Stories about making Hard Cider

The Four Dollar Fermenter

Last night, I stopped at a local bar where I’ve been chatting with the own about brewing and he gave me two empty Petainerkegs. These are five gallon one-way disposable kegs with a sanke coupler, which seems to be a new trend for microbreweries.

I spent a bit of time trying to figure out how best to these a part. Most of the information I found was about removing the sanke coupler from metal kegs so you could clean them and reassemble them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any good instructions about disassembling the coupler, so I ended up cutting the bottom ring off of cap which holds the sanke coupler on the keg.

The plastic is pretty tough so it took a little bit. However, once I managed to cut part of the ring, other parts started breaking off fairly easily. Once most of the ring was broken off, the whole cap and coupler just lifted out.

With the cap removed, I found that the opening to the keg was about the size of a #10 or #10 ½ stopper. At the local brew store, you can pick up a #10 stopper with a hole in it for $2.50. For another $1.50 you can pick up a vapor lock. With those and the Petainerkeg with the cap cut off, you have what looks like it will be a nice, cheap, fermenter.

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Beach Plum Jelly

Well, we did it. Our first batch of Beach Plum Jelly. Each morning, during our vacation on Cape Cod, I would walk to the beach. On my way there and back, I would pass beach plum bushes. Initially, most of the plums weren't ripe. Slowly, they ripened and I started picking a few, first for me to eat during my walks, then to share with my wife and daughter. Towards the end of our trip, the many beach plums ripened. I started carrying bags to store the plums in, and ended up gathering about a gallon and a half of beach plums.

Back home, we followed Sean Sullivan's BEACH PLUM JELLY: ORIGINAL GOURMET RECIPE. We put the gallon and a half of beach plums in a crock-pot and let them heat through for the day. In the evening, I strained the juice, ending up with about five cups. If I had been more diligent, I might have been able to get a sixth or even seventh cup out, but instead, I plan on saving the pulp for some further cooking experiments.

We added eight cups of sugar and brought it to a full boil. We then added a little more than a box of pectin, let it work back up to a build again for a little over a minute, and then let it cool. I skimmed off the foam; there wasn't much to skim, and then started putting it into half pint jars. We only had eight half pint jars, and we filled up all of them, and still had jelly left over, so we filled up a different jar which we will use immediately.

The jelly appears to have set nicely and the canning jars appear to have sealed, after flipping them over while they cooled.

We took a little of the remaining pulp, mixed it with vodka, sugar syrup and a little tonic water and had a great cocktail. I'm thinking of adding the rest of the remaining pulp into my first or second batch of hard cider this season. Beach Plum Hard Cider, sounds like it could be a great concoction.

So, that's our first experiment with beach plums.

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2011 Hard Cider Recap

For the past several years, I’ve been brewing and bottling hard cider. You can read the Cider section of this blog for details. This evening, Kim and I bottled the final batch. So, I thought it would be good to take an inventory of what we have for cider and how the batches turned out.

In other years, I was much more detailed about my cider brewing, tracking the yeast that I used, the specific gravity before and after, how long it went through each fermentation, etc. This year I had too many other things going on, so I kept mental notes, but nothing very detailed.

The batch we just completed was five gallons of late season cider and one gallon of black current juice. We used a dry yeast normally used for light red wines. It has come out incredibly well.

When it was bottled, I did an inventory of the hard cider I have. Currently, I have around twenty five gallons of hard cider bottled and stored in the basement. About ten gallons are from this year. Four gallons is from 2009 and 2010. Another 11 gallons, I’ve classified as part of my reserve. What I’ve been doing is setting aside three 22 ounces bottles of each batch that I save for future years. Some of that is to see how the different ciders age. Some of it is to save really special bottles. It probably works out to be about three gallons a year for the past four years, with a gallon missing for reserves that have been tapped.

Based on the experiments, I suspect that next year, I’ll do a couple batches early in the year of just straight cider using an ale yeast. That is what most of the cider this year was, and it came out really well. I might do another batch using a Champaign yeast. I did that a few years ago, and it came out pretty well, especially after it aged. We didn’t do any maple batches this year, but the maple cider has always been really good, so we may try another maple batch next year. Then, the black currant came out very well, so we may try a few more batches of that.

I’m kicking around ideas for other ciders with fruit juice, as well as trying another pear cider, even though that didn’t turn out so well the first time around. If I do pears again, I’ll look for a place to get earlier season pears. Of course a lot can happen over a year, so we’ll see what things are looking like in the fall.

Any other hard cider brewers want to share their experiences?

