In the simplest, most basic definition, cider is fermented apple juice. In the United States, we’ve gotten our terms for alcoholic and nonalcoholic cider somewhat confused over the decades, so we usually refer to alcoholic cider as “hard cider” while everyone else in the world just calls it “cider.” I follow the global crowd for our terminology: alcoholic fermented apple juice is “cider”; unfermented apple juice is simply “juice.”
True cider, like the kind you make yourself or get from a good craft cidery, is very different from the mass-market cider you may be used to. For one thing, it’s typically not very sweet. It can be tart, sour, balanced, funky, mellow, spicy, dry, bitter, apple-y or wine-like but it’s generally not what most of us would consider sweet. True cider isn’t even always fizzy; many traditional ciders are actually served still (that is, nonsparkling or nonfizzy).
If you, like me, spent your college years drinking cider that was as sweet as candy and as fizzy as soda, then you’ll need to retrain your taste buds. I recommend a cider tasting to get a feel for what you’re about to make. Head to a well-stocked store and pick up a few different bottles. Get a mix of U.S. craft ciders and imported ciders, if you can. Then invite a few curious friends over to your place and start opening bottles. You’ll quickly get an idea of what the wide world of ciders has to offer — and what tasty rewards are in your future when you make your own.
All cider starts with juice. How and where you get this juice, its quality, its particular characteristics and its balance of flavors — these are all factors that go into your finished cider. You don’t have to seek out fancy heirloom apples just to make good cider, but you do need to put some thought into the juice you’re using. For now, just be assured that no matter what apples or juice you have available, you can definitely make a tasty cider. No doubt about it.
Once you have some juice, turning it into cider is the easy part. Fresh-pressed juice is so full of natural sugars and wild yeasts that you can practically see it start to ferment in front of your eyes. Even pasteurized, store-bought juice has plenty of sugar to ferment; you just need to add some yeast purchased at a homebrew store.
The yeast eats up the sugar and gives you alcohol and carbon dioxide in return. In a few weeks, you’ll have homemade cider — it really is just about as simple as that!
People have been turning apples into cider for almost as long as there have been apple trees, so what is “modern” cider? This is cider making tailored to a new generation of cider drinkers. It’s cider made in tiny third-floor walk-ups, sunny country kitchens and suburban garages with the door rolled up. It’s cider that uses what you have on hand, whether that’s picking up a gallon of fresh juice at the farmers’ market, using your juicer to juice your own apples, or cruising the pantry aisle at the grocery store for some bottled stuff. It’s cider on a scale that works for you — small 1-gallon experiments or larger 5-gallon batches to share with friends. It’s cider made with hops, or with fresh pineapple, or with bourbon. Modern cider is your cider; it’s whatever you want it to be.