That time I discovered the joy of making cider from apples - Brain Sparging on Brewing


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January 28, 2020

That time I discovered the joy of making cider from apples

I do not profess to be much of a cider fan. Most ciders are too sweet for my preferences and taste a lot like generic apple juice, which is one of my least favorite things to consume. I enjoy acidic Spanish sidra and really dry, crisp ciders but even then I rarely find myself in the mood for cider over beer. Despite my rare desire to sip cider, I am curious about cider making. It is interesting to see how apples on one hand can produce that clumsy, overly sweet store bought apple juice but on the other hand can produce a wide range of complex and artful ciders. The techniques involved in high level cidermaking are common to other winemaking techniques which have use adaptations in brewing, especially among styles where technique drives quality over the ability to cram more stuff into a single beer.

Apple trees grow freely in Denver yards and parks begging me to try my hand at exploring cidermaking. Back in Texas apples do not grow well due to a lack of lengthy winter temperatures so my previous cider attempts were confined to bland fermentations of store bought apple juice. Although hardly the worst thing I have ever drank, they were not anything to get excited about. With access to fresh apples and crabapples it seems like a good time to explore the world of cidermaking--or at least a small corner of it.

Finding apples to make cider

I am not going to launch into the third paragraph of this post pretending like I have any great expertise with apples or cidermaking. Most of what I know is cobbled together from moderate internet searches and articles dug up from homebrewing resources. What little I do know about apples and crabapples is that for food purposes they can be classified by their bitterness (or lack of bitterness) and their sweet to sharp (acidic) range. Apples typically classified as culinary or dessert apples--like those you would eat or use to make apple juice--have very little bitterness and are sweet with little acidity behind it. The flavor in culinary apples are driven by sweetness which makes them not great choices for cidermaking because once the sugar ferments out it leaves little interesting flavor or mouthfeel behind--much like a beer with too little bitterness.

Conversely, cider apples include apples with other attributes. Cider apples can be bitter and sweet (bittersweet), bitter and acidic (bittersharp), or they can be low bitterness but acidic (sharp). (Here is a great page describing the different classifications of apples.) The combination of apples and their attributes will affect the final cider. In the same way blending sour beer relies upon understanding the attributes of the different available beers, I had to figure out what kinds of apples I could find and what kind of cider I wanted to produce. 

If the large, typical cider apples grow anywhere in Denver I have no idea where to find them so I had to rely on what I could find. Grocery stores provide easy access to culinary apples which, aside from mildly acidic Granny Smith apples, are all sweet and could form a good neutral base. Crabapples grow all over the city and from my casual tasting of several varieties (and I have no idea what they are) there are a lot of bittersweet to bittersharp varieties. I decided to make my first attempt reasonbly simple. I chose an easily found crabapple that grows pink-red crabapples about the size of ping pong balls which are bitter and floral tasting. I would back these up with a large volume of Red Delicious culinary apples as a neutral backbone to let the crabapple character shine. If needed I could adjust the acidity or bitterness with post-fermentation additions.

A quick interjection about my apple press

I have had my eye on a small fruit press for a while for various culinary purposes. I found a good deal at Williams Brewing on this small Ferrari model and pulled the trigger. It is designed for pressing softer fruit, like grapes, and the instructions suggest grating apples before pressing. Thankfully I have a grating attachment for my food processor which made that process much quicker. After chopping the crabapples into halves and the Red Delicious apples into quarters I ran them through the food processor and into the fruit press. 

I found the press worked best if I gave the grated apple two presses. First I wound down the press plate until no more juice came out. After waiting a few minutes I found I could go several more turns and extract further juice. This was especially helpful with the drier crabapples which gave up almost as much juice the second pressing as the first. 

If I intended to make cider or any other fruit-derived beverage more often or in larger volumes I definitely would need a larger press and probably better off with a crushing-type press than this plate press. As it is grating and pressing the fruit took several hours for a lone gallon of juice.

