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Friday, March 4, 2011

New England style cider: the slow road to good drink

Buzz contributor Wes Eaton explains the process of making “New England” style cider, in his words, "a golden drink with a strong acid backbone yet pleasant apple flavor achieved through a slow, 'stressed' fermentation process".

By Wes Eaton

In days gone by, farmers would press their apple bounty into large, barn-stored wine barrels, allowing the raw cider to ferment slowly and naturally, making a strong but sweet beverage for consumption over the winter and cool spring months. Dried fruit was added for sweetness and strength, but this played a dual role as its presence also helped clear the beverage. I like to emulate this process in my home cider brewing, especially the cold fermentation stage, which is key to coaxing raw cider into a balanced and full-bodied elixir rather than an alcoholic, tepid and flabby mouthwash, so often the product of hot, vigorous fermentations. To put it more straight forward, here’s how I go about making my cider.

Attack of the giant carboy!

Once home with your cider--five or six gallons makes a worthwhile batch--sanitize your brewing pail and fill it to just beyond your target volume, say five and a gallons, leaving room enough for the yeast to rise. The extra volume is necessary as you'll lose some cider after fermentation when you siphon it from the primary bucket into the air tight glass carboy for its conditioning phase. Take a reading with your hydrometer next and note the specific gravity and potential alcohol in your record book. With no additives, my batch this year came in at 1.050 S.G., with a potential alcohol of 7%, meaning that if all sugars are converted, I’ll have a decently warming beverage. Like wine, cider “finishes dry”, meaning that all of the available sugars in solution will be eaten by the yeast, yielding a final gravity reading of below 1.000, the gravity of water.

When your fermentor is full and gravity reading recorded, your must is ready for inoculation with yeast. There are other steps that many cider makers take at this stage--testing the pH, testing the acid and making adjustments, or adding sulfites to sanitize your must from wild yeasts. Let’s leave those steps for more advanced, future batches and move straight ahead to adding the yeast. Knowing the quality of the source of your cider is key to this step [see note below], as is a little faith that good-tasting raw cider will yield great-tasting hard cider. There are many yeast options available, but I suggest a dry American or English ale yeast such as those offered by Safale. If you are a beer brewer or wine maker, it's here you would snip and sprinkle in the entire package. Not so with cider, not with New England-style cider anyway, and here's why.

Look closely: you can almost see the raisins.

Adding the standard, full-size shot of yeast (typically one package) induces a quick, healthy fermentation where the sugar is converted into alcohol over the period of days and the resulting drink must be moved quickly off the spent yeast cake. This standard fermentation, while perfectly functional, drastically changes the flavor of the raw cider, dissolving the taste of apples and accentuating to taste of alcohol. To slow this down, there are two things the old farmers figured out long ago: add only a little yeast, say a 1/4 tsp per five gallons (if any at all) and ferment your cider in a cool place, preferably between 46-56F. Simply sprinkle your yeast on the surface and attach your lid and airlock. Next, look for a cold spot in your home, like a back stairwell, cellar, three-season porch or closet on an outside wall. If the temperature temporarily drops, that’s okay; your yeast is hardy! [Editors note: both the author and Siciliano's recommend keeping your cider at room temp (68 degrees) for a day or two after pitching the yeast and before moving it to your "cellar" location; this allows the yeast to gain a necessary, if tenuous foothold.]

By this process you achieve a “stressed” fermentation -- metabolization (yeast multiplication) and alcohol conversion happen slowly, gradually, over an entire season as opposed to a number of days, thereby preserving the flavors of your carefully blended apples and providing the perception of sweetness and body despite a technically dry-finishing beverage. Let this happen in a brew pail or, if you’d rather see the colors move from leather to copper to gold, let your cider ferment in a glass carboy. You’ll know when it's time to transfer by noting this color change. As the cider begins to clear, sometime around late winter or early spring, slowly siphon the must off the now-dormant yeast cake and into a clean carboy, making sure that the carboy is topped-up to prevent oxidation from contact with air. Your cider has now undergone its long, slow primary fermentation and has been moved into a secondary vessel; it's time now to add a final ingredient: raisins.

Orange: fruit & hue.
As noted, the tannins found on raisins contribute to the desired translucence and also add both body and sweetness. Since your remaining yeast is now dormant, stressed into submission from their uphill battle against the cold, sweet wort, the concentrated sugars found on the raisins add delicate and complex flavors of plumbs and figs, ultimately enhancing the perception of apples. Specifically, I use organic white raisins. Whatever you use, be careful to choose raisins not coated with vegetable oil, a common additive. Add about a half-pound, then top up the vessel, attach your airlock and let age as long as you can, at least one month.

Your cider can then be packaged either still (non-carbonated) in bottles or racked into a home kegging set-up. To make your bottled batch sparkling, you’ll need to add fresh yeast along with 1/4 cup of corn sugar boiled and cooled in a cup of water before bottling. The result is a sparkling, golden elixir, the hue of honey, with the aroma of a summer apple orchard and taste of a crisp Fuji on a hot, summer afternoon. While this is only one way to approach making cider, this is my favorite, and I hope you too enjoy this patient and rewarding method.

Black & white for dramatic effect
*Regarding ingredients: Hard cider starts with sweet or raw cider, which is called ‘must’ or ‘wort’ by brewers, as is any unfermented fruit- or barley-based liquid. Preferably, your cider will come from an orchard and mill close to your home, one which blends the juice from a variety of acidic (tart) apples, such as Jonagold, Golden Delicious and Ida Red, with those of the sweet, sugary sort, such as Macintosh. My source is Hill Bros. Orchards & Cider Mill northwest of Grand Rapids. Winner of multiple awards for the raw stuff, Hill Bros. accommodates the amateur cider maker like no other, offering to fill buckets or even bourbon barrels with their continually-tested blend of four or five varietals, sold below three bucks a gallon well into the new year. While theirs is highly-prized cider, most any fresh, local cider will do, as long as it has not been pasteurized (UV pasteurization is fine).

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