Adam originally wrote this taxonomy as part of the education program for the wonderful Burum Collective. It is reproduced in tweaked form here by their kind permission.
I’d encourage you to read both articles in full, but reduced to its simplest the problem is that bracketing by style sits uncomfortably on a category whose flavours are dictated primarily by the choice of apples used in an individual cider’s makeup.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Say, for instance, you were to categorise something as “Bold and oak-aged”. I can certainly take a couple of cues from that. The problem is that I could apply it to the rich, orangey, smokey, full-bodied, tannic Raison d’Être from Ross on Wye as well as to the sinewy, aromatic, red-fruited, sharp, wine-cask aged Art of Darkness 2017 #1 from Little Pomona. Both would more than qualify for entry on the category’s set terms. Neither could be more different in flavour to the other.
Then let’s look at production method – something that would go a long way to determining the style of, say, a beer. Selecting one at random – the traditional method, for instance, the manner in which champagne and several sparkling ciders are created – we are instantly confronted with the same difficulties faced in the previous paragraph. Bollhayes, made with west country apples, a proportion of which contain varying degrees of tannin, presents as a world apart in flavour to Gospel Green, a drink made in exactly the same way but using tannin-free varieties such as Cox. Burrow Hill’s Bottle Fermented Kingston Black is different again, though once more nothing has changed about the way by which it was brought into existence.
In short: styles don’t work as a way of describing what a cider will taste like and, crucially, whether you are likely to enjoy it or not once you have parted with your own money.
Apples then? Well, that’s certainly somewhere to start, and is vital information in gauging whether a cider will be to your taste. But again, it’s a little more complicated than that. Firstly, because many ciders are blends of several varieties, which may prove impractical to list and which will likely be influencing the flavours given off by their blend-mates and creating flavours which are entirely new. Secondly, because even sticking to just one variety, an entire range of ciders can be cultivated. Yarlington Mill, for example. Is it still? Is it sparkling? Is it keeved? Is it sweet? Is it dry?
The question is: how to shuffle ciders into order in a way that offers precision to the customer yet pitches a broad enough tent to celebrate cider’s diversity and allow room for every one of the multifarious creations being bottled around the world? What’s needed – and what doesn’t currently exist, certainly in the United Kingdom – is a proper taxonomy of the sort that has gone such a long way to democratising labels and increasing consumer confidence in and understanding of wine over the last fifty years.
So. Bravely/ambitiously/recklessly (delete as appropriate) we’ve had a go at creating just such a cider taxonomy below. We believe that its full application on any given label offers makers the greatest chance of communicating thoroughly to any consumer what to expect from the cider in their bottle*. Thereby, importantly, allowing that consumer to fully establish before purchase whether it will be to their personal taste(s).
In the taxonomy’s most basic terms, all ciders divide into:
Family: apples and region.
Species: category subdivision where relevant
Plus: Addendums and adjuncts
Family: apples and region
The first and most critical question as regards a cider’s flavour. What variety or varieties have been used. As specifically as is possible.
If a blend, what are the key constituents? Or, if constituents are simply not known, what are the key flavours driving the blend?
“Acid-driven” and “tannic”, whilst structurally informative, are not descriptors of flavour. A Foxwhelp-driven cider will not taste the same as/similar to a Bramley-driven cider, though both will have a high component of acidity. Similarly a Harry Masters’ Jersey-led cider will differ markedly to a Yarlington or Dabinett-led cider, though tannins will play an important role in each one.
“Eastern counties” and “West Country”, whilst broadly understood checkpoints among traditional drinkers, are also too vague for the curious modern drinker in 2021. A Discovery-led cider, for instance, will bear scant resemblance to an Egremont Russet-dominated blend or single variety, though both could be (and have been) couched in the very loose “Eastern counties” bracket. Similarly a Browns-led cider will likely share almost nothing in common with a Tremlett’s Bitter blend, though both could rightly be described as “West Country”, both being apples originating in Devon and now widespread across the Three Counties and Somerset as well.
