In the fall, apples are everywhere, so why not take a break from beer and try making a batch of hard cider? Before you start, however, take some tips from this issue’s three hard cider makers who will tell you that all apples were not created equal when it comes to fermentation.
Greg Failing, Cidermaker, Technical Manager at Green Mountain Beverage, makers of Woodchuck Draft, Strongbow, Cider Jack and Woodpecker English Cider. Greg started his career in winemaking in the Finger Lakes area of NY in the early 1970s and worked in the labs of Gold Seal Vineyards. Over the next nine years he worked his way into the head winemaker position and then moved on to Canandaigua Wine Company in Canandaigua, New York. Joe Cerniglia later invited him to Vermont to make apple wines and create the Woodchuck line of hard ciders. He has been making the apple wines and ciders for the last 23 years.
We make both a New England and a slightly more English style cider. The Woodchuck line was designed to be very American and the amber is sweet, fruity and easy to drink. When we created the product there was no real cider category in the US market and I knew most Americans thought of cider as the stuff coming off the press in the fall. It was not until later that we came up with a cider aimed at the beer drinkers (802) and then one for the wine drinkers (Granny). The other part of our product line is Cider Jack, which is designed to be similar to the European style.
We ferment our ciders with a derivative of the Champagne yeast, but any white wine yeast that is designed to maintain the original character of the juice will work. The advantage with a full size professional operation is that we can have temperature control of the tanks and large-scale filtration. Most of our cider is cold settled after fermentation and then it is filtered through a very tight filter. This removes any solids and the residual yeast.
The easiest way to clarify cider at home is to chill the product after the fermentation so that the yeast will settle to the bottom. The product needs to be racked at least once after it settles to be sure the product is as clean as it can get. Remember that during this time the product is susceptible to infection and oxidation and one should add SO2 to keep it safe. SO2 can often be found in the form of tablets or powdered potassium metabisulfite. Follow the directions so you do not get too much, as it affects the taste, but you need to have enough to keep the product healthy.
The most common problem I’ve seen in cider making is having no temperature control on the fermentations. If they get too hot they can develop strange characters. Getting the product as clear as possible after the fermentation is also important. If the product sits on the yeast and solids for too long, it can start to pick up off characters as the yeast and solids breakdown.
When making small batches of cider at home, the biggest consideration is to have clean equipment and healthy juice. Using barrels and other items that cannot be cleaned is a good way to end up with many gallons of cider vinegar, which might not be bad if that is what you actually wanted, but won’t satisfy your craving for hard cider.