Dec 3 2009

A Homebrewer’s Take on Cider Making

I’m not an expert on cider. I’ve been brewing beer for more than a couple of years but, in terms of cider, I might be a step above a newbie.

The good news is that there are experts out there and, just like with brewing, I find there is a direct correlation between the ones who know what they are talking about and their willingness to be remarkably helpful and patient with your questions.   In other words, if you are asking advice of an “expert” and he or she is an asshole to you, run the other way.

I’m fortunate enough to have a master cider maker in my homebrew club, and he is the inquisitive man behind this wonderful cider-making thread.  He has connections with local orchards, and has made cider with many types of apples, yeasts and sugars.

I thought I wasn’t much of a cider fan, but it turns out I just have a narrow window of what I enjoy right now in a cider.  I like there to still be a good amount of apple flavor and some lingering sweetness.  After trying my friend’s various batches, I chose the one that I wanted to have 5.5 gallons of.  My cider recipe and methodology is his.

So here is cider-making, from fresh-off-the-tree apples, from a homebrewer’s perspective:

This one started with 6 gallons of fresh apple juice from a local orchard.  The mix was 80% Stayman apples and the last 20% were a mixture of Empire and York for a little tartness.  As a side note, merely picking up the fresh squeezed juice is definitely a nice change from a 4 or 5 hour all-grain brew day. Once I got the carboy home, it was time to go to work.

The Juice - Stayman, Empire and York

The clock starts ticking once that juice is pressed.  With homebrew, you want fementation to start as soon as possible.  If it takes too long, there are unfortunate side effects that will definitely take the shine off your beer.  With cider, you’re dealing with a lot of highly fermentable juice that is full of simple sugars that are raring to go and, here’s the urgency, they are covered with wild yeast.  You can take all of the apples and carefully wash their skins before crushing them, but that yeast and bacteria is still there.  In order to have a controlled fermentation, with the yeast of your choosing, you need to pitch your yeast and get it fermenting quickly.  There will still be that wild yeast in there, but a healthy starter will safely outpace the spontaneous fermentation that would naturally occur.

The next step was to add some sweetness to the juice and to bump up the gravity a bit.  The starting gravity of the juice was 1.050, and I brought that up to a 1.065 with the addition of 24 ounces of turbinado sugar and 16 ounces of dextrose. Turbinado is an easy to find unrefined sugar, that adds a sweet complexity, which can be found at any good grocery store. Dextrose is the simply the same priming corn sugar you would use to bottle condition a beer.

Cider 2 - Turbinado

I simply poured both sugars into the carboy with some yeast nutrient, and then I stirred it up for a minute an aeration wand attached to my cordless drill.

Next up was a pitching the yeast and, despite the fact I never rehydrate the Safale US-05, I did so with this batch just to be safe.  It seems like I’ve been using this strain a lot lately, but it is the way to go for very clean and attenuated beer.  Also, it was the recommended yeast from my cider friend and my favorite of his batches.  Once the yeast was in there, I put the airlock on the carboy and let go at room temperature.

Fermentation of ciders is a very low-key event if you are a homebrewer.  There is a krausen of sorts and CO2 is bubbling out, but it is in no way the violent creation of alcohol and flavors that beer is.  At peaking fermentation, it is simply bubbling like a soft drink.  That is as calming and charming as watching goldfish swim around a tank, but I really do prefer when things blow-up (real good).

Cider Ferment

The tricky part of a cider, at least for me, is stopping the fermentation.  Ciders are so full of simple sugars that, left to their own devices, they will ferment down to bone dryness.  The first cider I ever tried to make dropped down to a 0.990.  For those not familiar with gravities, this means that enough alcohol was produced to make the cider thinner than the density of water.  It wasn’t bad, but it was a little high in alcohol and it put a hurt on your head the next morning.

There are two main ways to halt cider: K-Meta or cold crashing.  K-Meta (more properly referred to as potassium metabisulfite) will drop out your yeast and halt fermentation, but those with more sensitive palates will detect a residual taste.  Sodium metabisulfite will work interchangeably with K-Meta, although some might have minor concerns about adding sodium to the cider.

My local expert only cold-crashes, so that was my method, as well.  The sweet spot (pun intended) for me was 1.006, so every few days I would wine thief out some of the cider and test the gravity.  Once it hit 1.010, I put the carboy in the cooler and dropped it down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. In an act of kind chance, the cider stopped fermenting at 1.008.  That was close enough for me.

I left the cider in the cooler for another week to try to clarify and drop out anything else in suspension. I bottled it soon after and let it bottle carbonate.

