A few years ago, I started making home-made cider.





It’s not hard to make cider. If you take some fresh apple juice and wait, it will turn into cider all by itself. You don’t have to add anything at all – just let nature take its course.

This approach, appealing in its simplicity and its lack of added chemicals, is how cider was made by mediaeval monks, and this is how I have made most of my batches over the years.

There are a couple of downsides though. The first is that, if you allow the fermentation to run to completion, all the sugar will convert to alcohol, resulting in a very dry and very strong cider (typically my cider is 8% to 8.5% alcohol, while commercial cider is around 5%).

The second problem is lack of consistency. The natural process will invariably produce an alcoholic drink that tastes of apples, but the quality will vary. I’ve produced some batches of cider that are absolutely heavenly, like bottled autumn sunshine, with wonderfully balanced flavour, clear golden colour and light effervescence. Other batches have been pretty awful and I’d be embarrassed to offer them to anyone else.

In 2012 I didn’t make cider. I was living in Japan and didn’t have access to apple trees, and my cider-making equipment was in storage back in Ireland. Much of my 2011 production was also in storage, and when I returned to Ireland it had matured beautifully. Of which more later.

Last week I started making my first batch of 2013. Here’s how I did it.

First, I picked some apples from my dad’s back garden. I took 16 kg of apples, which will yield about 8 litres of cider.


You’ll notice that some of the apples are scabbed or damaged. It doesn’t matter.

It’s not easy to get apples to give up their juice. The usual method is to use an apple press, where layers of chopped apples are wrapped in cloth, and tonnes of pressure are applied to squeeze out the juice. My colleague Conor has a press that he designed and built himself, which is capable of applying several tonnes of pressure, and is capable of delivering more than 0.6 litres of juice from every kilogramme of apples (more than 60% efficiency).


Conor’s process begins with running the apples through a garden shredder. Here, he and another colleague, Shane, are shredding large quantities of apples on an autumn evening in 2011.



The freshly-pressed apple juice is delicious; rich and full of flavour.


As you can see below, Conor makes a lot of cider!


Compared to Conor’s operation, my production is pretty small-scale. I don’t own a press, so I’ve evolved a very low-tech method.

First  I mill the apples in our kitchen food processor.






The milled apple starts to turn an unattractive brown fairly quickly.


In some cider-making techniques, the milled apple is deliberately left to oxidise for a longer period to enhance certain flavour components. This is called “cuvage” and I have never tried it. Instead I press the apples immediately. It’s also wise to avoid prolonged contact with metal (other than stainless steel) as apple juice is quite acidic.

My method of pressing is quite unorthodox, but it works. I scoop the mash into a strong cloth bag, and I squeeze by hand. It’s a slow process, requiring patience. But I achieve an efficiency well over 50% (half a litre of juice per kilogramme of apples).


The apple pulp yields up its juice only gradually, partly because there are limited channels for the juice to make its way from the centre of the mass to the outside. You have to squeeze a little at a time, allowing the mass of pulp to rest and recover a little between squeezes, and rearranging it in the bag every so often.

The reason this method is reasonably effective (albeit slow) is that it’s possible to exert enormous pressures, comparable with those of a mechanical press, by the action of wringing cloth. In the past I’ve used cotton bags, and found the limiting factor was the strength of the material. This year I’ve been using sackcloth, with good results.

The solid residue after squeezing is called “pomace”. More sugar can be extracted from this by a process of rewatering – adding water and pressing it out again, adding the resulting watery “juice” to the first pressing. I tried this once and did not find it very successful. I have no shortage of apples, so if I want more juice I can just press more apples.



This is my first 5 litres of juice.



It’s important at this stage to know how much sugar is in it, so I take a sample and measure its specific gravity.

The specific gravity is measured using a hydrometer.


According to the hydrometer, the juice has a specific gravity of 1.05. This is fairly low considering the hot dry summer we have had.  It corresponds to a sugar content of around 11% and an eventual alcohol content of around 6%.


At this point, I set aside some of the juice for drinking. But it must be drunk promptly as it can’t be stored (unless pasteurised) – it will start to ferment and if kept in a closed container it will explode.

At this stage, we have a choice to make. We can either add a sachet of yeast or allow natural yeasts to colonise the juice.

Buying yeast from the shop means that you get to choose which species and strain of Saccharomyces will carry out the task of fermentation. In this case, you may wish to kill any other organisms first by adding sulphite tablets, and then add the yeast of your choice. I prefer not to do this.

