An Introduction to Hard Cider in the U.S.

By the simplest definition, hard cider is fermented apple juice. In the U.S., unfermented and usually unfiltered apple juice is referred to as cider or sweet cider. In many other countries, particularly in Europe, the fermented product is called cider and the unfermented product is called apple juice. In this article, we use the term cider to refer to the fermented product.

According to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau data, production of hard cider in the U.S. has, on average, increased 73% per year from 2008 to 2012. This is the largest growth in demand since the 1930s when Congress enacted prohibition and ended a more than 300-year tradition of cider production in the U.S. With the increase in cider sales, there is an equal interest in cider apple production, and a need to identify apple cultivars that are suitable for making quality cider.

Apples naturally have a sugar content between 10 and 20%, which produces ciders with a final ABV between 4 and 9%. Federal and state regulations define cider by its alcohol by volume (ABV) content, and specific amounts can differ by state. In most states, the ABV in cider must be below 7% or the cider will be taxed at a higher rate, similar to wine. However, some states, such as Virginia allow ciders to haven an ABV of up to 10%. Many commercial cider producers in the U.S. desire an ABV taxation level that more accurately reflects the alcohol level produced naturally from orchard-run fruit.

For marketing and taxation purposes, cider is often categorized with beer, but the process of making cider is much more similar to wine. Briefly, fruit is crushed, the pulp is pressed to extract the juice, and then the juice is fermented by yeast that converts sugar to alcohol. Post-fermentation sugar and acid adjustments might be made to finished ciders in order to maintain flavor profiles and product consistency.

Cider producers make sweet tasting ciders by adding sugar, juice/juice concentrate, or stopping the ferment with high-quality filtration equipment after the fermentation process. If sugar is added to the juice prior to fermentation, the resulting product is higher in alcohol and is often called apple wine. This process of adding sugar prior to fermentation is called Chaptalization and is often used to standardize alcohol levels in ciders and may be used to make higher alcohol products.

Applejack is another cider product with increased alcohol content and is made by freeze concentrating (cryo-distillation) already fermented cider. However, this process also concentrates potentially poisonous compounds making applejack dangerous to consume. Federal law prohibits the production of distilled products without a license.

There is a large range of cider styles, from those with high sugar content to ciders that are dry to semi-dry with little to no residual or added sugar. Ciders can be made from specialized cider apple varieties, dessert varieties, and/or crabapples. Ciders may be made with a mix of fresh apple juice, apple juice concentrate, and/or water. Cider is often sold in six-packs, similar to beer, or it may be packaged in 750-ml wine or champagne bottles and be priced comparable to fine wines. Cider may also be kegged for on-premise draft sales in restaurants and bars.

Commercial cider producers choose apple cultivars based on the desired characteristics for the finished product, as well as on local availability and costs. Specialized cider apple varieties have flavors, acidity levels, and tannin contents that are quite different than common culinary apples. A popular system for classifying cider apples was developed by researchers at the Long Ashton Research Station in Bristol, England (Table 1). Similar classification systems are found in the cider producing areas of France and Spain; however, the English system is most commonly used in North America.

Table 1. The Long Ashton (English) classification system for cider apples.

Classification Percent tannin (w/v) Percent malic acid (w/v)
Bittersweets > 0.2 < 0.45
Bittersharps > 0.2 > 0.45
Sharps < 0.2 > 0.45
Sweets < 0.2 < 0.45


European ciders are usually made with bittersweet and bittersharp varieties, which have high tannin or polyphenolic content. Tannins contribute complex textures and enhanced flavors to the finished ciders. Currently, highly tannic varieties are not readily available in large quantities in the U.S. The chemical composition of apples may vary somewhat according to region, horticulture practices, and seasonal growing conditions. There is limited research that compares the horticultural and enological properties of cider varieties grown in the U.S. Some regional research-based information can be found through the links at the bottom of the page. Since there are few commercial sources for bittersweet or bittersharp apples in the U.S., producers may use other tannin sources such as oak, or focus on other flavor attributes such as acidity or flavor additions. There are dozens of European and American cider apple varieties. A short list of the most common varieties found in the U.S. is presented in Table 2.

Table 2. Apple varieties (and their standard classifications, if known) commonly used for cider in North America.

English French American (tend to be dual purpose)
Brown Snout
Bedan (Bittersweet or Bittersharp) Esopus Spitzenberg
Chisel Jersey
Binet Rouge



Frequin Rouge


Kingston Black
Medaille D’Or
Hewe’s Virginia Crab
Porter’s Perfection (Bittersharp) Michelin
Newton (Albemarle) Pippin
Tremlett’s Bitter
St. Aubin


Yarlington Mill
St. Martin



With more nurseries are offering cider varieties for sale. Trees must generally be ordered 18 months in advance, and it is usually necessary to specify the rootstock. Cider budwood for grafting can be obtained from the USDA Apple (Malus) Germplasm Catalog.

Additional Information

Extension Publications

Farris, J. G. Peck, and G. Grover. 2013. Assessing the Economic Feasibility of Growing Specialized Apple Cultivars for Sale to Commercial Hard Cider Producers. Virginia Tech Ext. Pub. AREC-46-P.

Moulton, G.A., C. Miles, J. King, and A. Zimmerman. 2010. Hard Cider Production and Orchard Management in the Pacific Northwest.

Washington State Univ. Ext Pub. PNW621.

Extension Websites with Hard Cider Information

Michigan State University 

Virginia Tech

Washington State University


Greg Peck, Assistant Professor of Horticulture, Virginia Tech
Carol Miles, Professor of Horticulture, Washington State University
Jacky King, Research Technician, Washington State University
Terence Bradshaw, Research Associate, University of Vermont
Nikki Rothwell, Tree-Fruit Extension Specialist, Michigan State University
Ian Merwin, Emeritus Professor of Horticulture, Cornell University