So I figured that, although Cider Pages is about reviewing cider, it might be valuable to recap on some of the practices/jargon used by cider makers that you won't see on the bottle. Also, as this post hopes to do, debunk a practice that is perfectly normal and draw a line between it and what many mainstream producers are accused of doing.
I won't be held to a timescale for this information. Its all stuff you can get out of a book or from a website if you know where to search for it. For me, well I would start with Andrew Lea's excellent 'Craft Cider Making' book (Goodlife Press). I would also turn to the archive of the Cider Workshop too if I needed to check my facts. So in a way this isn't me being clever, its just another pooling of information and making it available on line.
First off, lets get this the right way round. Chaptalisation, in its proper sense, is NOT what a number of larger producers are accused of - adding glucose syrup or sugar to juice in order to raise the SG (starting gravity) to some crazy level like 15% before cutting it back down to 4.5% in order to cut the cost of pressing and make more with less. Yes, that is often what happens to commodity ciders - although in reality its a lot more complex that that and can involve concentration of juice or (in the worst examples) use of purchased juice concentrate and additives in order to restore the cideryness.
To a large extent, the industrialised version of chaptalisation is how many ciders have juice contents of less than 60%. Unfortunately, this what a lot of cider commentators would generalise as the process of chaptalisation. They are, in truth, incorrect - although it is a bastardisation of the chaptalisation process.
So, what is it in its proper sense and is it OK for cider makers.
In a traditional, full juice cider making operation, there are only limited controls for bugs and the like. However, what we do have is a couple of very effective controls: Sodium Metabisulphite (So2; its what camden tablets are), blending, and ensuring the acid balance is correct and alcohol content sufficient. A traditional, unfiltered and unpasteurised cider is pretty much self sterile at over 5% ABV. Bugs that can live in unpasteurised apple juice (you may have read things along the line of Patulin etc.) are killed by alcohol, so at this level cider is by and large safe. Once a cider is fermented, its biggest enemies are air and cider makers (essentially those who haven't balanced it well enough or who allow air and other infections to get to the cider). The alcohol and acid blend are responsible for taking out any infections or spoilage bugs.
Now attempt to re-imagine the summer, autumn and winter of 2012. I know - sorry for reminding you - it was cold and wet on the whole. Add to this the poor spring and the rumours (which were on the whole true) of some really bad harvests. Poor crops, small apples and low SG's. As I said before, normally traditional cider sits between 5 and 7.5%. In 2012, this dropped to (sometimes) 4% (low 1030's). This is insufficient to protect the cider in storage and is where the practice of true chaptalisation is used.
Yes, chaptalisation involves adding sugars to apple juice prior to fermentation and its purpose is to raise the sugar levels in the juice. The intention is to raise the starting gravity to above 1045, or just over 5% potential alcohol. The juice is not subsequently cut and the cider ferments out to a safe level of alcohol (please note, for the sake of PC-ness, when I refer to 'safe' I don't mean safe to consume gallons in a sitting - I mean safe as in the cider itself is safe!). Juice content is still as high as possible. Simple and sensible, yes? Is it cheating? Well, not really if you think that the alternative is a cider that could be prone to infection and the like.
There you have it. Chaptalisation is not a sin. Well, not in its true form anyway. In its other form - well, that is really just the start of what happens to a commodity cider - but that is something for the future and probably a few more Cider101's:-)