Not All Cider Is Sweet

Despite popular belief, hard cider isn’t always sweet. That said, a lot of it is. So very, very sweet. Despite decades of diversification (and bitter-fication) in craft beer, many of the hard ciders available on our shelves are still hyper-saccharine—like juice that’s been spiked and carbonated (after all, there’s lots you can do with a SodaStream). Take a peek at nutrition info next time (if the cider lists it). Angry Orchard’s Crisp Apple has 24 grams of sugar. Hornsby’s Hard Apple has 21 grams. And yes, even “manly” (and therefore extreme?) cider options like Smith & Forge pack 23 grams of studly sugar into their harder-than-hard cider cans. Compare that to the 33 grams of sugar in a can of Coke. Not far behind.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, apple fans. Ciders from countries like France, England, and Spain can express more dryly, with earthiness, funk, even bitterness. Cider can have terroir. Etienne Dupont, in Normandy, actually describes the terroir responsible for the complexity of character in its Cidre Bouche: “nutrient poor clay and marl soil, perfect for giving small fruit,” (which fruit, we should mention, is 80% bittersweet apples and 20% acid apples). In Austria and Basque Country, Spanish “sidras” coax as much complexity from the apple as possible with wild yeasts and natural fermentation—as a start. Ciders like Isastegi Sagardo Naturala are actually oak-aged, tart, funky.

It seems like there’s a bit of a global cider disconnect to the tune of America = sweet (and fair enough, just ask any terrified 7-11 clerk on Free Slurpee Day). But at least some tastes seems to be changing—just check out the comments section reactions to Strongbow changing its original recipe for sweeter American palates. Really, there seems to be a slow but stirring call for a return to the way cider used to be in early America, back when it was the beverage favorite of colonials and presidents alike, produced from homestead to homestead with a variety of apples, full of complexity and probably plenty of manly pioneer terroir.

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So what happened? As in any case of delay or regression in American beverage, we can blame this one on Prohibition. (And why not, we’re still angry.) With the passing of The Volstead Act, passionate prohibitionists took to burning down orchards like Red Sox fans overturning a car after a victory (it’s like, calm down, dudes, you won). More importantly, the more complex cider apples were suddenly irrelevant—and unsellable. So cider makers swapped to something sweeter, apples ready for eating or baking (most cider apples would be unpalatable to eat). Once it came time to bring cider back—it took far longer for cider to make its comeback after prohibition—our palates had already settled squarely in the sweet territory. We didn’t crave complexity from our cider, and we didn’t have the apples to provide it, anyway. (A looming shortage of cider-worthy apples might be another reason for more common two-dimensional styles.)

Of course, things have a way of reversing themselves: now that many of our conventional snacking apples are imported, American orchardists are looking for other ways to profit. Maybe more influentially: the success of the craft beer movement, wherein any style can be explored to the most authentic, or most outlandish, limits. Add a dash of would-be beer drinkers looking for gluten-free options, and American cider has sufficient fuel to add some much-needed dimensionality. Not that sweet hard ciders don’t have a place on the shelf. But there’s certainly more room—and maybe more call—for something dryer.

Among the lower-sugar ciders that are easier to find: Harpoon (very balanced, and just 7 grams), Sam Smith Organic (not American-made, but more available, and just 9 grams), and Ace (just 8 grams). Harder to find but worth the search are earthy and complex offerings from cideries like Farnum Hill and dry, tart, balanced options from Foggy Rose in Virginia. Meanwhile, yes, cider is booming , and cideries are popping up all the time. But don’t assume craft equals dry. Check online for sugar info or buy an experimental six-pack. Worst case scenario, you’ll have some really, really intoxicating apple juice.