The Notion of Balance
Balance refers to the interaction and harmony between two or more of the cider’s constituents. Like mead and beer, cider is not a homogenous product; there are components within it that must be harmonized in order to create a pleasing beverage. It is that which makes the resulting cider more “drinkable” and “enjoyable.” More specifically, cider balance is the synergy of all the components that formulate an enjoyable tasting experience: aroma (bouquet), flavor (apple / pear and specialty ingredient flavor), structure (tannin, acid, and alcohol), residual sweetness, and mouthfeel (body, carbonation).
Balanced does not mean levels of multiple components are equal, but rather complement each other in a harmonious manner. Individual components may slightly overshadow one another, and the resulting combination is appropriate for the particular style of cider, thus what is in balance for one style may be well out of balance for another.
Balance is essential to a successful cider, however the topic is complex because determining balance is somewhat arbitrary – it may differ dramatically depending on the subjectivity of the taster, the cider style, apples or pears native to the area, or traditional bias.
It is very rare that juice from a single apple cultivar will produce the appropriate balance of acid, sweetness, tannin, and alcohol necessary for a finished cider, thus a large percentage of ciders are blends of different fruit sources. A cider maker may consider balance up front with the choice of ingredients, after fermentation in terms of adjustment or blending, or a combination of both. A cider maker should have good perceptions of the apple varieties that make up the product, an idea on how to blend those varieties, and a vision of what the finished product should be, all before they are even fermented. The more attention given to balance up front the less adjustment and blending will generally be necessary at the finish.
There is no accurate formula for calculating a perfect acid-sugar-tannin balance in cider. In the simplest sense, a cider which has a good acid-sugar-tannin balance tastes neither too sweet nor too acidic nor too astringent; the sweetness, acid, and tannins exists in the right quantity per the style of cider. The flavors from apples, pears, or added ingredients (fruit, spice, etc.) should also be considered. Other aspects affecting the balance include mouthfeel components, like body and carbonation. The balance of all these components taken together is another form of balance.
Keep in mind that the quantity and intensity of each element of balance varies by the style of cider; there are no absolutes. The relative difference between the constituents is based on the style definition. For example, sweet ciders are obviously sweeter, so they need more structure (acidity, tannin, alcohol) to support them than do dry ciders.
All competition ciders should have a declared carbonation level and sweetness level. These attributes must be taken into account when assessing the balance of the cider. A wide range of results is possible, but well-made examples will have an enjoyable balance of apple or pear flavor, sweetness, acidity, tannins, and alcohol. Strength, sweetness and age greatly affect the overall presentation. Any special ingredients should be well blended with the base ingredients, and lead to a harmonious cider.
Components of Balance
There are several components in cider that balance against each other. Each of the components is defined, including how they are perceived, from what sources they are derived, and how they are individually adjusted. The discussion of adjusting balance is covered in the next section.
Acidity is the perception of acids or low pH in cider, and sometimes could be described as tartness or sourness. Acidity can be a primary flavor in a cider. Acidity is one of the five basic taste sensations, and positive, desirable acids in cider generally have no aroma.
Acidity is a vital component of cider and perry and a range of it can give a fresh taste, or give a harshness that makes the beverage undrinkable. Its effect on mouthfeel can be to cut through the viscosity provided by residual sweetness. This can be a positive with an extremely sweet ice cider, or occasionally make a cider seem too thin. Acidity can support fermentation, provide preservation from infection, and acids being metabolized in cidermaking may create additional flavors and aromas. High sourness can feel like it is taking enamel off your teeth while a lack of acidity can leave a cider flabby, boring, and prone to microbial contamination. Cider with high acidity will generally age better than that with low, but other balance components also play a role. Many acids can be present in apples, pears, cider, and perry and the most common are detailed below.
Malic acid is the predominant acid found in apples, often representing more than 95% of the acidity in this fruit. The flavor and character of this acid is thus strongly associated with apples. It can be found in most other fruits, at widely varying levels. Unripe fruits tend to be full of malic acid – that which can provide freshness in a moderate amount is unpleasant at high level when the fruit is not yet ripened. This acid is odorless with a sharp, strong taste of green apples or rhubarb and can be harsh and metallic at high levels. Malic acid is a target for conversion by malolactic bacteria and finished cider with malic present will be prone to undergoing malolactic fermentation (MLF) if the cider is not stabilized.
