Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fresh autumn cider!

This weekend, I was invited to an apple-cider making party at a friend from work's home. As someone who has never lived in an area where apples are in great supply (chiles, yes - apples, not so much), I've never had the opportunity to do this, so I dragged Blu to St. Paul and had a look.

Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, but I can describe the process. You start with a large wooden contraption, which has a bucket and a platter driven by a corkscrew. The apples are ground into a coarse mash, then smashed with the platter until they yield delicious juice!

While in college, I was an avid homebrewer. I made small, one-gallon yields of mead (honey wine) and occasionally I would go in with a friend on beer made on his five-gallon system. Naturally, the first thing I thought while helping press the bushels upon bushels my friend brought home was, "hey, why don't I make this cider hard?"

When you move into a new town, you forget about all the things you have built up in your neighborhood map. Doctors, vets, etc. all have to be carefully researched and sometimes even then you have to wade through bad apples to find one you like! If I had only moved a few miles away from my old town, I might have sprung for the gas to head back to the places I know and love. However, I'm now 900+ miles away from that town and it's (obviously) impossible. I wondered where I could go for homebrew supplies and a fresh batch of yeast. Answer? Northern Brewer homebrew supply. I was able to get everything I needed there for a reasonable price, important for Blu and I's small budget and just around the corner from my friend's cider press.

We spent about four hours helping press, and our share was two gallons of the fresh pressed juice. I'm still deciding whether or not I want to augment that with store-bought cider or not - I'm not sure if I want to spoil it!

In any case, before you can work with fresh raw cider, you must kill off all the wild yeast already in the cider. I know plenty of people who let wild yeast do their fermenting work when making hard cider, but doing so can cause unpredictable results, and not always for the amazing. Thus, I decided to go with a domesticated yeast strain:

Wyeast 4766 - a cider strain available in stores or online
Problem solved! Now I know I can expect roughly the same flavor notes when using this yeast, instead of leaving my gallon jug open and hoping for the best.

I've skipped a lot of other major steps, but the number one rule in homebrewing (or any home fermentation, for that matter) is "sanitize, sanitize, sanitize". The bacteria that ruin your batch of beer, wine, mead, cider, or sake could come from anywhere - the bottle, your hands, etc. While brewing beer or mead, boiling the must is how you eradicate the ugly bugs and release the sugars. In cider, it's a little more complex an animal - boiling fresh cider makes it taste more like cooked apples than fresh ones, and that's not the flavor profile I was looking for. Enter something called campden tablets, handy little tabs of potassium metabisulfite that inhibit the growth of most wild yeast and some bacteria. So, after sanitizing my brand new 5 gallon carboy (remember, I've just upgraded after making small one-gallon batches), I put two of these little buddies into my two gallons of cider must:

Campden tablets, friend of homebrewers everywhere.
The semi-final product is a very lonely looking 5-gallon carboy, less than half full of soon-to-be hard cider. Tomorrow the Campden tablets should be finished doing their job, and I can pitch the yeast, fill the airlock, and wait for bubbles - my favorite part!

Don't you just wanna hug it?
I figure this batch should be done in about 3-4 weeks. Anyone want to come have some cider at our Thanksgiving dinner?

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