Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Apple cider is one of those things that say fall is here. Of course, with the weather roller coaster we've had over the last couple of weeks, you might think spring and winter are stopping by as well!
A common question I've received is: "What is the difference between apple cider and apple juice? Aren't they the same thing?" The answer is "It depends." I hated it when one of my favorite professors in grad school would answer questions with this response. The more I work with living things (including people!) I realize this is the correct answer more often than not.
A common definition of apple cider is it is the beverage produced from grinding and pressing whole apples. The product is unfiltered and may have sediment and pulp in it. It may or may not be pasteurized. Apple juice is cider that has been filtered and pasteurized and usually bottled to be shelf stable.
But the term apple cider is not used everywhere. It is most commonly heard in the Midwest and Northeast. To most of the U.S., everything is apple juice. Some people use the term apple cider to refer to the alcoholic beverage that results when apple juice ferments. Most will call it "hard cider" but I have encountered people that thought all apple cider was fermented. That definition explained why they seemed shocked when we were serving cider at a Master Gardener event this fall!
Apple cider has a long history in the United States. From colonial times through the late 1800's, most towns in the Northeast included a cider mill. Fresh unpasteurized cider stored for any length of time will ferment into hard cider since there are naturally occurring yeasts and sugar present. Gallons of hard cider were consumed each day by adults and children. It was their only choice if they wanted a drink that was safe-- the local water was not considered fit to drink, and alcohol in the hard cider killed any disease causing organisms present.
Most people are familiar with at least the concept of wine tasting, of analyzing the different components of flavor. The same idea can be applied to tasting apple cider, either the alcoholic or non-alcoholic versions. Different apple cultivars contribute different aspects of flavor to cider. Most ciders are prepared from several different apple cultivars, creating what each cider mill owner hopes is the "best" cider around.
Some new laws about cider processing have been enacted since incidents of E. coli O157:H7 contamination were linked to unpasteurized cider. Heat pasteurization heats the cider and kills any microbes present, including those that may cause disease, like E. coli O157:H7. Very generally speaking, FDA regulations say that cider can only be sold as unpasteurized if the same farm that grew the apples is pressing the cider and selling it directly to consumers. Big cider mills that get apples from multiple farms must heat pasteurize the cider produced or use other accepted methods to reduce microbial contaminants. There may be more specific laws in your area.
Despite the risk of contamination and sickness, many apple cider aficionados prefer the taste of fresh, unpasteurized cider. One year I had the opportunity to press cider with some 4-H members using a hand operated press, and it was a lot of fun to both make and drink the fresh cider.
Pasteurized or unpasteurized, I think any locally produced cider is one of the joys of fall. It beats anything I've ever bought off a supermarket shelf. Enjoy it for the short time it's here!