There are few drinks more autumnal than apple cider (except maybe a Pumpkin Spice Latte). But there's a lot of confusion about what, exactly, makes apple cider apple cider and how apple cider is different than apple juice. That's partially because the difference between apple cider and apple juice can vary from region to region, even state to state. Some apple producers even use the terms "apple cider" and "apple juice" interchangeably, especially those based west of the Mississippi River, so you can't always rely on the label to tell the difference. But there are a few easy ways to figure out if you're drinking apple juice or apple cider if you know where to look.
In most places, the difference between apple cider and apple juice boils down to how it's made. According to the US Apple Association, a non-profit trade organization that represents apple growers, "Apple cider is freshly pressed, not-from-concentrate juice that may or may not undergo a filtration process to remove coarse pulp." In other words, all you have to do to make apple cider is take apples, core them, and press them until you've got juice.
Apple juice, on the other hand, "may be from concentrate and has been filtered, pasteurized, and vacuum sealed to give a longer lasting, shelf stable, clear product," according to the US Apple Association. That means apple juice is basically canned apple juice and frozen concentrated apple juice that's been watered down. So if you look at the list of ingredients on the bottle, and the first ingredient is water, chances are good you're drinking juice, not cider. If the main ingredient is apples or apple juice, then you're probably drinking cider.
The other way to figure out if you're drinking apple cider or apple juice is by seeing where it's stored in the grocery store. As the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources notes, "Cider needs constant refrigeration because it is perishable. It will stay sweet and unfermented for up to two weeks." Apple juice, however, is shelf-stable and can sit on regular grocery store shelves, because it's gone through that extra filtration and pasteurization process.
The taste and acidity is different between the two liquids, too. As the experts at Cook's Illustrated explained, "When we tested the pH level of both liquids, the cider had a lower pH than the apple juice, confirming its higher level of acidity." And this difference in composition is also why you don't want to swap apple cider for apple juice in a recipe, or vice versa.
But hey, if you still can't remember the difference between apple juice and apple cider, don't panic. Ned Flanders has some words of wisdom for you:
"If it's clear and yellow, you've got juice there, fella! If it's tangy and brown, you're in cider town." With some exceptions, of course. But it's not a bad place to start.