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Ice cider, a delectable fusion of terroir and history

Ice cider is a relatively new product. In 1990, Quebec cider producers created a unique alcoholic drink drawing on their traditional know-how—the production of apple cider—inspired by the process for making ice wine. The sugars naturally present in apples, when concentrated by the cold, confer an incomparable flavour to this drink, which is part of the family of dessert wines. The severity of winter plays a key role in developing the quality of this new terroir product. The combination of our harsh Quebec winter with the talent of our cider producers gives Quebec ice cider a worldwide reputation of excellence, as shown by the many awards it has earned.

 

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A land of apple producers

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Explaining the cryoextraction process during Classes Neige (Snow Days)

Several regions of Quebec are renowned for apple production. The plains surrounding Montreal, Montérégie, Estrie, Côte de Beaupré and Île d’Orléans all have soil that is suitable for growing apples. These regions have the majority of cider producers, including the makers of ice cider. In 2014, the Quebec Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recognized the protected geographical indication (PGI) of “Quebec Ice Cider”, whose specifications guarantee that this fine alcoholic beverage has been made following generally accepted trade practices. Of the sixty or so Quebec producers, only eight obtained PGI certification in early 2017.

Approximately 15% of Quebec’s ice cider is exported to some 20 countries. In Quebec, a number of gastronomy festivals showcase this drink, in particular the Mondial des cidres that is held every year in Montreal. Ice cider can be bought at the Société des alcools du Québec, or better yet, directly from the producers, who will offer you a complimentary tasting.

An old product, a new drink

In the early 17th century, some French colonists brought apple seeds from Normandy. The first apple trees reached maturity in the 1620s. Modest production then began, since cider is an easy drink to make, and the colonists preserved their apple surpluses in the form of cider, for use by their families. In the 18th century, the small-scale commercial production of apples and cider was common in the Montreal area. In 1815, the most common varieties grown in this region were the Snow, Fameuse, Grise and Bourassa apples. The apple harvest was abundant, and growers produced a large quantity of cider every year. This practice continued until 1921, when an oversight in the statute creating the Quebec Liquor Board made the production of cider illegal. It took 50 years to correct this error!

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Christian Barthomeuf and François Pouliot pressing frozen apples at La Face Cachée de la Pomme, 1999

The history of ice cider began in 1990, when a Dunham wine grower, Christian Barthomeuf, and his associate, François Pouliot, came up with the idea of taking advantage of cold winter temperatures to concentrate the sugar contained in apples before pressing them, in the same way they used grapes to make ice wine. The fermentation of apple juice rich in natural sugars produces a cider with alcoholic content and complex flavours. The process was refined over the next ten years, and in 1999 the Quebec authorities approved the use of the term “ice cider”. While ice cider is also produced in Western Canada, the Northern United States and Europe, Quebec ice cider reigns supreme at international competitions.

From apple to bottle

There are two processes for concentrating the sugars in apples using cold temperatures. Cryoextraction involves leaving apples outside until late in the winter, when they are dried out by the cold until they are harvested and pressed while still frozen. This practice is more delicate and has a lower yield. In the case of cryoconcentration (used for nearly 95% of the ice cider currently produced), apples are harvested in the fall and pressed in the winter. Then, the apple juice is stored in the cold, outside, for about six weeks. Regardless of whether the apple must is cryoextracted or cryoconcentrated, it then ferments at low temperatures in tanks for six to seven months.

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Frozen apples

To obtain PGI certification, producers must grow at least 50% of the apples they use. The sugar must be concentrated by the action of natural cold, either directly on the tree or outdoors. No artificial freezing of the apples, of the juice or of the must is permitted. No alcohol, sugar, flavour, juice, concentrate or colouring can be added. All the steps in the process, from pressing to bottling, must be carried out at the producer’s facilities. Ice cider must have between 7% and 13% alcohol content.

High production costs are the reason for the high sale price of ice cider, as 9.5 kg of apples are required to produce 1 litre of ice cider, compared with 1.7 kg for regular cider. What a pleasure it is to sip this magical drink, with its subtle flavours of fresh apples, citrus fruit, flowers, dry fruit or even caramel, depending on the apple variety and processing method. Bottoms up!

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