I get this question quite a bit which I find surprising.
It is fermented fresh sweet apple cider, you know the kind that you buy at an orchard in the fall from pressed apples. In North American, we’re a little behind the whole cider craze, so I can understand that people are unfamiliar with cider. It’s gaining steam but there are a few obstacles (mostly government and high start up cost) that prevent more people from starting a cidery.
There are generally two different kinds of cider, modern and traditional, I’ll go into further detail about apples in another post.
Modern cider is what most people are familiar with in Canada. They are easy to drink and often taste like apple juice only carbonated and with alcohol. They are usually available in similar packaging as craft beer, 12oz or 22oz bottles, 12oz or 16oz cans, and on draft. You’re likely to find modern ciders in supermarkets, liquor stores and casual restaurants and bars.
Some modern ciders are made with apple juice concentrate, and others are made with juice from commonly grown apple varieties such as Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji, McIntosh, and Jonathan. Usually these apples are too blemished or misshapen to be sold in a grocery store, and are used for making juice instead. Depending on the variety, the juice might be pressed from recently harvested apples, or the apples are kept in refrigerated or controlled-atmosphere storage to be pressed at a later time.
Modern ciders tend to have an intense apple aroma. They will typically be medium-sweet to very sweet, although you may see some that are dry or off-dry. Carbonation will often be medium to high, similar to a beer. Yeast character is often unnoticeable, and alcohol content will almost always be below 7% ABV. In most cases, the overall impression is of sweet carbonated apple juice, not of fermented apple.
Traditional ciders are harder to find. They are available in similar packaging as wine—750ml bottles are standard but 500ml are also used. Traditional ciders are usually produced on a smaller scale than modern ciders and command prices on par with many wines. You’re likely to find traditional ciders in specialty bottle shops, upscale restaurants, and drinking establishments with a well-curated beer and/or wine selection. Traditional ciders often pair well with food and are typically more complex than modern ciders.
Some of the most exciting North American ciders are made with characterful apple varieties that thrive in the various climates of the New World. Heirloom varieties that are especially well-suited for cider production include Northern Spy, Empire, Golden Russet, Winesap, Newtown Pippin, Winter Banana, Gravenstein, and Wickson. European cider apple varieties such as Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey, Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black, Porter’s Perfection, Muscadet de Dieppe, Bramley’s Seedling, among many are also used. These apples taste terrible and are often pretty ugly looking.
Cider apples varieties are not very common in North America, so small-scale cidermakers often plant their own trees to ensure a steady supply. These traditional ciders are typically made just once a year, similar to a wine vintage. Depending on the variety, some will be pressed immediately while others will ‘sweat’ for a few weeks prior to pressing. It is an art to blend different varieties to produce a balanced cider.
Few traditional ciders will be overtly sweet. Bone-dry to off-dry is the most common, medium and semi-sweet less so. The apple aroma can range from subtle to easily detectable and acidity is necessary to keep the cider from being insipid, while tannin adds mouthfeel and complexity, even when present in only small amounts. Yeast character is typically neutral. Carbonation can range from still to sparkling, though most traditional ciders are are less carbonated than modern ciders. Alcohol content is typically 6-9% ABV. The overall impression is of an approachable but not overly austere beverage.
There you have it! The condensed version of two different styles of cider. Of course, England, France and Spain have their own style but traditional ciders from overseas are pretty hard to locate.