Turning apple juice into cider

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Hard to believe that another year has passed and we’re starting to think about Cambridge Apple Day 2015. We’ll announce the date and other details in the next week or so, but for now, I thought it was about time I did a blog post explaining what we do in between Apple Days to turn all of that juice into cider.

Those of you who are regulars will know that we end our Apple Days with something that looks a bit like this:

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We drink a fair bit of delicious fresh apple juice on the day (the kids usually drink at least their own body weight) and our happy band of volunteers take a good amount of juice home with them. It keeps in the fridge for a couple of days and freezes very well.

That usually leaves somewhere around 70+ gallons left for us to turn into cider.

The process is fairly simple.

First, put the fermenters somewhere dry with a constant room temperature. A shed or cellar is fine, but we have also fermented in the house.

‘Constant’ room temperature is important. We have in the past used a drafty shed which was pretty much open to the elements; cider wasn’t so great in those years. Also find a spot where you won’t need to move the fermenters for at least a few months. Moving them won’t necessarily upset the process, but they’re heavy.

If you want to know the final alcohol content of your cider, you need to take gravity readings before sundown on Apple Day using a hydrometer. It’s super simple and your hydrometer will come with instructions or you can find them online. Honestly, we never used to bother, but we’ve getting more diligent since the year of the exploding cider bottles (see this old blog post for details).

Within 24 hours we add some champagne yeast to each of the fermenters (any good quality brand will do). Follow the instructions on the packet – which will involve mixing up a “starter” for the yeast before adding it to the juice (don’t skip this step).

For the first couple of days we bung the fermenters with cotton wool. That allows air to escape and keeps anything nasty from getting in. At this stage, fermentation should be fairly aggressive and we expect some yeasty froth to spill out. So check regularly and wipe away any mess.

How do you know that mother nature is doing her thing? Simple. You should be able to hear the fermentation happening. At this stage there should be a constant and audible fizzing coming from each of your fermenters. If you’re not sure, pull out the cotton wool bung and you should see a yeasty froth forming on top. It will also smell of lovely apple-y yeast.

If nothing’s happening, don’t panic. Just add some new yeast.

In 15 years, we’ve only ever had one fermenter of apple juice that didn’t start fermenting after a second attempt with yeast (that was a failed experiment with a sterilising tablet).

After a couple of days you want to pull out the cotton wool and insert clean air locks. If all’s going well, you should have something like this:

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Once they’ve got going, your fermenters should keep bubbling away until all of the sugar has been turned to alcohol. After a few days they’ll slow down to a steady ‘bloop, bloop, bloop’. That can continue for quite some time.

For those of you who want to experiment with some of the more mysterious approaches to cider making, this is where you should refer to the craft cider makers’ bible by Pooley & Lomax, where you’ll find instructions for how to control your fermentation to produce different types of cider through ‘keeving’ and other such dark arts.

Over the years, and after much experimentation, we’ve settled on the simple approach. We let nature run her course and wait until all of the natural fermentation is over. It can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to 3 months, depending on the temperature and mix of apples.

We’ve found that the cider does well sitting in its full fermented state for quite a long time, provided that the airlock is tight and the temperature is reasonably constant. This year for example, we only got round to bottling in June – a full seven months after we pressed the juice. It tastes awesome.

Bottling day is one of my favourite parts of the process. It’s hard work, but you get the joy of tasting how all the different fermenters of juice have turned out. If you follow our method of blending different varieties of apples, then there is bound to be variation in taste and alcohol strength.

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One of the tricks we’ve learnt is to ‘rack off’ the cider from the fermenter without moving it. Basically, what you’re doing here is siphoning off the lovely clear cider at the top and leaving behind the ‘lees’ which is the fruit / yeast that settles naturally at the bottom of the fermenter. You will lose a little cider at the bottom, but if you’re careful it’s fairly minimal.

We siphon into a clean fermenter, which we then use to fill bottles or barrels.

If you’re aiming to produce still cider in bottles or barrels, then you want to make sure that the cider you have racked off is as clear as possible. If you draw too much ‘lees’ through your siphon it will look cloudy or hazy, and you might want to let it stand for a while and have another go.

If you want to create bottles with a little conditioning or fizz, then you will need to bring a little yeast with you when you siphon. Hazy not cloudy is what you’re aiming for. This is where the real craft comes in and we’ve got it wrong a few times, leading to some over lively cider.

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If you’re keeping track of your alcohol content, then this is the stage to get out the hydrometer and take a second reading (look here for instructions). This year we had an incredible year, with one batch reaching 10% ABV with no added sugar!

We tend to make a few barrels of still, clear cider. That’s simple. Just fill the barrel to the neck, leaving a little space at the top, and you’re done. If it’s too dry, then add a little sugar syrup to taste just before drinking.

We save most of our cider for bottling and we always try to get a little conditioning or fizz going. This can be tricky, but is really worth it. At it’s best, our cider is like a fine champagne.

Four things to get right:

  1. Good quality, clean bottles.We use a mix of flip top bottles or standard crown caps. Both work well, but they need to be robust and able to handle a bit of pressure. Invest time in washing and sterilizing your bottles. It is a pain, but it pays off.
  2. Hazy not cloudy. When you siphon your cider out of the fermenter you want a little bit of yeast in there to kick start the secondary fermentation in the bottle, but not too much. I know that ‘hazy not cloudy’ is a terribly imprecise phrase, but it’s the best I’ve come across so far.
  3. Add a little sugar. This is always a point of controversy at our bottling days. After much debate, we have settled on about 300g for a 25 litre fermenter. We dissolve the sugar in boiling water before adding to the fermenter. Provided your cider is fermented right out, we find that provides just enough sugar for fizz and flavour. It is a matter of taste, trial and error.
  4. Temperature. Pooley & Lomax advise keeping the bottles cool when conditioning to allow the process to happen slowly and not to leave them too long. Cool is definitely good. Put your bottles somewhere warm and you run a high risk of them blowing. But we have found some of our best tasting cider has been left in the back of a shed for more than a year, so we’re a bit more relaxed about timescales.

One final thought is that we’ve found it worth investing in bottling equipment, including a simple gravity bottle filler and a decent crowning machine. It has made the process much, much quicker. Our friends at Vigo supplied our kit.

Hope that’s useful. We are always learning and trying to improve our craft, so if you’ve got hints, tips or ideas please post in the comments.

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