It’s that time of year again, apples are dropping from the branches. I’ve rummaged in the attic and dragged out the necessary gear, it’s time to fire up the press and get cider making – or in this case cyser as I’ll be adding quite a lot of honey to my apple juice.
This is hard work, making beer isn’t so much easy as relatively quick. Making cider is a whole different thing, it’s simple, it’s physical, it’s messy. You’ll need an awful lot of apples, if you’re making cyser you’ll also need a lot of honey and it won’t be ready for months.
The chance of failure is high but if it works you’ll be able to sit back with a glass of something amazing and think ‘I made that’. My batch took six hours on the first day – including clean up ( there’s a lot of cleaning up).
You could bypass a lot of the hassle by buying apple juice but where would be the fun in that? If you do buy juice, go for ‘not from concentrate’ and try to get a mix – I’ve seen single variety apple juices on sale though they’re not exactly cheap.
Apples – we’re lucky enough to have access to an orchard which isn’t ours but is free for all if you know where it is. Some kind soul labelled the trees over the spring so I actually know what we’re picking this year and I have to say I’m impressed with the varieties:
Blenheim Orange – 1740, One of the parents of Cox’s Orange Pippin usually used as a cooking apple.
Annie Elizabeth – possibly a seedling of Blenheim Orange, another cooking apple.
Warners’s King – 1700, large green sharp apples. They made up about a third of the harvest.
Thomas Rivers – 1892, yellow and red skinned apple with a slight pear aroma.
St. Edmunds Pippin – 1870, a gorgeous nutty russet apple.
King of Pippins – 18th century, a late ripening sweet sharp fruit.
Three of those ‘I’m big and strong’ Satansburys bags took a mere half hour to fill and although they didn’t look like much, I figured they would suffice. One bag as we shall find out later will make ten litres of juice.
After this point there are many routes to success, the more kit the less work – my first batch was done with an old hand cranked mincer, a jelly bag and a lot of squeezing – a few litres and very sore hands, it worked but damn, never again.
Here’s what you need to find or improvise:
Pulping device – the first big hurdle for the apprentice cider ( or cyser) maker. I have a pulp master – a vicious blade fitted to a drill, it’s fine for these quantities. If you don’t want to invest, a cheap juicer is a hell of a lot of work, very messy but will get you there – without needing a press. If you feel like going nuts, make a full on scratter.
Press – the costliest bit of kit, there are ways around it but honestly it’s worth getting, borrowing or making one. If you use a juicer you won’t need one but juicers are only meant to make a glass at a time so it’ll take a while. Mine is very small ( 8l) but patience and tenacity make up for the lack of size.
Filter – pressed apple juice is full of lumps, you’ll need some means to strain. Traditional presses use mats of hessian and straw I use my brewing mash bag, any loose weave cloth will do. Juicers don’t have this issue, though you’ll be cleaning out the pulp tray an awful lot.
Fermentation vessel – you’ll be wanting a big bucket with a tight fitting lid that can be occupied for months. Whilst it’s busy bubbling away you can give some thought to kegs or bottles for phase 2.
More buckets – you’ll need to store your pulp whilst it’s waiting for its turn in the press.
Things you could need (but can do without)
Campden tablets – apples are filthy things, presses are basically impossible to sterilise, your juice is full of bugs. Some of those bugs would make great cider, quite a few will justify pouring the whole lot away. Sulphite has been used for centuries by burning sulphur in the fermentation vessel, it inhibits wild yeasts and bacteria – it doesn’t kill them in the quantities we’re using but slows them down enough for our yeasts to take control. Any sulphites added now will be broken down by fermentation. Don’t be tempted to boil the juice to sterilise – we’re not beer making and we don’t want a drink that tastes cooked.
Pectinase – an enzyme that helps break down the cell wall in apples, it’s very optional but using it will dramatically increase the amount of juice you get for your efforts and give you half a chance of getting a clear cider (if that’s important to you).
Yeast – Apples are covered in wild yeasts, in principle you don’t need to add more – left alone juice will start to fizz after a few days but it can easily go wrong. The wild yeasts may indeed make a great brew but they work best at low temperatures – our warm autumnal weather is quite likely to give you something that smells like nail varnish. Give it a go by all means but you might want to split your batch and add yeast to some of it. Even if you don’t, wild yeasts will have some influence on your brew – you can’t totaly eliminate them.
Don’t underestimate the effect yeast has on flavour – a proper cider yeast will generate fruity tasting esters as it ferments, a beer yeast might struggle to get started in the high acidity of juice but will work, just pick a neutral flavour variety. Most wine yeasts will work fine. Baker’s yeast should probably be avoided – it leaves a really odd bread & yeast aftertaste.
Tannin – if you’re really lucky and have actual cider apples you shouldn’t need any but for the rest of us adding tannin makes the difference between a good glass of cider and something rather thin and sour. There are loads of ways to add tannin, I keep it simple by using powdered grape tannin added part way through fermentation so I can taste and adjust.
Getting going –
Wash your apples – you will never get anything sterile but a rinse in a bucket at least gets off the mud, slugs and earwigs.
Chop – breaking big apples up into two or three chunks makes pulping a lot easier.
Pectinase – add a little to each batch as you pulp it. If you’re not using it you could try letting your pulp sit overnight, or you could just press it straight away – you won’t get quite as much juice but you’ll still have plenty.
Press – your pulp should sit for a couple of hours before you fill the press. With the brewing bag inside, it’s just a question of packing the as evenly as you can. Squish everything about half way, take a rest for a few minutes and tighten it up again. The remaining pulp should be good solid mass that’s hard to get out of. Yes, your apple juice will probably look like mud, despite that, grab yourself a glass and have a taste. Take an SG reading if you have a hydrometer – our juice was 1045, that should translate into 5-6% alcohol.
Add Campden tablets – one per five litres. If you’ve added some then the juice will need to sit for a day before yeast goes in. If not, get the yeast in asap. as you’ll need to overwhelm the wild yeasts with your cultivated variety.
Pitch yeast – I always make up a starter culture, despite the instructions saying just to sprinkle it on the top – it just gets things going faster. Even so it’s going to be a couple of days before bubbles appear on the surface. Keeping the ferment relatively cool – below 20C is a good plan to avoid that pear drop & varnish taste.
Wait – don’t peek, don’t prod, don’t let the fruit flies in. Timing will depend on the temperature, the juice and your yeast. After a week or two, have a little taste – it will be no where near done ( and it will probably be ‘effing sharp’ ) but you’ll get a good idea what prospects your cider has and it’s a good time to tweak the flavour a little by adding tannin. Then it’s time to put our young cider aside for secondary fermentation – I put mine into kegs and move it out to the nice cool workshop until some time in March. This is an essential step in cider making as it allows the yeast to convert the rather tart malic acid from the apples into the smoother tasting lactic acid and is the main reason why cider takes so long.
Isn’t this supposed to be about cyser?
Ahhh, so you have been paying attention! Cyser is cider with added oomph. I don’t add my honey for another week – check out the next installment for details, and have your honey bucket at the ready.