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2011 Black Current Hard Cider

I’ve just bottle 36 bottles of ‘1D’, my fourth batch of hard cider for the 2011 hard cider season. Assuming I didn’t mix up my batches, this is using the heirloom cider that I picked up at Beardsley’s Cider Mill at the beginning of November.

The first Sunday of November, Beardsley’s makes a special batch of cider, using heirloom apples, quince, and whatever else is in season, for a brewing club. They all come down with their carboys to fill up and to share cider and stories from previous year’s batches. This year, I had some interesting flavored ciders. One was made with elderberries and another with black current juice. The black current cider was really good, but it was a bit sweet. I think the guy making it just hasn’t mastered the proportions. The elderberry cider was also quite good. There were also discussions of making whisky and oak flavored ciders by adding in different types of wood chips.

An old friend from work had expressed interest in making flavored ciders, and it was too bad that he didn’t make it to cider day. Another friend brought in an article from a British magazine about different flavored ciders. So, I decided that I would try making some black current cider, myself.

Kim brought home a gallon and a half of black current juice from Maple Lane Farms in Preston, CT. I’m glad to be using local juices as part of my locavore approach to cider brewing. I then headed over to Maltose Express in Monroe. I needed to pick up more bottles for storing my cider and I wanted to pick up some yeast for new batch.

So far, this year, I’ve been using a Belgian Abbey Ale yeast, that has worked nicely for me. However, I was concerned that this yeast may be close to dying out and I wanted to try more of a wine yeast for this batch. I asked for recommendations, and they recommended a cider yeast. They always do, but I’m just not interested in Cider yeasts. So, they came back with Lalvin 71B-1122. It is supposed to be a rapid starter and work well in a wide temperature range, which is important in our chilly house. It sounds like a really nice yeast for what I’m doing.

I stopped at Beardsley’s and picked up five gallons of fresh cider and headed home.

Years ago, when my eldest kids were very young, we would drive to Jones Tree Farm, which is fairly close to the cider mill. To keep them entertained in the car, one year, we started counting the number of Christmas Trees we saw on different cars. We have kept this up as a tradition, and so I counted Christmas trees on my drive. Since I would be going by Jones Tree Farm on the first Saturday of December, I figured that I would get a pretty high number, and I wasn’t disappointed. I counted 164 Christmas Trees on the tops of cars during my trip.

Back home, I bottled the ‘1D’ batch of cider. As I always do, I pour off a glass of it to taste, and this batch has come out extraordinarily well. Kim said that it may have been the best batch yet. I’m drinking some of that glass as I write this blog post.

I put the new bottles in the dishwasher to sterilize them. I had done this with thirty six other bottles earlier, so I had enough bottles for most of the ‘1D’ batch. However, it wasn’t quite enough and there was probably half a gallon of hard cider remaining that I didn’t have bottles for. I could wait until the dishwasher finished, mix up some sterilizing solution, throw out the cider, or use it as a base for the new batch.

I really wanted the 71B yeast to be the dominant yeast, so I hesitated with the final option, but I certainly didn’t want to throw out any of the batch. Kim agreed that it would probably be fine to use it as a base for the new batch, so off we go. The new batch has 1 gallon of black current juice, 5 gallons of fresh cider, and about half a gallon of the 1D hard cider batch. We’ll see how it comes out.

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The Experimental Memoir Day 6, Hard Cider Day

When I was a kid we would often get fresh cider from local orchards. In a family of six, the cider normally went quite quickly. However, there were some times when it would get a chance to sit around a little longer. Then, it would start to get fizzy. It wouldn’t taste quite as sweet, but there was something to it that made it taste pretty good. I would hear my parents talk about how the cider was starting to go hard, and that we shouldn’t drink too much of it.

During the summers, we used to make our own root beer. We would take a five gallon pot, pour in a lot of sugar, add a packet of dry yeast, then pour in some root beer extract, and then fill the pot with water. When all the sugar was dissolved, my father would take a long rubber hose and put one end in the pot on the counter. He would then suck on the other end of the hose to get the solution flowing through it, and we would fill up bottles.

The bottles we used were mostly old soda bottles we had saved. We liked to use the older bottles that were thicker and didn’t have twist tops. We would fill them almost to the top with the fluid and then cap them. We would put them in the corner of the kitchen, lying on their sides, and let the yeast do its work.

The yeast would eat a little bit of the sugar and change it to carbon dioxide and we would have our fizzy, homemade root beer. It never really registered that the other by product of the yeast as alcohol, but I suspect that there was so little alcohol, it didn’t really matter. The same was the case with the hard cider. I don’t think it ever really got hard enough to have much alcohol content.