Commonly associated with citrus where it is the predominant form of acidity, this acid is also found in significant amounts in berries and many other fruits. Citric acid is quite common in pears and in some pear cultivars is the predominant acid instead of malic. This acid is weaker than malic and a target for multiple microorganisms during fermentation. The products of these organisms may be positive, like lactic acid produced by yeast, or largely negative, as in acetic acid produced by lactic acid bacteria. Citric acid is odorless with a fairly-distinctive tangy/sour flavor, associated more with a “freshness” character than the “green” malic character.
Ascorbic Acid, or Vitamin C
Not to be confused with Citric Acid, Ascorbic is often found in commercial apple juice. In its pure form Ascorbic acid has no aroma and is weaker than malic or citric acid. Not generally used to promote stability, ascorbic acid’s primary purpose in cider is as an antioxidant, typically for stability of color in juice or a finished beverage. Ascorbic tastes quite bitter compared to the sour citric acid flavor. Other than being already present in commercial apple juice, this acid is more likely encountered in a mead or wine kit as a finishing agent than in cider.
see Carbonation, below.
Commonly associated with dairy products like yogurt, this acid is quite light and refreshing. The fairly soft mouthfeel of lactic acid is in contrast to the much harder sometimes metallic malic acid. Lactic acid is weaker than malic, and reduction of malic into lactic by lactic acid bacteria (LAB) during MLF will reduce acidity and increase pH of the cider. LAB make lactic acid (and CO2) from malic acid. Both yeast and LAB can also make lactic acid from sugar during primary fermentation, and elevated levels of lactic acid can be an inhibitor for both yeast and LAB.
This acid has the distinctive smell and flavor of vinegar, along with a harshness in the swallow and burning sensation in the back of throat. Created during all alcoholic fermentation, this acid is usually considered a positive flavor and aroma contributor at very low – not discernable – levels. As soon as it is noticeable acetic acid is generally a fault, with the exception of Perry where very low amounts are allowable. Note that Acetic Acid is part of Volatile Acidity (VA), the other notable component of VA being Acetone (nail polish remover) which is not positive at discernable levels in any BJCP style.
Predominant only in grapes, this acid is also a common ingredient in Acid Blend, along with Malic and Citric acids. Beyond grapes, other fruits containing much smaller amounts of this acid include tamarind, apricot, some cranberries, and prickly pears. Tartaric acid is odorless and 2 to 3 times stronger than malic acid, with a flavor often considered more approachable and less harsh than malic acid. Tartaric is a target of significantly fewer microbes than malic or citric, tending to make it more stable than the other two. Together these traits make tartaric a fairly popular choice for post-fermentation adjustments, however its use is limited by a fairly low solubility, especially at low temperatures.
Sweetness and Fruitiness
Sweetness simply refers to the amount of residual sugar in the cider, and is generally assumed to be coming from the apples or pears (although it can possibly come from fruit or other adjuncts in certain cider styles). Sweetness is primarily sensed as a taste, although it is suggestive in aroma and body. Sweetness is one of the five basic taste sensations. Sweetness results from residual sugar in the cider, which can come through natural fermentation, from manually stopping fermentation short of full attenuation, from the unfermentable sugar alcohol sorbitol, or from back sweetening after fermentation has ceased. Note that adding sugar sources to cider can restart fermentation if the cider has not been stabilized first.
Fruitiness and sugar levels can vary significantly by cultivar, region, weather, soil, and year – the concept of terroir commonly associated with wine is appropriate in cider and perry too. Judges should understand cider makers tend to view fruit in at least two different manners. Some see this as an ingredient they can build upon, while others see the apple (or pear) as the art itself. The former is more like beer, where one has a recipe, with the apple replacing the malt, to achieve a certain final flavor profile. The latter is more like wine, seeking out unique or varietal characteristics in singular or blended form, and generally more focused on nuance. The former is more likely to involve adjuncts, fruits, spices than the “purity of fruit” of the latter. Neither approach is “better” though the average hobbyist may have difficulty procuring the fruit necessary for the latter. Both approaches can and do make wonderful cider.
Sweetness can be confused with fruitiness, especially in dry cider. The human palate and brain generally associate fruity flavors with sweet, and as such a cider reminiscent of certain fruits will often seem sweeter than cider of the same gravity with an earthy or savory character. The difference between the two is generally more apparent with the increased viscosity in the mouth from a sweeter cider.
Balancing a cider or perry begins with the apple or pear varieties and the quantities that are selected. A cider maker must first make sure that the varieties that are available to them have enough fermentable sugar. Original Gravity levels can vary significantly with cider however if lower than 1.045 there is a chance that the final alcohol levels may not be high enough to protect the finished product during storage. Additional sugar (cane, fruits, honey, etc.) may raise the alcohol level of the finished product; however it could very well impact the perceived complexity, flavor and sweetness. Cider makers not pressing their own apples should still measure the gravity of the juice they use.
