Give me yesterday’s bread, this day’s flesh, and last year’s cider. (B. Franklin)
Most Americans have no idea what cider really is or its place in American history. The founding fathers brought apple trees and presses from England to the colonies. Everyone drank cider – morning, noon, and night – including children who drank watered-down cider. Apple trees and cider-making followed the settlers to the west. Nearly every homestead produced apples and cider.
The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end for cider consumption in America. As the population moved into cites, it became difficult to distribute cider in large enough quantities to serve the population. German immigrants in the mid-1800s brought beer-making processes and technologies to America that allowed for large-scale production of lagers. City-dwellers became beer drinkers, and cider-drinking was relegated to the country bumpkins. Prohibition killed what was left of cider production in the America. Orchards across the country ripped out cider apple trees and replaced them with eating apples and culinary apples. Now that cider is making a resurgence, orchards are frantically replanting cider apple varieties, but they are not keeping up with demand.
So, what is the difference between eating apples, culinary apples, and cider apples. Modern eating apples are basically just bags of sugar water with enough acid to keep them from being cloyingly sweet. They are crunchy and extremely juicy, which is desirable in an eating apple. But these juicy apples, actually have fairly low concentrations of sugar in the juice (typically about 10% sugar by weight). And, they don’t have much in the way of distinctive flavors. When you ferment away the sugar, you are left with modest alcohol levels (5% ABV) and bland flavors. Culinary apples are used for cooking or baking. Both tend to be high in acid. This provides sharpness to balance the sugar that is added during cooking and baking. Culinary apples can be used to make cider as they increase the acid level in the final product.
Cider apples generally fall into four categories based upon the relative levels of acid and tannin in each variety. If you are a wine geek, you understand that acid and tannin provide the structure and determine the mouthfeel of a wine. Acid and tannin serve the same purpose in cider. Acid makes your mouth water and conveys crispness in the product. Tannin provides bitterness and astringency (makes your mouth feel dry and sticky).
The most common cider apples were developed in England and France starting in the 1600s and continuing into the 1800s. The flesh of these apples is course and chewy, but it releases juice better than a modern apple when being pressed. The apples tend to be drier (less juicy) than modern apples, but they have much higher concentrations of sugar. Cider apples have complex, earthy flavors that are more intense than modern apples. These flavors carry over into the final product.
Sweet apples. These apples produce juice with very high concentrations of sugar – upwards of 19% sugar by weight (Brix). If fermented to dryness, this will produce alcohol levels to nearly 11% ABV.
Sharp apples. These apples produce juice with very high concentrations of malic acid, but relatively low levels of tannin. Sharp cider apples are similar to culinary apples, and some varieties of apples are used for both purposes.
Bittersweet apples. These apples produce high levels of both sugar and tannin. These apples also provide the classic cider flavor in traditional English and French ciders.
Bittersharp apples. These apples product high levels of both acid and tannin.
True cider apples are commonly referred to as “spitters”. They are either so tart or so tannic that you spit them out if you take a bite. One book on cider making from the 1800s stated that the best cider apples were so harsh the neighbors wouldn’t steal them and the pigs wouldn’t eat them when they fell on the ground.
Generally, cider is made from a blend of all four types of cider apples with roughly 40% from sweet apples, 30% from sharp apples, 20% from bittersweet apples, and 10% from bittersharp apples. The primary purpose of the sweet apple is to provide sugar for making alcohol. The sharp apples provide the acid for crispness, and the two types of bitter apples provide the tannin which completes the mouthfeel of the cider. A well-made cider is dry, acidic, and tannic. It has more in common with a dry red wine than the alcoholic soda pop that dominates the market right now.
It is rare for a cider to be made from a single variety of apple, but it can be done. Single-variety apple ciders typically use some variety of bittersharp apple which has all the necessary ingredients to make a balanced finish product – high sugar levels, high acid, high tannin levels, and complex flavors. Any single-variety apple cider you see on the market will be from a bittersharp apple (e.g., Kingston Black).
So, what are the options for a home cidermaker:
- Become really good friends with someone that grows cider apples and will share them with you instead of selling all of them into the commercial marketplace (or keeping all of them for themselves).
- Plant your own trees and wait (I planted in 2014. I should be getting apples soon).
- Make do with alternatives from your local orchard.
- Learn to make cyser (apple mead – subject of a future article).
- Seriously, don’t go there. The soft cider that you buy in the grocery store or at your local orchard is generally a blend of juices from modern eating apples. It is sweet and barely tart. If you ferment it, the sweet will be gone, and what is left will be bland.
