Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cider Winemaking

I learned cider winemaking from my Tufts University colleague Dan Dennett, who embarked on a home cider winemaking operation in the early 1970s, or possibly a few years earlier in the late 1960s. He and two of his friends, Tony Newcomb (a musicologist at the University of California, Berkeley) and Barry Lydgate (a professor of French teaching at Wellesley College) investigated the process, hoping to make cider wine in the Normandy style. In the mid-1970s my family and I joined them in their annual cider picking and pressing, usually held at Dan's summer home in East Penobscot Bay over Columbus Day weekend, and then on "bottling day" in the spring, held at Dan's home in Massachusetts. This kept up for about ten years until I bought an old, two-barrel cider press of my own in the mid-1980s, and started doing a similar picking and pressing with friends here on the island, something that I've kept up now most years since then. I used to invite students from Brown's old-time string band to come and enjoy a weekend in Maine, helping with the picking and pressing, while we played music at night. Nowadays it's local friends and neighbors who help out, and the scale is smaller. Last weekend we pressed a little more than ten gallons, enough to fill two carboys with cider to make wine and then a few gallon jugs for cider drinking immediately.

I'm not knowledgeable about Normandy cider winemaking, but I did watch Dan and the others make their cider wine and learned to do it pretty much as they did, except that I got some 19th century books on the subject of cider winemaking and made some small changes to the procedure. In this blog entry I will summarize the way I've made cider wine for 25+ years now, a wine which others seem to think is very tasty and refreshing. In taste tests it beat a commercial variety made and sold in this area, but my cider wine is not for sale. It's for sharing, first with the friends and neighbors who help with the picking and pressing, and then on social occasions when people visit or when a visit from me would be livened up with some "fotched-on" cider wine. Often I will bring three bottles, each from a different vintage, for like wine from grapes, the wine tastes different from one year to the next.

The first part of the procedure is the apple picking. I like a blend of sweet and juicy apples with tart apples. Over the years I've identified certain trees on this property that produce excellent apples for this blend, and I've also planted some that do. Most of these are grafted trees, which means they are (or once were) known varieties. Among those I do know are Calville Blanc, Kingston Black (an English cider apple), Prima, Liberty, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening and Shiawassee. The first five are trees I planted here; the last two were here when I bought the place in 1979, planted nearly 100 years ago. The Shiawassee is a tentative identification; it may also be a Duchess of Oldenberg. In some years other varieties are added to the mix: Milding is the only known variety, but there are others. Some of the trees may even be "volunteers," non-grafted varieties that grew from seed but produced remarkably good apples. I used to include a crab apple but not for some years. The idea of the blend is to get a good balance of sweet and juicy with tart and acidic. Sweetness will increase the alcoholic content and make for a stronger fermentation; tartness adds flavor, but of course one doesn't want it too tart.

When I started out in the 1980s I tasted each tree's apples and used those that tasted to me like they would make good wine. Some were sweet and some tart but all had plenty of good flavor. That is, they were all full-flavored and none were so tart they puckered my mouth. Those were my criteria then, and so I tried to make a balance, about half sweet and half tart. Today there are books with advice on which apples to grow and in which proportions to blend. But because I was able to produce excellent cider wine by relying on my tastebuds instead of science, I've continued to do so. I should probably add that my father's father was a wine taster by profession, so I come by my tastebuds honestly. Yours may differ and you may want to rely on the suggestions of the books and websites, but I suggest you start off using your tastebuds.

Some of these recent books on cider wine making advise waiting a couple of weeks between picking and pressing. During this period the apples "sweat," become softer and easier to press, and their flavor supposedly concentrates for a better cider. I think this is nonsense. The best cider apple, like the best eating apple or cooking apple, is the freshest apple. Besides, if you have a crew picking apples, why not continue along with the pressing so you have something to show, and drink, for your labor, right then and there?

It's true that in some years I've picked apples and let them wait a couple of weeks before pressing them. When I did so it was because the pressing was going to be later in the season and I needed to pick a particular tree because the apples were ripe before the pressing time, and falling to the ground, or because strong winds were forecast which would blow them down. They sweated away and softened up in their crates waiting for the pressing, and when all was done the cider wine that came of it was do different from years past on that account.   

When it comes time for the apple pressing, I usually alternate a bushel of one sweet variety with a bushel of a tart variety, and then a bushel of a different sweet one, then a different tart one, and so forth. This year the Shiawassee (somewhat tart though juicy, with a slight pear-like aroma) outnumbered the other apples, so the wine will taste more of that than any other. In different years other varieties, particularly Prima and Rhode Island Greening, have been most abundant, and of course the taste of the wine relects those differences.

The apples are not picked by hand, except for the low-hanging ones. Most are shaken down from the trees, either by people climbing them or by the use of a pole pruner hooked over the limbs and moved smartly up and down. As there usually are deer droppings (scat) below the trees, for the deer do like to eat the ones that the wind blows down (windfalls), so we cover the ground with tarpaulins and shake the apples so they fall atop the tarps. Bushel baskets are filled, each with a single variety, and then transported back to the barn where they are washed before the pressing.

The old press--I will try to get a photo or drawing of it in here at some point--is the kind displayed in the old turn-of-the-20th century Sears catalogs, with a grinder mounted above a bushel barrel one one side, and a screw pressing mechanism mounted above a bushel barrel on the other. The barrels have no tops, only sides; and the staves have vertical space between them. There is no bottom to the barrels either; they rest on platforms that move back and forth and in and out of the base of the press. The grinder wheel is turned by hand, with some effort, and after a few minutes a bushel of ground up apples has fallen into the half barrel underneath. This half barrel is tamped down and then pushed on its platform underneath the screw press, the press is screwed down, the cider juice flows out and goes through the slats in the platform to the wooden base of the press, where it slides down and off the press into a plastic or metal container of about a gallon, atop which a nylon mesh strainer rests.

