Why would you back sweeten hard cider? Unless you added a lot of additional sugar before fermentation, there is a good chance your cider will be dry after fermentation. This leaves the cider a bit tart and maybe seeming a little watery. Back sweetening or adding some sweetness back to the cider will help balance the flavors and restore the apple nature of the cider. This simple process can have big impacts on a cider although there are some important considerations depending on how you will store your cider

a hydrometer floating in a test cylinder full of cider to measure the specific gravity

Finding The Right Balance:

The right amount of sweetness for your cider will depend on the batch of cider and personal preference. This will require some testing and experimenting, especially if you want to try different sugars and sweeteners. If you are planning to use nonfermentable sweeteners to back sweeten cider, a hydrometer reading will be useless as they are not calibrated to measure alternative sweeteners; only sugar. 

To find the right balance, I like to pour off a few 100ml samples of dry cider and add different measured amounts of sweetener to each. I taste and compare each sample to determine which solution I prefer. Once I know the amount of sweetener per 100ml, I can calculate the equivalent for each bottle or the entire batch.

a digital scale with sugar on it to being measured for back sweetening hard cider

Back Sweeten Hard Cider for Bottling :

Back sweetening cider that will be bottled (vs kegged) can be a bit tricky for the home cider maker because any fermentable sugar added to the cider will continue fermenting due to active yeast suspended in the cider. Even if the hard cider has been bulk aged for months there can still be dormant yeast waiting to get more sugar!  Back sweetening with fermentable sugars and bottling with active yeast can lead to over carbonation and/or possibly bottle bombs!

The safest method as a home cider maker for back sweetening cider, especially one that is naturally bottle carbonated, is to add a non-fermentable sweetener. The ensures that the yeast will only consume the priming sugar for carbonation.

If you are bottling your cider, there are three options that I suggest:

  1. Non-fermentable sweeteners
  2. Pasteurization
  3. Sulfites and preservatives (only for still ciders as no yeast will be alive to produce carbonation)

1. Non-fermentable sweeteners:

The first and most recommended is to use a non-fermentable sweetener.  This ensures that fermentation will not start back up and as long as your priming sugar calculations are correct your bottles will be safe. The only downside I find with some of these sweeteners, such as stevia, is that they can impart an aftertaste that may be offputting when used in higher quantities. Of course, this is all personal preference.  

Back sweetening the cider with a non-fermentable sweetener is a simple and safe process. The sweeteners listed below should dissolve easily with a gentle stir.

a digital scale with sugar on it to being measured for back sweetening hard cider

2. Pasteurize your cider after sweetening and carbonating:

The second option is to allow your bottles to carbonate for a period of time and then pasteurize the cider to kill the yeast. Pasteurizing the cider can be risky and heightens the risk of over carbonation and exploding bottles. If you choose to go this route, be extremely careful!

To monitor the level of carbonation fill a plastic soda bottle with the cider at the time of bottling. Set this plastic bottle next to the other cider bottles and check the firmness often. Within a week or two, the bottle should be firm. Open the plastic bottle and check the carbonation. If the cider is not carbonated enough, wait another day or two and open a bottle to check again. When you have reached your desired level of carbonation the bottles are ready to be pasteurized.

How to Pasteurize Bottles of Cider:

One: Fill a sink or container with hot tap water.

Two: Place the bottles of cider into the hot tap water to slowly bring them up to temperature. Preheating will reduce the thermal shock and reduce the risk of bottles breaking.

Three: Fill a brew kettle with water and bring it to about 180F. Turn off the heat and place a canning rack or towel on the bottom of the kettle. This will protect the bottles from bouncing.

Four: Place the prewarmed bottles in the brew kettle and cover with a sturdy lid. This is the most dangerous part of the process. If there is a weak bottle or an already over-carbonated bottle, they may explode. Use proper safety equipment when pasteurizing as flying hot liquid and broken glass are possible!

Five: Keep the bottles submerged in water for approximately 10 minutes so the internal temperature of the bottles reaches approximately 140F-150F.

Once this batch is done, remove the bottles and reheat the water for another batch.

Cider Makers Note: If you know you will be drinking all of the cider within a week or so, you can place the bottles into a refrigerator without pasteurizing them. The cold temperature will nearly halt yeast activity to provide you with a short window to consume the cider. If you choose to do this, make sure you have a way to identify the bottles and date them to avoid them being misplaced or forgotten. Even in the cold temperatures yeast can still be active and cause the bottles to explode if left for an extended time.

3. Use sulfates and sorbate to stop fermentation of the cider:

If you prefer a still cider or have the equipment to force carbonate then you can back sweeten with whatever you would like as long as you add campden and sorbate to stabilize the cider. Contrary to popular belief this combo will not kill the yeast completely but it will inhibit further fermentation and preserve the cider.

The typical additions for a cider are one tablet of campden (potassium or sodium metabisulfite) and 1/2 tsp of potassium sorbate per gallon. The campden should be added first and allowed 12 hours to rest. Then, the sorbate can be added to the batch to complete the mixture.

Once the cider has stabilized, you will be able to add your back sweetener, such as apple juice concentrate, without the risk of refermentation.

For best practice, back sweeten the batch of cider and monitor for 24 hours before bottling to make sure the sulfites and sorbate additions were adequate.

Additional back sweetening options:

If these Home Cider Making methods are not something that work for you, consider carbonating your cider dry and adding a splash of fresh cider or simple syrup solution while serving.

If you have a kegging setup then you can back sweeten in the keg with any sugar, add CO2 and chill as long as you will consume the cider in a reasonable amount of time. Otherwise, add sulfates as needed.