Once you’ve had a sip of freshly pressed, unfiltered, unsweetened apple cider, the “apple juice” sold in stores just cannot compare. And luckily for those who’ve never tried it, fresh apple cider abounds this time of year.
What exactly is the difference between apple cider and apple juice? After all, cider is essentially the juice extracted from apples. But both names persist in the marketplace, and in the United States, only a handful of states actually regulate what can and can’t be labeled as cider. Massachusetts, for instance, clearly defines cider as unfiltered and unpasteurized juice, while other locales call their filtered and pasteurized juice as apple cider, simply because it might appeal more to their market area.
If you want the good stuff, look for a refrigerated, non-shelf stable juice that’s opaque in color with some sediment at the bottom of the jug. That’s your best clue that you’re buying raw apple juice without any filtration, pasteurization, preservatives, or sweeteners. I like to call this apple cider, a term that evokes old-fashioned apple juice for me and differentiates it from the juices that have been clarified, sweetened, and/or heat-treated for longer life.
When you buy it from an apple orchard or a local juicery, raw apple cider (also called sweet cider or soft cider) is unpasteurized, a natural state that allows beneficial bacteria from the fruit to ferment the cider over time.
For the first week, it’s like drinking fresh, ripe apples — lightly fizzy and naturally sweet with a rich body that can only come from pressed fruit (and not a diluted juice concentrate). This is far from the apple cider of Martinelli’s fame (which actually only calls their product apple cider as a marketing gimmick; the company admits that their pasteurized apple cider and apple juice are one and the same).
By the second week, it’s on its way to becoming hard cider, a fermented alcoholic beverage that’s dry and complex in flavor. Hard cider has subtle apple notes, but tastes no more like apples than wine tastes like grapes. The longer you let it sit, the stronger (and more alcoholic) the brew becomes.
Let the cider ferment for another few weeks, and you’ll end up with apple cider vinegar — the prebiotic-filled and enzyme-rich kind with the mother in it. As hard cider continues to ferment, the alcohol transforms into acetic acid, giving it the characteristic pungent smell and sour taste of vinegar (and all the health benefits of raw cider vinegar).