Making Hard Cider with Brett: Tips from the Pros

With the ever-increasing popularity of Brettanomyces in the craft and homebrewing worlds, it’s a wonder that cider makers haven’t caught the “bug.” That may soon change, and with advice from these two pros who aren’t afraid to put a little “barnyard” in their ciders, you too can be in the forefront of a new trend.

Cidermaker: Kevin Collins,  Cider Creek Hard Cider in Canisteo, NY

We did a Brett series called “Triple Brett Threat” that consisted of three different Brett ciders: Saison Brett, Little Boy Brett, & Cider Kriek. For the Saison Brett, I cultured and grew the Brett strain in-house. I used a quasi “cool ship” method of fermenting this cider and growing the Brett. This strain was aged on 30 gallons (115 L) of my Saison Reserve for four months. After developing a nice Brett pellicle, about 2-inches (5-cm) thick, I pitched my raw cider along with a Belgian strain of saison ale yeast and fermented. After fermentation, I let this cider age for an additional 4 months before bottling.

For Little Boy Brett (a blueberry Brett cider finished with cinnamon) I used a Brettanomyces lambicus strain from White Labs. I added this Brett lambic strain and saison ale yeast during primary along with my cider and blueberry purée. This cider then aged for five months in the fermenter to further sour and funktify (a term we often use here at Cider Creek)! After we funktified this cider we finished it with fresh cinnamon before bottling.

For Cider Kriek (a cherry cyser Brett cider) I used the same strain of Brettanomyces lambicus saison ale yeast in primary along with tart cherries, cider, and locally sourced golden rod honey. This cider also aged for five months after fermentation.

I have also been working on an apricot Brett cider for close to a year now. I grew my own strain of Brettanoymces aged on apricot purée. I aged this Brett strain for nine months on the purée to take on as many characteristics as it could from the fruit. After aging and developing a nice, thick pellicle, I pitched my cider to ferment. After fermentation was complete, I let the cider age in the fermenter another two months before barreling in mescal and rum barrels. They will sit in these barrels for a year before bottling.

All of these ciders fermented between 85–89 °F (29–31 °C). I keep the apple varieties we use close to the chest (can’t give away all my secrets!) but I will say some varieties work better with Brett. Apple tannins, pH, and natural sugar content all play a role in how your Brett cider will turn out.
Once bottled, traditionally speaking, the longer you age a Brett cider at proper cellar temperature, the more it will develop those funky characteristics that we Brett lovers seek out. The fruit will become more subtle as it ages and the horse blanket, barnyard, and leather characteristics more prominent.

Speaking candidly, I think the reason you don’t see more commercial Brett ciders is because Brett scares a lot of cider makers. Everyone hears horror stories of how Brett or bacteria “accidentally” infects and ruins a batch of cider. However, if proper cleaning and sanitation methods are followed, one has little to worry about.

As homebrewers, get creative! Try multiple yeast strains, blending, barrel aging, etc. to develop something unique and delicious. If something goes wrong, you can always call it salad dressing and start over!

Cidermaker: Yann Fay, 1911 Spirits in Lafayette, NY

Our first Brett Hard Cider was a passion project that we released in late 2015, inspired by both American sour beers and French farm-style ciders that formed the foundation of our love of cider in general. While not exactly a seasonal, it’s more of an occasional release.

In order for the Brett characteristics to really stand out, I believe that a really great Brett cider should be dry. As such, any apple that retains flavor after all the sugar has been fermented out would be desired. Most dessert apples need not apply since they are typically lacking in body when fermented to completion. We use a blend of antique sharp apple varieties such as Northern Spy and Rhode Island Greening for our Brett cider.

Then we ferment it in stainless tanks with a pure Brettanomyces yeast strain used for the primary alcoholic fermentation. The mellow fermentation kinetics of the strain and its non-competitive nature allows for a partial malolactic fermentation to occur during the aging process, which mellows the natural acidity of the cider.

Typically, we ferment our ciders at cooler temperatures to preserve the naturally occurring fruit aromas. However, the pure Brett strain we used was much happier in a slightly warmer environment. It’s a fine balance of temperature, fermentation schedule, and varieties of apples used. Extended lees contact significantly impacts the end result and a regular regimen of bâttonage (stirring the lees) helped to prevent any reductive notes from occurring.

Although ours was a draft-only product, the few bottles we stashed away in-house keep getting better with time. As the cider ages, the funkiness and acidity mellow and the body continues to develop. I suspect that they will peak around 2 years in the bottle based on the reductive oxidation balance we’ve tasted this far.

Issue: November 2016