In competition, a cider may be declared as dry, semi-dry, medium, semi-sweet, or sweet, but there is a range of perceptions within each level. Even at a given Final Gravity varying the relative concentrations of Fructose, Sucrose, and Dextrose can give a different impression of sweetness. Dry doesn’t necessarily mean bone dry and sweet doesn’t necessarily mean dessert-like (although both levels fit within their respective ranges).
A dry cider is one with no higher than a barely noticeable sweetness level, although most will remain below the perception level. Moving up the scale, sweetness becomes an increasing contributor to balance, and adjectives to describe the five sweetness levels might go as follows: almost none (dry), low (semi-dry), moderate (medium), prominent (semi-sweet), dominant (sweet). Even with the dominant role sweetness plays in sweet cider’s flavor it should not become cloying.
Higher residual sugar levels correspond to richer mouthfeel and fuller body. Sweet usually means more fruit character than drier cider, and may result in different fruit character – a lack of residual sweetness may allow delicate flavors and aromas to be expressed that would be otherwise covered by sugar. Cider judges should not expect cider to taste like common store bought dessert apples any more than they expect wine to taste like table grapes. A cider MAY exhibit slight or even significant characteristics of the McIntosh or Gravenstein apples it was made from, but this character is not necessary or to be judged superior to a cider that does not taste of dessert apples – the commonly heard “not appley enough” comments from inexperienced judges are not appropriate critique or feedback for most styles .
Body is somewhat related to sweetness, but dry ciders can still have some body, usually with the increased structure coming from acidity or tannin. Sweetness is somewhat independent of alcoholic strength, but sweet without alcohol can give a raw or unfermented impression similar to that of drinking apple or pear juice. Higher alcohol ciders can generally support higher residual sugar levels.
In apples and pears tannins are a group of several bitter and astringent plant polyphenols called procyanidins. These large molecules are not volatile, hence they have no aroma. Tannins are found in many fruits, the leaves and bark of many plant species, and in some seeds. Tannins bind and precipitate proteins in saliva, changing the mouthfeel of the cider, adding structure, lengthening finish, and can provide a thirst-quenching feel. The smaller procyanidins tend to be bitter, and are sometimes called “hard” tannins. Larger procyanidins tend to be astringent, giving a puckering mouthfeel and drying sensation, and are sometimes called “soft” tannins. Over time tannins tend to polymerize, increasing in size, bitterness smoothing into astringency, thus a cider that is a too bitter may improve with age. The relative amount of astringent or bitter tannins varies by apple cultivar, orchard nutrient availability, and even by season.
Tannin content and type varies significantly among cultivars of apples and pears and may even vary significantly by year for a given tree. Most mass-produced, well known apples and pears are quite low in tannin, especially dessert fruit. Cooking apples may have a bit more, whereas high tannin content is a major reason some cider apples are called “spitters”.
Tannins contribute to the overall complexity of a cider and can also be added by using fruits, spices, tea, chemical additives (e.g., grape tannin), or oak-aging. Berries often add considerable tannin, typically from their seeds, skins, and even stems. Oak-aging is a good way to help compensate for low tannin while adding complexity but tends to add oak and perhaps relevant toast flavors as well. Though tannins themselves have no aroma, they can reduce aroma by binding with esters and alcohol or add new aromas from the tannin source (fruits, wood, spices). Some tannin is welcome in every BJCP style of cider, but the level, intensity, and type of tannin present should be in balance and appropriate for the style.
Generally higher alcohol beverages can support more tannin as long as the acidity is not also high, at which point the beverage becomes harsh and hard to drink. Tannins perform some antiseptic functions, helping to protect cider against certain bacteria, and also generally serve an antioxidant role in preservation.
Those of you familiar with red wine are very familiar with the drying sensation on the palate, sometimes called “puckering” but not to be confused with the somewhat similar “puckeringly sour” acidic character. Astringency increases body by literally giving more tactile sensation, and can lengthen the finish of the cider by lasting into the swallow and aftertaste. At varying amounts astringency can be refreshing or harsh, rounding out sweetness or seeming like a mouthful of wood shavings. In beer, dry indicates a lack of residual sugar. However, in cider (or mead / wine), dry can also mean a considerable tannin content. Judges should try to make clear which they are talking about – the lack of residual sugar indicating a dry cider, or the drying effect of tannins.
