Sweet & Delicious Cider Making

Autumn's gift to summer: sparkling hard cider.On Wednesday, October 14, 2015 I’m leading a class called “Sweet & Delicious Cider Making” for Metro Continuing Education.

“There are countless apple trees in Edmonton, and cider is one of the best ways to preserve and consume local apples.  Learn how to make sweet and aromatic apple juice and hard cider like you’ve never tasted before.  Allan will show you how to crush, press and ferment your cider using affordable homemade equipment.”

Crabapple Jelly

A pot of Dolgo crabapples, ready to be made into jellyCrabapple is my favourite jelly, hands down.  The perfect balance of tart and sweet.  A distinct, local flavour sitting in the pantry all year.

The following recipe works well for the Dolgo crabapples we get from Lisa’s dad’s backyard.  I imagine there is huge variation in sweetness, acidity, and pectin content in crabapples across the region, so I can’t say for certain if this will work for you.  But it’s a good base recipe.

For the record, I don’t core the apples.  I don’t even stem them.  I remove leaves, if I find it convenient.  I mash with a fork and strain through a jelly-bag, so the seeds and stems don’t end up in the jelly.  Pressing cider with Kevin has made me a lot more relaxed about things like that.

For a detailed description of the chemistry of jellies, and why we do what we do to make jellies, see Jelly Primer.

Dolgo Crabapple Jelly

Ingredients

  • dolgo crabapples
  • water
  • white granulated sugar

Equipment

  • 2 straight-sided pots
  • fork
  • jelly bag
  • candy thermometer
  • jars, with lids and collars

Procedure

  1. Put the crab apples in a pot.  Add water until the fruit is just, just covered.  Bring to a rapid boil and cook until the apples are tender.  I tender to use super-ripe apples, many of which are windfalls, so they are tender after only three minutes of boiling!  Don’t overcook the fruit.
  2. Remove the pot from the stove and gently mash each crabapple with a fork.  Let the mash stand for fifteen minutes.
  3. Pout into a jelly-bag fastened over a large pot and let the mash drip.  Preferably over night, but a couple hours will work fine.
  4. Measure the strained juice.  For every 600 mL juice, weigh out 400 g granulated sugar.
  5. Combine the juice and sugar in a pot fitted with a candy thermometer.  Boil vigorously until the mixture reaches 218°F.
  6. Immediately transfer to sterilized jars and process.

Suggested Uses

  • A good spread on toast.  This seems like a no-brainer to me, but Lisa insists that the Jolly Rancher-like tart-and-sweet flavour of the dolgo is inappropriate at breakfast.  I’ll let you decide for yourself.
  • Whisk crabapple jelly, then a bit of butter, into a stock reduction as a sauce to accompany game.
  • Inject into freshly fried doughnuts.
  • Use it as a component in one of my favourite condiments, onion jam.
  • Spread onto sponge cake to make jelly rolls, or in between sheets of pound cake for layer cake.
A crystal-clear jar of Dolgo crabapple jelly.

Hard Cider

Autumn's gift to summer: sparkling hard cider.Earlier in the month we pressed our apples into cider.  The juice that ran from the press was sweet and tart, with a full, milky mouthfeel, and a subtle siltiness that I think was from the skins and seeds of the fruit.  It had a cloudy, oxidated colour and was a pleasing drink in all of its many facets.

Fermentation

As with grapes, there is an abundance of natural yeast living on the skins of apples, and when you crush the fruit and mix the skins with the juices, the yeast has easy access to sugar.  I’m always surprised by the efficacy and consistency of this natural fermentation.  Basically the cider can sit in your basement for a week, and fermentation will begin all on it’s own.  For a brief few days, the cider gets even better than when it was first pressed.  A yeasty aroma develops, and the resulting alcohol wakes up the palate.  The drink becomes slightly effervescent. 

Preserving Apple Juice.  The natural fermentation described above is inevitable unless you take specific measures to prevent it.  If you want to keep your non-alcoholic apple juice for more than a week, you have two methods at your disposal.  The first is freezing.  The principal advantage of freezing is that it preserves a lot of the fresh aroma of the beverage, as well as wild yeasts.  The disadvantage is the moderate energy required to run your freezer for months on end, and frozen liquids tend to take up a good deal of valuable freezer space.  The second option for preserving fresh apple juice is canning.  The canning process pasteurizes the juice, killing any yeasts and thereby preventing alcoholic fermentation, but it also kills some of the aroma of the drink.  You then have a jar of delicious apple juice that can safely sit on your shelf at room temperature, freeing up freezer-space for other necessities like meat.  The downside of this preservation method is that it is extremely energy intensive.

