Cider is commonly drunk during fall and winter, its warmth and sweetness much appreciated as the temperature drops. In the United States, the term "sweet cider" refers to non-filtered, non-fermented apple juice; in contrast, what's labeled as "apple juice" has been filtered to remove solid matter, and "hard cider" is fermented. For a good flavor, sweet cider must balance three different taste components: sweetness, acidity and astringency. Few apples achieve that balance on their own, so cider usually contains a carefully considered blend of apple varieties.
Before You Start
Commercial apple trees are grafted, with roots from one plant and the fruit-bearing portion from another. All orchard apples have the scientific name Malus domestica, after which comes the cultivar name and, optionally, the rootstock designation. For example, rootstock M.7a produces semi-dwarf versions of whatever is grafted to it. A nursery offering for a "Red Delicious" apple growing on semi-dwarfing rootstock might therefore appear as Malus domestica "Red Delicious" M.7a. Any cultivar can be grown on standard, dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock, but less common combinations may require a specialty nursery.
All apples used in cider contain sugar, so the perception of sweetness relies on including non-tart apples, which contribute sugar without also adding acidity. Many familiar snacking apples can be used to add sweetness, such as "Red Delicious," hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 4 to 8; "Braeburn," which grows in USDA zones 5 to 8; or similar varieties. Traditional cider apples that fall into the sweet category vary by region, but common examples include "Albemarle Pippin" in USDA zones 4 through 7, one of the apples grown by Thomas Jefferson, and "Golden Russet," in USDA zones 4 through 9.
All apples contain malic acid, but some have more than others. Cider without enough malic acid tastes flat or blandly sweet. Traditional cider apples with high acidity are called "sharps," such as the varieties "Duchess," USDA zones 3 through 9, and "Northern Spy," USDA zones 5 through 8. Modern tart varieties can also be used, such as "Granny Smith," "Winesap" and "McIntosh," all hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8; and "Jonathan" and "Empire," both hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8.
In cider, slight astringency due to small amounts of tannins equates to pleasant dryness and body. Traditional cider making uses bittersweet or bittersharp cultivars to add astringency alongside either sweetness or acidity. Examples include bittersweet "Virginia Crab" and bittersharp "Dolgo Crab," both hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9. Bear in mind that most bitter apples cannot be eaten fresh, and too much tannin causes bitterness. If you don't have room for a third tree, consider purchasing several pounds of crabapples for your cider. They are high in tannins, and many farm produce stands sell them for jelly making.
When grown on standard rootstock, apples require 18 to 25 feet between trees and bear fruit six to 10 years after planting. When grown on semi-dwarfing rootstock, trees can be spaced 10 to 18 feet apart and produce fruit in three to four years. On dwarfing rootstock, trees can grow 4 to 12 feet apart and bear fruit in two to three years. Dwarfing rootstock is less disease resistant, and the smaller trees need to be staked or trellised. They also produce less fruit. With the wide variety of cultivars and rootstocks available, there are apple trees to fit every need. Even homeowners with a single-family lot can enjoy their own fresh, sweet cider.