Since it’s the height of the Irish summer, I thought I would write about cider for a change. Cider and summer are ubiquitous in any country, but Ireland especially. The better the weather, the more cider is consumed. Rightly or wrongly, it’s often served with ice - but what exactly is cider? And more importantly, what’s not cider?
We have a very interesting relationship with cider in this country. For a long time, cider in Ireland had been dominated by C&C with the Bulmers brand but Heineken has started to take some of that market share with Orchard Thieves. There’s also a growing number of independent, artisan cider producers in Ireland. First, I want to talk about what defines cider.
What is cider?
Cider is usually defined as an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apples. Let’s be clear about this. Traditionally it’s always apples and no other fruit. There’s no such thing as a “pear cider” because that’s called a perry. If you are from my generation (late 30s) you will probably recall Ritz - that was a perry. For some reason, marketers have decided to drop the name perry and just use pear cider.
What’s it made of?
Cider is closer to wine than beer. A real cider is made of crushed/pressed apple juice and that’s it, apart from the yeast used to ferment it. Most cider producers add a specific yeast strain just like their winemaking counterparts, but some producers still make it the traditional way of allowing the natural yeasts found in the fruit to ferment the juice. Some well known Irish cider brands use concentrated apple juice.
Unfortunately, most cider producers use other ingredients such as various chemicals and preservatives, as well as added sugar. That’s a shame but I have news for you: so do most wine producers! There’s a reason why the wine lobbyists were against EU Regulation 1169, which would have seen all foods having to list their ingredients. They forced alcoholic drinks to be exempt because they didn’t want people to know all the chemicals that are used in wine.
Even producers that don’t add chemicals or preservatives will at least back sweeten the cider with sugar. The reason for that is that yeast will eat up all of the natural sugars in apple juice. The result is a very tart and dry cider that has pretty much no sweetness whatsoever. That’s not to most people’s taste in Ireland. Even if you see a label that says “Dry”, it will still be pretty sweet and usually back sweetened.
There are very few Irish producers that make a truly dry, unsweetened cider. Perhaps the best known is David Llewellyn’s Bone Dry. Consider this more like a Brut sparkling wine or Champagne than the sweet cider most Irish people are used to. This is personally my favourite Irish cider. It won silver in the dry cider category in the Beoir Champion Irish Cider Awards 2017 and an overall honourable mention.
How is cider made?
Since cider is similar to wine, the process of making it is pretty much the same. Cider makers usually pick a few apple varieties and blend them together. Just like wine the harvest each year can be different.
Once they have their apples, they are pulped then pressed to release the juice. That juice is transferred into a fermenting vessel where yeast is added (or natural yeasts take over). This should take a week or two. After that, the cider can either be moved to a maturation vessel or packaged. Like with most beer and wine, giving it more time to mature results in a better product.
There’s an older, more traditional method called keeving. This is where you take your freshly pulped apples and leave them to sit in an open container for about 24 hours where they start to go brown and natural pectins are released. Then the juice is pressed out into another vessel where it’s kept cool to slow but not stop natural fermentation. The pectin forms a gel or “brown cap” which rises to the surface and takes all impurities, and the result is sediment at the bottom and a scummy top with clear liquid in between. This clear juice is then siphoned off to a fermentation vessel where the natural fermentation process is allowed to take place. The keeving process will have removed a number of nutrients so fermentation will be slower than usual. Keeved cider is always naturally carbonated, if at all.
Some people say that keeving is less a process and more an art form. There’s only one producer in Ireland that does it this way and that’s my second favourite Irish cider, Cockagee Pure Irish Keeved Cider. This won 2nd place at the Beoir Champion Irish Cider Awards 2017.
Bulmers used to have a questionable ad campaign which stated “Nothing added but time”. In the case of artisan cider producers in Ireland, that’s usually the reality.