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More on Hard Cider

In my last post I wrote about hunting for the apples with which I make hard cider.  Having done that – I’ve located two trees full of what appear to be ‘Golden Russet’ apples —  I thought I would add a few notes about turning the fresh, sweet cider I’ll press from that fruit into the fermented, alcoholic product: hard cider.

The best introduction to this process is a book that Annie Proulx co-authored early in her career, long before she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Shipping News.   Cider is the succinct title of this early effort, which Proulx wrote in partnership with cider-maker Lew Nichols.  Together, they introduce the reader to every detail of cider-making, from selecting the fruit, to bottling the finished product.

One detail this book does neglect is the fine points of selecting an appropriate yeast.  This is a point of some contention.  Some cider makers just go with the yeasts that naturally occur on the apples.  This is, no doubt, how hard cider making began millennia ago, and it is still the rule in the Asturias region of Spain, where I have tasted excellent ciders.  The problem with this approach is that there are many strains of wild yeast, some good, some bad, and you won’t know which you have got until you pop the cork on a finished bottle.  Uneven quality, in fact, has been a major obstacle to the export of ciders out of Asturias.

I prefer to innoculate my cider with a specific strain of yeast, so that I can better predict how the finished product is going to taste.  But which yeast should I use?  In the past, I’ve relied on champagne yeasts, typically Lalvin EC-1118 Champagne.  This is a very aggressive strain that is fast fermenting and produces a very dry hard cider – I prefer a cider that isn’t sweet at all.

I used to sulfite my ciders immediately after pressing the apples, to knock out the wild yeasts, but I’ve found that the Lalvin EC-1118  is sufficiently competitive that when I use it, I can skip this step.  That’s good, because occasionally the sulfites give the finished product a faintly sulfury odor.

I’ve been told, however, that this yeast is so aggressive that it strips out much of the appley bouquet that is one of hard cider’s pleasures, so this year I am going to experiment with some other yeasts.   Lalvin K1V-1116, a white wine yeast, is supposed to be kinder to the bouquet, while still proving quite competititive, and I will surely make a batch of hard cider with this.   I’ve also had Lalvin D47 Yeast, another white wine yeast recommended to me as enhancing the bouquet and producing “floral notes”.  I’m not sure what those are, but I may try a batch with that, as well.

And if you happen to be in western Massachusetts on October 14th, do join me at the hard cider tasting I will be hosting for the Sandisfield Arts Center.  There will be lots of fine ciders by leading cider makers complemented by local cheeses and live music.

Posted by on October 2, 2017 at 11:30 am.   This post has 4 responses.
Drink This

Apple Hunting Season

This is the time of year when I start scouting for apple trees.  Neglected, venerable trees full of fruit that nobody wants.  Not shiny, red, and flawless, ready to be popped into a lunch box.  Nor even the big, sweet fruits bred for baking.  The apples I want can be rough-coated, gnarled, and even a little scabby.  They’re tart and tannic, puckering your mouth at the first bite.  Powerfully flavorful.  Perfect, in other words, for making hard cider.

That – hard cider making – used to be a tradition in my part of the world, southern New England.  From Virginia north, but especially in the northeastern states, hard cider was the vin de pays, the local drink with a definite regional character.  In part that was a reflection of the regional nature of apple growing.  Virginia, for example, was ‘Hewe’s Crab’ country when it came to cider making; in New Jersey, the apples of choice were ‘Winesap’ and ‘Harrison’.   New England boasted many fine cider apples; the standards included ‘Roxbury Russet,’ ‘Golden Russet’ and also ‘Baldwin’.

I had heard mentions in passing of hard cider from my father, a Connecticut native who associated it with haying time on relatives’ farms.  But my first real encounter with it came in the library of the New York Botanical Garden.  One day, while prowling the stacks, I came on a book published in 1911:  The cider makers’ hand book : a complete guide for making and keeping pure cider by J.M. Trowbridge.  This volume not only told the reader every detail of how to make hard cider, it made clear why you should want to:

“A pure article of cider, skillfully made from select fruit in perfect condition, should have perfect limpidity and brightness, even to sparkling in the glass… It should be fragrant so that when a bottle is freshly opened and poured into glasses an agreeable, fruity perfume will arise and diffuse itself though the apartment… It should have mild pungency, and feel warming and grateful to the stomach, the glow diffusing itself gradually and agreeably throughout the whole system, and communicating itself to the spirits…and it should leave in the mouth an abiding agreeable flavor of some considerable duration, as of rare fruits and flowers.”

I began collecting apples, and with an antique cider press rescued from a friend’s barn,  I pressed my first batch, fermenting it down to dryness in glass carboys.  I siphoned it into bottles and corked them.  Six months later the cider was straw golden, clear, sparkling, and smelling and tasting of the apples’ very essence.

I’ve since updated my equipment, purchasing an electric-powered, Italian fruit crusher which I share with a farmer in western Massachusetts.  The farmer, in return, allows me to use his hydraulic cider press.  With these devices, I get far more juice from a bushel of fruit, which is good because appropriate fruit is harder and harder to find as the old trees die off and are replaced by less intensely flavored modern cultivars. Every year I have to travel farther afield to find my fruit.  What better excuse, though, for exploring back roads while enjoying the fall foliage?

Posted by on September 4, 2017 at 4:55 am.   This post has 10 responses.
Drink This,   Feed Me

Scouting for cider apples

If your neighborhood is anything like mine, there are plenty of neglected apple trees, trees planted by optimistic home landscapers and then more or less abandoned when the owners learned that producing blemish-free fruit requires a strict regimen of sprayings.  Blemish-free fruit isn’t necessary for cider-making, of course, and my experience has been that the offer to share a gallon of cider will usually gain you access to all of such fruit as you can use.

I try fruit from different trees until I find some with a lively flavor.  Then I use the scavenged apples as a base for cider-making, enhancing them with the small but tart and flavorful fruit from hedge-row apples I find growing along abandoned fields and maybe some crabapples to add extra tannin.

For a finer vintage, I have located some surviving trees of old fashioned apples that traditionally were grown specifically for cider-making, including one huge old ‘Golden Russet’ that every second year produces bumper crops of small, rough-skinned yellow fruits that make a glorious cider all by themselves – this juice I generally save for fermenting into “hard” cider.

apple scavenging

















The ‘Golden Russet’ apples ripen late, in early to mid October, which is a characteristic they share with many other outstanding cider apples.  In fact, it is a good idea to make a special scout for apples about now – what you find ripening during this later part of the season will tend to yield the richest juice.

Another example of a desirable, late-ripening apple is the ‘Baldwin’, a once very popular variety that still persists in some older commercial orchards and which adds authority and tannin to cider when blended with sweeter, less complex fruits.  West County Cider, a maker of hard ciders located in Colrain, Massachusetts, makes a pure Baldwin vintage cider that is delicious – look on its website for retail outlets.

The most useful reference about heirloom cider apples is The Apples of New York State, by S.A. Beach, which was published in 1905.  It provides descriptions, including the value as cider apples, of the roughly 1,000 apple varieties then grown in New York State.   Most of these are no longer available, but a surpising number of varieties can still be found if you are persistent in your hunt through old orchards. Over the years I have found everything from ‘Rhode Island Greenings’ to ‘Roxbury Russets’ and ‘Gravensteins’, all of which contributed to memorable ciders.

Posted by on October 15, 2015 at 7:02 am.   This post has 2 responses.