The air is full of yeasts just floating around. The surface of the apples is also probably well-stocked with yeast. So you don’t have to add any yeast at all – just wait and fermentation will begin within a couple of days. DSC_0451

At this stage, the activity of the yeast and the production of carbon dioxide help to protect the juice from contact with air and bacteria.

(Incidentally, I always find it amusing that I go to great trouble to clean and sterilise all the vessels, implements and tubing I will use for cider-making, only to add large quantities of completely non-sterile apples!)

Once fermentation started, I siphoned off the juice into 2 demijohns (one-gallon glass containers) and fitted them with airlocks.


While the juice is very cloudy at this stage, it will gradually clarify as solid material settles to the bottom of the vessel. However I decided to depart slightly from my purist approach and add one chemical: pectolase. This is a pectolytic enzyme that improves clarity by removing “pectin haze” from the liquid.


Now the two vessels are bubbling away in the kitchen – glug…glug…glug… – about one bubble every two seconds. It’s a cheering sound, and if I leave it there it will be completely fermented within a few weeks. However it will be harsh and barely drinkable at that stage; only through a second stage of “malolactic” fermentation will it gradually become mellow and tasty.

In any event, I don’t really want it to ferment too fast. I’ve found that a slower initial fermentation leads to a nicer cider, so I would like to move it to a cooler location, possibly even an unheated shed where it can ferment over the winter. Even if the temperature drops so low that the fermentation stops – about 4 degrees C – the yeasts are not dead, merely hibernating, and will come back to life when the temperature rises again in spring.

As the cider ferments, the yeast will convert the sugar to alcohol (and carbon dioxide) and the specific gravity will gradually reduce.

At some point I will have to decide whether to stop the fermentation (resulting in a sweeter cider with a lower alcohol content). This can be done by dropping in a sulphite tablet to kill all the yeast. I have never used this method as I prefer not to add chemicals, and some people report that sulphites give them headaches. Another possibility is simply not to feed the yeasts. In addition to using sugar in their normal metabolic process, yeasts need nitrogen in the form of amino acids to grow and reproduce. As these are in short supply in apple juice, the fermentation may come to a natural stop due to insufficient nitrogen. This method is unreliable, to say the least.

I’ll post again with progress reports over the next few months.

Author Focus is on PJ Connolly

Author focus on PJ Connolly (aka my father) whose debut novel is coming out later this month

The Trace Literary Agency Blog


PJ Connolly is on the point of publishing his debut novel, The Priest’s Wife, in his mid-seventies!

So why did he wait so long?

In his early life PJ spent eight years training to be a Catholic priest but pulled out in the final stages when he realized that a life in the ministry was not what he really wanted. He never regretted those years of study and reflection but credits them with giving him an empathetic and understanding attitude to life and people that is clearly evident in his depiction of the three main characters of The Priest’s Wife.

His time in the church was also to influence his approach to the generations of teens who benefitted from his fatherly guidance and advice throughout his lifelong career as a school counsellor.

PJ has always been scribbling. Over the years he published poems, short stories and article in…

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sour or bitter?

Sensory scientists refer to a phenomenon called “sour-bitter confusion”. This mainly affects English-speaking subjects, who have a tendency to misidentify sour tastes as “bitter”. Sour tastes are associated with acid such as lemon juice, vinegar or cooking apples. Bitter flavours are typically associated with alkaline components in foods such as strong coffee, dark chocolate, beer, some salad leaves (radicchio) or green peppers.

Reliable reporting is of concern if for example you are a food scientist testing new flavours or carrying out market research; you want to be confident that you know what a tester means when they say “bitter”.

The sour-bitter confusion was first identified in a 1967 paper by Meiselman and Dzendolet at the University of Massachussets. When asked to taste samples representing the 4 “basic flavours”, 28% of their male subjects, and 10% of the females, described the sour stimulus (HCl) as “bitter”. This tendency persisted even when the subjects were corrected. Amusingly, the researchers concluded that the sour-bitter confusion may be “the gustatory analogue of abnormal colour vision”. In other words, that those subjects had a taste equivalent of colour-blindness.

Follow-up studies such as O’Mahony et al. (1991)  also highlighted a tendency to describe the sour stimulus (in this case, citric acid) as “bitter”, and offered a number of suggestions as to why this might be the case.

The most parsimonious explanation seems to be a linguistic one: that many English speakers simply regard “sour” as a subset of “bitter”. And this may not be so unreasonable. Consider the universal and involuntary reaction to either a strong sour or a strong bitter flavour; your mouth puckers up, saliva is produced, your eyes water and narrow or even twitch. (This is an avoidance reaction to a potential poison.)

