A Journey into Ice Cider
Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Trying new foods and drinks has always been a challenge for me. When I find something I like, I stick with it. Dry cider is one of those things. But when I do step outside my comfort zone, it’s often rewarding and eye-opening. My cider seeking took off in 2016, but I bypassed one not-dry style until very recently: ice cider.
As I dove deeper into the world of cider, multiple friends recommended trying ice cider. I looked into it and learned that it is a sweet, dessert-style drink made similar to ice wine. Since I prefer dry ciders, I avoided it under the assumption that, like ice wine, it would be too cloying for my taste preferences. Then, in the Spring of 2019, we visited Embark Craft Ciderworks. Jake offered us a sample of their new Snapdragon Ice Cider, and it changed everything.
It was love at first sip. It was sweet - sweeter than any cider I enjoyed before. But that sweetness was offset by surprising acidity with layers of complex flavor. I learned two things that day:
1. I was wrong to avoid ice cider
2. I have been missing out on something special
Roots and Branches
Ice cider has been around for over 30 years, beginning as a provincial indulgence. The first commercially known “Cidre de Glace” was made in 1989 by Christian Barthomeuf of Clos Saragnat in Québec. Barthomuef refined his process, and by the mid-'90s, ice cider production had spread throughout Quebec. It became so popular that in 1999, the government of Quebec officially allowed ice cider to be labeled and sold as such. In 2008 specific regulations regarding the production of ice cider in Quebec were adopted, and “Québec Ice Cider” became a protected appellation in 2014.
Eden Specialty Ciders in Vermont brought ice cider production to the US, starting with their 2007 harvest, released in 2008. It wasn’t long before other high-latitude cideries and wineries started producing ice cider, especially in the Northeastern US. Even then, unless you lived nearby or visited, you may not have encountered it until more recently.
More recently, a growing number of cidermakers have introduced their take on this niche style. Angry Orchard released their 2016/2017 barrel-aged ice cider not long ago. Eve’s Cidery 2018/2019 Essence featuring foraged apples just dropped. Virtue’s Flok comes in a 750ml bottle for optimal post-pandemic sharing. “Ice-style” ciders are made by producers at lower latitudes, too. Tilted Shed had a limited run of Ice Queen made in California, and Gypsy Circus in Tennessee has another batch of Solstice on the way. My home state of Ohio even has representation from The New Frontier Cider Company.
Ice cider’s roots are in North America, but today, cold-concentrated cider can be found just about anywhere cider is made. Brännland Cider is well known for their lineup of ice ciders produced in Northern Sweden. Killahora Orchards in Ireland makes an excellent Rare Apple Ice Wine featuring bittersweet apples. Cydr Ignaców in Poland, Cold Hand Winery in Denmark, and Egge Gård in Norway all offer cold-concentrated cider. Traditional cider making regions are in the game, too. Dupont in Normandy offers Givre. Sidra Cortina in Asturias make Sidra de Hielo. Pilton cold-concentrates a cider in Somerset. The list goes on.
Down to the Core
To make ice cider, unfermented juice (called must) is concentrated using cold temperatures. The goal is to reduce the water content of the must, which concentrates the sugar, acidity, and flavor. Freezing temps are key – you can’t just ferment commercial apple juice concentrate. Ice cider should not be confused with Applejack, which was made by “freeze-distilling” cider after fermentation. Freeze Distillation is illegal (and dangerous as it concentrates impurities like methanol), so don’t do it!
Production methods vary by region. Some producers follow the strict Quebec Ice Cider regulations as closely as possible, others prefer a "run what you brought" approach. The rest fall somewhere in between.
Making "ice cider" in the US comes with just one requirement (for now) - the concentration must be accomplished using only natural cold. Artificial cold can be used to make a similar product, but it can’t be labeled or sold as “ice cider.”
