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To sulfite or not to sulfite

Posted by Michael Phillips 
To sulfite or not to sulfite
January 13, 2021 06:51PM
That is indeed the question. Use of sulfites is generally considered standard practice among cider makers. These are commonly used in wine as well to help minimize oxidation, maintain freshness, and prolong shelf life. Additionally, certain types, such as potassium metabisulfite, are used to sanitize barrels and equipment. Yet to serve a truly healthy drink, some would argue, means use of such preservative chemicals in the juice itself needs to be curtailed

This is a good article to bring you up to speed: https://pricklycider.com/2020/08/26/hard-cider-tip-22-sulfite-and-sorbate/
"Hard cider is generally considered a live and evolving drink. The longer it ages, the better it becomes. Some like to think of it as wine where the addition of sulfites and sorbates preserve it in its current state. However, that means it’s no longer evolving... "

Customers wanting an organic cider think about the side effects of sulfur-based compounds, from headaches to notable impact on the gut microbiome.

I'd love to hear voices from both points of view weigh in on this, particularly from the marketing perspective.

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 01/14/2021 05:50PM by Michael Phillips.
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
January 15, 2021 12:00AM
I waited almost two full days for those more experienced than me to chime in, but I’m too interested in this topic to not provide a response. At the very least maybe it will result in the post floating back up to the surface of the forum so it doesn’t wither on the tree.

My experience is almost strictly as a hobbyist cider maker (15 years) with my very first commercial batches just finishing up fermentation in my barn now. I have not in my hobbyist experience used sulfites, nor do I intend to in my commercial cidery. I certainly appreciate some advantages, particularly when it comes to oxygen scavenging or the ability to back-sweeten, but it’s not the direction I want to go. These are my reasons in order of significance to me:

1) I like the idea of being able to present the truest reflection of the apples themselves, INCLUDING all their microflora and associated character. Does the apple really end at the skin? Rather than just using the juice as a medium to achieve a predetermined beverage, I like to think I’m gently shepherding along the natural process and putting the result in a bottle. The direct connection between the apples as they hung on the trees and the cider in the bottle remaining largely unbroken, the direct descendants of their resident bacteria still active, with all the unpredictability they may bring.

2) I want to maintain the ability of the cider to evolve over time as a living product. I WANT the contributions of some of these ‘undesirable’ bacteria and native yeasts. Cider without sulfites is interesting to me, and its changing nature means the taste exploration doesn’t just end after your first bottle.

3) The health question. We know there are potential health impacts from consuming sulfites. To what extent, I don’t know, nor have I done enough research to win a debate on the topic. For me, as with a lot of these health things, I tend to default to ‘if it doesn’t need to be in there, why add it’. There are plenty of examples of fantastic ciders out there that do not rely on sulfites for their appeal.

So how does this relate to the marketing question? To the extent that I intend to market (farmers market conversations and label text mostly) I’ll do so with the same order of emphasis.

1) I want people to appreciate that the cider is a reflection of the apples it is made from. Where (terroir?) and how they were grown. I want them to know that the way in which the cider was produced (no sulfites) allows for the best chance of those apples, their environment and their character being evident in the cider. I’m willing to expend some energy on education (marketing?) with this one.

2) From a marketing perspective, I believe the ‘living food evolving in the bottle angle’ may very well resonate with a growing segment of customers. I’d point to what we see in the craft beer industry with what many consider to be the pinnacle of beer achievements, Belgian Lambic. These beers are insanely popular with the ‘serious’ craft beer enthusiast (for good reason!). Lambic, being ‘spontaneously’ fermented, from the wild yeasts and bacteria present in the brewery environment are highly regarded for their ability evolve and age well in the bottle. The crossover from craft beer to good cider is a thing, and this segment of consumers will recognize and appreciate this aspect of an un-sulfited cider. Some will and do seek them out.

3) On the health topic, I don’t see much in the way of significant marketing advantage when it comes to sulfite-free. Even among the highly health-conscious consumers, it seems most give a pass to alcoholic beverages (or cannabis). It’s like they figure they are already consuming something unhealthy, so what’s a little SO2 in my drink. I guess one could argue that you will probably never lose a sale because you DON’T use sulfites, but may lose a couple if you DO.

So there is a rookie perspective! Would love to hear from some of our experienced commercial producers. Both those who use and don’t use sulfites (as Michael noted).

