What’s the difference between apple juice and apple cider?

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Dear Cecil: Here it is, autumn. The leaves are turning colors — I don’t care why. The insects are going off to wherever it is they go all winter — don’t bother explaining where. The roadside stands are filled with Indian corn, which I probably wouldn’t like even if I knew whether it was edible. Oh, yes, and cider. About that cider. Indifferent though I am to most manifestations of the changing seasons, there is one thing I have always wondered about: what makes cider different from apple juice? I mean, you never see those big sludgy jugs sold as apple juice, and you never see the little cans of frozen concentrate sold as cider. Is it all just marketing? Legal terminology — i.e., if you freeze it, it’s not cider? It seems to me that the two things taste different. Is this all in my head? Please answer before the snow flies. Will C., Baltimore


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Science tells us, William, that there are limits to what we can hope to know about the cosmos. Offhand you wouldn’t think the cider/juice dichotomy would present a particularly compelling demonstration of this fact, but think again. I’ve checked around with most of the major manufacturers and with various reference books, and the result is I’ve come up with three logical, plausible, but totally contradictory explanations of the difference between cider and apple juice. Take your pick:

1. There’s no difference at all. (Source: large midwestern bottler.) Uncle Sam confirms there’s no legal distinction. In other words, it’s all marketing booshwa. But see below.

2.  The store-bought stuff is juice, the homemade stuff is cider. (Source: East Coast conglomerate; also, the old edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.) The product you buy from roadside stands usually hasn’t been pasteurized. Consequently, it ferments over time, giving it a mildly alcoholic kick. What you buy in the store, in contrast, is pasteurized soon after crushing, preventing fermentation and resulting in a pleasant but kickless taste. The manufacturers call their product cider in the fall for marketing purposes.

3. Cider is made from apples that are picked early. (Source: Washington State outfit that claims to be the country’s largest maker of juice and cider.) Early-harvest apples supposedly have higher acid and lower sugar content, producing a drink with a tangier taste. Thus true cider remains cider after processing because pasteurization doesn’t affect the acid/sugar content. Therefore, the company claims, it’s possible to make not only frozen cider concentrate, contrary to your assertion, but also “sludgy” — i.e., unfiltered, hence cloudy — apple juice. The guy I got this from says his company is quite scrupulous about monitoring the acidity of its product and changing the labels accordingly.

OK, so there I am. Weeping with frustration. Suspicious events then begin to transpire. A letter arrives from informant #2 (true cider is unpasteurized). It includes some photocopied pages from the American Cider Book essentially confirming our conversation about pasteurization. However, in the letter itself, my informant blithely states, “We use the first season apples to provide a sharp, tart taste. The main difference between the two products is the amount of clarification done in the processing.” Immediately dismissing the distracting second sentence, I focus on the first. Clearly something is afoot. I call back the midwestern bottler (cider = juice). My original informant is out, but another spokesperson, obviously reading from a prepared statement (and no doubt with armed representatives of the Cider Control Board standing beside her), states that her company too makes cider from early harvest apples, contrary to earlier reports. Juice, on the other hand, is a blend of fresh apple squeezings and concentrate.

Two explanations for all this confusion come to mind — either apple processors truly don’t know the difference between cider and juice, or, more likely, have decided to line up behind a wimp definition that enables them to flog off sterile juice in the place of genuine (because unpasteurized) cider. In short, it seems to me, juice/cider confusion is a recent phenomenon. Before the advent of modern processing, you wouldn’t have to ask.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.