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Although milk is the official state beverage of Virginia (good grief), I live as if it was wine.  Since wine does have its own month here in Virginia, seems reasonable to me that wine should clearly be the official state beverage. This is a borderline ‘slight’ to Virginia wine in my mind.  One could argue that Virginia hard cider is also slighted.  There is an entire month dedicated to wine, apples, and even beer… but cider gets no such recognition.

Since there is so little blogger coverage of cider here in Virginia I wanted to use the Virginia Wine Month series as a way to introduce many of our wine-centric readers to one of Virginia’s other beverages – hard apple cider.

Rather than attempt to learn about cider and try to compose an article that makes any sense, I decided to go directly to the expert – Diane Flynt, Cidermaker at Foggy Ridge Cider in southwestern, Virginia.

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It happens almost every weekend in the Foggy Ridge Cider tasting room—someone samples one of our hard cider blends and asks a version of “What’s the difference between cider and hard cider?

I’m sometimes tempted to respond flippantly, with “yeast” or “Prohibition”. The real answer is about that simple—hard cider (or “cider” to the rest of the world that did not experience a period in which alcohol consumption was illegal) is simply fermented apple juice, in the same way that wine is fermented grape juice. Our cider house at Foggy Ridge looks just like a winery, with stainless steel temperature controlled tanks, pumps, a press, a lab and, of course, a tasting room! We do have orchards and not vineyards, but the process of turning apple juice into hard cider is similar to turning grape juice into wine. Here is an overview of the basic steps in cider making, with annotations from this cidermaker’s perspective:

Harvest:
Just as winemakers take special with grape varieties and fruit maturity, artisan cidermakers grow apples chosen specifically for cider making. Our ingredients are the same as wine—sugar, acid, tannin plus the more subtle fruit aromas and flavors. Some apples that are good for eating also provide characteristics that make good hard cider—Ashmead’s Kernel is a highly flavored dessert apple that also provides an “acid bomb” for hard cider. Roxbury Russett and Newtown Pippin, two Foggy Ridge favorites, are also good for eating. But really great cider calls for tannin, so high tannin apples, called “spitters” for obvious reasons, should be part of every hard cider blend. At Foggy Ridge we grow Hewe’s Crabapples, used by Thomas Jefferson for his favorite cider, as well as Dabinett and Tremlett’s Bitter, two excellent English cider apples and all sources of tannin.

And just as winemakers sweat the details when it comes to harvest, fine hard cider begins in the orchard. Tree ripened fruit, picked at maximum flavor and sweetness is the best starting point for cider.

Fruit Preparation:
Now we come to a difference between cider and wine, or rather apples and grapes. Apples must be ground before pressing. The entire apple is ground to a pulp called pommace. The pulp is almost always pressed immediately.

Foggy Ridge Cider Tanks.

Pressing:
Before electric grinders, apples were ground using millstones and animal power and then pressed in rack and cloth presses, or even between layers of straw. Today most cidermakers use a hydraulic press to extract juice from the ground apples.

Fermentation:
The fun begins with fermentation. Apple juice, at least in central and western VA, is usually between 15 and 18 degrees Brix. There is less sugar to ferment in apples than in grapes, thus the lower alcohol content of cider compared to wine. Cidermakers have as many options for managing fermentation as winemakers—wild yeast, hundreds of yeast strains from which to choose, temperature control, fermentation nutrients and more.
As a side note, apple wine is what you get when sugar is added to apple juice to raise the alcohol level of the finished product to the level of wine. Most artisan cidermakers would not chaptalize, that is, add sugar, to raise alcohol levels. In VA cider is labeled at 7% alcohol with about 1% variance allowed above and below this level. So fermented apple juice above 8% alcohol must be labeled “apple wine”.

Finishing:
After the juice ferments to dryness, cider can be left on lees or racked into a clean tank for tank maturation and blending. Some cidermakers introduce secondary fermentation or malo-lactic fermentation, in which malic acid is fermented, with the byproducts of carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Just as with wine, ML fermentation creates a buttery mouth feel and more round acid profile in cider. However the majority of acid in cider is malic acid, so ML fermentation in cider has a great effect on the flavor and mouth feel of the finished product. I’ve worked with cidermakers who prefer ML fermentation, but at Foggy Ridge we like the malic acid profile in our finished cider and do not use a ML fermentation.

There are also techniques for interrupting or stopping fermentation before dryness to achieve a “naturally sweetened” cider, but this is a topic for Cider 202.

Foggy Ridge team on the crush pad.

Blending:
While there are many grapes that produce delicious single varietal wine, there are few apples with the balance of tannin, acid and sugar needed for a well-balanced cider. Most cidermakers blend a variety of cider apples in their finished blends. At Foggy Ridge we blend early season apples like Hewe’s Crabs, Graniwinkle and Harrison into our First Fruit cider blend. Our Sweet Stayman, an off dry cider similar to a dry Riesling, is about 50% Stayman apple blended with Roxbury Russett and Ashmead’s Kernel. Serious Cider is a dry brut-style cider made with high tannin English cider apples blended with spicy tart apples like Pomme Gris.

Bottling:
Bottling is the least favorite task of any cidermaker (or winemaker, I’m sure)! Getting your well fermented, blended and finished cider into bottles is a time consuming, expensive project with many opportunities for errors. Many cidermakers choose to add up to 3.7 grams per liter dissolved CO2 to final cider blends. The delicate flavors of cider benefit, I believe, from carbonation either through in bottle fermentation, additional fermentation using the Charmont method or through forced carbonation using added CO2.

Thus ends the cider journey from apples, to juice to finished cider. Decide for yourself—compare a well-made artisan cider, crafted with carefully chosen cider apples to a grocery store six-pack hard cider made (very likely) with apple juice concentrate from China and lots of manipulation. It’s like comparing a well-made Virginia wine to a wine cooler. Enough said!

Sources:
Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider, Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols
Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions and Making Your Own, Ben Watson

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Foggy Ridge Cider grows over 30 varieties of heirloom cider apples and crafts award winning hard cider in the southwest Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. Foggy Ridge Cider’s tasting room is open weekends, and the cider is sold throughout VA, NC and Washington, DC. Hard cider blends include Serious Cider, a dry crisp cider similar to a sparkling wine, First Fruit and Sweet Stayman, and off dry sparkling cider that pairs well with spicy dishes. Foggy Ridge also makes a dessert cider called Pippin Gold, a blend of hard cider made from another Jefferson favorite, the Newtown Pippin apple, blended with Virginia apple brandy. Foggy Ridge Ciders have won gold medals in numerous national wine competitions.

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