The rest of this article is focused on option 3) above – making do with the apples you can find in your local orchard.
This means buying fresh apples, crushing the apples, and pressing out the juice. You need apples that provide complex flavors.
Focus on heirloom varieties, particularly classic apple-pie apples – varieties that originated 100 years ago or more. These apples will be in the neglected part of the orchard. No one wants these apples, but the owner of the orchard hasn’t pulled them out yet (it’s not really that bad, but it has some resemblance to reality). Old apple varieties tend to have rich earthy flavors that are clearly “apple”, but still “different” from anything you are used to. Modern eating apples are pale in comparison to heirlooms. The texture of these apples is weird. They do not crunch. They are chewy and even a bit rubbery. It is off-putting if you grew up on red delicious and have moved on to Galas or Honeycrisp.
The next apples you want are crabapples. Really. Every commercial orchard has crabapples. These apples produce vast amounts of pollen and are in bloom for a long time. Thus, they are valued as great pollinators in orchards. But orchards will grow crabs that are useful for other purposes as well – mostly for making jellies and jams. Some crab apples are sweet, but many are very high in acid.
The good news is you can make great cider without access to classic cider apples.
The bad news is that not all apples blend well together. The first year I got serious about making cider, I worked with 15 different varieties of apples. In the end, I made 6 different blends. Two were great (I kept those for myself); two were good (I gave those to good friends); and two were OK (those became party booze – make it sweet; put it in a keg; the drunks love it). A lot of experimentation is required. The best blend that I made included roughly equal parts of cider made from Whitney Crab (sweet yellow crabapple), Spartan (child of McIntosh, red with white flesh and wine-like flavor), Rhode Island Greening (one of the two oldest varieties in America, green with yellowish flesh, outstanding apple-pie apple), and Dolgo Crab (red with white flesh, shockingly sour, but actually has the highest sugar concentration of all the apples used that year).
To make things more complicated, apples harvest anywhere from early August to late October. The apples you most care about don’t harvest at the same time. Crabs typically harvest in early August and heirloom apple-pie apples harvest in October. This means you make cider from individual varieties and then blend them some time later.
Now to walk through the process of making of a single batch of Dolgo Crab Apple Cider.
You will need two crucial pieces of equipment – something to crush apples and something to press the juice out of the crushed apples. There are many different configurations of crushers and presses. Apple crushers have fingers that shred apples and grinders have blades that do the same. It’s a bad idea to run your hand through either one of them. Vertical basket presses are the lowest cost style of press to start with and come in two basic configurations – a grape/wine press or an apple/cider press. Either will do the job. They look similar but are different. The T-handled apple press can be used without nailing it to the ground. The wine press must be fixed in place or it will turn in circles as you crank on the handle (foreshadowing amusing photos in the upcoming wine article).
Whether you use a crusher or a grinder, the basic process is to put apples in the hopper and turn the crank. I have a hand-cranked crusher. With a little ingenuity, this can be converted into a motorized crusher. The next one I buy, when the orchard is producing, will be motorized.
Dolgo crab apples are about the size of a large cherry. They run through the crusher with ease. The fingers on the crusher are quite small. So, any apple bigger than these crab apples needs to be cut into halves or quarters depending on how big they are. While this seems like extra work, it means you get a chance to examine each apple and discard any that show signs of spoilage.
When you turn the crank, the fingers inside the crusher shred the apples. The shredded apples fall out of the bottom of the crusher and into a bucket. From here, the apples go into the press. There is one serious problem to contend with when using a vertical basket. The juice must flow from the apples in the middle of the basket to the outside where gaps between the slats allow juice to exit the basket. Unfortunately, crushed apples (and grapes for that matter) are basically slimy little pieces of fruit covered in sticky juice. When you squeeze two fruit pieces together, they form a water-tight seal. So, juice that is in the middle of the basket can’t get out. The solution to this problem is to mix rice hulls into the crushed fruit (all-grain brewers will be familiar with this trick). The rice hulls act like little straws providing channels between the pieces of fruit so that juice can flow between the pieces even under high pressure.
A couple of important notes. First, all apples oxidize; some faster than others. If you cut an apple in half and leave it on the counter, the exposed flesh will turn brown. If you crush and press fresh apples, the juice will turn brown as you watch. This is concerning to a beginning cidermaker, because, in almost all cases in brewing, oxidation is a bad thing. However, in cider, oxidation is a key part of the flavor profile of the finished product. And much of the browning will be reversed during fermentation thus yielding the classic yellow-gold color of cider. Note that heat also produces browning (ask the food geeks at Glibs about the Maillard reaction). So, pasteurization of apple juice can contribute to browning. But the browning due to pasteurization does not produce desirable flavors and will not be reversed during fermentation.