Why to Ferment to Hard Cider.  So you can see that both methods have their pros and cons.  Fermenting the apple juice to hard cider solves all the issues mentioned above.  Of course fermentation drastically changes the flavour of the cider, but it actually heightens the aroma and flavours.  And the real beauty is that alcohol is a natural antiseptic, so hard cider can be bottled safely without the heat treatment required for fresh juice.  The only power I use in my cider-making is operating the crusher.

How to Ferment to Hard Cider.  As described above, fermentation happens all on its own.  The major draw back to natural fermentation is that it is unpredictable and inconsistent.  Every now and again fermentation will stall, and it becomes clear that some other organism has taken hold of the juice.  If the cider is racked, the yeast usually re-asserts itself.  For a more complete discussion of some of the weird stuff that can happen, see my post on making vinegar.  Even if true alcoholic fermentation proceeds, inconsistent and unpleasant aromas often develop.

Pitching commercial yeast will control the fermentation and draw desired aromas from the fruit.  There are a few strains of cider yeast.  A Riesling yeast called Rudesheimer also works well.  I have a friend who uses lambic yeasts.

Cider Styles.  On a long enough time line, without preventative measures, all cider will ferment till it is completely dry, that is, void of sugar.  If you’d like to have any residual sugar in your cider, the most common method is to treat the cider with sulfite to kill the yeast and arrest the fermentation.

A case of bottle-fermented bubbly ciderBottle-Fermenting.To know when to bottle hard cider you must first decide what style of cider you want to make, namely still or effervescent? If effervescent, do you want light carbonation, like you might find in English ale, or heavy carbonation, like the large bubbles dissolved in Champagne? You control this by bottling when the cider has a certain specific gravity.  Specific gravity is a way to approximate the amount of residual sugar in the cider, and the more sugar that is left at bottling, the more effervescent the drink will become.

  • At a specific gravity of 1.000 or lower the cider will be still, that is, not effervescent.  Still cider can be bottled in almost anything, including wine bottles with a cork.
  • By bottling around 1.003 you will end up with cider that has the mild effervescent of beer.  This style of cider should be bottled in a beer bottle with a crown cap or swing cap.  (One fall I drank only Hacker-Pschorr and Muskoka Spring Oddity so that I could collect the swing cap bottles…)
  • At 1.008 the cider will be very sparkling, like Champagne.  Lots of pressure builds in the bottle, so this style of cider must be bottled in a heavy, Champagne bottle.  The cork must be caged to keep it in place.  Some types of Prosecco come in heavy bottles with swing caps.

Dorky sidenote.  I’ve developed a labelling shorthand for my bottled cider to give an idea of what the carbonation level is.  A label reading only “Cider” is still.  Sparkling cider is labelled “Cider – Special No. X” where X is the last two significant digits of the gravity reading before bottling.  So, Special No. 10 is very bubbly, while Special No. 3 is only faintly effervescent.

Most sources say that bottle fermentation takes two weeks at minimum.  I’ve cracked some bottles at that point and found them flat, so I try not to touch them for at least four.  But if you can wait even longer, you will be rewarded…

Aging Cider.  Immediately after fermentation, sometimes my cider is good but not great.  The acidity is a little harsh, and occasionally there are some funky odours, perhaps sulfur, or solvents like nail-polish remover.  Some cider can benefit hugely from a few months aging.

Effects of Aging Cider.  Last year on St. Patrick’s Day I pulled one of the few remaining litres of still cider out of the cellar to thin out my corned beef drippings.  I don’t think I had tasted it since Christmas.  The cider had gone through a remarkable transformation.  Obviously it was still dry, but nowhere near as abrasively tart as it had been in December.  The acidity had mellowed markedly.  All in all it was actually quite well balanced.  And somehow the nose has lost the harsh odours.

Malolactic Fermentation in Cider?  My best guess as to why the cider changes so much is a process called malolactic fermentation, a bacterial fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid.  It occurs naturally in some classic wines, and is now induced by vintners for certain styles, notably oaked Chardonnay.  I don’t think that MLF changes the absolute pH of the wine, but  lactic acid is much softer and more palatable than malic acid, so the perceived acidity decreases.  The two main acids in grapes are tartaric and malic acids.  Apple juice contains mostly malic acid, so it’s possible that if MLF were to take hold in cider, it would greatly affect the tartness of the drink.  My sources on winemaking say that MLF bacteria naturally inhabit the wood of the barrels.  Whether or not MLF could start spontaneously in apple cider stored in plastic and glass, I’m not sure, but it’s the best guess I have to explain the dramatic change that apple cider goes through over six months storage.

