For many people, the style of cider will be dictated by the availability of apple types in their local area. Generally, fermenting this juice will yield a dry beverage of a particular flavour. This is not a bad thing – locally styled cider (that is, the cider that is available from your part of the world) has many things going for it – low food miles, the ability to be repeated etc. In the UK there are fruit-related cider traditions from both the west and east of the country – both as valid as each other. And there are further ‘process’ options to your cider, the most important being sweet or dry, sparkling or still.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the potential styles for cider and perry, but should give you enough to get thinking about what the alternatives are.
West Country Cider
This is generally the style that many craft cidermakers aspire to, and simply put, means that a fair percentage of the cider (if not all of it) is made from ‘true’ cider apples i.e bittersweets and bittersharps. This makes the drink more ‘tannic’ and sometimes (if unsweetened) can be extremely dry and mouthpuckering to the unwary! These ciders sometimes have distinctive spicy / leathery / ‘old horse’ characters too. They are generally low in acid, though.
Eastern Counties and Central European Cider
In contrast to the tannic cider apples used in the Western style, Eastern Counties cider contains virtually no bitter apples and is made up from sweet and sharp apples. This is a more clean, sharp tasting cider - some would call 'thin' although can be as satisfying as its Western cousin. This is also the style made in Germany (especially around Frankfurt and Trier), Switzerland and Austria. If unsweetened, it is regarded by many who try it as unusually acidic.
French Style Cider
French cider (Normandy and Brittany) is made from tannic apples just as in the English West Country. However, the cider is fermented in such a way that some of the natural sugar is preserved and it is bottled before fermentation has finished. This gives a sweet, sparkling, low alcohol but also richly tannic flavoured cider. To make such a cider requires special techniques during manufacture such as ‘keeving’. [link]
Single Variety Cider
Not all apples are born equal. Within the last couple of decades, cider makers have been marketing ‘single variety’ ciders, following the fashion for named grapes in wines. The most popular of these are the cider apples (e.g. Dabinett, Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill), although dessert varieties do exist (e.g. Katy). There have even been single varieties available with the more unlikely Tremletts Bitter.
Traditionally only a few varieties like Kingston Black and Stoke Red were thought to make acceptable single variety cider. Apples are not like grapes, so apples with all the features to make a well balanced cider are few. Blends of apples were the norm, and generally still are. If a good apple variety is available, its features will add to a blend of apples – removing that variety will deduct from the quality of the blend (and so on).
The commercial single variety ciders are often not truly single variety at all – they will usually be considerably less than 100% juice, and will have had acid and sweeteners added to achieve a balanced and palatable flavour. Sadly, as with many commercial things, the idea of selling a single variety cider is a fashionable concept but one not bedded in any historical substance or justification.
Sweet and Sparkling Ciders
Ciders directly after fermentation are generally neither sweet nor sparkling, unless special techniques have been used to make them (see French Cider). But the dry flat ‘default’ cider which this produces is an acquired taste, which not everybody enjoys. So nearly all commercial ciders are sweetened and carbonated to some degree. It is possible to carbonate cider by ‘natural conditioning’ as well as by ‘force carbonation’ and to sweeten them using sugar or artificial sweeteners. But if sugar is used the cider must normally be pasteurised to prevent it refermenting. All these entail complex production issues covered in detail elsewhere. [link]