I’m finally back from vacation (and have even passed the subsequent period of vacation-is-over depression), and am extremely psyched to tell you all about our apple cider adventures!
A lot of beer drinkers poo-poo cider thinking that it is just a too-sweet girl beverage. Well as a savory-toothed, beer loving chick, I’m here to tell you that a well-made, dry hard cider is completely delicious and gender neutral. Mike and I have been talking about making just such a hard apple cider for at least a year or two. We finally decided to do some real research a couple months ago, and were pleasantly surprised at how easy it sounded. We learned that to make the best artisanal ciders, all you need is fresh, unpasteurized apple cider, and the appropriate yeast.
The fresh cider should be unpasteurized for a couple of reasons: first the flavor is far superior, and second the pasteurization process compromises the enzymes and nutrients that yeast need to thrive.
Piece of cake, right? Where it gets tricky is that its basically impossible to find unpasteurized apple cider, even at your local farm. Hmm. What to do?
We considered calling up our local orchard and asking if we could get some fresh cider before pasteurization, but then we wouldn’t have control over what apples were used. For a few months we discussed this issue and whether we should just buy our own fruit press, but they were pricey, and we already spend WAY too much money on brewing supplies. After many weeks of debate, we finally decided that if we were going to make apple cider, we were going to do it right. As a one year anniversary gift to each other, we decided to splurge on a fruit press. Couples that brew together stay together, right? And let’s be real they’re so much happier with all the delicious fermented beverages they have stockpiled. . .
Next question we ran into was, what kinds of apples make good cider? According to our research, to make the best ciders, you should have a blend of different apples. You basically want a 50/50 mix of sweet and sharp apples. Examples of easy to find sweet apples are Golden Delicious or Fuji, while Granny Smith and Braeburns would fall under sharps. We also found out that you should never be tempted to use “bargain bin” apples that are bruised and blemished, as these can introduce acetobacter (which will produce vinegar off-flavors) into the cider.
To get more guidance on apple varieties, we went to our local farmers market and chatted up the owner of Backyard Orchard, because, oh my gosh their apples are so good! If you live locally you can find them at the Hyde Park Farmer’s Market and the Northside Farmer’s Market too. Our orchard expert recommended a few different apples for complexity, including #2 honey crisp and Priscilla (sweets), plus Daytons and Ginger Gold (more sharp). We came home that day with two bushels of apples, which as it turns out is a lot of frickin’ apples.
Exactly one year and one day after our wedding, we hunkered down to crush up and press some apples. Because we are giant dorks who buy an apple press as an anniversary gift, we dubbed our first cider, Anniversary Apple Cider.
To prepare the apples for pressing, we filled a large bucket with water to clean them off, then cut the apples into quarters. For the larger apples we went for eighths. Cutting the apples is an absolutely necessary step. Commercial producers will actually start with chunky apple sauce. The press set up involves two separate machines and stages, the first is the apple crusher, and then the pressing stage.
While Mike crushed apples, I cut them up, getting rid of any bruised or otherwise icky looking spots. In the end we could fit about one bushel of apples into the press. Here is an Instagram video I made while we pressed the apples, and here is a Youtube video I found of the step by step pressing process (not including the apple crushing step).
We ended up with four gallons of must that had a gravity of 1.035 (giving us a potential alcohol of 5%). In terms of a time commitment, it took us about three hours to clean, cut, crush and press two bushels of apples. A typical beer brewing day will take 4.5-6 hours, depending on the complexity of the mash schedule.
Once we got all of our juice or “must” from the apples we strained out the bits of apple in a sanitized sieve, then pitched 1/4 teaspoon of potassium metabisulfite into our fermentation vessel (a big sanitized bucket with an airlock). The sulfites will kill any wild yeasts which produce those funky, barnyard flavors common in your sour and wild beers, but not usually desirable in cider. To work properly, we let the sulfites do their thing for 24 hours before we pitched our own yeast.
At first, we pitched a Wyeast 4766 cider yeast, which unfortunately seemed to be defunct (the bag never puffed up like it should), so we ended up pitching champagne yeast a day later. Champagne yeast is a favorite for ciders because of how well the yeast ferments out all the sugars. You can actually end up with a gravity below 1.000, which is basically a complete fermentation. For comparison, a dry beer will still have a gravity of about 1.007-1.012. Most times, ciders are back-sweetened with juice from the original pressing that is frozen to be sterile, and blended later. Adding the Champagne yeast did the trick and we now have beautiful bubbling cider fermenting in our basement.
It’s been a week now and we are still bubbling away. Once the bubbles in the airlock slow to only one or two bubbles per minute we’ll transfer to a secondary vessel and ferment for at least another month, as recommended. We’re shooting for a pretty dry cider so we’ll probably age for up to two months.
Since we have this beautiful fruit press, we’re going to shoot to make at least another few batches of cider. We plan to experiment, mixing up the apple varieties to compare, maybe adding some Belgian candy sugar to boost the alcohol to 7-9%, and maybe even making Asian pear cider too! Needless to say, these next few months are going to be super fun, people – Stay tuned!