Purveyors of certain fermented beverages experience a recurring nightmare: They serve an enthusiastic customer a drink for the first time. They tell the customer it is “dry.” Or at least mostly dry. Or at least that its acidity “balances” its sweetness. The customer’s smile becomes a raised eyebrow of confusion. After a sip or two, they declare: “It’s too sweet.” And just like that, an entire drinks category is dead to that consumer.
Riesling is one of those categories. Remember the riesling summers of the late 2000s and early 2010s, when bars were geeking out over the grape? Sadly, there was much confusion. Even though there are many riesling styles, from bone-dry to dessert, too many consumers perceived it as only sweet.
Now here comes the American cider revival, giving cider its riesling moment. And those who promote cider are hearing a frustratingly familiar refrain: “I don’t like cider. It’s too sweet.” There are plenty of super-dry ciders available. If your local watering hole pours only a boring, mass-market sweet cider, demand a drier one.
“It’s the number one issue for cider,” says Michelle McGrath, executive director of the U.S. Association of Cider Makers. “People are assuming that ciders are much more sweet than they are.”
For that reason, the association is pushing forward with discussions on how to create a universal dryness scale that cider makers can put on labels, designating dry, semi-dry, semisweet or sweet. The problem is agreeing to a definition of “sweetness” or “dryness.” Can sweetness be measured simply by testing how much sugar remains after fermentation? Or do factors such as acidity affect how people perceive sweetness?
One potential scale being debated by cider makers around the country was developed by the New York Cider Association. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is based on a scale adopted in 2008 by the International Riesling Foundation.
“People are abusing the word ‘dry’ and will continue to. We can’t stop that,” says Jenn Smith, executive director of the New York group. “But New York is going to adopt this scale whether or not the rest of the country does.”
The Orchard-Based Cider Dryness Scale proposed by the New York association takes into account three factors in assessing perceived sweetness: residual sugar, acidity and tannins. A cider might have 8 grams per liter of residual sugar — which sounds “sweet.” But if that cider also has 7 grams per liter of malic acid and 700 parts per million of tannins ... well, that’s going to be perceived as very dry. Meanwhile, a cider with less residual sugar, but very low acid and little tannin, is going to be perceived as semidry or even sweet. For those who got a C in chemistry, this sort of formula may feel a bit complicated. But logic and science are behind it: All these factors can be tested and corroborated in a sensory-analysis lab.
Cider makers in New York’s Finger Lakes region have been using a version of this scale on labels. A number of other well-known producers throughout the Northeast support it. It appears as a line graph on the back label, with a simple dot or “X” along the spectrum from dry to sweet.
But resistance to the scale has emerged in other regions. “The New York folks fired the first salvo, but it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way,” says Eric West, publisher of the Cider Guide blog and director of the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, the world’s largest cider judging. The competition already uses a dryness/sweetness scale for its judging categories based solely on residual sugar, using guidelines similar to those applied in the European Union. Anything less than 9 grams of residual sugar per liter is classified as “dry.”
Dryness scales have become part of a larger discussion about the lexicon of cider. Last fall, the U.S. Association of Cider Makers released a new style guide. There are now “modern” ciders, made from dessert apples commonly found in supermarkets. And then there are “heritage” ciders, boasting “increased complexity” and “complex aromatics.” Most significant, heritage ciders use traditional bittersweet or bittersharp cider apples, older heirloom varieties or perhaps even crabapples or foraged wild varieties.
Minnesota does not have a specific effort to establish its own sweetness scale from dry to sweet, according to Debbie Morrison of Sapsucker Farms in Mora, Minn., who is director of marketing for the Minnesota Cider Guild. “We do, however, support and promote the newly released cider style guide that was established by the U.S. Association of Cider Makers.”
A simple reason some cider makers don’t like New York’s scale: In many parts of the country they make modern ciders from dessert apples that do not have much in the way of tannins or acidity, so they fear being labeled as overly sweet.
Another reason for the pushback has been that the New York scale takes into account only ciders made from 100 percent apples, pears, quince or related fruits in the pome family. Many popular ciders across the country have all sorts of added ingredients and flavors: hops, berries, spices, tea, ginger and more.
Finally, a large contingent of cider makers who have grown out of the craft-beer industry remain deeply skeptical of a wine-based approach.
Mike Reis, host of the cider podcast Redfield Radio, wonders how well complex nomenclature will work for, say, German riesling:
“How many people walk into a wine shop and understand what ‘Trockenbeerenauslese’ means?”