Hard Times

We finally racked our last batch of fermented (hard) cider last week. All in all it was a pretty good first season, considering we had a surplus of apples and, initially, no clear idea what to do with them.

At first we just assumed we’d be making plain old cider. Fortunately, we have the perfect mix of varieties for the job: Red Delicious for sweetness, Newtown Pippen for tartness, and Bellflower for, well…okay, I don’t know what the Bellflower contributed. I’m sure it added something, though. At the very least it looked cool next to the others.

There they are in the above picture. That’s the Bellflower on the left. It’s a softer apple, easily bruised, with lemon-yellow skin and an oblong shape.

And yeah, we had a lot. You can see how six years of no pruning or spraying resulted not only in small, spotted and misshapen fruit, but also so much of it…

Generally speaking an afternoon’s picking would fill a trash barrel and then some.

I think that we went apple-picking four or five times over the course of the season. Ultimately we wound up with maybe thirty gallons or so of fresh pressed apple cider – and that’s after tossing apples that either failed to live up to our low standards of edibility or went bad in the lag time between picking them and pressing them (sometimes we’d pop a few bushels in water and then not get to the pressing for a couple of weeks. Oops).

Neighbors were kind enough to give us a bunch of clean, empty gallon jugs for storage. We also bought a couple dozen gallons of spring water just for the containers.

Most of the gallons went straight into the chest freezer. A few we gave away to neighbors or contractors, and, of course, we drank a couple ourselves. That still left a lot of cider. What to do with it?  Well, turn it into booze of course!

Making hard cider isn’t really difficult. In fact, with just a few small steps any average cider or juice, even store-bought, would probably ferment. If you really want to kick-start the process, however, the addition of yeast and sugar does the trick. It’s the yeast eating the sugar that, essentially, makes the cider “hard.”

The tricky part is sterilizing everything before getting started. That includes not only the fermentation tanks (called “carboys”) and measuring equipment but also the washed Corona and wine bottles we had set aside for the bottling (though those wouldn’t be necessary until much later).

Apparently keeping everything sterilized is a pretty big deal. Once the cider, yeast, and sugar are mixed up and funneled into the carboys it will sit for several weeks. You can imagine, then, how any small impurity, microbe or germ could contaminate the whole jug and sicken the heck out of any poor soul who has the misfortune to drink it.

Anyway, Lizzy measured out the sugar while the yeast was blooming in a dish of warm water. We also added yeast nutrient (probably not necessary, but we figured it couldn’t hurt), and pectic enzyme (this breaks down the pectin, which can become cloudy as the alcohol level rises).

When Lizzy was finished with the measuring we added the yeast mixture and funneled fresh cider into the tanks.

Then the carboys were fitted with special rubber plugs, into which were embedded plastic air-locks. The locks allow the gases to escape while keeping any airborne impurities from getting in. Floating on a small bit of water or vodka (which is sterile) inside the air-lock is a tiny plastic cap that bobs up and down with every rising bubble. This process, while fun to watch, is notable for another, more important reason: the yeast is converting the sugar to alcohol. Yippee!

The fizzing and bubbling lasts only a few days. After that the trick is to just be patient and let the stuff sit – it’ll take a few weeks for the scummy solids (called the Lees) to settle into the bottom of the carboy. The cider on top will be clear, with only a bit of color. At this stage it’s not unlike white wine in both looks and, surprisingly, taste.

Then it’s time to rack. Racking basically means siphoning the clear, alcoholic cider into cleaned and sanitized bottles. Now I don’t know about you, but while I’ve often heard or read about people siphoning gas out of someone’s car I’ve never really done the thing myself. Frankly, it seemed pretty complicated. In truth it’s as low-tech as you can get: you put the tank of cider on a counter top, lay out your empty bottles on the floor below, stick one end of a rubber tube in the carboy on the counter and the other end in a bottle, and let gravity do its thing.

Well, more or less.

We added a little sugar into the beer bottles in order to have sparkling cider (whatever yeast is left will eat the sugar, creating carbonation and – who would’ve thunk it – more alcohol). The cider in the wine bottles we kept uncarbonated, or “still.”

Of course the bottles have to be capped and corked. We got our cappers and corkers at the brew store and they’re pretty cheap and easy to use.

We only have two, three-gallon carboys, so we can ferment only six gallons at a time. We fermented three times, with a total of five gallons (for some reason we only filled one carboy during one of the rounds). I never got a picture of all of our bottles, but if you take the amount in the above picture and add to it the bottles in the picture below…

…you get a lot of cider. But it’s not as if we can start cracking these suckers right off the bat – no, it all goes into a cool, dark place to age for at least six months. We’ve tasted a couple of bottles (to make sure something dreadful hadn’t occurred), and they definitely improve with age.

Our first batch was racked in October, so we’ll be drinking some of them soon. I can’t wait!

-Jason

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One thought on “Hard Times

  1. Okay, so here’s a question. You know how wine has sulfites? Is that a naturally occurring process, or is that added for some reason? And, if it they occur naturally, does your hard cider, which sounds like it’s similar to wine, have sulfites?

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