If you feel like sugar is rapidly moving up the “most vicious threat to humankind” queue, slightly in front of terrorism but still behind Donald Trump, then you are not alone. What sounded like an impossibility a couple of years ago is now happening – from the UK to Thailand and as far east as Australia, the introduction of a Sugar Tax is on today’s agenda.
Much loved global brands such as Coke, Lukozade, Mars and Bailey’s are under constant attack by public health advocates, including governmental bodies and institutions. Many brands, once famous for their delicious sweetness, are now fighting a losing battle with rapidly shifting consumer trends and trying to stay in the game by launching and relaunching sugar free alternatives (Coke Zero re-launched as Coke Zero Sugar, Skinny in the UK are expanding into low calorie Prosecco after great success in Champagne and the list goes on). We have become so obsessed with sugar that we are now growing increasingly suspicious of many of the processed foods where it might hide!
However, when the ingredients are not listed on the pack most of us get easily confused as to how “good” or “bad” products truly are. Cider certainly falls in this category. Both in Australia and in the UK, cider ingredients remain a proprietary secret. We feel it is about time we hand you over the tools to eliminate the confusion and help you to make a more informed choice.
Many people believe cider is full of added processed sugar and many would vehemently deny that to be true. So who is right?
The answer is – both. Confusing? Definitely.
Below we draw the distinction between the most common high sugar ciders and some less known craft brands with much less sugar. The fundamental difference in their true nature is a clue that may help you answer the conundrum.
We then give your confidence a boost and help you navigate the world of cider on your next shop. Read our 4 step guide on how to buy cider low in sugar. No previous experience required 🙂
Cider in its true form is derived from the fermentation of apple juice which is pressed out of ripe apples. Today it is mostly craft ciders that stick to this simple recipe. Commercially produced ciders aim to reach a similar end result to craft ciders, but at lower cost, in a shorter timeframe and avoiding the seasonality of apple harvesting. So is this possible?
Well, if the saying “you get out what you put in” is true then the answer is most probably no. Pressed apple juice is the main ingredient in cider and cutting its quantity is one way large scale cider production companies cut cost. In the UK, the legal minimum juice content in commercial cider must be no less than 35%, while in the US this percentage climbs up to 50. There is currently no legal minimum juice requirement in Australia! The craft cider industry, led by Cider Australia, is working to change this but this has yet to happen.
Ok, so some ciders have less juice in them, but what does this have to do with sugar? Stick with us, we’re coming to that.
Irrespective of the quantity, freshly pressed apple juice is very seasonal and directly linked to apple harvesting. That is why craft cider producers are extremely busy in the fall, picking and pressing apples and collecting the precious juice. The juice will be fermented over the following weeks until it turns into cider.
The magic happens when yeast, either natural or added in, eats its way through the sugar in the juice and turns it into alcohol. If the process goes on uninterrupted, all naturally occurring sugar will turn into alcohol and the final product will have reached its full alcoholic potential. The alcohol/vol will vary depending how sweet the apple juice was in the first place. A fully fermented cider will contain no sugar at all, will taste quite dry and will often be quite strong: 7-8% is not uncommon. The level of sweetness, or put another way: the level of naturally occurring unprocessed fruit sugar, depends on when the fermentation process is interrupted. The shorter the fermentation the sweeter the cider and vice versa.
Generally speaking, many craft ciders are made this way and contain no added sugar at all.
Industrialisation, however, is defined by scale, cost and efficiency and has turned this process on its head. Taste and complexity have been sacrificed in the name of making cider widely accessible, affordable and consistent. And, just like in many other industrially produced foods, sugar has proven to be the best ingredient to compensate for the lack of depth in flavour.
To maintain steady supply at a low cost, commercial cider producers often use fruit juice concentrate. It is less bulky and lighter than fresh juice and therefore cheaper to store or transport. This is especially important to manufacturers because they often source it from international suppliers at lower cost than locally produced concentrate. It is, however, processed and this impacts its original flavour profile.
To compensate for the lack of natural flavour and lower juice content, mass-scale cider manufacturers add water, artificial flavours, colours and sweeteners. Sometimes they even use fermented grains to bolster the alcohol level!
And, let’s be honest, no apple juice tastes quite like Elderflower, Passionfruit or Boysenberry.
Controlling every step of the production process and leaving little to nature means big cider brands can replicate the same taste and alcohol content over and over again. They can adjust the recipe based on consumer feedback – something craft cider makers will generally find harder to achieve.
The final product is then forcefully carbonated. According to Mental Floss, this helps the available aromatic compounds on their way up to the drinker’s nose, thereby creating a “heightened perception of flavor”.
Many craft ciders will also carbonate their ciders but this differs to the naturally occurring carbonation achieved during fermentation.
Everyone knows how much sugar fits into a teaspoon and this is our measure of choice. For the below chart we calculated the number of teaspoons per bottle. Koppaberg and Rekordelig come in 500ml bottles while most other ciders come in bottles between 330 to 370ml. To make this information a bit more meaningful we have included a 330ml can of regular Coke. Most people are aware of its level of sweetness and it can serve as a benchmark.
We are not sure what sort of feelings the data below will provoke in you… when we saw the numbers we were genuinely stunned! We expected that commercially produced ciders would score highly but 13 teaspoons of sugar per drink were way beyond our best guess.
This isn’t to say that every single commercial cider is equally sweet. To provide some meaningful comparison with craft brands we have included two brands: New England Cider Co – The Ice Breaker (0 ts sugar) and Snakes and Ladders cider (2.6 ts sugar).
Most people will stumble over this question so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know the answer. With little to no nutritional information on pack it is quite hard to make a decision. We have summarised below a few cues which can help you when you’re at the shelf:
Many major cider brands are actually imported into Australia. Buying Australian craft cider is a good way to avoid lower end imports and support the local economy. Plus there are some seriously good Aussie ciders definitely worth a try. There are some craft cider imports, particularly from the UK and France, but the majority of imports are commercial brands.
Similarly to wine, cider can vary from sweet to dry. Most ciders in Australia today are medium to medium sweet. As our palates evolve and we seek more flavour complexity, the drier varieties become more appealing. To minimise sugar intake stick to dry and bone dry varieties. Generally speaking mass produced cider labels make no statement on sugar content. This is another reason why buying ‘dry’ cider is a good way to avoid high sugar drinks. .
This is a great generalisation and yet, just like in many industries, you get what you pay for. Commercial brands are cheaper to produce, enjoy big promotional budgets and are cheaper on shelf, particularly when bought in bulk. Craft ciders command a slightly higher price but are much more likely to have a lower sugar content.
Retail space in Australia is extremely expensive and high street retailers seek return on their investment. This prevents many craft cider brands from getting on the shelves of the bigger liquor stores. However, the chance of this increases slightly during summer, when shops add stock in anticipation of more sales.
Your best chance of tapping into unknown and wonderful products is seeking out specialised stores. A good example is The Cider Link offering broad range of craft ciders which you can buy direct from the cider makers. The obvious advantage of online shopping is that your choice isn’t dependent on your location. You can also select products based on your sugar preference.
If online is not your thing you might want to check out the independent liquor stores. Look for them in the inner city suburbs of larger cities or in the vicinity of regional towns across Victoria and Tasmania where locally produced ciders are easy to find. Don’t forget that retail space is expensive and they can rarely afford to maintain a huge range.
We really hope your next cider shop will feel like a whole new experience, because now you know what you are looking for.
We are constantly adding new products to our growing Australian craft cider range. Some examples of our Dry selection can be found below.
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