Apple Juice Concentrate
Apple Juice Concentrate (or AJC as it is more commonly known) is not entirely simple in its own right. Several self appointed arbiters of all things cider will claim 'Chinese concentrate' or 'its made from AJC' about anything that they deem not real cider (or #notrealcider - as I often see it). I have two things to say about that; show me where a particular company admits to it and how can you tell its made from concentrate? Odds are that you can't and you won't be able to tell beyond it being made by industrial process... which is not the same!
Whilst it is possible to taste a cider that is thin or adjusted or filtered to death or pasteurised or sweetened with juice/saccharin etc. it is not entirely possible to distinguish which of those have been made from concentrate or not. In fact, I would suggest that it is nearly impossible! This is because, as with (abused) chaptalisation, concentrate is only a part of what you could describe as the slippery slope of industrialised cider production. Once you leave the full juice path too far, as with either of the practices mentioned, you then need to adjust with flavouring, aroma and even colour to get back to where you started. Odd innit?! But then, if I produce 100 litres of 6% cider, these guys could produce up to three times that with the same amount of apples. And that is how a cider becomes nothing more than a commodity.
Is all concentrate from China?
Well, there is a tiny bit of a myth and assumption involved in this (I think). For starters there is a healthy AJC business in Europe (after all, do you think all French cidre is full juice?!) Beyond that, several large UK cider makers concentrate their own juice - as in, they press their own juice and then concentrate it. This gives them more freedom to use proper cider fruit as well as dessert fruit. Mind you, much of the concentrate is going to be dessert or even cookers (last year I even tried a cider that tasted west country and yet was made using Bramley!) It also gives them the freedom to use the concentrate at any point during the year (getting rid of the Autumn/Winter pressing restriction).
In the UK, HMRC states that for cider to be cider it must contain 35% juice as a minimum. Of this, there is a even more grey areas. A good example of this is how much water you can use to reconstitute AJ Concentrate before fermenting it. I have heard, in some quarters, that you can get even lower juice contents which are allowed by virtue of using concentrate. I suspect there are not many cases of this, but it does demonstrate the secrecy in which concentrate is used and the fact that once you travel down the road of increasing yield by lowering juice content, using what the craft industry would call unorthodox methods, you then have to start using additives and marketing smokescreen.
Why do it at all?
Using AJC makes a lot of commercial sense (in a corporate sense). The traditional cider making period is September to January at the most. You get one go to press in a year and you need to store all that fermenting cider. But why should this be so? By using concentrate you can produce cider all year round and save on storage space etc. etc. Much more convenient, and it makes the whole operation more efficient (time, value etc.). Cider making can become like brewing... even if the cost is on quality, juice content (and all that stuff that is important to traditional cider makers), a bit of self respect.
And how do you get around not being a traditional cider maker? Well, don't tell anyone. Maintain marketing that insists you are traditional to the core, using the same recipe for generations... whatever.
Hmmm. Whatever indeed.