Importantly, “Eastern Counties” and “West Country” mean nothing to (most) non-UK drinkers in our increasingly internationally-connected cider bubble.
Other words that are useful, but which lack the specificity (in isolation) to satisfactorily communicate a cider’s flavour and style include, but are not limited to: bold/zesty/tangy/bitter/challenging.
Region is only theoretically helpful if it refers to the place the apples were grown and not to the place they were turned into cider. Very little modern research has been done into this topic, but it is widely believed that the flavours of individual varieties are affected by where they are grown. At an extreme level, Kingston Black from Herefordshire is likely to be lower in sugars and therefore alcohol, but possibly higher in phenols and acidity, than Kingston Black grown in Australia due to differences in temperature and ripening rates. We don’t have any concrete answers, but by knowing where your cider’s apples have been grown, perhaps you will gradually come to build a mental picture for yourself.
Here’s where “styles” have a role to play. What has been done (or not done) to present the liquid as it appears in your glass? Before we break them down – that’s next! – all ciders made of any apples can be divided into the following five categories.
- Ciders containing adjuncts (eg hops/other fruits) or which are co-fermentations
Whilst categories are vital – and all that some consumers want to know – they don’t contain the nuances required to really distinguish one cider from another in the eyes of the wise and discerning Cider Review reader. This is where our sub-categories come into play, below. Each is easily worthy of an entire article or several to itself, but I have tried to explain them as simply as reasonable space will allow.
(For a fuller picture here do read our friend Rachel Hendry’s magnificent Burum Collective piece on sparkling wines. Virtually all of it is applicable below.)
- Force carbonated. Does what it says on the tin. Carbon Dioxide is forcibly pumped into the liquid. Requires specialist equipment, so many small cideries have to send their ciders off to be bottled this way. The process is very quick and doesn’t have any real effect on flavour beyond carbonation. It’s also how you get the fizz into sparkling soft drinks such as Coca Cola.
- Traditional Method. More famously known as “the champagne method”, but certainly invented in England and quite possibly first practiced on cider. For the full story of Gloucestershire glass works, the Royal Society and aspirational cider’s favourite contention, click here.
The wonderful Rachel Hendry of Burum Collective and J’adore le plonk has previously written in depth about sparkling wines, much of which can be directly applied to cider. Since I can’t hope to better Rachel’s breakdown of the traditional method technique, I won’t try. Here it is, lightly cider-ified (thanks Rachel):
“The traditional method, to put it very simply, involves not one but two fermentations, the second of which happens inside the bottle. This second ferment is created by adding extra sugar and yeast to a base cider. All of the dead yeast and carbon dioxide that occurs during that fermentation gets trapped, creating both a sparkle and all of those complex breakfast buffet notes that people know and love.”
Removing the dead yeast and presenting a totally clear cider requires another process called disgorgement. The bottles will be inverted and, over a long period, often encouraged either manually or with machines, the yeast cells will slide into the neck. Once this is completed, the top of the bottle can be plunged into a very cold liquid, freezing the yeast cells. Since it will also create a surface tension in the liquid below, the bottle cap can then be removed, firing the yeasty ice blob (technical term) out of the bottle and keeping the cider inside. A cork or crown cap then goes very quickly back on the bottle, and voila. Totally clear fizz.
- Charmat Method. This technique is most famously used to make Italy’s Prosecco. Similar to the traditional method in that it involves a second fermentation, but in this instance that second fermentation takes place in a large pressurised tank rather than in bottle, with the idea that the cider will take on less flavour from the dead yeast, resulting in a drink which is fruitier, rather than biscuity and hotel-breakfasty. This is very, very rare in cider. The only examples I am aware of are Italy’s Angioletti ciders and Halfpenny Green’s Sovereign, from Warwickshire. If you can think of any others please do let me know!
