Before I get into the practice of sweetening cider – the options available and the reality to the drinker – let me clear up one very important thing. If you are drinking a medium dry, medium or sweet cider in the UK or USA the odds are that it has been sweetened. OK, some ciders are halted during fermentation – these will be called Cider Bouche, Methode Traditionelle, English Method or Keeved ciders. However, with the vast majority of ciders the fermentation has been allowed to go its full course, which means it starts as a dry cider. All the sugar in apples is fermentable (not so in pears… but that is another story).
The idea that sweet apples produce a sweet cider is nonsensical and can only be ascribed to marketeers, PR companies and idiots who have very little idea about the process of making cider. It is total and utter rubbish.
OK, that out of the way, what is sweetening your cider? Well, there are several options – in fact there are many options, but commercial cidermakers are restricted by those methods on Her Majesty Revenue and Customs list of ‘approved’ ingredients.
Firstly, there are the natural methods:
Apple Juice. This is a great natural way to sweeten a cider. However, apple juice contains fermentable sugar. So, if apple juice is used then pasteurisation has to take place (I am hoping that CAMRA read this so they can finally understand why pasteurisation can be a normal practice in cider!)
The use of juice is fairly widespread, although it is all too easy to overdo it. When overdone, the cider is left with a ‘juicy’ type of taste to it which overpowers some of the more subtle cider flavours.
There are a few who overdo it, though the obvious producer to point at is Westons (they are free to disagree).
Sugar. (generally Sucrose, Glucose or Fructose). Another natural method of sweetening a cider, as apple sugar contains all three in some degree. However, as with juice, all of these are fermentable and so pasteurisation needs to take place.
If I had a favourite method of sweetening, it would be sugars as these do not alter the flavour profile of the cider as much as the others. However, it requires some kit to pasteurise.
Halting fermentation. By far the method that demonstrates skill - it is an art form in its own right. This method is often called ‘keeving’ or ‘French method’ and you can spot it fairly simply – 750ml champagne bottles are often used and the cider will be around 4% (as a full juice cider).
There is a fairly big BUT though. The process is fiddly, fraught with problems and even if everything goes well with the process of reducing the nutrients (a halted cider is generally a cider where the yeast have very little nutrients to work with) there is no guarantee that the cider won’t continue to ferment out to dry. Why do you think champagne bottles are used?!
This kind of sweet cider is my favourite and is usually very good indeed.
Going back to the CAMRA jibe above, there is a serious point that they seem to miss in their understanding of what makes a 'real' cider or perry. By ruling out pasteurisation CAMRA rule out all the above methods of sweetening (effectively) as they all require it to be stable (except naturally halting, which is very hard to do). Unless, of course, CAMRA prefer exploding containers!
Those out of the way, lets turn to the more common forms of sweetening for artisan/craft producers - the artificial sweeteners. These are used in cases where producers don’t have the right equipment to deal with more natural sweetening, or the inclination to pasteurise, filter or whatever.
Sucralose. This has gained in popularity rapidly since it managed to get on the HMRC list. The same stuff you will find in sugar free cola (etc.), sucralose is an immensely powerful sweetener. It is, on the whole, a stable sweetener without too much of an aftertaste. However, I have to say that if not done very sensitively it can be tasted and will alter the flavour of a cider.
Aspartame. Not an ideal candidate for sweetening as it is only stable in cider for a couple of weeks, and has an odd aftertaste – and there are better alternatives
Saccharin. The worst of the lot – it should be confined to the bins of history as it leaves a bitter aftertaste and a number of people are allergic to it. Still, some traditional producers continue to use it… and even argue that it is ‘traditional’. Hmmm
Lactose. Yes, its a form of sugar, but is basically unfermentable. I cannot say that I have come across this type of sweetening in a commercial cider (and indeed, must owe any knowledge I have of it to Andrew Lea and his book, "Craft Cider Making"). However, it is not as sweet as sugar and leaves an odd aftertaste so I suspect is not widely used.
So there you go; sweetening in as few words as I can manage. I should point out the obvious – sweetening cider is not a sin in itself. Doing it badly, for me, verges on it (as someone who prefers the drier ciders). Claiming that sweet apples make sweet cider is a sin, however, and those who push this falsity should be banned from ever having any involvement in cider marketing and be made to stand in front of the entire cider making community to apologise and have cabbages thrown at them.