30 years of Canadian ice cider draws international attention

By Beth Newhart

- Last updated on GMT

It can take up to 100 frozen apples to make one bottle of ice cider using cryoextraction. Pic: Milton Ciderie
It can take up to 100 frozen apples to make one bottle of ice cider using cryoextraction. Pic: Milton Ciderie

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A sweet, dessert cider that mimics the style of ice wine is slowly spreading beyond its point of origin. Canada’s ice cider is finding a niche market in the US with craft cidermakers willing to undertake the lengthy freezing, thawing and fermenting process.

The burgeoning cider industry in North America is outpacing general alcohol sale​s and inspiring flavor and texture innovations in the category. In 2018, nearly 100 cideries opened in the US, and there are now more than 900 active cideries in the country.

There is more to the drink than a sweet apple taste, and one of the key challenges facing the industry is education. Different apples, fermentation processes and extraction techniques produce different types of ciders.

Extraction vs concentration

A new style was developed in Quebec in 1989, modeled after the centuries-old methods for making ice wine. Ice cider is tricky to produce traditionally because it requires a climate prone to freezing temperatures but also suitable for growing apples.

It can be developed using two different extraction processes. Cryoconcentration is overwhelmingly the popular choice, where the apples are harvested at maturity in autumn, then juiced in the winter.

Details of the process differ--some store the juice outdoors throughout the winter, or for as little as two weeks. Fermentation can then take up to eight months before bottling.

Cryoextraction is rarely used, though more directly mirrors the production of ice wine. In this method, the apples are left on branch until frozen during winter. They are only picked when the temperature gets down to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s an unpredictable process usually dependent on the weather.

After pressing and more freezing, the cryoextracted apples are harvested and fermented for about eight months. This method is more risky and costly, and it can take up to 100 apples to make one bottle of ice cider in this way.

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A 'precious' process

Ice cider is most abundant in Quebec and the wider east coast of Canada, with both farms and cideries dedicated solely to the style, and others that supply just a few ice ciders in their portfolio.

The Milton Ciderie of Quebec dates back to 1927 and has been focused on cider production for the last 15 years. The family-owned business has about 50 different ciders in rotation, three of which are ice varieties. The Le Glacé is made with McIntosh, Spartan and Empire apples using the cryoconcentration method. It comes in flat and sparkling options with notes of peach, hazelnut, Scotch caramel and vanilla.

The L'Exotique is also cryoconcentrated and made from Golden Delicious, Gala and Honeycrisp apples. It tastes of banana, lychee, clover honey, sweet marshmallow and pineapple. The Cuvée Précieuse is their only cider made with the cryoextraction method, using 100% Golden Russet apples. Strawberry, pear, maple syrup, dried fig, candied apricot and buckwheat honey make up the taste profile.

Milton markets its ice ciders as ‘precious’ and limited quantity due to the difficulty of production. CEO Marc-Antoine Lasnier told BeverageDaily his ice ciders are well-received despite being part of a niche market. They are mainly sold on the Milton website and in Quebec grocery stores, though distribution is expanding slowly to the US.

Bringing ice to the US

Ice cider has spread to the US in other ways, however. The Vermont Ice Cider Association describes the drink as “a delicious and sophisticated sweet wine made from apples using natural cold weather to concentrate the flavors and the sugars of the fruit before fermentation.”

Eden Specialty Cider produces a collection of ice ciders out of Vermont, including Heirloom Blend, Honeycrisp, Windfall Orchard and Brandy Barrel Aged varieties. Eve’s Cidery in New York ships to 39 US states and released a limited edition ice cider in October 2018 after a year of development.

And it’s not just cideries interested in ice ciders; Sheldrake Point Winery in the Finger Lakes of New York sells an ‘ice apple wine’ from 2015. It required 985 gallons of blended juices frozen for 10 days at 11 degrees Fahrenheit, repeated several times before fermentation.

The cider industry as a whole is seeing great growth, and not just in North America. The UK is the biggest cider market in world, and was worth nearly £3bn in 2017. According to UK cidermaker Westons' Cider Report 2018, more than 800 million liters of cider are consumed in the UK every year, and fruit flavored cider is the most popular segment of the industry. South Africa comes in second in cider consumption with 280 million liters, and the US is third at 195 million liters. 

Behind Australia and Spain, Canada is sixth in global cider consumption with 86 million liters per year. But it has the highest sales growth rate by far at 20.5%. UK growth was only 0.4% and US sales were down by 5% according to the report.  

Helen Thomas, MD of Westons Cider, said "In many respects the cider marketplace is unrecognisable to what it was a few years ago and it is this dynamism that makes the cider industry such an exciting place to work. Looking forward to the next few years, the cider marketplace is not without challenges.

"Changes in consumption habits threaten many on trade outlets where cider is drunk, while Minimum Unit Pricing threatens both pricing and promotions at varying levels of the off trade marketplace. However, past experience shows retailers, operators and cider makers will work together to innovate and evolve to meet these challenges head on."

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