If you are new to the world of hard cider you may or may not have sampled some hard ciders at your local bar or a friend’s barbecue. Chances are this hard cider was an overwhelmingly sweet hard cider. The majority of the commercial ciders on the market right now in the United States are either sweet or semi-sweet ciders. Many of the ciders are even fermented out to complete dryness and then back-sweetened to add sweetness to the drink. This sweet profile is often used to mask the flavor of lesser quality dessert apples that lack the tannins, acids, and overall complexity of a hard cider specific apple blend. Other reasons why sweet ciders dominate the market right now are consumers’ taste preferences, consumers’ developing taste palettes, and consumers’ lack of access to high quality dry craft ciders. However, there are good reasons to drink dry craft cider and those reasons include health benefits of a lower sugar beverage, more complex flavors, and more interesting blends of cider-specific apples and styles to try.
Many of these most common semi-sweet ciders have anywhere from 15 – 17 grams of sugar per 12 oz serving (3 teaspoons of sugar) and sweet ciders have between 23-27 grams of sugar per 12 oz serving (7-8 teaspoons of sugar). A sweet cider will also have between 200 and 250 calories per 12 oz serving. To put those numbers in perspective, that means if you drink a six pack of sweet cider you will be consuming over 1 cup of pure sugar and 1500 calories! A can of regular Coke which is considered to be one of the worst health offenders contains a whopping 39 grams of sugar per 12 oz serving and, unfortunately, some of these sweet ciders are right up there in terms of calories and sugar content. On the other hand, a dry cider has less than 1 gram of sugar per 12 oz serving and only has 120-130 calories per 12 oz serving. So, consuming the same amount of dry cider will save you over 150 grams of sugar and 780 calories. Clearly, dry cider is a must for any health-conscious person.
When people first start drinking cider, they often gravitate towards a sweeter style. Large commercial cider makers know this and they create their ciders according to this preference. The market is flooded with overly sweet cider and this is also the cider that is mostly available in package stores, restaurants, and bars. This tendency towards a sweeter cider could be because someone who has never tried a hard cider is expecting the hard cider to taste similar to an unfermented cider. In my personal experience, many people I know get into cider by drinking a sweet style and then begin slowly shifting towards a dryer style of cider as their pallets become used to the sweet style. In my opinion, this is because they become used to the hard cider taste but realize that the cider they are drinking lacks any real complexity and they can only drink one or two sweet ciders before they have had enough sugar and want to switch to a less sugary drink like beer or dry wine. They begin branching out and looking for more of a craft cider product which usually contains less sugar, is more tart, has more tannins, and has a more complex flavor structure overall. Once they have tried these ciders and begin to appreciate them, the highly sweet ciders lacking in depth of flavor become undesirable. This is why I do not see these mass produced highly sweet ciders so much as competition to craft cider producers but more of a gateway drug. They pull people in who would otherwise not try cider by making it widely available and cheap to buy and then get them hooked. Then as the cider drinker’s taste evolves, they gradually gravitate towards a higher-end, dryer and more complex craft cider.
The measure of a great cider apple takes place when you remove the sugar content from the apple. When you bite into a fresh apple it has tannin and acidity and fruit flavor, but a lot of this flavor is masked by the sugar content in the apple. When you ferment the apple juice out to dryness what you are left with is just the tannin, acidity and fruit flavor and then the quality of the apple for hard cider becomes very apparent. There are apples that are cultivated specifically for these desirable fermentation traits. These apples are not very suitable for eating raw because they have such high acid and tannin content that they overwhelm the taste buds. These apples are called cider apples. The apples bred for eating raw have less tannin and acid content but taste better in the mouth. These apples are called dessert apples. Dessert apples are much more prevalent in the United States and because of this, dessert apples are primarily used in mass-produced cider. However, when the sugar content is taken away from these apples during fermentation you are left with a bland almost watery tasting drink which needs to be counterbalanced by adding back in a good deal of sugar to make it drinkable again. On the other hand, only a small amount of orchards are growing cider-specific apples so their availability is really limited to the craft producer in the United States. The result of fermenting these apples to dryness, though, is that the complex taste and mixture of tannin and acidity can shine through and create a beverage with complexity and a balanced profile of tannin and acid.
Once you begin to appreciate the quality of these dry ciders, the flavors and taste profiles created by different craft producers open a whole new world of cider for you to appreciate and enjoy.