The harvest begins in France’s cider zone with the gathering of pears in September and can last through January, when the late-ripening apple varieties like noel des champs finish coming in. Pears deteriorate quickly and are pressed at once; apples are stocked for several weeks in well-ventilated attics or on wooden pallets to permit complete ripening. After the fruit is sorted, it is traditionally mashed, then left to macerate with the skins to extract color and aroma.
In the case of apples, artisanal producers then put the juice, or must, into tanks where a prefermentation clarification, known by the off-putting term defecation, occurs. In defecation, the fruit pectins coagulate and a gel-like substance, which traps impurities, rises to the top and forms a cap called the chapeau brun, or brown hat. Solid matter falls to the bottom of the tank, constituting the lees. The clear juice is racked into wood casks or tanks, where the alcoholic fermentation takes place, lasting anywhere from two to six months. When the cider reaches the sugar-to-alcohol balance desired by each producer, it is racked, then bottled for the prise de mousse—the process by which the bubbles are formed.
Mass-produced ciders follow the same steps with significant differences: Many are made from apple concentrate from Poland or South Africa or from apples, from various parts of the world, that are not up to table apple standards. The apples don’t macerate; the fruit-to-juice yield is as much as twice that of the farmhouse ciders (easily 1,000 liters per metric ton, compared with 600 to 700 liters for artisanal ciders); the defecation process is replaced by centrifuging and filtration; the bottled cider is injected with carbon dioxide to produce the bubbles; and the final product is pasteurized and then cold-stabilized to insure long shelf life.