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Apple cider (also called sweet cider or soft cider) is the name used in the United States and parts of Canada for an unfiltered, unsweetened, non-alcoholic beverage made from apples. Apple cider is easy and inexpensive to produce. It may be opaque due to fine apple particles in suspension and may be tangier than conventional filtered apple juice, depending on the apples used.
This untreated cider is a seasonally produced drink of limited shelf-life that is typically available only in fall, although it is sometimes frozen for use throughout the year. It is traditionally served on the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and various New Year's Eve holidays, sometimes heated and mulled. It is the official state beverage of New Hampshire.
Although the term cider is used for the fermented alcoholic drink in most of the world, the term hard cider is used for the alcoholic drink in the United States and much of Canada.
In the United States, the difference between apple juice and cider is not well established. Some states do specify a difference. For example, according to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, "Apple juice and apple cider are both fruit beverages made from apples, but there is a difference between the two. Fresh cider is raw apple juice that has not undergone a filtration process to remove coarse particles of pulp or sediment. Apple juice is juice that has been filtered to remove solids and pasteurized so that it will stay fresh longer. Vacuum sealing and additional filtering extend the shelf life of the juice." In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency also regulates "unpasteurized apple cider".
Modern methods allow a formerly hand-made beverage to be commercially produced. Depending on the varieties of apples and using the optimal extraction methods, about 10 litres (2.6 US gal) of must (raw apple juice) can be extracted from every 15–20 kg (33-44 lb) of apples. Apples are washed, cut, and ground into a mash that has the consistency of applesauce. Layers of this mash are then either wrapped in cloth and placed upon wooden or plastic racks where a hydraulic press then squeezes the layers together, or the mash is distributed onto a continuous belt filter press, which squeezes the pulp between two permeable belts fed between a succession of rollers that press the juice out of the pulp in a continuous, highly efficient operation. The resulting juice is then stored in refrigerated tanks, bottled and sold as apple cider. It may also be filtered, with optional pasteurisation to extend shelf life, bottled and sold as apple juice. The juice may also be fermented to produce traditional alcoholic cider, typically called "hard cider" in the US, which then may be aged to produce apple cider vinegar, or distilled to produce apple brandy, including calvados, which may be combined with the unfermented cider to produce pommeau.
Early forms of production involved a man- or horse-powered crusher consisting of a stone or wood trough with a heavy circulating wheel to crush the fruit, and a large manual screw press to generate the pressure needed to express the juice from the pulp. Straw was commonly used to contain the pulp during pressing, although later, coarse cloth came into use. As technology advanced, rotary drum "scratters" came into use, and small scale manual basket style presses, such as the farm press pictured. Today, nearly all small pressing operations use electric-hydraulic equipment with press cloths and racks of polypropylene or other plastics in what is commonly called a "rack and cloth press", and electric hammermill "breakers". These modern systems are capable of producing 1 litre (0.26 US gal)/(0.22 Imperial gallons) of juice from as little as 1.5 kilograms (3.3 lb) of fresh apples.
In response to E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks from unpasteurized apple cider and other outbreaks from contaminated fruit juices, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed new regulations in 1998, and Canada followed suit in 2000.
The bulk of cider production and sale fell under the umbrella of proposed 1998 U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations applying to all fresh fruit and vegetable juices.
In 2001, the regulations were finalized, with the FDA issuing a rule requiring that virtually all juice producers follow Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) controls, using either heat pasteurization, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), or other proven methods. One of the other proven methods is using irradiation, which reduces pathogenic microorganisms. As a result, all apple cider sold in the United States, other than sales directly to consumers by producers (such as juice bars, farmers’ markets, and roadside farmstands), must be produced using HACCP principles to achieve a "5 log" reduction in pathogens. While the use of UVGI treatment and other technologies meet legal requirements, heat pasteurization is the most commonly used method. However, pasteurization results in some change of the sweetness and flavor of the cider.
Apple cider is typically made from blends of several different apples to give a balanced taste. There is some competition among local cider mills in apple country for the highest quality blends. Frequently blends of heritage, or heirloom, varieties are used.
Today, unpasteurized cider is generally sold only on-site at orchards or small rural mills in apple growing areas. In the absence of pasteurization, naturally occurring yeasts in the cider are not killed and they can cause fermentation with time. Even with refrigeration, cider will begin to become slightly carbonated within a week or so and eventually become hard cider as the fermentation process turns sugar into alcohol. Some producers use this fermentation to produce hard cider, and some carry it to the further acetification process to produce apple cider vinegar. The US government requires that unpasteurized cider and juice have a warning label on the bottle.
"Hot apple cider" or "mulled cider" (similar to "Wassail") is a popular fall (autumn) and winter beverage, consisting of apple cider, heated to a temperature just below boiling, with cinnamon, orange peel, nutmeg, cloves, or other spices added.
"Sparkling cider" is a carbonated beverage made from unfiltered or filtered apple cider. It is sometimes served at celebrations as a non-alcoholic alternative to champagne. However if stored improperly, the sparkling cider can ferment quite quickly because of the implemented carbonation speeds up the fermenting process of the cider.
"Cider doughnuts" are sometimes sold at cider mills, containing cider in the batter. Visiting apple orchards in the fall for cider, doughnuts, and self-picked apples is a large segment in agritourism.