- Bottle conditioned. Ugh. Someone is going to tell me off here. “Bottle Conditioned” is a term with a long history in British Cider and, problematically, has come to be understood in three different ways, each way involving a different process and thereby different flavours and styles.
The first way is the technique also known in France as pétillant naturel (hereafter Pet Nat). This term has recently entered more general international parlance as a popular way of making sparkling natural wine. And, not surprisingly, it has also made its way onto cider labels. I’ve described it more fully below.
The second method that could technically be couched under “bottle conditioning” is the traditional method, on the basis that it involves fermentation (‘conditioning’) in the bottle. But you are very unlikely to come across a modern traditional method cider described as “bottle conditioned”. I mention it here primarily for the benefit of pedants.
The third method, similarly to the traditional method, involves the addition of a small amount of sugar (or sugar source, eg ice cider) to a fully fermented liquid along with a tiny amount of unfermented or less-fermented juice. As with the traditional method this will spark a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The key difference being that the aim here is a much lighter sparkle and therefore requires a smaller amount of sugar. It is not thereafter traditionally disgorged. A famous practitioner of this method is Ross on Wye, who use 5 grams per litre of sugar (approximately a quarter of what might be expected for traditional method). Another example would be Little Pomona’s ‘Cryo Conditioned’.
Since no other term exists for the third technique, the way that “traditional method” and “pet nat” exist for the other two, I’m going to take a deep breath and couch this as the Cider Review definition of “Bottle Conditioned” for this taxonomy, in the hopeful name of distinguishing clarity. Since I can already hear the gnashing of teeth from Ocle Pychard and beyond, I shall just add that you will often find ciders listed as “bottle conditioned” which are made in the pet nat method. Yes, I’d love things to be simpler too (I’m writing a taxonomy for God’s sake). But my gut feeling is that this isn’t likely to change any time soon, for reasons that I suppose are understandable. So caveat emptor, and if you see something labelled “bottle conditioned”, just make sure you ask.
You could say: all pet nat and traditional method ciders are bottle conditioned. But not all bottle conditioned ciders are pet nat or traditional method. If that makes things easier for you!
- Pet Nat. The French term we were talking about above. Commonplace in cider and recently in natural wine. Differs from the traditional method and our third species of bottle conditioning in requiring only one fermentation to take place. Liquid that has not yet finished its fermentation is bottled and sealed. Inside the bottle the yeasts continue to convert sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and with nowhere to escape, the carbon dioxide dissolves into the cider, causing bubbles. Its popularity with natural makers stems from the fact that it can be made without the need for the additions required by bottle conditioning or the traditional method. The cider may then be disgorged in order to achieve clarity, however the more normal practice is to leave it “as is”. Meaning that the majority of pet nat ciders will present a little harmless sediment.
- Pet Nat (Keeved). Keeving is, to the best of my knowledge, unique to cider and certainly deserves more space than I am able to give it here. In its briefest précis it is a technique whereby a pectin gel is encouraged to form in a fermenting cider which rises to the top, carrying nitrogen nutrients with it. The sweet, low nutrient cider is then racked off from underneath the gel into a fresh container where, starved of essential nutrients, it will naturally stop fermenting whilst remaining medium to medium-sweet. For a far fuller and more technical breakdown of the process, this presentation from Andrew Lea has all the information you could want. Only brave it if your head for science is considerably more advanced than mine.
As with regular pét nats, keeved ciders derive their sparkle if they are bottled before their fermentation has ended. However it is also possible to find keeved ciders presented as still.
Cider will naturally continue fermenting until the yeasts have gobbled up every last bit of sugar and left a dry liquid behind. On which basis, if I was feeling deliciously contentious, I could claim that “dry” is cider’s natural state, and that anything sweet generally requires human intervention**. Indeed, since it will make this taxonomy tick along more smoothly, I’m going to go ahead and do just that.
There’s a lot of sweet cider about. In the UK, at least, there are no legal parameters setting the point at which something becomes medium or dry, and it can be a bit of a wild west. The important thing to know – or at least, the thing that you, as a consumer, may wish to know – is how your cider has attained its sweetness.