Pressing apples for cider

After spending some time harvesting crabapples I ended up with eight and a half pounds of crabapples. From that I pressed a mere twenty-four ounces of juice. The extracted juice surprisingly came out red and tasting nothing at all like apple. I can only assume the press extracted color from the peel because the inside flesh had the typical slightly yellow color of a culinary apple. The resulting juice was firmly acidic, bitter and probably too much of both for the final product. The flavor was intensely floral with an orange-like citrus character with typical apple flavor running underneath. The crabapple juice was too intense, not apple-y enough and honestly there was no way I could spend enough time to pick and press enough crabapples to build a one gallon batch. 

To supplant the crabapple juice I opted to acquire culinary apples to add sweetness and get more apple flavor into the mix. As much as I like the flavor of the crabapple juice it needed something to round it out. To accomplish this goal I bought thirteen and a half pounds of Red Delicious apples which I consider the most generically apple-flavored apples. While the crabapples required a lot of work to squeeze out small amounts of juice the large and juicy Red Delicious apples were a breeze to work through. Their juice tasted like a great version of a store bought apple cider.

The combined twenty-two pounds of apples yielded just under 140 ounces of juice delicious. A lot of work for not a lot of product. The blend of the two juices retained a brilliant magenta color that should produce a nice rose-colored cider. The blended juice definitely had an apple flavor to it while the floral notes remained in the background. The crabapple juice was a little more subdued than what I hoped to get but I expect after fermentation it will reemerge with all of the sugar out of the way. Let's talk about how I extracted juice before moving into fermentation.

Starting cider fermentation

I decided to ferment this cider with a clean saccharomyces strain. I thought long and hard about letting the occupants on the apples handle fermentation but I do not know how great the microbes on the store bought apples might be and not entirely sure if the crabapples had enough on their own to ferment out the juice without an oxidizing delay. Instead I summarily executed the juice's population with campden and then pitched WY1318 with a helping of yeast nutrient. For this small batch of cider I pitched half a tablet of campden and let the juice relax for a day before pitching. After twenty-four hours I gently stirred the apple juice to get the sulfur out and then pitched approximately 100ml of WY1318. My yeast choice was based upon what compatible yeast I had on hand (and happened to be growing a starter of WY1318 for a batch of beer). 

I let fermentation hover around 68F for three weeks to ensure a solid, clean fermentation. Signs of fermentation began within eight hours and by twenty-four hours the cider was happily bubbling away. 

The murky beginnings of cider before fermentation launched

Tasting notes

Tasting notes from 1.17.20.

Appearance: Cider pours a nice rose color with minimal white head that quickly dissipated. The bottle opened with little hissing and it is clear from appearance this did not carbonate as I had hoped.

Aroma: Intense but generic apple aroma dominates the aroma. In the background is a complex floralness and a citrus note like mandarin orange. Slight hint of sour yeastiness like a sourdough starter.

Flavor: The flavor is surprisingly muted. The apple flavor is restrained and a little cardboard-y. With a little swirling it opens up and the apple flavor is more present very similar to the aroma. A generic apple flavor with a background of rose-like floralness and a citric acidity. That bready English Ale III flavor is present and clashes with the delicate notes from the apples. The flavor is a little flabby at first but with more swirling and time some acidity appears which helps lighten the flavor and brighten the floral and citrus flavors. Despite allowing the cider to fully ferment out there is still residual sweetness.

Mouthfeel: This cider is surprisingly full bodied. It is almost heavy at first but with swirling it lightened considerably. The body reminds me of a heavy cab. It hangs on the tongue but tannins can be felt in the finish which help cut the feeling of heaviness that lingers.

Overall: This cider falls short of what I had hoped and its time in the bottle did not improve what I tasted at the bottling bucket. Many of the problems would have been improved with carbonation to lighten the body and add a little acidity. English Ale III seemed to be a poor choice for this cider with clashing flavor over the delicateness this cider needs to showcase the floral notes from those crabapples. The apple flavor was more intense from the bottling bucket with the extra sugar so perhaps that yeast works better on a semi-sweet cider than letting it go completely dry. Red delicious apples were probably not the best choice to make an interesting cider as well. Overall I am not pleased with the product but it was a good learning experience and honestly I have had worse ciders. 


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