Like beer and wine, there are numerous 'styles' of cider, and divergent styles may not resemble one another at all. With the common denominator being that the base juice is fermented apple, there is a lot of leeway in technique, varieties, orchard conditions, and other ingredients that will produce different styles.
In 2004 the Beer Judge Certification Program, who develop guidelines for beer styles for homebrewing competitions, revamped their guidelines for cider competitions. The resulting guidelines reflect fairly accurately the styles of cider found worldwide. The full style guidelines can be found here: http://www.bjcp.org/styles04/cider.html
From those guidelines I will give a synopsis of the major styles of cider out there:
Ciders made in the British style tend towards the drier side of sweetness, and in fact many are served bone-dry. The real standout characteristic of these ciders is the presence of bitter tannins obtained from specific cider apples such as Dabinett, Kingston Black, Tremlett's Bitter, and Chisel Jersey to name just a few. These tannic compounds along with sometimes wild fermentation strains can allow for some odd flavors compared to what many expect in a cider, with 'bacon', 'barnyard', and 'smoky' often used to describe them. English style ciders very well may not smell of apples at all, but then again there are many wines which do not suggest grapes in their flavor and aroma profiles. Many full-on West Country ciders may be too much for the typical, or even avid, American cider enthusiast. I have found when making ciders in this style that blending the juices from culinary and traditional cider apples makes for a more pleasant drink, as well as an easier to manage fermentation. Many of the English 'bittersweets' tend to be low in acid and prone to microbial infection; addition of some Liberty of Haralson juice will make the lot easier to manage.
Considered by many to be the pinnacle of cidermaking, French-style ciders have a rich, full fruit flavor/aroma and profile, and always have residual sweetness. This is still achieved through keeving in the traditional production regions in the north of France and some parts of Britain, and an increasing number of North American cidermakers are successfully using this technique.
The fruit profile of the cider develops from a combination of fermentation flavors and residual sweetness left over from an arrested fermentation. This technique goes completely against traditional winemaking thought where a strong, complete fermentation is usually preferred.
Some cidermakers may use other techniques to mimic this style, including multiple rackings, sterile filtration, and chemical addition to stop fermentation (see Other Processes). While great ciders can be made using these techniques, I would suggest that true French-style ciders should undergo the keeving process.
Fruit used typically include at least a portion of European bittersweet fruit, usually low in soluble nitrogen. The difficulty of finding these fruit locally along with stopping a fermentation make this an elusive, but worthy style.
A similar North American style is ice cider, which presumably originated in Quebec. With this style the fruit are left on the trees until freezing weather comes, usually in December. The fruit are then harvested frozen and squeezed immediately. Much of the water in the juice is left behind as ice crystals, with the resulting juice being very rich, syrupy, and sweet. This juice is then fermented and the fermentation is halted by increasing alcohol levels in the cider. One primary difference between ice ciders and French cider is alcohol content, the former being in the 8-12% range, the latter3-6%.
Arguably the only distinct cider style to originate in the States, New England ciders are robust, hearty affairs designed to help us through our long cold winters. These ciders are made from late-pressed fruit and ameliorated with sugars to boost the alcohol content and subsequent keeping ability. Sugars tend to be of the 'natural' variety, including honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, and even molasses. These ciders very often have unsulfited raisins added to the ferment which serve as a source of sugars, tannins, and yeasts. Typically a New England cider would be made in an oak whiskey cask, and may have a hint of that liquor in its final flavor profile. Modern cidermakers can imitate the oak cask by soaking oak chips in the fermenter. There are no commercial examples of this cider style that I know of.
Similar to a New England cider but less rough around the edges, cyser is a mead (honey wine) with apple juice, rather than water as its base. Cysers tend to be delicate affairs with subtle flavors that are best after substantial aging of at least a year, even two.
Similar to a cyser but usually with a cane sugar sweetener, apple wines are strong in alcohol, but I find often one-dimensional, and similar to a neutral white wine, but rarely as good.
Perry is fermented pear juice, and the Europeans have specific perry pears just as they do cider apples. Perry can be difficult to make, and is hard to find on either side of the Atlantic pond.
Fruit ciders are ciders with other fruit juices added, such as raspberry and cranberry. They are popular in the six-pack 'draft' style ciders, but rarely do I find addition of other fruit beneficial to a cider.
Applejack and apple brandy are completely different beasts who are best discussed at another time/
All material Copyright Terence Bradshaw 2006-2013
terryb at lostmeadowvt dot com