Good Wood: Cider Aging 101

We take pride in making remarkably fresh ciders. In fact, all five of our flagship ciders are handcrafted from Pennsylvania apples and produce a crisp, dry and sessionable cider that goes from being an apple on a tree to a cold can in your hand in a relatively short period of time. It’s that orchard fresh flavor that makes Jack’s Hard Cider really stand out from the crowd.

But there are a few occasions where freshness actually is not our goal. A few of our ciders are allowed to age, often in contact with oak wood, for a few months before they are canned or kegged. Why are aged products sometimes more desirable? Here’s the deal with aging cider:

Putting anything in contact with wood (which is often oak in cider, beer, wine and certain spirits), imbues the flavors of that wood into the substance inside. Whether it’s hot sauce, a California Chardonnay or hard cider, the natural flavors in the wood slowly seep into the liquid, adding depth and nuance. Another huge factor in barrel aging is that oak allows what’s inside of it to mellow—as the liquid “breathes,” its flavor, color and aroma are all enhanced. Many alcoholic beverages are aged to impart that telltale round, vanilla-tinged oak-y flavor, and also to taking “the edge” off of the liquid for a creamy mouthfeel and smooth finish.

Some barrels are new wood, some are charred, and some have already been used for other purposes. For instance, many craft beer companies use repurposed whiskey barrels. In place of barrels, some companies use staves, which are large sticks made out of the same high-quality wood as barrels that are allowed to steep in the liquid for a period of time, creating a very similar effect.

As for hard ciders, aging can be a very useful technique to create balance in ciders made with more tart apples (which many heirloom varieties are). Our spring seasonal cider, the Conewago Orchard Blend, is made with apples that contain a high level of acidity. While that characteristic may be great for a freshly baked apple pie, cider with these types of apples may be just a bit too sour. By putting Conewago in contact with oak, we give this cider more structure to hold up against that acidity. While you may hear of some wines or whiskeys aged for years in barrels, we “flash age” this cider on American oak staves for only about three months. Anytime oak is used, the liquid becomes micro-oxygenated from breathing and playing between the staves and outside air. It’s this process that imparts the smooth and rounded-out qualities that are the hallmark of an aged cider. The results are stellar in terms of creating a easy-drinking, balanced blend, and in fact, Conewago just brought home a gold medal at Dan Berger’s 2016 International Wine and Cider Competition!

We also use bourbon barrels to age our small-batch bourbon ciders. We can use these barrels two or three times, and each time our ciders rest in those beautiful barrels, the essence of the bourbon becomes a part of our cider’s character. These special releases, such as our upcoming breakfast cider, can be found on tap in our tasting room—a growler fill would make an epic gift for the bourbon lover in your life! And remember that good things come to those who wait (for cider to age).

Jack’s Hard Cider — Produced from Pennsylvania Apples. Pressed On-Site. Never from Concentrate.

Emily Kovach