(There will be a picture of the cider in a glass here in the future…..)

How did it turn out? Flavor-wise, I’m very happy.  It is slightly sweet, and a nice bit of apple flavor up front.  I will have to review it on a separate blog post at some point down the road.  Despite adding sugar at bottling time, it did not carbonate much at all.  That doesn’t really bother me, but for the next batch will pitch some fresh yeast at bottling. If you have the capability, keg carbonation is probably the easiest move.

Will I do this again?  Sure.  It is amazingly easy and cheap. ($18 for 6 gallons of juice, and a few dollars more for the sugars and yeast.)  It is a nice change from the usual brewing skills I use, so I’m flexing different muscles.

In a way, cider making seems a bit more like making wine.  With homebrewing, you need fresh ingredients and mad brewing skills to make a good batch of beer.  With cider and wine, you still need great skills, but the majority of the battle is in having the best apples or grapes.  I recommend using fresh apples if you have the ability to get them.

What’s next?  Something that is affectionately being calling “Lambicide”.  A cider made with a lambic blend of sherry and wheat yeasts, as well as brett and lacto.  Here comes the sour cider……

BTW – The simple recipe:

5.5 gallons of fresh apple juice (in this case: Stayman, Empire & York)

24 ounces Turbinado

16 ounces Dextrose

1 Package of Safale US-05 (not rehydrated)

Some Wyeast Nutrient Blend (per instructions)


Aug 8 2009

Simple and Basic Homegrown Hop Drying – (1st Harvest of 2009)

So far this year, I’ve harvested hop cones from my Nugget vines twice and new fairly Cascade vines once.

1st Hop Harvest Nugget 7-09 - 4oz of Goodness

I harvested an initial 4 ounces of Nugget cones (the Cascades were still a bit behind) and after drying them they ended up being only 0.75 ounces.  Ripe hops are about 70% moisture at harvest, and they drop down to the teens when prepared for brewing.

The second harvest of hops gave me another 4 ounces of Nugget and 1 ounce of Cascade.  They are still drying so I don’t know their final weights just yet. 

Interestingly, here’s a visual comparison of the two hops.  The Cascade is on the left, the Nugget is on the right:

Cascade (left) and Nugget (Right) Cones

Cascade (left) and Nugget (Right) Cones

If you’ve happened upon my blog hoping for some high-tech methods for drying your homegrown hops, I am going to disappoint.  I don’t have an expensive food dehydrator where I can hold my cones around 100° F for a few hours and dry them to perfection.  And I haven’t (yet!) constructed a complex homemade system involving fans, thermometers, heating elements and flux capacitor.

Flux Capacitor

I’m still pretty lo-fi, but my method has worked for me for many years.  I simply grab the batch of hops off the vine and put them on a screen that I take off of one of the windows of my house.  I clean that screen up, spread the wet hops across it, and put it in my garage for a few days.  The reason this works is because my garage gets into the 90s everyday during the summertime (or hop harvest time for present purposes), and the screen lets air flow above and below the hops and allows them a better opportunity to dry.

Nuggets on the Screen

This process only takes two or three days, and it will be necessary to go out there at least once a day to stir ups the hops and rotate them a bit on the screen.  The dried hops will become more brittle and the stem will break more easily when they are done since that is the center of the hop and the last to dry out.

But before you do this at home, look at the condition of your garage.  Does it get into the 80-90 degree range?  Is it free from bugs that might feast on your cones?  Does it get windy in there enough to cause problems?

What does your garage smell like?  I used to store my lawn mower in my garage, and there was an obvious gasoline smell that transferred to the drying hops.  Needless to say, lesson learned.  Look around your garage and smell for things that you DON”T want to taste in your homebrew.

After that, I jam as many cones as I can into sealed bags, I suck the air out of the bags and I store them in the freezer with the type of hop, weight and date written on the side.  I know that some home hop growers cram the cones into stoppered PVC pipes and make their own hop plugs out of them.  That sounds like a fun thing to try in the future, but mine are fine as is.

Dried Nugget Cones for Freezing

And what is the alpha acid for my homegrown hops?  I really have no idea.  I’ve read articles from Zymurgy that estimate that homegrown hops are up to 50% more bitter than commercial hops, since they are subject to less processing, but that is seems like some fuzzy math.  Until I figure out a better way, I will just be using my hops as late flavor and aroma additions.

Hopefully, I will be able to harvest enough Cascade hops this year to let me do a wet hop ale.  We will see.