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Adventures in cider making

Sep 3rd, 2015 | Category: Skills

by Laura Damron

Fermentation is one of those things that can really draw a person in, once it’s given a try. For me, it started with a couple of pickles here and there, progressed to making my own sauerkraut, and then it seemed perfectly reasonable to make a big batch of hard apple cider. In its simplest form, fermentation is just a matter of creating the right conditions in a vessel for desirable yeasts or bacteria to flourish and convert your starting ingredients into something a little more special. With cider making, just like beer, it’s the yeast that we’re encouraging to grow.

 We used a mix of apples that we grew ourselves, and a hand-cranked apple press (below) lent to us by a friend. PHOTOS BY LAURA DAMRON

We used a mix of apples that we grew ourselves, and a hand-cranked apple press (below) lent to us by a friend. PHOTOS BY LAURA DAMRON

Making cider can be as casual or involved as you choose to make it. I prefer to go simple when I first start with any new endeavor, so we chose a wild ferment over purchasing yeast for our brew. If you’re looking for consistent and predictable results for your end product, then it’s best to go with a tested recipe and store-bought yeast specifically for home brewing. In our case, I was perfectly happy to go the old-fashioned route and leave it in the hands of our own wild yeasts, which are already present on the skins of the apples.

We used a mix of apples that we grew ourselves, and a hand-cranked apple press lent to us by a friend. The only supplies we needed to buy at the beginning were a few glass bottles to ferment the cider in, and airlocks to let the gases out as the yeast converted the sugars in the cider to alcohol. If you’re more inclined to follow precise instructions, there are several good books out there as well as a number of forums on the internet where one can source very detailed instructions. A quick Google search on “making apple cider” yields plenty of results to get you started down. (I used the websites howtomakehardcider.com and homebrewheaven.com.)

We gathered our apples from the trees as we went: a mixture of Gravenstein, Rome, and tart, green, Granny Smith-type apples. After a quick rinse in plain water, we went about grinding bucket after bucket of apples into a mash. Once our pressing bag was full, we cranked down the press to flatten the pulp and squeeze out all of the juices. At this point, if you’re not interested in the fermented hard product, the extracted liquid is ready to go as apple cider. It freezes well, so we set aside a number of containers just so we could enjoy the sweet cider throughout the winter months.press

The rest of the cider was poured into a few large glass vessels, called carboys. They’re thick and heavy, and designed specifically for fermentation. We sterilized our carboys ahead of time, to ensure that nothing other than the yeast from our apples was going to grow during our active fermentation phase. We capped the carboys with plastic airlocks, and filled them with water per the manufacturer’s instructions. The airlocks, when filled accordingly, allow the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast to escape as the vessels pressurize, while stopping any air (and contaminants) from entering and possibly spoiling your brew.

For the next six to eight weeks, the process was out of our hands. Our carboys rested quietly (at first) in a cool, dark corner of our kitchen. We checked the airlocks daily, to make sure that they remained filled with water. After about a week, the weather warmed unexpectedly, kicking our yeast into high gear. The cider began bubbling, foaming a little bit at first but then becoming so vigorous that it looked as though the cider was boiling in the bottles. After about a week of that, the yeasts had consumed most of the sugars from the apple juice so the activity slowed back down to a quiet roll.

Once the active fermentation slowed to a stop, the yeasts begin to die off. As this happens, they sink out of suspension and the liquid begins to clear, and a sediment layer forms on the bottom of the vessel. When the cider had cleared to the point where we could see through the bottle, we began the process of siphoning off the cider into new carboys, in order to separate it from the dead yeast that had settled out. While it may seem cumbersome, this is actually an important step – leaving the sediment in the bottle during the aging process can impart unpleasant flavors, ruining a batch altogether.

For the next six to eight weeks, the process was out of our hands. Our carboys rested quietly (at first) in a cool, dark corner of our kitchen. The cider began bubbling, foaming a little bit at first but then becoming vigorous. PHOTOS BY LAURA DAMRON

For the next six to eight weeks, the process was out of our hands. Our carboys rested quietly (at first) in a cool, dark corner of our kitchen. The cider began bubbling, foaming a little bit at first but then becoming vigorous. PHOTOS BY LAURA DAMRON

When we’d finished our siphoning, we reinstalled our airlocks and let the bottles rest for about three more weeks. During this time, small amounts of active yeast finished off the last of the sugars, turning our sweet cider into what is called “dry” hard cider. At this point, we tasted it to see where things stood. It was pleasantly dry, with a nice light apple flavor. It was ready to bottle! I prefer a sweeter cider, so I chose to back sweeten ours with a mixture of sucralose and a tiny bit of brown sugar. The sucralose is not digestible by yeast, so it only has a sweetening effect on the flavor of your beverage. Dry cider is a little on the flat side, so the small amount of brown sugar was added just prior to bottling in order to add carbonation to the finished beverage.

After the brew was sweetened to our liking, it was time for bottling. We’d saved up a few cases of beer bottles for this purpose, and we purchased a capper and caps from our local homebrew supply shop. After sterilizing the bottles, filling and capping them, we took the cases of hard cider down to our basement to rest quietly in the cool temperature for a couple of weeks. With the final phase of fermentation taking place in the bottle itself, it’s important to use caution when handling the bottles – we did have one explode due to over pressurization. When we tasted the finished product a couple of weeks later, it was perfection – fizzy and slightly sweet, with just enough apple flavor left so that you knew what you were drinking.

So, whether you’re looking for a way to use up some of your home grown fruit, or just wanting to capture a little bit of summer in a bottle, cider making is definitely worth the effort.

Published in the September 2015 issue of Grow Northwestdemijohn

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