Free booze from a tree!

November 9th, 2009

cider in process

I am buzzed to report that our first cider-making efforts have borne fruity booze.  The five-way apple tree I planted nine years ago yielded enough fruit this year to fill a 5-gallon carboy with juice.  Add yeast, secure airlock and stand back!

Hard cider may be the easiest alcoholic beverage there is to make.  Unlike with beer, no boiling or cooling is involved.  The internet is replete with conflicting advice on how best to ferment cider, and almost all of the available instructions seem to give fine results.  Here’s what we did:

1) Get supplies.  Aside from the apples themselves, you’ll need one carboy and airlock for every five gallons of juice.  Smaller batches are doable too; you just need an airlock that matches your smaller fermentation vessel.  For filling your vessel, get an equally large bucket and a funnel that fits.  You’ll want to sterilize everything; we used an iodine solution for brewers.  And you’ll need yeast.  We used champagne yeast, which led to a dry, alcoholic and fairly champagne-like cider.  Other wine yeasts will probably yield other delicious results.  Some kind of siphon is advised; we borrowed a fancy “racking cane” but couldn’t figure out how to work it, so we ended up just using a tube.  However, I highly recommend the other tool we borrowed, a “bottling wand”, for the bottling step — for which you’ll also need bottles, of course.  Used beer bottles work fine as long as they’re not twist-off; for that you’ll need bottle caps and a capping tool.  Or, you can get fancy recloseable beer bottles from the fancy recloseable beer bottle store.  Anything that withstands internal pressure and can be sterilized, I think, is fine.

2) Pick apples: grasp, push upward, twist, repeat.  Listen to your own inner neatnik/slob regarding which apples to include and which to throw away.  I avoid actual live insects, but otherwise I’m not picky about which apples we put in the cider.  If you have a lot of apple trees, invite your friends over for steps 2.

3) Buy/build/rent an apple mill.  I’m going to build one next year for sure, but our local brewing supply house has them available.  Grind up the apples and press out the juice into the bucket.  (At this stage you may want to slice open some of the weirder-looking apples and check for stowaways.  Our rented mill had trouble with whole apples, so we sliced them all.) If your friends have apple trees of their own, invite them over for step 3.

3) Transfer the juice to the sterilized carboy, add the yeast, and install the sterilized airlock.  Put the carboy someplace where you can keep an eye on it but sunlight won’t fall on it.  We kept ours in the upstairs office.  (Some internet recipes claim a slower fermentation at a lower temperature is good in some way.  I wouldn’t know.)

4) Soon the airlock will start to go “blurp …. blurp ….” as the yeast reproduces, converts sugar to alcohol, and farts carbon dioxide.  The smell coming from the airlock may be sweet, like one of our batches, or quite foul, like the other of our batches.  Either way, let the yeast do its yeast thing.  In about a week, it will slow down and almost stop.  When the blurps are coming a minute or more apart, you’re probably done with step 4.

5) Siphon your cider into the bucket, being careful to leave behind the schmutz at the bottom of the vessel.  Add some sugar if you like fizzy cider.  We added one cup of sugar to our five gallons, which was plenty.  (FWIW, our neighbor Brian also brewed some cider, and he added honey instead of sugar in step 5, and it was fantastic.)  Mix that in, and then use the bottling wand, or your siphon, to fill the sterilized bottles with cider.  Cap or seal them, and store them someplace where it won’t be tragic if they start to explode.

UPDATE: In truth, that batch was way too fizzy — it was hard to open the bottles without spilling it everywhere. So I would cut my sugar suggestion in half, at least, if you’re using champagne yeast. Or, maybe a different yeast would be better. I’m still new at this.

6) Wait.  As Tom Petty once noted, this is the hardest part.  About two weeks, or as long as you can stand.

7) Chill and imbibe.  Be sure to invite your friends from steps 2 and 3.  Our cider turned out quite strong and dry, far less sweet than any bottled cider I’ve had.  My wife and I often split a bottle to avoid getting too drunk.  But we like it!  It’s got a clean enough flavor to be good with meals, and it taste good even when warm and flat, so it’s great for camping, bike rides, movies, and general public drunkenness.

So that’s all I know about that.  Next year I’ll know more.  In closing, I’d like to thank Friends Of Trees, the organization responsible for my owning an apple tree in the first place.  Friends Of Trees would like to get you drunk too!  Go check them out.

Big ups also to our good friends Seamus, Laurel and Rose for all their advice and gear, not to mention Ian and Brian, our co-conspirators from across the yard.  And to everybody else who showed up on squeezing day and hasn’t had any cider yet: come on over!

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