- Added sucralose. Simply ferment a cider to dryness and then add a non-fermentable sugar to it. According to current UK law this addition has to be declared on a label. Used by producers looking to present a fully-fermented cider as ‘medium’ or ‘sweet’.
- Arrested fermentation/pasteurisation. When the fermentation is deliberately brought to a close before completion. This can be done using coldness (or heat) to kill off the yeasts, leaving a cider that is not yet entirely dry. If heat is used – subjecting the cider to temperatures of circa 65-70 degrees celsius for around 25 minutes – this technique is called pasteurisation, which is also a method of sterilising the cider against bacterial infection. Another method of arrested fermentation is sterile filtration, whereby the cider passes through an extremely tight filter, removing the yeast. This can, naturally, also have the side-effect of removing compounds that contribute to flavour, leaving the cider lighter in taste and aroma.
- Cold racking. Racking is the process whereby you remove a fermenting cider from its “gross lees” – the larger solids created by yeast cells, bits of apple and so on, and which will spoil a cider if left. These are as opposed to the “fine lees”, which are the lees we have already discussed, which are far smaller, and which do such tremendous work in adding flavour and also protecting from oxidation.
The more often you rack, the fewer nutrients yeast cells will have to consume and, as we have seen, the less sugar they will convert as a result. Frequent racking thereby leading to a naturally sweeter cider. Notable proponents of this method include Barley Wood Orchards and Wilding, both in Somerset.
- Keeving (see entry in Sparkling sub-categories)
- Ice cider. As exciting as it sounds. The most intense and lusciously sweet of all ciders, to be consumed with puddings as an alternative to dessert wines or – if you’re like me – guzzled irreverently on their own over an evening. There are three methods by which you can make ice cider, all of which involve, shockingly, some form of cold.
- Cryo-extraction. Apples freeze on the tree and are pressed in that state. Ice crystals are removed and the remaining juice is thus far more concentrated in flavour. Since, whilst freezing on the tree, the apples themselves are dessicated inside and begin to decompose/ferment, the result is a pale juice that tastes more like white grapes and apricots than it does apple. Only certain varieties – and the most extreme cold – can produce this sort of cider. A couple of producers in Canada, maybe one or two in northern USA, and that’s your lot.
- Cryo-concentration (natural cold). Apples are pressed and their resultant juice is left out to freeze and then naturally thaw, again leaving a large quantity of ice and yielding a dense, enormously sweet juice. The advantage of natural cold is that it results in temperature fluctuations which slows the process down and, in the words of Eden Cider’s Eleanor Leger, “really helps separate out the water from all the sugars and the flavours and the acids”. Brännland, in Sweden, also utilise this technique, but again it requires winters of extreme cold.
- Cryo-concentration (forced cold). Exactly the same, but in this instance the juice is put in a freezer before being allowed to melt. Almost all ice ciders in Europe, Brännland excepted, will be made this way, and although there is both romance and science to the natural cold method, it should be acknowledged that some very good ice ciders are made with forced cold. Again, perhaps something to flag on labels.
These are apple juices and ciders which have been blended with spirit to create something of a higher strength in the style of a pineau, port, sherry or madeira. They are every bit as good as their grapey cousins at warming the cockles on a cold evening, or – surprisingly – offering a tasty drink over ice outside in summer. They are some of my favourite things, and if you try one I am confident they will become some of yours too.
- Pommeau. By miles the most famous fortified. This is Normandy’s blend of apple juice and their apple brandy, Calvados, blended when the Calvados is 18 months old and subsequently aged together in oak barrels. There are strict rules concerning the making of Pommeau such as the apples (and pears) required to be used in varying parts of the region. “Pommeau” is also a protected term – if you see it on the label you can guarantee that it was made and bottled in Normandy. For more information on this wonderful drink, see our spotlight on Pommeau with Mathilde de Bazouges here.
