit ciders and mulled cider.
It is hard work – but someone has to do it!!