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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