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The Sweet, Sad State of Cider

In short, large juice processors are required to have procedures in place to reduce cider pathogens. Various methods can be used, but the prevailing technique is thermal pasteurization -- heating the juice to a minimum of 160 degrees for six seconds.

The FDA rules allow small cider producers who make less than 40,000 gallons per year and sell directly to consumers to label their product unpasteurized with a warning that it "may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems."

A fresh batch of apple cider is hauled to the store at the Williams Orchard in Flint Hill, Va. (Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)

_____Apple Cider_____
The Sweet, Sad State of Cider
Apple Cider Doughnuts
Apple Cider FAQs

What is difference between apple juice and apple cider?

For the most part, in the Washington area, apple juice refers to the clear, amber- colored, filtered and pasteurized product on the supermarket shelf. It does not need to be refrigerated before opening.

Apple cider refers to the cloudy, caramel-colored, unfiltered, pressed juice of apples. Most often, fresh- pressed apple cider is refrigerated when displayed in the produce section of grocery stores or sold at roadside stands.

On the West Coast, the term cider is rare. Clear or cloudy, on the shelf or refrigerated, it's all called apple juice. In Europe and Australia, all fermented and further sweetened apple juice is called, simply, cider.

Is all apple cider pasteurized?

All cider sold in supermarkets, such as the widely available Zeigler's brand, is pasteurized. At roadside stands, apple cider may or may not be pasteurized. Consumers who are concerned about the possible bacteria in unpasteurized apple cider should check the label before purchase.

My store sells apple cider that is not refrigerated. Is it safe to drink?

It may be highly pasteurized apple cider that has been heated beyond the minimum standards. It's shelf-stable and does not need to be refrigerated before opening.

Is fizzy cider safe to drink?

After several weeks, depending on storage conditions, cider develops a slight fizz that is the result of natural fermentation. According to cider makers, many older folks like fizzy cider while younger consumers do not. Regardless, it's safe to drink, but may contain traces of alcohol.

What is hard cider?

A popular drink in Europe, hard cider is fermented apple cider that has developed a measurable amount of alcohol.

-- Walter Nicholls

Still, many cider connoisseurs consider this drink a rite of fall. They know that the flavor of the cider has everything to do with what varieties of apples are pressed and mixed together. Some say that unpasteurized cider is sweeter and richer-tasting. The standard formula is two sweet apples, such as Red or Yellow Delicious, for every tart apple, such as a Stayman or Granny Smith.

Sunnyside Farms in Washington, Va., which was recently designated as the first commercial apple orchard in Rappahannock County by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, uses 24 apple varieties to make an exceptionally sweet and tangy cider. Some are heirloom cultivars such as Cox's Orange Pipin, Bramley's Seedling and Rockberry Russet.

A tiny producer, Sunnyside sold 2,000 gallons in 2003. The apples are pressed and the juice pasteurized by McCutcheon in Frederick. Their fresh cider, this season, is available at Sunnyside markets in Sperryville and Washington, Va., as well as at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm farmers market on Sunday mornings.

At Williams Orchard in Flint Hill, Va., a pretty, winding lane through a working orchard and farm leads to a sales shed on a hilltop. On a recent Saturday afternoon, as soon as one customer departed another arrived. Most were after a jug of Williams's super-sweet cider.

"We sell all we can make," says Tommy Williams, who, with his brother, Eddie, sells about 4,000 gallons of unpasteurized apple cider a year. Bottles are labeled with the required safety advisory. "People who come here don't want that stuff from concentrate, from China, that's been stepped on."

The brothers say they always use two or three varieties of apples. They prefer a combo of Red Delicious and York "because you get a special flavor that's hard to describe with a York," says Eddie. They never, they say, use apples in their cider that have been on the ground. Once, the majority of orchards in Rappahannock County pressed and sold their own cider. Now, Williams is the very last one.

"The only way to survive in the apple business is to be in a niche market," says Eddie. "But we'll continue on, making juice, with the help of family and friends."

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