Cider has us all a-fizz right now. Whether you're after sweet, sparkling, English-style, or a dry French drop, the Australian cider market is once again large enough to accommodate almost every taste.

Overall sales increased by 34.7% in dollar terms from 2011 to 2012, with new product development responsible for more than a quarter of this growth. Forty-five new cider brands were introduced between 2010 and 2012, almost doubling the number of cider brands in the market.

The fruit-based beverage is particularly popular among young people. The number of 18- to 24-year-old women drinking cider increased a whopping 132% in the year to March 2013; the number of men drinking cider increased by 50% in the same period. In this age group, slightly more women drink cider than men (20% to 18%).

A bottle of cider will set you back anything from $2.00 for a cheaper and smaller (345ml) bottle, to $20 for an imported or local hand-crafted cider in a larger size (750ml). Our taste test of 42 cider brands found the more expensive ciders were generally better received, but a couple of real bargains also made the top of the list.

Why cider, why now?

You could say cider is the vinyl of the alcohol industry, but what's behind this resurgence? It's a product that can appeal to alcopop, beer and wine drinkers alike – and research by Roy Morgan notes that the rapid increase in popularity coincided with the launch of the 'alcopop tax' in 2008. Small-scale artisanal cider producers are popping up all over the country, so its comeback may also be related to the current trend away from big business and toward more traditional cottage industries.

Different styles of cider

  • French-style ciders typically undergo a traditional process known as keeving – the removal of nutrients from the juice – followed by a long, slow fermentation resulting in a naturally sparkling, sweet, clear, full-flavoured cider that tends to be low in alcohol.
  • English-style generally refers to the flavour and mouthfeel of English West Country cider made from true English cider apple varieties. These tend to be rich in tannins, resulting in cider with high levels of astringency and bitterness.
  • Sparkling or still ­– many of the more traditional varieties of ciders are still, but sparkling ciders are more common. Bottle-conditioned or méthode champenoise ciders have undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle to create the bubbles. Other methods of carbonation include adding carbon dioxide.
  • Dry or sweet – a dry cider is achieved by fermenting the juice until most sugars have converted to alcohol. Sweet ciders can be achieved by adding sugar syrups or by pasteurisation, ultra filtration or slow fermentation (see above). The flavour of naturally sweet cider tends to be fruitier since the sweetness is derived from unfermented juice rather than from added sugar.

Just juice?

Broadly speaking, cider is an alcoholic beverage made from apples, but you can't assume all ciders are produced from 100% apple juice. A 2004 survey of English ciders found that the typical apple juice content of a cider at the time was just 30%. The lowest juice content found was just 7%.

Traditionally ciders were made from pure juice, but many modern ciders – generally the more commercial, mass market products – are produced from fermented sugar solutions and apple juice concentrate, diluted with water. This is because:

  • sugar and water is cheaper than pure apple juice
  • apple supply is seasonal, and using concentrates means cider can be made throughout the year
  • water may be needed to dilute cider to a specific alcohol level.

When apple juice is fermented to cider, the alcohol level will be dependent on the style (eg sweet or dry) and the original sweetness of the apples (which is variable). Bigger producers in particular often want a product with a consistent alcohol level to meet product specifications, and may use water to achieve this.

Cider, by definition

For tax purposes, the Australian Tax Office defines cider or perry (AKA pear cider) as a beverage that is the product of complete or partial fermentation of the juice (or must) of apples or pears – and this includes juice that is reconstituted from concentrate.

But this definition doesn't necessarily tally with people's expectations of what a cider should be. And it doesn't take into account the flavoured 'cider' products which have recently flooded the market and which have more in common with alcopops than traditional cider.

CHOICE would like to see a standard definition for cider, including a minimum requirement for percentage of juice, so that people know what to expect when they buy it.