Pressing Apple Cider

Yet ev’n this Season Pleasance blithe affords,
Now the squeez’d Press foams with our Apple Hoards.

-John Gay

 

To most contemporary city-folk the word “cider” implies fermented apple juice.  My grandparents made the distinction between “cider” (juice pressed from apples) and “hard cider” (fermented apple juice).  For now I have simply made cider, and will leave the discussion of hard cider and its variants for another post.

This week we picked about 150 lbs of apples from three different trees:

  • one beautiful, well-trained tree yielding large, blushing apples, which I will be referring to as “Ron’s apples”;
  • one crabapple tree with bright red, tart fruit;
  • one hideous, unkempt tree in our backyard that grows small green apples.  The tree is so large and spindly that we harvested its apples by climbing into it, shaking it vigorously, and then collecting the fallen fruit from the surrounding grass.

After harvesting, we borrowed a crusher and press from Kevin.  The crusher is a garburator, intended for a kitchen sink, outfitted with a hopper and a power switch.  You can read about Kevin’s design here.  The press is a strong wooden frame with a carjack that drives a plunger onto the crushed fruit, described here.  Thank you, Kevin.

Some notes and photos from our cider day.

Here are the apples we used.  Below, left are the crab apples.  Below, right, Ron’s gorgeous apples.

Left: Dolgo crabapples, Right: Norkent apples (I think...)

And here are the tiny, bruised apples from our backyard.  They don’t look particularly appetizing – you would never pay money for them at the grocery store – but they make for good cider.
our_apples.JPG

Some sources say to wash and stem the apples before crushing.  Others say this is unnecessary.  I subscribe to the latter theory.

You also don’t need to peel or core the apples.

Below is Kevin’s crusher, doing what it does best.  The apple mash comes out white, then rapidly oxidizes to the rusty colour we associate with apple juice.  With a traditional crusher the mash will sometimes be put through a second time for a finer grind.  This in unnecessary with the garburator.  It’s very thorough.

crusher.JPG
Apple sauce from the crusher
The apple mash is scooped into a piece of cloth, which is twisted and squeezed to extract some of the juice.  We found that at least 90% of the juice could be pressed from the mash in this manner, without the use of the actual press.
Once the mash wrapped in cloth is shaped into a disc it is called a “cheese.”  Some sources say to tie the cloth with a piece of string.  This is unnecessary.  The cheeses are stacked inside the press.  Some sources say to place wooden discs between the cheeses.  This is also unnecessary.
Then the car-jack is opened to drive the plunger onto the cheeses.  The juice flows out of a spigot at the bottom of the bucket.

pressing.JPG

After being pressed, the cheese is dense, dry, and crumbly.  The left-over bits are called pomace.  In many parts of Europe grape pomace is mixed with water and sugar, fermented into a weak “wine,” and then distilled.  The resulting liquor is called grappa in Italy (especially famous in the provinces of Friuli and Piedmonte), marc in France, and tsipouro in Greece, to name only a few of the regional variations.  I suspect a similar drink could be made from this apple pomace.

pomace.JPG

We crushed and pressed the three different apples separately so we could taste the juices on their own.  Tasting notes:

  • Ron’s Apple Cider – A good balance of tart and sweet, with a hint of almond extract, probably from the seeds and skins.  Slightly silty mouthfeel.  Reddish brown.
  • Crabapple Cider – Very tart, but still surprisingly flavourful and pleasant to drink.  Brilliant pinkish red.

 

  • Our Backyard Apple Cider – This was the real surprise for me.  They are by no means choice eating-apples, and most were battered and bruised by our harvesting method.  Their juice, however, was fantastic.  A great balance of tart and sweet, and a distinct grassy finish.

The three types of cider were then mixed together.  While “single variety” may be popular with coffee and wine, apple cider and any of its fermented and distilled derivatives are always made from a blend of several apple varieties.  Half the work of the cider producer is in finding the right mix of sweet, tart, and aromatic apples to create a balanced drink.

Once mixed, the cider was syphoned into carboys to clear over night.  The roughly 150 lbs of apples made 40 L of cider.

This really is one of those epic, rewarding, seasonal “chores,” like tapping maple trees and slaughtering pigs.  There’s lots to be done with the cider, yet.  Stay tuned.