I guess that coming from the UK, and growing up in Ciderland, I just absorbed the knowledge of what Real Cider should be. Scrumping was a favourite pastime in the late days of the English school summer break, and stealing and eating cider apples from our local orchards was a part of growing up. (As was the inevitable stomach ache afterwards). In later life, living in Somerset, and surrounded by Cider culture, it was easy to soak up the heritage, and sample many great and not so great farmhouse and local village ciders.
There is a question that I am always asked....
What is a real Cider?
Well you need to start with the apples. Traditionally you need a third sharps, a third bitter-sweets, and a third sweets.
A third of Sweet Cider Apples
A sweet cider apple is an eating apple, but that doesn't mean that you can use any eating apple. You need an eating apple that is packed with flavour and sweetness, and low in acids. That rules out most of the Australian eating apples, that are designed for the ability to store and to resist bruising, and are often quite high in acids. Typically sweet cider apples are early apples, that soften quickly, and while they taste magnificent they are not commercially grown in Australia. The supermarkets would not be interested in stocking them.
The source of apples for the majority of Australian Cider is less than ideal, the bulk of available apples being eating apples that are designed for 21st century supermarkets, and with no useful characteristics making Cider.
So a real Cider needs a sweet apple that packs flavour along with sweetness. We chose the Jonagold and Sweet Coppin as our major suppliers of sweetness, but there are many others that could be used.
A third of Bitter-Sweet Cider Apples
A bitter-sweet cider apple is a sour apple, with ..... acids and ...... tannins. This type of apple must be specifically planted for Cider (or sometimes for cooking) as it is not a good eating apple.
Most cooking apple varieties are bitter-sweets, that have the added characteristic of a flesh that dissolves into a creamy paste when cooked, with no stringy residue. (Cook a Pink Lady and a Bramley and just see the difference... lumpy stringy stuff from the Pink Lady, and a creamy paste from the Bramley). Cooking apples need to be back-sweetened when used for cooking, which explains the bitter-sweet name. Using bitter-sweet cooking apples in a cider brew gives great flavour, but does sometimes seem a bit of a waste, particularly when my wife makes Apple Crumble with our freshly picked Alfristons.
A third of Sharp Cider Apples
A sharp cider apple is a sour apple, with ..... acids and ...... tannins. This type of apple is most definately specifically planted for Cider and is a puckering experience if you try and eat one.
Sharp apples add the tannins and textures in bucketfuls. Without the sharp apples a cider is watery, lacking creamy textures and any depth of flavour.
A traditional Cider is fermented using only the natural yeasts that are found on the skin of the cider apples. Natural yeasts will provide a slow ferment, and will cease to work before all of the natural sugars have been consumed. This long natural ferment allows many subtle flavours to develop, and the early finish of fermentation leaves a hint of natural residual sweetness.
The early finish doesn't mean that a real cider lacks alcohol content. Far from it. The typical range of alcohol content in a real cider, (which has not been keeved), would be in the 6.5% to 9% range.
The use of natural yeasts limits the sprays that can be used on cider apples. Fungicides may well kill the natural yeast along with the pest fungus, so careful management is needed to ensure that any fungal problems are handled without needing to use fungicides. In Western Australia we are highly fortunate that many apple fungal problems that are found elsewhere in the world are not present, making this a great place to allow the natural yeasts develop on the skin. (The biggest fungal problem that we face is from negligent absentee landowners that let their vineyards decay and rot, and therefore provide a rich source of fungus to infect our crops.)
Many commercial Australian ciders rely on an introduced yeast, usually a champagne yeast, to provide the ferment. To use an introduced yeast, the juice must be sterlised to remove any natural yeasts that would compete with the introduced strain. The ferment is usually fast and may consume all of the natural sugars if not artificially halted by sterilisation of the liquid. Halting the fermentation at 4% to 5% alcohol leaves residual sugar, and a sweet cider. In some cases the cider is fully fermented, in which case the juice must be back sweetened to make it palatable.
A Second Ferment or a Scrumpy?
A real Cider can be sparkling or still, cloudy, or clear.... It is the choice of the cider maker which type of cider to make.
Still, unfiltered, and cloudy ciders would be classed as traditional Scrumpys. Some Scrumpy can be clear when drunk, but this is just because the sediment has fallen out in the barrel or bottle.
If making a sparkling cider the secondary ferment would be inside a a pressure containing cider bottle. (The champagne and sparkling wine industries all use bottles originally used for cider for their product.)
Many commercial Australian ciders add fizz by using carbonation, just like adding the fizz to many beers. Unless Nitrogen is used in place of carbon dioxide, the bubbles produced by this method are much larger than the bubbles produced by the natural sparkling second ferment process of a Real Cider. This leads to a much coarser texture in the mouth, than the creamy mousse of a second ferment Real Cider.
There are few similarities between most Australian Ciders and Real Cider. Real Cider can be mass produced; companies like Westons in Herefordshire, England balance mass production with the ability to produce Real Ciders. The problem faced by any large scale Australian appetite for Real Cider is simply the lack of trees that can provide the required apples, so cider makers need to abandon the easy money option of second grade eating apple cider, and start planting the varieties of apples needed to develop a Real Cider industry.