Removing Water to Make Wine
No matter how the temp drops, there are two primary means of creating the concentrate. During CiderCon 2020, (wow, that was this year? It feels like ages ago), Eleanor Leger of Eden Specialty Cider was kind enough to answer some questions I had about these methods. Yes, I’ve been working on this article since January. Like an ice cider, it aged and changed. For the better, I think.
The more common method, cryoconcentration, is accomplished by leaving unfermented cider outside. The cider freezes and thaws, and these cycles extract water that floats above the dense juice that collects below. The concentrate is then collected and fermented.
Most of Eden’s ice ciders are cryo-concentrated. Eleanor said they prefer this method as it gives them some control over the concentration. The progress is easy to see - the rich nectar at the bottom is much deeper in color, fading lighter as the water content increases. The Brix (dissolved sugar content) is measured regularly, and the potent extract is collected when the Brix reaches the desired point. The majority of the liquid is left behind. This method also allows greater control over the end product as the yeast is a cultured strain with known traits.
Cryoextraction is the process of pressing partially frozen apples that have remained on the tree. The freeze-thaw cycles break down the structure of the apples, so there’s no need to grind them up. Much of the water content remains frozen in the apple, and the resulting concentrate is ready to ferment.
Cryoextraction can create a more complex ice cider, but there’s also a risk. I didn’t think about this, but Eleanor pointed out that because the fruit will have started to ferment on the tree, the door is open for the development of unexpected or even undesirable flavors. That doesn’t mean it’s not a viable option, though. Eden released “Pomme de Glace,” a cryo-extracted ice cider, earlier this year. Most apple varieties fall off the tree long before they freeze, which is also prohibitive. The possibility of undesirable flavors is a small factor, but the potential reward makes the gamble worthwhile.
Note: In areas where it's not forbidden, apples may be harvested when ripe, placed in cold storage, and moved outside when the weather conditions are just right.
The Trifecta – Minus One?
Any other time, I’d be talking about how sugar, acid, and tannin work together to make great cider – so where’s the tannin?
North American ice cider usually features sweet and sharp apples like Cortland, McIntosh, Empire, and Spartan. When I asked Eleanor why low-tannin varieties are favored, she pointed out that the bitterness of concentrated tannin would be undesirable for most sweeter, dessert-style wines. Indeed, the intertwining of sugar and acid in this distinctly North American style makes a superb drink.
A stylistic difference seems to be trending in Europe, with producers like Killahora, Dupont, and Pilton all using bittersweet apples. I’ve had Killahora’s bittersweet-focused ice cider, and though it was different from all other ice ciders I’ve tried, it worked. The tannins were soft and velvety, astringent but polished. There are a lot of factors in play when concentrating tannins, and I hope to learn more about this “sub-style” of ice cider in the future.
Exploring and Enjoying
Ice cider should be served chilled, but not ice cold. It works well as an aperitif or digestif – between the higher sugar and ABV (typically 7-13%), a smaller pour will be more enjoyable. Because of the sugar, the mouthfeel is full and viscous. Ice cider is bold, so how its flavors will interact with food should be considered.
The intense sweetness and acidity make it an ideal pairing for other big flavors. Unlike standard ciders, ice cider usually has a strong apple flavor. The presentation can range from fresh to candied to cooked, sometimes all from the same bottle. A general rule of thumb is that if apples would go with the food, so will ice cider. Secondary flavors can include dried fruit, caramelized sugars, and spices. Try building on those flavors with an assortment of cheeses, cured pork, fruit, and nuts. If full-bodied flavors are your thing, try crème brûlée, dark chocolate, or Roquefort. Ice cider can hold its own, too. I love a 2-3oz pour by itself on a warm evening in the yard.
We still have a lot to learn and explore in the new-to-us category. What we’ve seen so far is an incredible expression of terroir and style from different cidermakers. These experiences have also solidified my opinion that apples can do anything grapes can, sometimes even better. The category is growing and evolving, and I look forward to learning more about this cider style. Ice cider may have started life in the cold, but it’s certainly heating up.