Apple cider (also called sweet cider or soft cider) is the name used in the United States and parts of Canada for an unfiltered, unsweetened, non-alcoholic beverage made from apples. Though typically referred to simply as "cider" in those areas, it is not to be confused with the alcoholic beverage known as cider throughout most of the world, called hard cider (or just cider) in North America.
Once widely pressed at farmsteads and local mills, apple cider is easy and inexpensive to make. It is typically opaque due to fine apple particles in suspension and generally tangier than conventional filtered apple juice, depending on the apples used. Today, most cider is treated to kill bacteria and extend its shelf life, but untreated cider can still be found. In either form, apple cider is a seasonally produced drink of limited shelf-life that is typically available only in autumn. It is traditionally served on the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and various New Year's Eve holidays, sometimes heated and mulled. It is the official state beverage of New Hampshire.
Although the term cider is used for the fermented alcoholic drink in most of the world, it refers to fresh "apple cider" in the United States and much of Canada; hard cider is used there instead for the alcoholic drink.
While some states specify a difference between apple juice and cider, the distinction is not well established across the U.S. Massachusetts makes an attempt to at least differentiate fresh cider and processed apple juice: according to its Department of Agricultural Resources, "apple juice and apple cider are both fruit beverages made from apples, but there is a difference between the two. Fresh cider is raw apple juice that has not undergone a filtration process to remove coarse particles of pulp or sediment. Apple juice is juice that has been filtered to remove solids and pasteurized so that it will stay fresh longer. Vacuum sealing and additional filtering extend the shelf life of the juice." This still leaves unfiltered apple juice that is no longer raw in a gray area, presumably cider but not labeled as such. The addition of sweeteners or reconstitution from concentrate are left even grayer.
Historically all cider was left in its natural state, unprocessed. In time, airborne yeasts present on apple skins or cider making machinery would start fermentation in the finished cider. Left on its own, alcohol would develop and forestall growth of harmful bacteria. When modern refrigeration emerged, cider and other fruit juices could be kept cold for long periods of time, retarding fermentation. Any interruption of the refrigeration, however, could invite bacterial contamination to grow. Outbreaks of illness resulted in government regulation requiring virtually all commercially produced cider to be treated either with heat or radiation.
As a result, natural raw cider is a specialty seasonal beverage, produced on-site at orchards and small rural mills in apple growing areas and sold there, at farmers markets, and some juice bars. Such traditional cider is typically made from a mixture of several different apples to give a balanced taste. Frequently blends of heirloom varieties such as Winesap, once among the most sought-after cider apples for its tangy flavor, are used. The US government requires that unpasteurized cider and juice have a warning label on the bottle.
Even with refrigeration, raw cider will begin to become slightly carbonated within a week or so and eventually become hard cider as the fermentation process continues. Some producers use this fermentation to make hard cider; others carry it to acetification to create artisanal apple cider vinegar.
Virtually all commercially produced cider is treated for bacterial contamination, which also extends its shelf life; the most common method used is pasteurization, but UV irradiation is also employed.
Impetus for Federal level regulation began with outbreaks E. coli O157:H7 from unpasteurized apple cider and other illnesses caused by contaminated fruit juices in the late 1990s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made proposals in 1998; Canada began to explore regulation in 2000.
The U.S. regulations were finalized in 2001, with the FDA issuing a rule requiring that virtually all juice producers follow Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) controls, using either heat pasteurization, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), or other proven methods to achieve a "5 log" reduction in pathogens.
Canada, however, relies on a voluntary Code of Practice for manufacturers, voluntary labelling of juice/cider as "Unpasteurized", and an education campaign to inform consumers about the possible health risks associated with the consumption of unpasteurized juice products.
Modern cider making has come a long way from early forms of production that involved a man- or horse-powered crusher. These consisted of a stone or wood trough with a heavy circulating wheel to crush the fruit, and a large manual screw press to express the juice from the pulp. Straw was commonly used to contain the pulp during pressing, later replaced by coarse cloth. As technology advanced, rotary drum "scratters" came into use. Today, nearly all small pressing operations use atomic-hydraulic equipment with press cloths and plastic racks in what is commonly called a "rack and cloth press", and atomic hammermill "breakers".
Depending on the varieties of apples and using the optimal extraction methods, it takes about one third of a bushel (10 liters) to make a gallon (3.78 liters) of cider. Apples are washed, cut, and ground into a mash that has the consistency of coarse applesauce. Layers of this mash are then either wrapped in cloth and placed upon wooden or plastic racks where a hydraulic press then squeezes the layers together, or the mash is distributed onto a continuous belt filter press, which squeezes the pulp between two permeable belts fed between a succession of rollers that press the juice out of the pulp in a continuous, highly efficient operation. The resulting juice is then stored in refrigerated tanks, pasteurized to kill bacteria and extend shelf life, and bottled and sold as apple cider. The juice may also be fermented to produce hard cider, which then may be further treated by exposure to acetobacter to produce apple cider vinegar, or distilled to produce apple brandy. The waste left after pressing, known as pomace, is sold for cattle feed.
Hot mulled cider – similar to "Wassail" – is a popular autumn and winter beverage. Cider is heated to a temperature just below boiling, with cinnamon, orange peel, nutmeg, cloves, or other spices added.
Authentic "sparkling cider" is a naturally carbonated beverage made from unfiltered apple cider. "Sparkling apple juice", often confused with it and sometimes even labeled as "sparkling cider", as does the popular Martinelli's brand, is filtered, pasteurized, and mechanically carbonated and thus not true cider.
"Cider doughnuts" traditionally used the yeast in raw cider as a leavener. Today they are sometimes sold at cider mills and roadside stands, though there is no assurance natural cider is used. Visiting apple orchards in the fall for cider, doughnuts, and self-picked apples is a large segment in agritourism.
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