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.
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.