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When ‘bittersweet’ is a good thing

For cider makers, June was probably a busy month. October’s apple pressing produced the juice which has been quietly fermenting through winter and spring, and now the rough young cider must be put into bottles and set aside to mature.

Cider-making has a rich vocabulary, so to ease my slight guilt at not yet having started bottling my own cider as I write this, here is an examination of the language of fermented apple juice.

Cyder or cider? Hard or soft?

The word cider comes to us from Hebrew, via Latin, Greek,  and Old French, and originally meant ‘strong drink’. Some producers favour the archaic spelling of cyder, rather than the modern ‘cider’ – perhaps they think it sounds more authentic. Whatever the reason, it has been known to cause heated arguments within the cider-making community.

In the USA, however, cider is used to describe what Brits would call ‘apple juice’, and fermented alcoholic cider is referred to as ‘hard cider’. To confuse things even further, the non-alcoholic beverage is also known as sweet cider in the USA. One to remember, should you ever walk into a British pub as a tourist.

Method in the madness

Many modern commercial ciders are made from pasteurized and concentrated juice, diluted with water, sweetened, and carbonated to give a consistent and palatable though very bland result. Traditional ciders, also known as real ciders, are by contrast made only from apple juice with no added sweeteners or sugar, so that each one will have its own character depending on the techniques used to make it and the apples that provided its juice. If a cider is especially cloudy or a bit rough it may be sold as scrumpy, a drink particularly associated with the West Country, and a word that derives from an English dialect word scrump, meaning ‘withered apple’. It’s fair to say that scrumpy has a reputation for being on the potent side, and rumour has it that some producers make their scrumpy for sale much rougher than the cider they drink themselves because that is what tourists expect to receive.

An apple a day

Cider can be made from the juice of any variety of apple, though in the UK it is most often made from specific cider apple varieties. These are classified by their flavour according to the proportions they contain of three substances: acidic apples are sharps, those containing tannin are bitters, and those with sugar are sweets. Varieties exhibiting more than one of the three will be classified as both, so you will see apples described as bittersharp or bittersweet. The ideal West Country cider will use bittersweet juice to give good alcohol content from the sugar and a ‘kick’ of flavour from the tannin, so producers will carefully blend the different types of apple to achieve this optimum result. There is a rich lexicon of traditional apple variety names such as foxwhelp, brown snout, knotted kernel, and dabinett, which are a little too specialist for inclusion in Oxford Dictionaries Online.

So, given the right apples, how is a traditional cider made? The apples are harvested in autumn and first milled in a machine called a scratter to an apple pulp known as pomace. The pomace is then pressed in a cider press to release the juice, which is placed in large vats for the natural yeasts to ferment it. Some producers use cultured yeast and many will add a small amount of sulphite to the juice at this point to kill bacterial infections and undesirable yeasts. If this sounds like a modern additive you might be surprised to find that it is a traditional part of the process; cider makers hundreds of years ago would burn rags coated with brimstone in their barrels prior to fermentation.

Fermentation proceeds through winter, and in spring the young cider is racked to remove the sediment before it adversely affects the flavour. In early summer the cider is placed in bottles or flagons before being left to mature, ready for drinking the following autumn. This process produces a strong, clear, dry cider in which all the sugar from the original juice has been converted into alcohol. Sweet ciders are produced in the same way but with the addition of a difficult process known as ‘keeving’ in which the yeast is starved of nutrients before it can consume all the sugars.

The next step

So now you should be equipped for the summer, to sally forth at the fete, folk festival, or cider bar with some knowledge of what you are drinking and the process that produces it. Whatever you find in your glass, I hope you enjoy it, and wassail!


Image by Alberto Elosegi (ARGIA.com) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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