Wildbranch Cider
Zone 4a in Vermont

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 01/15/2021 02:16AM by Cedar Hannan.
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
February 28, 2021 04:14PM
I've had really good luck over the past couple years by just adding a very small sulfite dose right at the beginning, and then wild fermenting the cider. I add between 10-25ppm depending on the pH. This seems to knock out the major spoilage bacteria and yeasts that give the "off flavors" I had been having with no sulfites. For some reason, I had a major "bandaid" and "burnt rubber" taste going on in my unsulfited, wild fermented ciders. While I enjoy some funk in my ciders, I find that the ethyl acetate flavor tends to overwhelm the subtle apple flavors and aromas that I like, not to mention the bandaid taste ruining everything. I'm still getting MLF and interesting barnyard notes in some of these ciders as they age in my basement. I would consider these to be "living" ciders as they do continue to change in the bottle. They just aren't overwhelmed by some of the notes that many wild and unsulfited ciders normally have. From all of my reading, this seems to be how traditional American ciders were made, and in many cases, I'm getting the flavors of traditional English and French ciders without even using traditional European cider apples(I use a lot of crabapples instead).

Patrick McCauley
Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/28/2021 07:57PM by Patrick McCauley.
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
March 01, 2021 01:21AM
This is timely because I am in the middle of writing a blog post on our site about this, so I thought I would stir the waters. I have used sulfites on and off over the years, and having a history of asthma I have only had a reaction when I used it at post fermentation. I use it rarely now since I have a lot of cider I can waste if things so south. I think the thing to keep in mind is that sulfiting should not be the method used out of recklessness. It can be a crutch for those who are messy or simply have a crappy setup (poor headspace, prone to tasting, dirty vessels, and so on). To the topic at hand though, sulfite is everywhere. Cider and wine naturally create free sulfite in the solution while fermenting. So does your body when you eat many foods, especially protein rich ones. Sulfite occurs naturally in veggies like cabbage, onions and garlic (up to 45ppm). This is why your eyes burn so much cutting onions, the sulfur compounds, now volatized hit the water in your eyes and turns into sulfuric acid. Cider often does not naturally produce as much free sulfite as pitching campden tabs, but it isn't off the chart either. Natural vs added is often 25-40 for the former and 40-65 for the latter. Another thing to consider is that much of this free sulfite winds up bound by the end of primary, no longer causing a problem for those sensitive. However, many products are hit with another dose post-ferment, and probably often with hobbyists when they screw things up (ie contamination) or are just paranoid. Folks also love to overdo the dose at all stages if they are worried about a dirty mix. We may instead want to avoid dried fruit which is slathered in amounts up to 2000ppm. It is a worry to be overusing chemicals, especially when we do not need to, but there are places where it can be used responsibly. Seeing those images of old timers burning sulfur candles on a string in oak barrels makes me more accepting than seeing a chem bottle of sulfur dust on my shelf. My personal opinion is that it is way cooler to try and make the most natural product I can, but that is more a culture vibe than scientific reasoning.
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
April 03, 2021 12:45AM
Thank you Patrick and Todd for answering the why, and why not, respectively.

To add some real world numbers to the Natural v.s. added SO2 topic, my (lab tested) levels for this year's cider were 4.08 ppm total SO2 with .48 ppm free SO2.

I appreciate the perspectives. While I don't think they will change my process, I suppose the day I have to dump a 1000L batch of cider my devotion to purity will be tested pretty quickly.

Wildbranch Cider
Zone 4a in Vermont

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 04/03/2021 02:16AM by Cedar Hannan.
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
August 10, 2021 06:58AM
I think I went around this subject quite extensively in my book...
One thing: it is important to separate 2 different uses of sulfite:

- Pre-fermentation. Sulfite is essential in this situation when you wish to inoculate a selected yeast strain in order to obtain some character the yeast you selected can give to the cider. In that situation, sulfite will insure that your yeast will be able to colonize the cidre without competition from other microorganisms. If you don't sulfite, you can't be sure the inoculated yeast will actually take control of the fermentation...
Sulfite added pre-fermentation can also help in wild yeast ferments as noted by Patrick.
This sulfite will get completely bound during fermentation as it chemically combines with fermentation by-products, and nothing will be left when time comes for drinking.

- Post-fermentation. Sulfite is then used as a preservative. This use of sulfite is more subject to caution, as if overdosed, some may remain as free SO2 and give some unpleasant flavor and possibly other inconveniences.
It is the post-fermentation sulfite that will help the cider to keep, and also to travel... Just try to take a natural unsulfited cider, leave it in the trunk of your car for a week in summer and you'll understand. Commercial cider often has to travel in a container, sustain long periods of hot temperatures in a storage, it may be put in the window of a store under direct sunlight, and what else?
So, if you only sell at the farm, and can tell your customer to keep the bottle in the cool, you can probably skip the sulfite. Otherwise, the cider maker has no control once the cases of cider leave the cidery, and he doesn't want them to explode or take strange flavors.
All these things need to be considered in order to take the best decision.

Two examples... When I was in Australia, I visited a very nice cider maker who would keg his cider and keep it in a cold room until he sold it at the bar just by the cidery. His cider was heavily sulfited - to the point I simply couldn't drink it. I asked him why, and made him realize this was completely useless as he was able to control the conditions between kegging and sale to customer.