A basic flavor, beer drinkers are familiar with this as a balance to sweetness and a major component of most beers being thirst-quenching. The effect is the same in cider. Bitterness can range from very low in most styles, to a moderate part of the balance in some English cider. Higher alcohol will emphasize bitterness, as will lack of sweetness, higher acidity, colder serving temperature, or higher carbonation. Barely perceivable bitterness isn’t a major flaw, but in BJCP cider styles bitterness should not be a major component of balance in the manner of many hop-forward beers. Besides apple or pear tannins, sources of bitterness may include spices or oxidation.
Though the interplay of acidity and sugar is the biggest component of the balance of most cider, they do not usually provide enough structure on their own for a fully balanced cider. Attempting to balance a cider with both high levels of sugar and acidity without regard to other components can give a “sweet-tart” impression. Alcohol adds some structure to all cider, though for some of the sweeter, low-alcohol French style ciders, said structure is negligible. No BJCP styles should be dominated by alcohol, but judges should expect alcohol to be a major component of the balance in Applewine, often so in New England Cider and Ice Cider, and sometimes in other high gravity Specialty Ciders.
Alcohol is a fermentation by-product, and usually refers to ethanol. Ethanol in its pure form is colorless but has a strong, sharp, characteristic aroma. High amounts may give a significant perfume. Ethanol is a versatile solvent and often can carry other volatile aromatics. Ethanol also has a sharp flavor and can add bitterness while also being perceived by some people as sweet. Alcohol produces a warming mouthfeel, which usually increases with alcohol strength (although extended aging can smooth this sensation) and falls short of “hot” – harsh or solvent-like characters from higher alcohols are not welcome in any BJCP cider styles. Though cider has more in common with wine than beer, the alcohol levels in the majority of ciders you will encounter in competition are more akin to beer than wine.
Dry cider should have almost no residual sugar, and thus little to cover alcohol. Alcohol may therefore be detectable at a lower level in dry cider than in a beer with the same alcohol but higher residual sweetness and final gravity. Drier beverages will show more alcohol than a sweet beverage of the same ABV. A cider with high alcohol will likely have a sharper aroma profile, a drier finish, more residual warmth on the palate, and greater perceived bitterness than that of a low alcohol example. It could also very well amplify the acidity and tannin in the cider depending on the carbonation. A cider with lower alcohol will more likely allow the natural apple or pear aroma and flavor along with, acidity, and tannin to come through. Higher alcohol content can help a sweeter cider avoid a raw or unfermented impression. Though cider tends to have more in common with wine, the alcohol levels of the majority of BJCP cider styles are more similar to beer.
As with all other fermentable beverages, alcohol strength is determined by the amount of fermentables used and the degree of attenuation in the fermentation. Fermentables are generally apple or pear juice, but can include other adjuncts like fruit, honey, and other sugars. The difference between the starting gravity and the final gravity determines the alcohol strength of the cider. Adding more fermentables increases the starting gravity, which increases the potential for alcohol strength.
Note that the published range of attenuation percentage for beer yeasts is not useful for cider due to the tendency for cider sugars to be almost completely fermentable (with the notable exception of the significant sorbitol levels in many perries). The degree of attenuation measures the percentage of original gravity that has been fermented with a higher attenuation increases alcohol strength. As apple/pear sugar levels tend to be lower than that of wine grapes, alcohol tolerance of a yeast is not generally a deciding factor in yeast selection and tolerances for low temperatures or low nutrient levels are more likely to have an effect on attenuation and resulting residual sweetness and alcohol levels. Stopping fermentation before it completes (intentionally or unintentionally) results in lower alcohol.
Body refers to the viscosity of cider perceived as a sensation of weight or thickness on the tongue; it is a mouthfeel texture, not a flavor. The descriptors used for normal ranges of body include light, medium, and full, but can go outside those descriptors for defective ciders. Thin and watery are terms that describe very light-bodied ciders. Cloying, viscous, heavy, thick are terms that describe very full-bodied ciders.
Different apple and pear varieties do provide different bodies to cider. There is generally a direct correlation to sugar content and perception of fullness of body, but there is significant variation in body even among fruit with similar sugar content. Managing fermentation for final gravity can thus control the final body. Back-sweetening cider can increase body. Using more juice (fermented or not), honey, molasses, brown sugar, and some fruits generally increases body. Higher alcohol content and tannin levels increase body by offering greater tactile sensation, often lasting into the finish and forming a significant component of the lingering impression of the cider after the swallow.