Second, I learned the hard way to line the wooden basked with screening material (I now buy screen door repair fabric at the hardware store). If you don’t line the basket, pulp and seed will be squeezed into the spaces between the wooden slats. This is a pain to clean up afterward.
One of the nifty features of Dolgo crab apples is the red pigment in the skins will rub off on your hands. It is also highly soluble. This results in pink colored juice running out of the press. I sliced the skins off a dozen or so apples and put them into the primary to enhance the color. Normally, I add oak cubes to secondary fermentation, but for this batch, I added medium toast French oak cubes in the primary. The cider was fermented with an English ale yeast (Wyeast 1318 London III). Note the primary is a Rubbermaid Brute which has a loose-fitting lid. There is no need for an airtight seal during primary fermentation.
After a week or so in the primary, the cider was racked to a 6 ½ gallon glass carboy. An airtight seal is provided by a rubber bung with a S-shaped airlock. It appears that I carried over the oak cubes from the primary because a week really isn’t long enough exposure for cubes. This is the time when a bacterial culture is introduced to the product to perform malo-lactic fermentation – the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid (the acid found in milk). This fermentation takes two or three months.
At some point, this batch of Dolgo cider was mixed with other batches of cider. Fining agents were used to clarify the blended cider (I really like Super Kleer). After it cleared, it was bottle conditioned by adding 1 ounce of raw cane sugar per gallon of product and bottling in beer bottles. This resulted in a sparkling, semi-dry cider.
Sometimes I keg and force carbonate. This allows the cider to be back sweetened and stabilized with potassium sorbate. The resulting product can be semi-sweet or sweet depending upon the target audience for the kegged product (party booze generally needs to be sweet, because there aren’t enough educated cider drinkers out there).
There are other major issues to consider.
Brewers will generally work with three types of acid in fruits: citric acid from citrus fruits (and many types of berries); tartaric acid from grapes; and malic acid from apples (and also many types of berries and grapes). For any given acid concentration, malic acid has the harshest flavor and mouth feel. Lactic acid has a much smoother flavor and mouth feel. Converting the malic acid in cider to lactic acid makes the product softer and smoother even at high acid levels (this is commonly done in a lot of red wine styles as well). So, malo-lactic fermentation provides great benefits to cider, but it comes with a significant risk.
The bacteria that convert malic acid to lactic acid are highly susceptible to potassium metabisulfite (sulfite) which is used to protect against spoilage organisms like Brettanomyces. And Brett lives everywhere. It is on the skins of fresh fruit. When you crush and press fresh fruit to make cider or wine, it is in the juice. It is essential to add sulfite to the fresh juice to kill spoilage organisms at the start of fermentation. Sulfite also works to prevent or reverse oxidation. When you put small amounts of sulfite into highly oxidized apple juice, it will chemically interact with the oxygen and become neutralized (read a book on wine chemistry if you care about the details). Thus, the amount of free sulfite in the juice drops quickly (this is complicated and could be the topic on a stand-alone article).
The goal is to introduce enough sulfite into the fresh juice to kill the spoilage organisms present on the fresh fruit, but at a low enough rate that there will be no free sulfite left by the end of primary fermentation. You can then rack into a secondary, pitch malo-lactic bacteria, and wait for 2 or 3 months for the bacteria to work while hoping your sanitation was good enough so that you didn’t introduce any new spoilage organisms going from primary to secondary. And the mathematical formula for getting that right is – I have no idea.
My process, which has worked so far, is to prepare a 1-quart spray bottle with a solution of 1 tsp of sulfite and 1 tsp of citric acid (sulfite works best in high acid solutions). I press juice into a small bucket. When the small bucket is full, I pour it into a large bucket and spray the juice with a couple of squirts of sulfite solution. Then I cover the large bucket with a lid while I continue to press juice. Eventually, all the juice is poured into a primary fermenter which was sanitized by spraying it down with the same sulfite solution. This seems to get enough sulfite into the juice to prevent spoilage while not carrying enough sulfite into the secondary to inhibit malo-lactic fermentation. After a couple of months of malo-lactic fermentation, I add about ¼ tsp of sulfite to each carboy. This will prevent spoilage during long-term aging.
That’s enough for now. Go forth and make cider.