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What is cider and how is it made?

Read more about what cider is, and the manufacturing process, with Gabe Cook - The Ciderologist

What is cider?

At its most basic level, cider is an alcoholic beverage that is the result of the fermentation of apple juice – effectively following the same process as wine. However apple juice typically contains far less natural sugar than wine, so the final alcohol by volume will normally be 5% - 7.5%.



The key factor in determining the characteristics of a cider are the apple varieties used.  In New Zealand, dessert apples for the export market have been an integral part of the country’s economy for decades.  It is little wonder, then, that New Zealand cider makers predominantly utilise these types of apple for making their cider.  These apple varieties are characterised by fresh, clean aromas and crisp, green apple flavours.

Here is a step by step guide to the cider making process:

  • When fully ripe, the apples will fall to the ground
  • Windfalls, or tree picked fruit, can be ‘tumped’ – heaped to allow maturation
  • Key to a quality cider is ripe fruit, otherwise the drink will display a harshness
Milling and pressing
  • Juice cannot be easily extracted from whole apples
  • They need to be chopped, a process known as milling or scratting, into a pulp
  • This pulp is then pressed - an application of pressure across a fabric that separates the liquid juice from the solid apple pomace
  • The natural, fermentable sugars within the juice are turned into alcohol by the action of yeasts
  • The cider maker could choose to use a cultured wine yeast – most commonly a champagne style yeast – or allow a ‘wild’ fermentation, utilising the natural flora
  • Fermentation is normally fairly rapid bit with some wild fermentations could take many months, but ultimately all the sugar will ferment to alcohol under normal circumstances, resulting in a dry cider
  • When fermentation has finished, this ‘young’ cider is allowed time to sit and develop its range of complex flavours and aromas
  • This process takes anywhere from a few weeks to couple of years!
  • It may iould include a malolactic fermentation
  • The cider maker’s dark art!
  • Commercial producers will need to blend to create a consistent brand, whereas smaller producers will try to produce unique blends that have a good balance between acidity, tannin and sweetness
  • Sugar or apple juice can be added to amend the sweetness level
  • Fruits and other adjuncts can be added at this point if making a flavoured cider
  • Most ciders will be filtered to make them crystal clear
  • Unfiltered ciders could be perceived as being less refined, but with care and consideration, a light haze can enhance the natural flavours and improve mouth texture
  • Most people prefer to have their cider with a sparkle, normally achieved through carbon dioxide injection. A natural sparkle can be achieved through an in-bottle fermentation or conditioning.
  • Cider can be packaged and served in many different ways: keg, bag-in-box, can or bottle


Storing and cellaring cider

Cider sits in a unique space between its more heralded alcoholic siblings – it is made like a wine but served (mostly) like a beer. Crucially, cider is equally as versatile as both of these drinks, with a multitude of different formats, styles and occasions to consume this product. 

Naturally, like a wine, cider is a still (non-bubbly) drink.  However, this form is predominantly reserved for traditional ciders made in England, purchased from the farm gate.  The vast majority of consumers understand and expect their ciders to be sparkling, either through a carbonation process, or through bottle conditioning. 

It is important to note that the level of carbonation is important.  One needs to make sure that when serving cider the carbonation level isn’t too high, as this can mask the palate and upset the flavour balance due to the impact of the carbonic acid.

Draught cider is served in typical beer measures: halves, handles and pints. However, when consuming bottled cider, depending on the style and quality, a tulip glass will be better suited to present the drink and allow the full breath of flavours and aromas to be showcased.

Crucial to cider’s presentation is the serving temperature.  There is a great array of highly subtle aromas within cider which can be lost or obfuscated if the drink is overly-chilled.  A room temperature cider, however, would be unpalatable to most consumers and would not provide the adequate levels of refreshment expected.

One should treat serving cider at home much like a white wine, such as Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer: take the cider out of the fridge and put on the table, open and then keep going back to it.

For all of cider’s comparable complexity to wine, relatively speaking it lacks alcohol. Sitting at an average of 4.5 – 7.5% abv, this is why cider is normally consumed like a beer.  This lower level of alcohol also has cellaring implications.  One of the major reasons why wine has the ability to age well is due to the protection afforded by a high alcohol content.  Without such protection afforded, most ciders become oxidised after a short number of years.  However rich, robust and highly tannic ciders have the potential for cellaring for up to 5 years, with the benefit of time allowing these drinks to soften and mellow.


Gabe Cook - The Ciderologist. Take a look at The Ciderologist for more.