Carbonation refers to the amount of dissolved carbon dioxide in solution. It is an aspect of mouthfeel, although higher carbonation adds carbonic acid to cider. Carbonic acid is a very weak acid, but does increase perceived acidity and reduce pH. Carbonation also can cut through high sweetness levels that would otherwise be cloying, increase perceived bitterness or astringency, and accentuate refreshment and drinkability in otherwise flabby beverages.
High amounts of carbonation can greatly amplify attributes in a cider, particularly the aroma profile. What may normally be perceived as subtle may be perceived as volatile when amplified by high carbonation, and aroma as a whole can be expected to be higher in carbonated cider than still. Depending on the style, lower amounts of carbonation could deliver a perception of a one dimensional cider where all the elements are there but key attributes fail to stand out.
A cider may be still, petillant, or sparkling. Still ciders do not have to be totally flat; they can have some very light bubbles. Petillant ciders are “lightly sparkling” and can have a moderate, noticeable amount of carbonation. Sparkling ciders are not gushing, but may have a character ranging from mouth-filling to an impression akin to Champagne or soda pop.
The level of citric and malic acids varies in apples and pears based on their metabolism. High levels of citric, malic, or a combination of both can result in a cider that’s unpleasantly tart or sharp to the palate. The fermentation process can influence acidity (pH drops during fermentation), with some yeast impacting more than others. Cider makers will frequently adjust the acidity level of their cider (hopefully post-fermentation). They can increase it by using additional malic, tartaric, or citric acids, an acid blend (a mixture of the three), or citrus juices. They can also decrease it through malolactic fermentation or by back sweetening.
Now that we have discussed the components that can be balanced, we now turn to which specific elements can be used to balance each other.
The sweetness-acidity-tannin balance is most important in determining the overall drinkability of cider, but the balance between cider flavors and those of added fruit or spices is important in New England, fruit, and herb/spiced ciders. Low apple / pear character and acidity together will make a cider seem boring. A higher apple / pear character with proper sweetness and structure will seem luscious in comparison. Properly balanced, the various balance attributes can blend together and seem individually lower, as all rough edges have been smoothed out in synergistic fashion.
A cider with low sweetness compared to acidity will seem tart or sour. A cider with high sweetness compared to acidity will seem flabby and soft. One with too high of tannins will seem bitter. Together acidity and tannins provide balance to sweetness and apple / pear character. Less tannin will heighten the acidity and vice versa. Using too much of both results in a harsh, astringent cider.
Acidity, tannin and alcohol help balance the overall presentation of apple / pear character and sweetness. The combined tannin and acidity must roughly match the amount of alcohol to be in balance. If there is not enough tannin/acidity for the alcohol, the cider will seem soft, heavy and flabby. If there is too much tannin/acidity for the alcohol, the cider will seem astringent and tart.
The balance between astringency (tannins) and acidity is an interesting topic, since both provide structure to cider. The less tannic a cider is, the more acidity it can support. The higher a cider is in tannins, the lower its acidity should be. The combination of high acid and high tannins make for the hardest and most astringent ciders, particularly if sweetness is low.
Alcohol (some honey varieties, some fruits, and some adjuncts) can add bitterness. Bitterness balances sweetness. Low sweetness in the presence of higher alcohol will make the cider seem bitter. High sweetness and low alcohol will make the cider seem cloying. Back sweetening reduces perceived sourness, bitterness and saltiness, but may take time to blend in and not give a “raw” impression of unfermented sugar or juice.
Higher carbonation adds carbonic acid to the cider, which gives a “bite” to the finish and can help balance sweetness. Higher carbonation can also balance higher body, making the cider seem lighter.
Tannins make cider seem drier, so take that into account when balancing acidity and tannin in the context of overall sweetness. While it may seem like tannin and acidity can be interchanged, acidity doesn’t make a wine seem dry. Both can balance sweetness but tannin can begin to change the impression of sweetness
Alcohol also balances the structural elements of cider (acidity and tannin). Too little alcohol will cause the acidity and astringency to dominate, making the cider harsh and thin. Too little acid and astringency will cause the cider to taste overly soft, heavy and flabby, with the spirity quality of the alcohol playing too much of a role. Cider tolerates acidity better when the alcohol content is higher. A considerable amount of tannin is more acceptable if acidity is low and alcohol is high.
Finally, remember that serving temperature can play a role in balance. In beer, a cold serving temperature suppresses malt and makes the beer seem more bitter. In mead and cider, low serving temperatures make tannins seem much more apparent while suppressing the relevant honey / apple / pear characters. Higher serving temperatures will make alcohol more apparent. So in some instances balance can be achieved simply by manipulating serving temperature.