Thursday, October 8, 2009

Brewing Hard Apple Cider

Many, many years ago, I took a trip to rural Iowa (where the pigs each had a patio) with a native farm boy. It was in the fall, cider pressing time, something I'd never seen before. I was surprised that they used all the apples - not just the perfect ones plucked right from the tree. They used the bruised windfalls, the bird-damaged, and the wormy ones. Dumped into a washtub for a quick rinse, then into the grinder, down into the big round slatted press, and the cider came pouring out the spout. It was absolutely the best stuff I'd ever tasted.

Now, I have my own apple trees. Every once in a while, we'll get enough apples to make the bother of pressing cider worthwhile. Just for the record, we're not just making a couple of glasses of juice - we're going for five gallons to ferment into hard cider, plus extra to drink now.

You don't use early summer apples to make cider - they don't have enough sugars. I make applesauce out of my excess early apples. Late apples, the ones that ripen late in the year, the ones otherwise known as storage apples, make the best cider. This year, my Macintosh and Liberty apples set a lot of small fruit, too small to bother peeling and coring, but perfect for cider. We let them set for a week to soften and sweeten a bit - even longer would have been better, but since it's partly an outside activity we watch the weather too. Yesterday, we decided it was cider time.

Aries starts outside, cleaning and setting up our press on the edge of the deck. Basically, it's an open rectangular frame, a small rock underneath the back edge to tip it forward a bit. The bottom plate has ridges that allow the juice to flow beneath. To lessen leaking, he lines the bottom plate with plastic wrap, taped to hold it in place. He sets the plate into place within the frame, a catch bucket underneath the spout with a lid to cover it (to keep the yellowjackets out - they'll be here as soon as the juice starts flowing).

The first step in pressing cider is to grind the apples into little bits. The same old neighbor that gave me my 1970's-era dehydrator also gave me an equally ancient juicer. It weighs a ton, but the metal grinding teeth do an excellent job on the apples. It also has solid plate to use instead of the juice screen across the juice spout, so it will just push all the apple mush out the end spout (or maybe you'd prefer the "bucket & sledge hammer" option, here).

Once I've got the juicer/grinder all put together, I set a bucket on a stool under the spout to catch the ground apples. We also make beer, so I line the catch bucket with a nylon mesh bag normally used for boiling the grain in beer-making (we have two bags, making the process a bit faster). The solid plate leaks a bit, so I put a small bowl underneath that too. The less leaks, the better - apple juice is so sticky, and my kitchen floor is going to be a disaster zone soon enough anyway.

Everything in place, we're ready for the apples. The apples are dumped into the sink full of water for a quick wash, piled into a tub, and then roughly chopped into pieces small enough to fit through the small hopper of the grinder. Aries chops, I feed handfuls at a time into the hopper. A friend, Micah, stops by, so we give him a knife too, and he starts chopping on the other side of the counter.

Once there's quite a bit of crushed apples in the bag, Aries takes the bucket outside. He twists the mesh bag closed and puts it on the press. He dumps any extra juice out of my bucket and gives it back to me. This is where the second bag comes in handy. I can take that bucket back inside, line it with the other bag, and get right back to grinding apples.

Meanwhile, Aries puts the smooth-faced top plate over the bag, topping that with a small jack. As he starts jacking up the jack, it presses against the top of the frame, squeezing the mush between the top and bottom plates. The juice flows through the spout into the catch bucket. When the spout stops flowing, he covers the catch bucket, loosens the jack, and removes the top plate. The bag of almost dry apple mush, now called pomace, is emptied into a waiting wheelbarrow (and later given to the chickens). Aries comes back inside to continue chopping.

Just like when making beer, sanitation while fermenting hard cider is very important. You want only the things you purposely put into the fermenting bucket in there, and everything else kept out. Wild yeasts present in the air can ruin a batch, giving it a bad flavor, as can the bacteria on a dishcloth. Bleach is a good sanitizer, so we previously rinsed the fermenting bucket and lid with a weak bleach solution, then kept it closed up until we're ready to fill it from the catch bucket of cider.

From about two bushels of small, otherwise unusable apples, we get almost six gallons of cider - a little over five in the fermenter, almost a gallon for the refrigerator. For the hard cider, we decide to add only extra sugar and a packet of champagne yeast. I heat up some of the cider and add four pounds dark brown sugar, stirring until it's all dissolved, and then put that back into the fermenter. Stirring with a sterilized spoon to aerate it a bit, Aries adds the yeast then snaps the lid on tight and puts a fermentation lock, filled with a bit of vodka, into the top. By this morning, the escaping gases caused by the yeast turning the sugars into alcohol have started burbling up through the lock. Fermentation has begun.

Oh, and the fresh stuff for drinking now? Aries likes to pour his off the top without disturbing what's settled, but I like to shake it up before I pour a glass. There's so much fiber in unfiltered apple juice I almost feel like I should chew it. And it's so filling - four ounces is almost more than I can drink at one time. It's sooooo good.


Melynda Brown said...

Great post, always so much to learn from you. Thanks.

Annodear said...

I'm amazed at both the scale and level of sophistication and attention to cleanliness involved! I was totally thinking, oh, maybe a gallon or two until you said differently... and having wild yeasts and/or bacteria to contend with... well, it's quite the undertaking! And worms, too...? hmmm. Whatever. Guess they're not hurting anything! But just knowing they're in there... well, such is life! I think a "saying" would be appropriate here... one like "into every life a little rain must fall..." So how about "you can't make cider without squishing a few worms...???" I can do better. Will give it some thought :-D

At any rate, fabulous post. Very involved stuff here!

Dan said...

worms? Where do they say anything about worms?

Sadge said...

Hey, Dan: First paragraph - the worms and windfalls and cider-making in Iowa. I don't spray my apples, and some of them do have worms. If I hadn't already seen that others use the worst apples for cider, I might have thought I couldn't do it. The cider gets strained a couple of times during the pressing process, but yes, there have to be some little ground-up worm bits in the pomace. I do know there are no pesticide residues in my cider. Which would you prefer?