In our Guide to Cider-tasting and food pairing we’re looking at the basics of flavour and texture. For further discussion see Tannin, acid and sugar — cider’s balancing act.
The flavour of a cider is a combination of taste and aroma, which mainly comes from a blend of tannin, acidity and sweetness. Tannin and acidity give cider its palate-cleansing qualities; acidity particularly helps to cut through fattiness in food, while high-tannin ciders tend to pair well with high-protein foods. Sweetness mellows spice and balances rich foods such as pates or charcuterie.
The balance of tannin, acid and sugar in apples can affect the rate and nature of the fermentation and therefore the quality of the cider. Cider apples tend to have higher sugar levels and are more fibrous than dessert apples, making them easier to press. English and French cider apples also tend to have tannin levels. Tannin makes a difference to the colour, flavour and ‘pressability’ of the apple and is mildly anti-microbial. It gives cider much of its ‘mouthfeel’.
Cider has ‘terroir’, like wine
Cider can be made from single varietals or, more usually, a blend of apples and, like wine, its complex flavours depend on ‘terroir’, a combination of the apple and where its grown. Devon, for example, has numerous native varieties of cider apple with names such as Fair Maid of Devon and Devonshire Quarrenden, in addition to its dessert and cooking apples. In Devon and West Dorset tastes have traditionally veered towards sharper ciders with lower tannin, whereas in neighbouring Somerset, ciders tend to be well-rounded but astringent.
Cider and food have a long tradition in this part of the world. Home-made cider, apple cakes and jams have been produced from our orchards since the 13th century. As an ingredient, cider is surprisingly subtle and as likely to be used in light fish dishes as in robust venison casseroles, delicious puddings or even bread. Cider products such as cider vinegar and cider brandy add to its versatility. And as an added bonus, cider is gluten-free.
Tannin is what makes cut apples go brown in the air. It is not the same as acidity. Tea is high in tannin; lemon juice is acid. Both are needed for balance, along with sugar. High-tannin apples have more body and bite (astringency) but they are also more fibrous and easier to press.
Cider made from culinary or table fruit are typically low in tannin whereas traditional English and French ciders made with bittersweet fruit have higher levels of tannin and are therefore relatively astringent and bitter. The desirable balance is in favour of astringency rather than bitterness; overt or forward bitterness is a fault in cider.
Acidity is an essential component of cider and perry. It’s needed to give it the clean, refreshing taste that makes dry cider so good at cutting through fattiness and act as a palate cleanser. Acidity is not be confused with acetification; when a cider becomes vinegary its aroma is acrid and it tingles in the mouth. Nor when a cider is affected by air but without the intervention of microbes or yeast and the result is a sherry-like aroma.
A cider’s sweetness comes from unfermented or residual sugar, which can vary from less than 0.9% (very dry) to as much as a dessert wine. One method of achieving a naturally sweet cider is keeving in which the juice stands for several days in the cold. The ‘flying lees’ or chapeau brun rises spontaneously to the top and the clear juice between the ‘hat’ and the sediment is taken off and allowed to ferment very slowly for around three or four months, until repeated racking stops the fermentation. Sometimes, extra sugar is added before fermentation. Cider made with honey is cyser; in competitions it is classed with mead. Adding brown sugar, molasses or even raisins creates a New England-style cider.
Aroma and mouthfeel
Some of the volatile alcohol aroma of cider has the same chemical basis as that of other fermented drinks such as beer. And West Country and Normandy ciders made with bittersweet apples tend to have a spiciness that comes from chemicals (volatile phenols) that are also found in whiskies. But the specific, characteristic ‘green’ aroma of a cider comes from a chemical compound called a dioxolane that almost only occurs when apples are fermented. A cider with a very appley aroma is likely to be sweet and/or low alcohol. Drier ciders develop more complex characters that are more wine-like.
Carbonation lifts the flavour of a cider and provides greater perceived acidity. It can be either natural (by maintaining carbon dioxide pressure through processing or by bottle-conditioning) or added (by CO2 injection). It also affects mouthfeel. In general, cider and perry have a mouthfeel and fullness similar to that of a substantial white wine but less body than a beer. It shouldn’t be bland or watery.