Hard Cider Experiment

Reader Contribution by Laura Damron
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Part librarian, part mad scientist – I’m definitely a hands-on learner. When something catches my interest, there are usually two phases that follow: The first being the research phase, where I read as much as I can about a subject, until I feel I’ve got a grip of the basics. Phase 2 is where I jump in with both feet, learning by doing. I take what I’ve read and get right to it; sometimes I make mistakes, but I still typically have a great time doing so.

A couple of years ago, I was bitten by the fermentation bug. I think it started with making yogurt, then I moved up to pickled carrots, sauerkraut followed shortly thereafter … fast forward to today, where I ferment all sorts of veggies and keep crocks of sourdough starter and kombucha tea happily fermenting away on my countertop at all times. So, it made perfect sense that I’d get the home brewing itch, sooner or later.

I attended a class on the basics of home brewing beer back in June, which cemented the idea that this would be my next area of exploration. The one thing holding me back was the cost – to brew my own beer, I’d need to fork out a bunch of money not just for supplies, but for ingredients as well. No, I needed some way to get my feet wet, without spending a fortune up front.

Enter the apples. We have four apple trees that dump loads and loads of fruit on us, every year. This is a particularly good year for them, whether due to the weather itself or to the fact that we let the trees go a little wild, I don’t know, but I knew I needed to come up with a plan to start dealing with that glut before it arrived. I still have jars of pie filling and applesauce left over from last year, so I really didn’t feel like canning much more than some apple butter. Think, think, think…

Then it hit me: Our friend Dave offered to lend us his cider press! And the supplies for making hard cider are also used for beer! So, for a minimal investment (I spent under $100 total for everything, all of which are multiple-use items), we can a) get out from under a boatload of apples, b) have a little fermentation fun, c) start collecting supplies for beer making, and d) drink some hard cider? Sign Me Up!

And so, an experiment was born. We spent the better part of one day gathering apples, grinding them up and then pressing the pulp to extract the cider. Incidentally, I typically don’t drink apple juice or cider from the store – I’ve never really enjoyed the taste. But this? Oh my goodness! It was sweet and tart all at once, and actually tasted like fresh apples (go figure). It was so nice, in fact, that we kept a couple of bottles aside for drinking as-is.

Now, we wait. We have three fermentation vessels going: one 5-gallon carboy, and two 1-gallon jugs. All were sanitized ahead of time, and fitted with airlocks once filled. We chose to go with a wild ferment this time around, meaning that we did not add any yeast to the cider – we’re relying on the natural yeasts that are already present in our environment. For the gallon jugs, I gave them a little boost by pre-fermenting a small batch of cider ahead of time, and dividing that between them as an inoculant. This was my way of making sure that there was enough active yeast present, before we committed to so many gallons of cider.

As luck would have it, we’re still experiencing some unusually warm weather here – yesterday, it hit 90. So, while I was wilting away in the shade, all three vessels (plus the sourdough and kombucha) had a massive boost due to the warmth, and began bubbling like crazy with all of the yeast doing its thing: eating the sugar in the cider and converting it into energy, CO2 and alcohol. Once the activity in the bottles slows to a near stop, we’ll siphon off the hard cider into new bottles to separate it from any sediment, and do a little secondary fermentation for carbonation by adding a tiny bit of sugar to the new bottles before we cap them. Once capped, they’ll rest for another couple of weeks, before we try our first one … depending on the temperature between now and then; I think it’ll be about a month before we get a real taste of what we’ve made.

Making a wild cider is not without risk; wild yeast can be inconsistent, and in some situations mold may be a problem. Many sources recommend killing off the wild yeast and replacing it with a known variety, which pretty much guarantees the taste and outcome of a batch. If I wanted repeatable results, then I would definitely go that route. But, me being me, I like the idea of doing this the way it’s been done for eons: no additives; just apples, our native yeast, and time. I’ll keep you posted on how it turns out.

Have you ever made hard cider, brewed your own beer or made some wine? 

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