Cider Styles 101

In most people's minds (& in the mass market certainly) cider comes in 3 styles: sweet, medium or dry. Each is actually quite subjective; what one person thinks is 'dry', for one person might be their version of a 'medium' - it all comes down to that person's palate. Maybe 'cloudy' is another style, or 'fruit cider' but that's about it in the mass market. When, however, you move beyond the mass market, things get so much more interesting, with so many styles to explore!! This way of describing styles says more about how a certain cider was made (as often this shapes the cider that results in distinctive ways), than simply how sweet it is. Such styles tend to have archetypal elements, like the kind of flavours of such a style often has, or the physical properties of the cider (for example, it might be naturally sparkling).    
As the name suggests, still cider doesn't sparkle. People are sometimes surprised to find that cider can be still, as most mass-market ciders are sparkling, but actually, all ciders set out on life destined to be still, unless the cider maker makes them sparkle!! And so of all the styles of cider, still can be the simplest to create. But don't be fooled by this, still cider is in many ways the most complex and varied style there is! As this style doesn't involve the complex technical processes of some styles (which can make otherwise different ciders end up with similar flavours), variety is the order of the day! So just as in the world of still wines, still ciders can be the most fascinatingly varied and nuanced ciders; even the most expressive of terroir - so reflective of where that cider was made, how the apples grew that season, etc. Still ciders are often aged slightly before bottling, often in the barrel. But as you'll be very clear about by now, variety is the joy of still cider, so it can have all sorts of characteristics! 

Pét Nat (a.k.a The Ancestral or Rural Method)
Short for Pétillant Natural (meaning naturally sparkling in French) the defining characteristic of this style is that it has been made sparkling by being bottled before the fermentation has finished. As the fermentation finishes in the bottle, gas is released that is forced to dissolve into the liquid, making it sparkling. This style always leaves some sediment in the bottle, because as the fermentation finishes it creates sediment. In some ways, it is the simplest way of making a naturally sparkling cider, but it takes a lot of skill (and perhaps a tad of luck) to do really well, as fermentation is a slightly fickle thing when near its end; put the cider in the bottle too soon, and the cider will be too bubbly; too late and it might be barely bubbly at all. This tends to be one of the first styles to be released by ciders makers each season, and it can often have very juicy and fruity characteristics.

Traditional Method (a.k.a 'Champagne' Method)
As we have discovered, one of the most famous of French wines, Champagne, owes much to the invention in England of strong bottle glass. The difference between this method and Pét Nat is that this method uses 2 fermentations, rather than just 1: for the Traditional Method, after the first fermentation has finished, the cider maker sets off a second fermentation in the cider (usually by adding some more yeasts and sugar) as they bottle it. So this secondary fermentation happens in the bottle, making it naturally sparkling. And because the maker sets this secondary fermentation off, they have a lot more control over it (they can choose how much sugar to add) and so it is easier to get consistently sparkling results.

Ciders made with this method are usually on the dryer end of the spectrum, but the maker can add some sweetness back in at the last stage of this method: removing the sediment. That second fermentation creates a lot of sediment in the bottle, and makers often go to a lot of labour to carefully remove it before the cider is sold (they don't always do this, but Champagne would not be champagne without removing the sediment). They do so with a process called riddling & disgorging; the short description of which is that bottles are turned upside down and the sediment allowed to slowly collect in the neck of the bottle over time, the maker then carefully opens the bottle (often having frozen the neck, to lock the sediment in a block of ice) so the sediment is forced out by the bubbles. They try to avoid spilling the cider itself, and top it up if needs be, before adding that iconic mushroom cork! This makes the cider clear and free of sediment, but also stops the sediment affecting the taste of the cider over time (although ageing the cider on the sediment - called on the lees - for a year or more before riddling & disgorging, is often an important part of the process). So the characteristics of the style tend to be a clear, highly sparkling cider, that is likely on the higher end for alcohol (thanks to having had two fermentations); plus, all of the effort this method takes, means the maker has to charge a bit more for it, to cover the costs. 

Keeved (a.k.a The Normandy Method)
A style that has become synonymous with the ciders of northwest France, keeved ciders are typically naturally sweeter and lower in alcohol than other styles. This is because the keeving process essentially prevents a cider from fully fermenting to dry, so it retains some of the lovely rich fruit sugars from the apple juice, and in the process makes less alcohol. It is an art form to do well, and the Keeve happens at the start of the fermentation just after the juice has been pressed, then the maker has to keep a very close eye on it as it progresses. Get it wrong and the cider can smell a bit eggy, but do it well and the results can be superb! Holding naturally succulent sweetness, beautifully creamy bubbles, and a wonderful rich amber colour!  

Ice Cider 
The easiest way to think of Ice Cider is that it is like a dessert wine. It's a style that began, and is most practised, in Canada, and took its cue from ice wine. There are a couple of ways of going about making Ice Cider, but the simplest way to think of it is that the maker removes some of the water from the apple juice, so they get a really rich, concentrated, high sugar juice to ferment! This is then fermented but naturally stops fermenting leaving a lot of succulent sweetness behind. 

The maker can go about removing this water in two ways, either by leaving the apples on the tree in the coldest part of winter (in a sufficiently cold country, like Canada, or Sweden) so winters natural cold freezes and dehydrates them. Or, they can freeze the juice after the apples have been pressed (as water freezes at 0 degrees celsius, but the richer parts of the juice freeze at lower temperatures, the maker can separate them) and separate the water out to remove it. Either way, effectively the maker is concentrating the juice, so any characteristics the juice has will be amplified; for this reason, ice cider is never really made with highly tannic traditional cider apples, as the resulting concentrated tannins would be unpleasantly strong! Usually, Ice Cider can be as high as 10% alcohol, the liquid will be slightly viscous from the sugar content, and the smell can be enchanting! But its main characteristic is this dessert wine-like sweetness! 

We humans like to label, categorise and define things! But not everything fits neatly under one definition. For example, most ice ciders are typically still, but most still ciders aren't usually ice ciders. A still Ice Cider could fit in multiple categories, but what about those that don't easily fit under any of the well-known cider categories? The hybrid category covers some of that which does not wish to be defined; often referring to when two styles have been mixed together, or even cider is mixed with other drinks or fruits, such as wine grapes. This kind of cider making is where a lot of boundaries are being pushed, and fascinating experiments are happening; like 'fortifying' a still cider with an ice cider, or seeing what close cousins of the apple, such as Quince, can add to the mix! So we call all such ciders that don't really fit into the other categories, Hybrid, as this refers to the creation of a mix of components and characteristics! 

So that covers the main styles of fine cider, and while it can certainly be said that there are further styles existing out there, like in other cider making regions of the world, or towards the more mass-market end of making, we feel these are the key styles of fine cider as things currently stand. Get to know them - by drinking them of course - and you will have a very rich picture of just how varied and fascinating the finest ciders can be!

First things first, are you of legal drinking age?

No, but I'm working on it