- Other fortified apple juice. Pommeau-style drinks are also made in France in the regions of Brittany and Maine. They have slightly different regulations and will use slightly different varieties, but broadly they remain a blend of apple juice and apple spirit which is then required to be aged in oak barrels. Outside of France there are no modern regional traditions of fortified apple juice, but individual producers (Burrow Hill in Somerset, Zapiain in the Basque Country) may make their own. These aren’t subject to the same regulations, so although Burrow Hill choose to age theirs in oak, Zapiain bottle their ‘Sagardoz Goxoa’ as fresh juice blended with unaged spirit. And very juicy and tasty it is too.
- Fortified cider. This is a bit of an odd one. I’m not currently aware of any fortified ciders – i.e. instances in which the fortification took place after the apple juice had begun (or ended) its fermentation, as is the case for fortified wines such as port or sherry. However, this is not to preclude their existence; there is no reason I can see for fortified cider not being a thing, and so I have included it as a theoretical sub-category to safeguard our taxonomy against exciting, innovative ciders forcing us to write another one.
Addendums and adjuncts
Details pertaining to individual ciders which, whilst not “categories” in and of themselves, will have a significant impact on the flavours of a cider.
- Wood. The influence of wood – particularly of wooden containers, has been a factor in the flavours of cider (and wine) for thousands of years. This would initially have come about as a result of barrels being the most convenient way of storing liquid. However, despite the advent of plastic and stainless steel containers, many producers wish to introduce some of the sweet, spicy flavours of wood into their cider for an extra layer of flavour. This is achieved through two predominant means.
- Barrel ageing. If a cider is aged in wooden casks its flavour will be potentially impacted by micro-oxidation, by the flavours of the wood itself (lessening with every subsequent use of the barrel) and by the flavours of whatever was in the barrel previously. For example wine, whisky or apple brandy. In any case, it will make a difference to what is poured into your glass. Oak is the most popular choice of wood in countries such as the UK, France and the USA, however it is also possible to find Chestnut casks and indeed they tend to be the norm in, for instance, the cideries of the Basque region.
- Wood inserts. As oak is a. expensive and b. allows micro-oxidation as we have seen above, some producers prefer to induce some of the flavours of oak without putting their cider in barrels. Wooden staves may be inserted into stainless steel or plastic containers, or wood chippings may be placed in fermenting or maturing cider. Both will impart some degree o flavour to the resultant drink.
- Yeasts. Cider can be made either by allowing the natural yeasts present on the fruit to simply get straight to work, or by killing these yeasts and pitching a specific yeast strain into your apple juice. The former – commonly known as “wild fermentation” – is championed by those who feel it makes for a more natural process, and who point out that it often results in more complex flavours, as there are more strains of yeast at work. There is, however, a downside that once it starts fermenting, makers have no control over which yeasts – positive or negative – get into their wild-fermented cider. So scrupulous hygiene is essential here to prevent bacterial spoilage and faults. Pitched yeasts are often dismissed (occasionally in publicly vitriolic terms) by certain makers, but they guarantee a good degree of control and have been responsible for many delicious ciders. There are also numerous different strains of pitched yeast that the cidermaker could theoretically employ and therefore a broad spectrum of potential flavours to be conjured.
- Vintage/age. One of the most magical things about full-juice cider is that it is a vintage product. That it is the result of one apple harvest at a specific time of year, and that that vintage will be different, however subtly, to any vintage before or since. Ridiculously, American cidermakers are prohibited from using the term “vintage” on their labels by the US wine industry’s lawyers. Several, thankfully, have found various ways to sneak around it. In addition to knowing its vintage of origin, and learning the individual characteristics of that year, knowing the age of a cider is tremendously important. Like wine, most ciders are designed to be drunk young and fresh – today is best! But there are several whose tannin and acidity and body and intensity of flavour allows for several years of ageing, during which time they slowly soften and gain wonderful new complexity of flavour. 19th century documents talk about 30 to 40-year-old Foxwhelp, though none (to my knowledge***) currently exists. Sad times.
