Make no mistake about it, not all cider is created equal. In this day and age when the average consumer is looking for the best, most refreshing farm products they can find there are a few mass producers of cider that actually work against the grain. They utilize any old apples around, blend in the wash water from the cleaning process (diluting the cider), and ply it full of preservatives. The crowning moment is when a sell by date rivaling Egyptian sarcophagi is added giving warehouse purchasing agents carte blanche to order trailer loads and let it sit in inventory for as long as 8 weeks. The end product is about the furthest thing I can imagine from real, farm fresh apple cider.
No matter where you’re from, the process of making apple cider is pretty simple. You start with a generous mix of good sound apples (no rotten ones, please) that are washed and scrubbed before they are ground up into pumice or mash. Once the mash is ready, it is pumped into bags or onto cloths made of porous fabric resembling cheesecloth. The “pumice cakes” are then squeezed between racks using a large hydraulic press releasing the apple cider. The expressed cider from each pressing is then blended to create a complex tasting, delicious beverage.
In commercial facilities (including orchards and small farms), the cider must be pasteurized or treated with a special ultraviolet (UV) treatment system to kill dangerous bacteria. Some producers may also add a preservative, other do not. Adding a preservative increases the shelf life of the product, which is not a bad thing unless the advantages of the preservative are abused (as is often the case). No matter whether a preservative is used or not, the cider changes over time. The longer it sits waiting to be consumed the less fresh it will be by the time it reaches you.
And that’s it to making apple cider. Pretty simple, huh?
While the process of making cider is pretty simple, the real magic comes with the choices a producer makes. The type of apples, how many different kinds, drops or not, preservative or not, how long of a shelf life, UV or pasteurization, plastic or glass….the list goes on…all play a role in the quality of cider. I can’t speak to how all cider producers make cider, but I can say that large mass producers are easily the biggest violators when it comes to quality. Volume is the key to their success and low prices; something smaller, quality producers can’t easily compete with. Please, don’t let anything get in their way.
The first problem with mass produced apple cider and juice is that most producers use whatever apples are available throughout the year leaving the quality inconsistent and mediocre at best.
The second is that, although most don’t use drops (apples that have fallen from the tree), some do. In general, the quality of the apple is not the most important thing on their list. As long as it isn’t rotten and falling apart, they’ll generally use it without hesitation.
Third, though most large processors require a farmers spray records to verify compliance with EPA and state regulations (and often the processors own standards), the documentation process is generally a formality and not an actual mechanism for providing the consumer with a safer product. Several years ago I was privy to one case where the grower’s records were actually doctored in order to comply.
Fourth, since large processors are more concerned with maximum utilization and less so with the integrity of their product, some use the water from the wash down process to bring any remaining juice into the holding vats. This, of course, also adds water to the product which dilutes the cider which…well, you get the idea.
Fifth, the final concoction is then heat pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria. This process, while creating a mighty safe product, also destroys the texture and flavors of the cider adding yet to the reductionist process they are using. There is a process called flash pasteurization that uses a minimal amount of heat for a short period of time to kill the bacteria. Flash pasteurization has less of an affect of the cider’s flavor and texture than regular pasteurization process, but still more than that of UV.
Finally, the addition of preservative brings the whole process to an end. Actually it is not the addition of preservative that’s the big problem; it is the calculated “sell by” date that’s critical. It’s true: cider with a full dose of preservative can sit on the shelf for a long time. This gives produce buyers and managers, as well as grocery store shelf stockers the option and flexibility of ordering a lot at one time and not having to worry about it going bad (i.e., fermenting). The problem is that the cider continues to degrade as it sits on the shelf and by the time an eight week old cider is purchased and consumed it has gone through a lifetime full of changes and barely resembles what it was the day it was pressed.
Fresh apple cider is like fresh produce and has a short shelf life by nature. Anything that is done to unnaturally extend the shelf life of a product results in a product that is less fresh, less wholesome, and less recognizable than it was nearer the point of production or harvest. Fresh apple cider is not a fine wine. It is not meant to be aged for future consumption. It is meant to be drunk as soon as possible after it is made. Autumn may be the best time to drink apple cider, but really, cider made at any time of year from fresh whole apples is just as great. You just have to make sure where it is coming from.
Here at Stone Ridge Orchard we’re taking an approach that is winning us rave reviews. And while we want to have a product we can provide year-round, we also want a consistently high quality product that tastes just as good in April as it does in October. Not all ciders are created equal. Know your farmer, know your cider, know your roots.