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Sugar: cider’s dirty little secret

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down….” If only it was just a spoonful…

Now I know it’s not the best way to start an article on cider review, but let’s face it, cider ultimately isn’t … completely … good for you (can you sense how difficult it was to say that?). Yes there are antioxidants and vitamins but then there’s alcohol which is basically a toxin. That is of course why we have units and lots of guidelines, but the focus is always on the alcohol content. However there’s something else lurking in your mass produced pint, something hiding in plain sight, something that we go on and on about in relation to other foods and obesity and diabetes, something that is possibly a bigger risk to our health … and that … is sugar.

On a recent trip to Scotland I found myself at a pub with minimal cider choices. Avoiding a repeat of past experience, I passed on the Molson Coors 4% mass market offering for a pint of Thistly Cross Traditional. After all it had been a very long time since I sampled something from them, but what I then tasted I could not finish. No acidity, no tannin, just pure unadulterated sweet, it didn’t actually taste like cider or apples, my palate being completely overpowered by sweetness. So it got me thinking, how much sugar is actually in the mainstream offerings these days?

Coincidentally the gents on the Neutral Cider Hotel pointed out a few weeks ago that the biggest selling fruit cider in the UK, Koppaberg Strawberry and Lime, has 50g of sugar per 500ml bottle, which is the equivalent of 13 teaspoons. It took a while for that to sink in when I first heard it … 13 teaspoons. You can see what that looks like on the photo above. It’s a lot, especially when you consider that the daily recommended sugar intake for adults from the NHS is 30g then three bottles in the pub puts you at 5 days’ worth of intake. Why is nobody shouting about this?

Whenever us cider nerds get in a debate about mainstream versus “craft” we invariably always ends up fixated on the usual suspects;  juice content, carbonation method, filtration, additives, pasteurisation, etc. It’s rare for sugar to come up, but making a sweeter cider with sugar is actually very difficult for a small scale producer. With the exception of keeving or cold/repeated racking, sweetener tends to be the “go to” for smaller craft producers as without filtration or pasteurisation any addition of sugar could restart fermentation and that is not good in a sealed container. Sweetener is a topic for another day, especially around how it works with acidity and tannins, but for a sneak peek on my views check out my Dabinettiad where I found a few single varieties with added sweeteners. For now though, let’s get back to the big players and sugar. When you have industrial process lines, back-sweetening with sugar, pasteurising and then force carbonating means you can create a cider as sweet as you like. 

The problem is that “as sweet as you like” could be any quantity and we never really know the amount of sugar added unless someone tests it. Labels may have sugar listed occasionally but nutritional information is nowhere to be seen on most alcohol. Which highlights the divide between soft and alcoholic drinks, the current ‘sugar tax’ only including soft drinks (it is called the Soft Drinks Industry Levy after all), is a missed opportunity; those Koppaberg bottles contain the same as a can of Monster Energy after all.

Now you might be thinking, “well I drink dry cider” and are about to scroll on, but wait; some of the big mass-produced ciders are described as dry, so how dry is your dry?? As a rough guide, each point above 1.000 (no remaining sugar) on the hydrometer roughly equates to 2-3g of sugar (we’ll go halfway with 2.5g for this next bit just for the sake of my limited maths ability and a teaspoon of sugar is roughly 4g. So 1.001 contains 2.5g sugar per litre, 1.002 contains 5g, 1.003 contains 7.5g and so on. Under the British Cider Championships rules, dry has to have a specific gravity (SG) of <1.005 (<12.5g sugar per litre) which is almost identical to Champagne, although Champagne also has ‘brut nature’ which is maximum 1.000 (thanks Adam). I’d argue that’s quite a wide band of none to 3 teaspoons. For the other classes you have Medium 1.005 – 1.012 (12.5 – 30g per litre), and Sweet >1.012 (>30g per litre). So Kopparberg won’t be entering Bath and West anytime soon, but I have to admit I was surprised at the totals permitted, especially on the dry end.

As a bit of an experiment I thought I’d take a few supermarket ciders, dubbed as the bigger end of craft and marketed at different sweetnesses and get my hydrometer out (nope! not a euphemism). I opened and swirled many times to get rid of all the carbonation and brought up to temp to get an accurate reading. I found some interesting results…

Tasting notes are very short hand as to be honest, I couldn’t drink much of any of them. Interestingly they all taste very different at room temperature to ice cold, chilling hiding a multitude of sins. 

Thistly Cross – Traditional (4.4%) SG 1.017 

No description of sweetness but with 42.5g per litre or 21g per bottle, which is 5 teaspoons.

Shorthand tasting notes: smells of honey dipped apples, tastes like sugar syrup with a hint of bitterness. 

Aston Manor – Crumpton Oaks (5%) SG 1.003 

Described as Medium (bear in mind this has sugar and sweetener) – but 7.5g of sugar per litre or 3.75g per bottle which is less than one teaspoon. No idea how much sweetener though sadly.

Shorthand tasting notes: smells of baked apple, tastes like apple squash. A fair bit of sweetener I’d say to make up for the lack of sugar.

Westons – Cloudy Vintage (7.3%) SG 1.008 

Described as Medium Dry, but 20g per litre, or 10g per bottle, which is 2 and half teaspoons.

Shorthand tasting notes: actually smells of apples but with an edge of pineapple, tastes like Haribo water with added manure (not sure where this was coming from). Couldn’t stomach this one.

Healeys – Rattler (6%) SG 1.010

No description of sweetness but 25g per lite, or 12.5g per bottle, which is just over 3 teaspoons.

Shorthand tasting notes: smells like lemonade with added apple juice, tastes like Appletiser with added lemonade.

Conclusions

With the exception of the Thistly Cross the rest of my sample don’t come close to the Koppaberg, which I must say I found surprising. I think there must be a fair amount of sweetener usage going on, but perhaps my drier palate also struggled. I would like to repeat the test with a number of “fruit” ciders as I suspect those are the biggest culprits for added sugar. What’s my point here, well it all comes back to transparency again, which Adam looked at on Saturday with his half dozen from Smith Hayne.  My stance has evolved slightly, whilst I’ve been saying for a long time that we need ingredients on cider labels to help consumers make informed choices, I think now we need to go one better and add nutrition tables. Listing sugar in the ingredients or number of calories alone doesn’t give the whole story, we need actual quantities on the label to support healthier choices. As Adam so eloquently pointed out, drinkers want to know how the drink was crafted, the story behind it and they also want to know what’s in it, and I would argue that includes quantities. If cider makers are happy to say what percentage a certain variety is in the blend, then why not state how much added or residual sugar is in there too? I know this plea is focused on the wrong audience, as I said above it’s the mass market products that add the most ingredients and the folk at Westons or Heineken probably aren’t reading this, but if the smaller makers can start the ball rolling then who knows what that might push forward. Anyway, the take home message is clearly that craft cider on the whole is a healthier choice than the mass produced mainstream. If I’m allowed to say that cider is in some way healthy. 

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