Isn’t making stuff, especially the first few times, really just an experiment? When we tentatively adopt a process without being sure of the eventual outcome – that’s an experiment. Whether creating in the kitchen, the workshop, or the garden the exact results are never really certain. Why? Chaos! There are so many variables beyond our control that we can’t readily see without special instruments and equipment. I have a thermometer and a scale. But can I tell you how many active yeast cells are in that rising dough ball? How much of what kind of minerals are in the tap water? Nope. So most of us rely on instinct and our experience and the advice of others. With our second experiment in cider making we did just that.
The most repeated advice I have been given regarding fermenting alcoholic beverages, if you want them to taste consistently good, is to sterilize, sterilize, sterilize! The fear of E. COLLI goes hand and hand with cider brewing when you look to the internet for advice. But one of the best ciders I have ever tasted, made by an ancient cidery in the Basque country claims to add no yeast at all — Crush the apples, extract the juice, put them in the wood barrels that we’ve used for a zillion years, wait for it change into cider and then enjoy it!
The romantic in me loves the idea of inviting in some of this natural chaos of the physical universe into creating things. Maybe it is in the subtle utilization of this Chaos, rather than a devotion to its total elimination, that great works lie? The next time you find yourself amazed and astonished by an outcome head and shoulders above what you expected, you may want to give thanks to your ever mysterious partner in creation, The Unknown.
After buying 25 pounds of fresh crop apples from an orchard stand near Peshastin, WA last weekend Patty and I decided to make cider. What better way to embrace the possibility of magical chaotic deliciousness than with a cider brewing experiment!
The apples were equal weights of Stayman Winesap and York. They sat in a cardboard box in our little crawlspace ‘root cellar’ for one week filling it with a heavy perfume of white blossoms and candy sugar. We rinsed the apples off well in a bleach disinfected laundry sink, then soaked the apples in a gallon of white vinegar and enough water to cover for about a half hour, mixing them around several times. The white vinegar solution did a stunning job of releasing the waxy coating on the apples along with a black soot. The strong vinegar solution should also eliminate most of the yeasts and bacteria living on the outside apple skin, but allow for the possibility of a small amount of wild yeast and bacteria native to the orchard the apples came from to survive and lend a hint of ‘terroir’ to the flavor of the cider. I imagine the cider makers in rural colonial America relying on the wild yeasts present to turn their barrels of sweet cider into dance inducing hard cider for winter and spring celebration.
In an attempt to limit the chaos introduced, Patty meticulously washed all counter tops and sinks with bleach and hot water. She then used a One Step sterilization solution from our neighborhood brewers supply retailer to wash every single thing that would come in contact with the apples and their juice. We used the Mr. Beer brand plastic brewing barrel gifted to us by niece Jessica as our brewing vessel. I used boiling hot filtered water and made a syrup of raw honey, coconut blossom sugar and a few white sugar cubes in a stainless clean bowl and set it aside to cool. With everything as clean and sterile as could be we started processing the washed apples, chopping them with a large stainless knife and feeding the pieces into the Champion juicer. It took around 30 minutes of continuous juicing to yield about 1.85 gallons of juice from the 25 pounds of apples. We poured all the juice into our brewing barrel. There was a huge amount of foam floating at the top which I skimmed off before adding the 70F sugar water to this and Patty pitched in 1 packet of White Labs’ liquid English Cider Yeast. We stirred it all together for a minute with a large stainless spoon and screwed the lid on. After cleaning up the mess, the process took the two of us about 2 hours start to finish. The brew now sits on our little freezer in our 68F average temperature home. We wont know the results of this experiment for about 3 months when the resulting bottled cider has aged enough to taste. (I will update this post with results and observations.)
Some foul yeast might ruin the whole batch. But, it could be the best tasting cider we have ever made. If it is, it will be in part to things no one will ever know.
12.5 lbs Stayman Winesap Apples
12.5 lbs York Apples
1.25 liters boiled filtered water
1 cup Coconut blossom sugar
68 grams raw honey
10 tsp white sugar cubes
1 packet White Labs’ English Cider Yeast
Started Nov 14th 8pm(ish).
Nov 15th 8pm – Lots of tiny bubbles steadily rising. Yeast looks active.
Nov 23rd 10am – yeast activity is slowing a lot. Bubbles rise at half the quantity of a few days ago. Time to bottle soon…
Nov 25th 4pm – The bottling is complete. There turned out to be about 2 liters worth of applesauce like particulate. More than I suspected, but I was glad I chose to filter the liquid through a stainless sieve and fine boiled cheesecloth before bottling. The 25lbs of apples ultimately yielded six 1 liter bottles. To each bottle I added 1/2 teaspoon of local homey boiled for 3 minutes in 6 oz. of filtered water (1 oz of honey water in each liter bottle). Hoping this adds a little fizz without the champagne-like volcanoes that erupted from our first cider bottles last year.
The fresh fermented juice tasted quite good with lots of apple fruit flavor. I would have liked to find a bit more tart and a touch of bitter too. We’ll see what develops after 3 months. The 6 bottles are sitting in the ‘root cellar’, currently at 50F. They will stay there until late February before we open one up and taste it. Happy Thanksgiving 🙂
April 29th 2016 – We have been opening a bottle every 5 weeks or so since February. The first tastings were very fizzy. Like, shaken champagne explosively fizzy. And tasted a little raw and funky and lacked enough tartness, though the smell of perfume apples on the nose was present from the beginning and I suspected (hoped) that aging would improve things. I moved the bottles from the “root cellar” about one month ago, as the temperature down there had climbed out of the low 50s into the low 60s. This, I felt, was too warm to age cider, so I moved the remaining bottle into our 38F fridge. Today I opened a bottle and was pleased to see that the fizz was completely normal, with a short “pfsssst” when uncapping. The pour is pleasantly carbonated with plentiful small bubbles, has retained the soft apple perfume bouquet with a bready yeasty note, and the flavor has mellowed. The cider is very drinkable at this point and has a surprisingly pleasant, strong lingering finish. Smooth and soft on the mouth with flavors of red apple peel and the tartness has developed nicely and makes your mouth water like a green apple jolly rancher candy. Can’t stop sipping it… The more you sip the better it tastes. A full 5 months aging has done wonders. I wonder what the ABV is? May have to get more scientific about this on our next (3rd) attempt. – Jesse