Consider also how we apply the term “hot” or “piquant” to a wide variety of foods, from horseradish and mustard to ginger, from garlic to black pepper and chillis, chemically dissimilar but provoking a similar subjective response.

Another consideration is that, as children, we have very limited exposure to bitter foods. We quickly understand “sweet”, “salt” and “sour” because we encounter these flavours from early childhood, while we are learning our native language. We also learn the word “bitter” but, in the absence of bitter foods in many childhood diets, it is not surprising that many of us fail to associate the word with its correct referent. (There are good adaptive reasons for us to avoid and dislike bitter flavours, especially in childhood, as bitterness is a hallmark of highly poisonous alkaloids found in plants such as nightshade or hemlock.)

One other factor that I think is important in creating the sour-bitter confusion: in some English-speaking countries there is a popular drink called “bitter lemon”. This may be one of the most common colocations of the word in the English language (along with “bitter pill” and “bitter medicine”). While the name of the drink in fact refers to the combination of quinine (bitter) and lemon, it creates a strong association in the minds of English speakers between bitterness and the flavour of lemon juice.

Later, as we encounter (and perhaps acquire a taste for) bitter foods such as coffee and beer, the scope of the word expands to include actual bitterness as well as sourness.

It is as if we had learned colour words in an environment with limited examples of the colour “green”, but there was a well-known product in our culture called “green sky”. We would have a good understanding of the meanings of “red”, “black” and so on in our culture, but may grow up thinking that “green” was basically another word for “blue”.

And of course, in other languages, “green” may well be another word for “blue”; the semantic boundaries of colour words are not determined by any physical reality but are entirely culture-dependent. (Interestingly, Berlin and Kay’s famous monograph on basic colour terms was published in 1969, 2 years after Meiselman and Dzendolet identified the sour-bitter confusion). Latin and Homeric Greek had no word for “blue”; Russian has two words to distinguish different types of blue, but no word that covers all the shades we would call “blue”; Japanese may call “blue” some shades that English-speakers refer to as “green”; in old English the word “red” would include colours that we now think of as orange, not red (what colour is red hair?); Finnish has no native word for purple, and so on.

So why should we expect flavour words to have consistent boundaries across different cultures? Perhaps because the basic flavours correspond to a physical reality in a way that basic colour words do not? Are there not 4 different kinds of taste receptors for the detection of salt, sweet, sour and bitter, each arrayed in specific zones of the tongue?

Apparently not. The familiar “tongue map” is a complete myth. And in a 1996 paper entitled “Are there basic tastes?” J Delwiche argues that the idea that there are 4 (or 5—see footnote below) kinds of taste receptors, each corresponding to a “basic taste” is equally unfounded and lacks scientific value. It has been unwittingly perpetuated over the years by researchers using pure samples of each of the 4 putative basic flavours as a fundamental tool of their trade. The unquestioned assumption that there were exactly 4 basic flavours led researchers to use a limited set of stimuli, and to require their test subjects to report their subjective experiences in terms of salty, sweet, sour and bitter.

Finally, there is some etymological overlap; the English word “acrid” (bitter) is derived from Latin acer (“sharp”); the same word acer is also the origin of the French word aigre meaning “sour”, which in turn gives us the English “vinegar”.

So, in conclusion, if some people use the word “bitter” to describe the flavour of lemon juice or vinegar, who is to say they are wrong?


Footnote: 4 basic flavours or 5? Or more?

In the mid-1980s it was announced to the world that a fifth basic flavour had been identified, and that it would be known by the Japanese term umami. The unfamiliar name and the tone of the reporting made it seem like something exotic or obscure, something that perhaps would only be found in Oriental cuisines and might be difficult for western palates even to distinguish. Nothing could be further from the truth. This “new” flavour is nothing more than the characteristic savoury flavour of meat broth, mushrooms or parmesan cheese, familiar to people in every culture literally from our first taste of mother’s milk. It was like being informed of the discovery of the colour yellow.

Can we expect further announcements of additional basic tastes that are familiar to most of us, such as the harsh taste of strong tea or rhubarb? The “cool” taste of menthol? The Japanese wikipedia article on taste has a short section on 6番目の味覚—”the 6th taste”; a flavour receptor for calcium was identified in mice in 2008 (but not yet demonstrated in humans). Or is the whole concept of “basic flavours”, one corresponding to each type of receptor, an oversimplification with little relevance to how we actually experience food and drink?