- Adjuncts. This is where something besides apples has been added to a cider either during or after fermentation. Common examples include other fruits or hops. Strictly speaking, these drinks are legally classified in the UK as “made wines” and are the source of much controversy, particularly among cider purists, many of whom object to them displaying “cider” on their labels. However there is no doubt that this category is a huge and growing one, both in the UK and worldwide, and boasts some marvellous drinks from producers such as Little Pomona, Pilton and others.
It is, however, worth noting that many of the so-termed “fruit ciders” on sale are deliberately utilising the category largely to avoid the stigma of labelling themselves an alcopop. These creations tend to be industrially made, contain enormous amounts of artificial flavouring, are heavily sugared and diluted and bear no resemblance to the whole-juice creations alluded to in the previous paragraph. We recommend, as we would with any cider or other drink, that you look into the ingredients and processes used before making a purchase. That being said, we’re not here to dictate what you should or shouldn’t purchase or enjoy. Our aim is solely to help you reach an informed decision, but at the end of the day, drink whatever makes you feel happiest.
So there, in a rather large nutshell, you have it. Our go at a taxonomy of cider. Amidst all that verbiage you may have forgotten what I was saying at the start, so here it is again, but without the exposition:
Apples and region
- Place those apples grew
- Ciders containing adjuncts (eg hops/other fruits) or which are co-fermentations
- Force Carbonated
- Traditional method
- Charmat Method
- Bottle Conditioned
- Pét Nat
- Pét Nat (Keeved)
- Added sucralose
- Arrested fermentation/pasteurisation
- Cold racked
- Ice cider (cryo-extracted/cryo-concentrated (natural cold)/cryo-concentrated (forced cold))
- Other fortified apple juice
- Fortified cider
- Addendums and adjuncts (including, but not limited to):
- Wood (barrels – including type and previous contents – or inserts)
- Yeasts (wild or pitched strain)
- Other fruits, hops and spices
Some examples of the taxonomy’s application:
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2018
- Dabinett and Michelin
- From Herefordshire
- Bottle Conditioned
- Oak aged (whisky casks, some peated Islay)
- Wild Fermented
Wilding Kingston Black 2019
- Kingston Black
- From Somerset
- Pét Nat
- Cold Racked (medium sweet)
- Wild Fermented
The Newt Fine Cyder 2019
- From Somerset
- Arrested fermentation (cold)
- Pitched yeast (wine yeast)
Eden Queen Mab 2012
- Ashmead’s Kernel
- From Vermont
- Ice cider (cryo-concentrated (natural cold))
- Oak aged (wine barrel)
- Wild fermentation
Thank you very much for reading all of that! Hopefully we’ve come up with something that offers a (fairly) short-hand categorisation of Every Possible Cider, whilst pointing the consumer as quickly as possible towards the flavour and style they can expect from each one.
If you have any recommendations for improving the taxonomy, or can spot an area we’ve missed (I bet there’ll be at least one or two) do let us know. We hope that its use allows you to navigate cider a little more easily, translate labels with confidence … and know what questions to ask when the labels aren’t telling you everything.
*Presuming that the given cider is bottled without fault: i.e. acetic acid, mouse, H2S, ethyl acetate etc. If any of these have happened then all stylistic and flavour-related bets are off. But I would be extra-keen that the cider’s label made me aware of them, because none are to my personal taste.
**Occasionally, when using wild yeasts, a fermentation will just stop, for reasons that might pertain to coldness or to something else entirely. Assuming this fermentation doesn’t subsequently restart, the cider will naturally retain some residual sugar. If we’re fermenting perry, some residual sweetness is also natural, as perry contains sorbitol, which is an unfermentable sugar.
***If anyone knows of some 30- 40-year-old Foxwhelp available we would be grateful if you would please tell us where we can get it.