And still in Australia, we had a tasting of a very nice French cider, made the traditional way and unsulfited. It was simply undrinkable. This cider had traveled in boat from France to Australia and had completely turned. A few years later, I visited that cidery in France and, naturally, the cider was exquisite. I had a little talk with the owner to make him understand that his natural (and live) ciders simply can't stand an overseas travel, and that he had to do something about this.


Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Author, The New Cider Maker's Handbook
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
August 10, 2021 10:09PM
FWIW, I now always sulfite before primary fermentation. Early on, I was burned by a spoiled batch that I didn't sulfite while the batches I did "sterilize" that year all turned out drinkable, if not excellent.

On the other hand, I never add sulfites after fermentation because I never back-sweeten, preferring ciders that are bone dry. I, and a lot of my friends and family who have tried my fermented libations, dislike the sweet stuff. Dry, farmhouse-style ciders accentuate the other more complex apple-y flavors that sugar often masks, imo.

But so far, I'm just serving a small number of drinkers. If I ever get big enough to sell commercially, I'll keep in mind the advantage of sulfiting for preservation.. if I can't control how the cider is handled and stored.

Craig Bickle
Hap Woods
Zone 6a
East-Central Ohio
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
October 11, 2021 06:29PM
UPDATE: I've switched to skipping the sulfites too!

Just reread everyone's posts which confirmed what I had read recently in 'The Big Book of Cidermaking' by Christopher and Kirsten Shockey. The light bulb moment came with their discussion of wild versus commercial yeast inoculation. In short, if I'm pitching yeast under as ideal conditions as possible (which I do,) the likelihood that it will fail to outcompete other yeasts and/or bacteria is quite low.

So then it was just a matter of considering the benefits of NOT doing so, all except for one mentioned above, that one being not having to wait an extra day after pressing to begin fermentation. The other two that convinced me are 1) the health benefits of preserving the probiotic elements of the apples in the drink, and 2) the preservation of malolactic bacteria in the cider to allow it to undergo malolactic fermentation during the aging process...

But then! (Get this,) I muddled everything in my mind by reading two more books on cidermaking, and both described MLF as a cider flaw!!

I always thought MLF was desirable. My ciders invariably tend toward the tart side of things, especially since I never sweeten them. So before they rest in the secondary for awhile they tend to be spikey and pucker-inducing. The acidity maintains even after 9 months of aging, though it tends to mellow over time. And I'm not sure if my ciders have ever undergone MLF, maybe because I always bombed them with sulfites at the beginning, but also because I never noticed an indication that it had occurred (change in mouth-feel/flavor, more bubbling in the airlocks, etc.)

So, those of you with more experience of MLF than me, is it something to be avoided? And if so, could this be a reason to use sulfites, maybe after the first racking?

Not to pile on the requests, but speaking of racking, I've also noticed conflicting advice on when to first rack. Some cider makers insist on waiting until fermentation has finished completely by taking two gravity readings that maintain for a week, so likely about a month. Others (like the Shockeys) recommend racking while primary fermentation is still underway. I tend to do the latter because space in my temp-controlled fermentation chamber is limited, and really, I never thought it mattered. Thoughts? Thanx!

Craig Bickle
Hap Woods
Zone 6a
East-Central Ohio

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 10/11/2021 06:34PM by Craig Bickle.
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
October 11, 2021 07:18PM
Craig Bickle Wrote:
> Not to pile on the requests, but speaking of
> racking, I've also noticed conflicting advice on
> when to first rack. Some cider makers insist on
> waiting until fermentation has finished completely
> by taking two gravity readings that maintain for a
> week, so likely about a month. Others (like the
> Shockeys) recommend racking while primary
> fermentation is still underway. I tend to do the
> latter because space in my temp-controlled
> fermentation chamber is limited, and really, I
> never thought it mattered. Thoughts? Thanx!

The main point of racking early and to do stabilization rackings before the fermentation is completed or almost, is to slow down the fermentation, and eventually to succeed in stabilizing the cider with some residual sugar - something that is especially useful when the cider is quite acidic...

You mentioned having read a number of books - have you read mine? The effects of racking are well explained!

Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Author, The New Cider Maker's Handbook
Re: To sulfite or not to sulfite
October 11, 2021 07:41PM
I have read your book! smiling smiley

Though, it was a couple years ago and I've now read so much subsequent information that at this point it's hard to keep it all from getting a bit jumbled upstairs. Guess it's time for a re-read of 'The New Cidermaker's Handbook.' Thanks for the reminder!

As for racking to slow fermentation enough to retain residual sugar, I'm pleased to be reminded of a reason for doing it that improves the finished product. I tend to rack myself as maturation proceeds.

On the other hand, I only just recently learned (or probably re-learned) that some cidermaker's like to age on the lees after racking only once and then stirring the lees up into the cider on a weekly basis!

Craig Bickle
Hap Woods
Zone 6a
East-Central Ohio

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 10/11/2021 07:44PM by Craig Bickle.
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