A few years ago, Kim, Fiona and I went pumpkin picking at a local farm. On our way home, we started at a cider mill just up the road from the pumpkin patch. As we waited in line to pickup some cider and donuts, we noticed a ‘hard cider brewing kit’. Kim’s first husband had been a beer maker, and Kim thought we probably could easily scrounge up everything we needed to make our own hard cider.

A few weeks later, we had everything we needed and went back and bought five gallons of cider. We spoke with one of the guys at the cider mill and he said that if we were making hard cider, we could simply bring in our carboy and fill it up directly, instead of needing to use several of the gallon plastic cider containers.

We went to a local brewing store and bought come Champaign yeast and started our first batch of cider. A carboy is a large jug used for brewing. In our case, we had a five gallon glass carboy. We poured the cider in, added the yeast and put on a vapor lock. The vapor lock sticks in a whole in the cork that we put at the top of the carboy. It has a twisty tube, which we put some alcohol. As the yeast converted the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, the gas could bubble out of the vapor lock on top, without allowing any bacteria or anything else to get into the cider.

We let it sit for a few weeks, and then siphoned it off, similar to how my father used to siphon the root beer solution, except we siphoned it off into another carboy, where we let it settle for a little bit. Then, we bottled the hard cider and let it sit in the basement.

This was a few years ago, and every year, we’ve experimented in different ways to come up with new hard ciders. The Champaign yeast yielded a very dry cider, much like a white wine. We tried different yeasts, and found that we like to use various ale yeasts. Other people we know like to use just the natural yeasts on the apples and in the air, and don’t add any yeast. We made batches at different times through out the year.

Early in the season, the cider was made from apples like honeycrisps. These are a sweet tasting and very crunchy apple. However, they don’t really have a lot of sugar and some people think the cider made from honeycrisp apples is more watery than other cider. However, it makes a nice hard cider. If we can get cider made with macouns, that is very nice, but a lot of people like to eat macouns, and there isn’t often a lot of cider made from them. Much of the cider we make is based on empire apples.

For other experiments, we’ve tried making hard pear cider. We only tried it once. The cider came out very astringent. After letting it age for a couple years, it has become nicer, but it hasn’t been one of our favorite ciders. We’ve added brown sugar to make a stronger cider. Brown sugar is a cheap sugar and you can add a lot to make a cider with a higher alcohol content.

We’ve also used maple syrup, which is really nice. Not only does it boost the alcohol content, it adds a really nice flavor. People I’ve spoken with also like to add honey, and just about everyone has their favorite way of make cider.

The first Sunday of very November, a bunch of beer makers descend on the cider mill to get some special cider made for brewers. It really isn’t that much different from the regular cider. There are some heirloom apples thrown in, and there are likely to be some northern spies. Some quince are also thrown in to boost the acid content and make it a little tarter.

I’ve now accumulated a few different carboys for making cider, and often have a couple working at the same time in different stages of the cider making process. This year, I grabbed an empty carboy and headed over to the cider mill. It was a beautiful fall day. The sky was bright blue, the leaves were still their autumn color. There were many piles of brush along the road from branches that had come down during the October snow storm.

I was running a bit late, and the parking lot at the cider mill wasn’t as packed as it often is on Hard Cider Sunday. I walked inside, and there wasn’t a line of carboys waiting to be filled, so I walked up and got mine filled right away.

Yet there were a lot of the same old people there, whom I’ve seen every year. They were sharing examples of their various ciders. One person had made a cider with raspberries and some Belgian yeasts normally used in lambic beers. Another person had a cider made with added black currant syrup. It was very nice, although a bit on the sweet side. There was a cider with added elderberries, and a few bottles of apple jack.

I handed a bottle of one of last year’s batches to the guy running the cider press and chatted with the hard cider hobbyists. The cider mill is only open during apple season so they try to make the best of it, selling not only apples and cider, but pies, cider donuts, and related products.

Whenever I fill up my carboy there, I inevitably get into a discussion with other shoppers about making hard cider. I describe the process and how I got started. Often, I go into philosophical aspects of making hard cider.

I like supporting local farmers. I like eating food, and for that matter, drinking beverages that have been locally produced, instead of shipped half way across the country. I don’t know how many people I’ve convinced to start brewing their own cider, but I know that several people have taken up the hobby.

Now, in our basement, there are several gallons of hard cider that has been bottled and is waiting to be consumed. We give away a lot of it as presents. There is probably about fifteen gallons of cider sitting on the dining room table in various stages of brewing, and we have our plans for who gets what cider when.

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