As the cider is being pressed out of the ground apples by the screw mechanism on one side of the press, more apples are being ground into the half barrel on the other side. When the juice has stopped flowing, the screw comes back up, the half barrel now filled with apple "pomace" is taken away and the pomace dumped in the compost pile, while the next half barrel of ground apples is slid under the screw press. And this continues for a few hours, or more, depending on how many apples will be pressed and how much cider made.

The cider itself--it is of course now cider, not wine, because it hasn't fermented--gets poured from the gallon containers, when these are filled, into five-gallon glass "carboys" or jugs, which look very much like the jugs used for office water coolers. These carboys are then covered with simple plastic devices called fermentation locks, which permit the carbon dioxide (a product of the fermentation) to exit from the carboy, without allowing air into the carboy, where it would spoil the cider for wine and turn it to vinegar. Then they are moved into the cellar where they sit for a few days and settle.

Usually, as this year, there is cider left over for drinking. Put into containers such as washed-out plastic jugs that once held fruit juice, these go into the refrigerator and they, too, begin fermenting to "hard cider" which can be tasted after a few days. If too much air gets into the containers the cider will also begin to turn to vinegar.

At this point many cider winemakers add yeast and most add sugar. I do not add yeast, thinking that the natural yeast in the apples is sufficient for the fermentation, and in fact it has never not been. But I do add sugar, which will bring the wine to a sufficient alcoholic content to prevent spoilage once it is bottled. There are books--including the 19th century cider winemaking book that I consult--and online websites that will tell you how much sugar to put in for a certain alcohol content at the finish. Here I do follow science, but someone who doesn't want to consult the books might work with a ballpark figure of one pound of sugar per gallon of cider. The scientific amount depends on the specific gravity of your cider at this point in time, when it just begins to ferment; and to measure the specific gravity one needs a hygrometer, the same instrument that was used to test automobile batteries back in the day, though of course it would not be safe to use an instrument that has been used for batteries; nor is such a hygrometer scaled properly for this purpose. Instead, appropriate hygrometers may be purchased relatively inexpensively on line and in winemaking shops for this purpose. Occasionally one finds old ones in antiques shops, and often the owners do not know what they are. This is really the only scientific measurement that I take and the only time I feel more like a scientist in a laboratory than an artist blending apples for wine.

I put the sugar into the cider this way. I remove and then heat (but not to a boil) about one gallon of cider from each carboy, then add the appropriate amount of sugar for five gallons of cider to that one gallon, and mix so that all dissolves, and pour the mixture back into the carboy. Always there is some left over, so the best way is to remove a half gallon more cider per carboy than is needed, reserve this, and after the mixture of cider and sugar is poured back into the carboy add a bit of the reserve to bring the cider lever back up to the neck of the carboy, but not into the neck, as the mixture expands when fermenting.

And then I just leave the carboys in the cellar to ferment. The best fermenting temperature is slightly above fifty degrees Fahrenheit, I've found, and this is a temperature that the cellar keeps from mid-October when the pressing is completed, until late December when in the coldest weather it goes below fifty and fermentation more or less stops. In the spring when the temperature warms back to fifty the fermentation begins again. At this point some cider winemakers "rack" their wine, siphoning the liquid into other empty carboys, while letting the dregs stay at the bottom of the carboy. I do this in some years; most often I do not. At any rate, when the fermentation ceases while the temperature is above fifty--this is easily told because the cider wine stops making its small bubbles that rise to the top--then it is time either to age the cider in an oak cask, or to bottle it straightaway. I always age it in five gallon oak casks, which means siphoning it into rinsed-out casks, and after a few months in the cask I siphon it into used and cleaned and rinsed wine bottles and cork it.

The oak casks used for aging may be found in antiques shops but they usually are moldy and bad for this process. New ones can be purchased from winemaking supply houses, and good old ones may be found in people's homes, as long as they have kept them clean (sodium bisuplphite works as a wash, and then they must be rinsed and kept filled with water, whenever not filled with wine, so that they don't mold or dry out).

In all it takes about nine months to a year to make a good cider wine from apples. Once mine is siphoned from the casks into bottles and corked, I affix a little label that I made on the computer, printed out and pasted on the outside of the bottle, noting the vintage year. Then the bottles are placed on their sides and left for a few months. In some years they have almost finished fermenting, but not quite; they finish it up in the bottle making some champagne-like fizz in the cider wine as it bubbles when poured into the glass. It's possible to add a tiny bit of sugar to each bottle to make this happen, also. Or some sugar can be added to the mixture in the casks, but this is not as effective. But this procedure risks building up too much pressure inside the bottle, with the result that the cork is blown off after a few days, weeks, or months, and the cider spoils. Wires can be used to hold the corks in, if desired. After a few months the "bottle sickness," as it is called (in reference to a certain closed-in and musty taste of the cider wine) has departed, and the wine is ready to drink. It will keep for several years, sometimes improving in the bottle, sometimes not. The differences in the tastes from one year to the next are larger than in wine made from grapes. Some years the wine is very dry, others not so dry. Some years it is a bit sweeter, like a dessert of sipping wine; in others not so sweet.

That is how I've made cider wine for more than two decades now, and I'm well satisfied with it. It does take a few days of work, but the end is certainly worth the energy expended when one enjoys the wine among friends.

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