What is “DRY”?

American Cider Association Board endorses dryness language

Note from Michelle: On November 4, 2019 this blog was edited to reflect current information. It was originally published onJuly 30, 2018. I’ve struck-out language that is no longer relevant. 

Last summer we launched our Cider Lexicon project with the stated goal of creating tools that will help a consumer more easily find a cider that suits their flavor preferences. The first step in that project was our style guide, released last fall (the guide currently open for submissions–submit here). As cider maker Mark McTavish says, “cider is a category, not a beverage.” A little market fragmentation will do the cider industry good, we believe.

The next step in the Cider Lexicon project is to unify the industry on communicating dryness. It’s commonly known that ciders marketed as dry are often anything but. We think it’s time to change this as an industry. 

We are encouraging transparency and communication from cider makers to build fidelity with consumers—don’t betray the consumer with marketing. Discussing flavor, ingredients and sweetness honestly are how we help a drinker find the cider they will like before they open the bottle or can. The use of poignant descriptive language on cans and bottles will reduce palate-mismatches. Tell the drinker what your cider will taste like.

In doing so, it is important that our industry work toward a language that is (a) accurate (b) illustrative (c) unified.

The following organizations have embraced shared terms for communicating dryness: American Cider Association, BJCP, GLINTCAP and NYCA. The four categories of sweetness are:

  1. Dry
  2. Semi-Dry
  3. Semi-Sweet
  4. Sweet

American Cider Association encourages our members to embrace the same terminology for the sake of consistency and educating the consumer.

Perceived vs. absolute dryness

The differences between mechanisms for measuring dryness chiefly come down to an actual measure of sugar vs. perceived dryness. There is a scientific dialogue on the precise impact of tannins and acids on perceived dryness currently underway. The New York Cider Association has been working with Cornell to develop a perceived dryness scale that integrates the impact of tannins and acid (see their CiderCon presentation here). The team at GLINTCAP has started considering these impacts as well. We think this dialogue is healthy and we are closely watching it.

On the other hand, many cider makers have taken the path of simply reporting brix or residual sugar. Measuring residual sugar is something easily done by most cideries in the comfort of their own production facility. Is it true that a dry fruity cider will taste sweeter than the residual sugar level suggests? Is it true that a high-acid cider will taste drier than the residual sugar level suggests? Yes, and yes. But the same things may be said about brix for wine or IBUs for beer. Perfect solutions are hard to find.

In speaking with cider makers, however, we know that figuring out how to accurately measure communicate perceived dryness is important to many. for both heritage and modern producers. Residual sugar alone does not tell a consumer how tart or astringent a cider will taste. It does not reflect the consumer’s experience based on acids or tannins. The quantitative way to do this is being developed by NYCA, but the tannin/acid thresholds are still being refined. This methodology has not been tested for ciders with adjuncts. That question still looms.

What can we do as an industry right now to help consumers find a cider they like?

The industry is testing definitions of these terms on its own. Consumers will tell us the answer if we listen carefully.

The current levels used by GLINTCAP to delineate dryness are:

  • Dry — Below 0.9% RS (Below 1.0 Brix)
  • Semi-Dry — 0.9%-1.8% RS (1.0-1.8 Brix)
  • Semi-Sweet — 1.8-4.5% RS (1.8-4.3 Brix)
  • Sweet — Above 4.5% RS (Above 4.3 Brix)

Another scale used in the industry with the goal of being “consumer-friendly” is:

  • Dry — ≤1% RS
  • Semi-Dry — 1.1-2.0% RS
  • Semi-Sweet — 2.1-3.0% RS
  • Sweet — >3.0% RS

These scales don’t consider acid or tannin level. Anyone can adopt them today with little special equipment or measures. However, scientists and cider makers are hard at work trying to determine the precise impact of tannins and acids on perceived dryness. What can we do as an industry right now to help consumers find a cider they like? To start, embrace the terms semi-dry and semi-sweet. It hurts the whole industry when we confuse the consumer about what a dry cider truly is.

At this point, precisely where these categories land on the residual sugar scale and the known impact of tannins and acid are still up for discussion. We will keep our members up to date on developments in this industry-wide conversation. We are also discussing dryness scale developments with our colleagues overseas. This issue is something on everyone’s mind right now.

In the meantime, dryness: measure it, illustrate it, discuss it, be honest. That’s what we’re saying.

Have feedback on this topic? Please submit your comments to lexicon@ciderassociation.org.