How to drink: cider

Published on 28 April 2022

Photo: A sensory guide to drinking cider (illustration by Ol Elliott).

It's time to get your scrumpy on.

If your experience of cider is of something sweet and, well a bit one-dimensional, the good news is, it isn’t all like that. In fact, right now, just here in Victoria alone you can taste ciders that run all the way from sweet to dry, crisp and refreshing, hoppy and pungent, fresh or aged, some of them made with pears, cherries, quince, grapes – even mead. Get ready for a world of delicious flavours, starting with the humble apple.

What is cider?
An alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of apples or pears. Or, at least, that’s what cider should be. The truth is that many of the mass-produced ‘ciders’ out there – the big-name mega-brands you find in liquor chains and bars; the ones advertised on billboards; you know the ones – are actually made from imported fruit-juice concentrate, diluted with water and sugar and sometimes flavourings. But those cider-like alcopops aren’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about real cider, produced by Victorian cider makers from real fruit grown in Victorian orchards. Just so we’re clear. (I get quite cranky about this. As you can tell.)

How can I tell the difference?
If it matters to you that your cider is made from real fruit (and obviously I think it should: after all, you wouldn’t be all that keen on a wine made from reconstituted grape juice – would you?), look for the ‘100% Australian Grown’ logo on the can or bottle the next time you’re choosing a cider in the grog-shop fridge. And talk to your retailer and the people behind the tasting counter when you visit a cidery: ask them how their ciders are made. This way, you’re supporting local regional growers and craft producers.

How cider is made
Whether you’re making apple cider or pear cider, the method is essentially the same. Fruit is harvested, washed and then crushed. The crushed fruit is then pressed and the juice collected in a fermenting vat. During fermentation, yeast converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol. The cider is then matured and put into can, bottle or keg, with most ciders being carbonated before packaging, resulting in a fizzy drink.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit familiar, you’re right: the fundamentals are almost the same as winemaking. And, as in winemaking, there are plenty of tweaks to the process that produce plenty of different styles of cider, as you’ll read below. 

The raw ingredients: eating apples and cider apples
The winemaking comparisons continue. Just as different grape varieties – chardonnay and shiraz, for example – give you different colours and flavours in wine, so too do different varieties of apple make different styles of cider.

Eating apples – the kind you find in the supermarket, Granny Smith and Pink Lady, etc. – produce ciders that are more white wine-like in character: lighter-coloured, fruity, crisp – what cider makers call ‘new world’ style.

Cider apples on the other hand – heirloom varieties like Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill, grown over centuries in old cider-producing regions of England and France – tend to produce cider that’s more golden in colour, with richer flavours and a grippy texture on the tongue: what cider makers call ‘traditional’ style.

What about the pears?
In England, the drink made from fermented pear juice is called ‘perry’, and uses heirloom varieties of perry pear: tart, bitter-tasting fruits with gnarly names like Yellow Huffcap and Green Horse. Not many Victorian cider-makers grow these varieties (Henry of Harcourt is a notable exception), so most local ‘new world’ style pear ciders and perries are made from familiar eating pears like Packham and Williams. 

What styles of cider are out there: what should I look for?

Dry, medium and sweet cider: Depending on how much of the sugar in the apple or pear juice is converted into alcohol – or how much juice is added back before bottling to add sweetness – cider can be described as ‘dry’ (little-to-no sweetness on the tongue), ‘medium’ (some sweetness, but balanced by crisp acidity), ‘medium-sweet’ (pronounced-but-balanced fruity sweetness) and ‘sweet’ (obvious, luscious sweetness). Most well-known Australian ‘new world’ examples like Napoleone’s apple or pear ciders sit in the medium-sweet category.

Farmhouse cider – cloudy and ‘scrumpy’: Words like ‘farmhouse’ and ‘scrumpy’, are used to describe cider that is usually wild-fermented, unfiltered and cloudy, dry, higher in alcohol and full of sometimes funky, barnyard flavours. Seven Oaks Farmhouse and Daylesford Wild are good examples.

Method Traditional or ‘methode traditionelle’ cider: Like sparkling wine, this is cider that goes through a secondary, bubble-producing fermentation in the bottle, often producing more refined, wine-like flavours. Kellybrook has been making cider this way for almost 60 years.

Vintage cider: Cider made from the fruit of a single harvest; the term ‘vintage’ is also traditionally used to indicate high quality – like ‘reserve’ in winemaking language. The top cider at Flying Brick on the Bellarine Peninsula, for example, is the bottle-fermented, MC Cider, current vintage 2017.

Fruit cider: Made by blending apple or pear cider with the juice of other fruits; traditional choices for blending are cherries and quince, but some are also blended with wine grapes, such as the pinot noir/cider hybrid drink made by Cheeky Rascal on the Mornington Peninsula.

Mid-strength and non-alc: As in most other drinks categories, cider makers are jumping on this trend: St Ronans in the Yarra make a 3.5 per cent mid-strength apple-and-pear blended cider.

Cyser: Cider blended with mead, a traditional drink made from fermented honey: Gurneys Cider and Matriarch Mead have teamed up to produce a couple of good examples.

Organic/biodynamic cider: Cider produced from apples or pears that have been grown in a certified organic or biodynamic orchard, farmed sustainably without the use of synthetic chemicals. Mock Red Hill Cider on the Mornington Peninsula is made from apples grown in orchards that have been biodynamic since the 1970s. 

Hopped cider: Some producers, such as DV Cider House at Darraweit Guim north of Melbourne, add hops to cider: the hops contribute aromatics and a touch of bitterness often lacking in cider made from eating apples.

Apple brandy: Made by distilling cider and then maturing it in oak barrels for at least two years before bottling to develop a distinctive golden colour and complex, spicy oaky flavours. Kellybrook has been making a good one for many years.

Cider: a Victorian story

Ever since Europeans first planted orchards in Victoria in the 1830s, people have been making cider. Apple growing regions like Harcourt in Central Victoria and Stanley in Victoria provided fresh fruit to the Goldfields from the 1850s on; in the same decade, a Geelong watchmaker called Lois Kitz started making cider, building Kitz’s into one of the best-known Victorian cider brands by the end of the 19th century.

In the early 20th century, the Spry family of Wattle Glen near Hurstbridge brought English cidermaking experts out to help them build the Spry’s Cider brand, using apples grown in the orchards fringing Melbourne. In the 1930s Tasmanian George McGowan moved to the Yarra Valley and established Mac’s Cider, a leading brand into the 1970s, when cider’s popularity began to decline.

A handful of hardcore local Victorian craft producers such as Kellybrook in the Yarra, the Henry family of Harcourt, and Seven Oaks on the Mornington Peninsula kept the cider flame alive during the days when hardly anyone drank it, planting real cider apples, making traditional ciders. Then, in the late 2000s, cider became fashionable again, and the handful of true believers were joined by dozens and dozens of new producers, such as Napoleone in the Yarra.

Now you can find cider being made right across the state, from the Cheeky Grog Co. near Shepparton down to Gurneys near Wilsons Prom, from Crucible Cider Otways in the southwest to St Clair Cider in the northeast.

Max Allen’s Intoxicating: Ten drinks that shaped Australia, filled with stories of spirits – and other delicious booze – is out now, as is Beggars Belief: Stories from Gerald’s Bar by Gerald Diffey, which Max edited and illustrated, often with a tankard of his wild-fermented feral backyard cider in hand.

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