Drinking local: Homemade hard cider

cider glassesJ.C. Scott contributes an article every December reviewing the best wings in Bucks. Here he shares his ventures in making wine and cider.

by guest blogger J.C. Scott,

As a self-proclaimed wine connoisseur who had lived in arguably the best wine making country on the planet – Italy – and arguably the best wine making region in that country – Friuli – I like to think I have some idea of what I’m talking about when it comes to good wine.

One evening at the dinner table, I attempted to compare wine from Italy to wine from California. Then as I opened another bottle, and I became more brilliant in my opinions, I tried to explain to my wife how wine that you get in Italy is not like the Italian wine that ships to us here in the states. “You see? Chemicals and preservatives need to be added to wines entering America. Wine simply doesn’t travel well,” I opined. I decided that night I would enter the world of home wine making.

I began simple; fermenting honey and water with some commercial yeast to create traditional mead. In the fermenting process, the yeast ate the sugar in the honey and the bi-product was alcohol. After a few weeks when the yeast had died off, I had a gallon of mead (yielding about 4 ½ 750ml wine bottles).  I considered that a success and I was ready to graduate into making wine. I bought five gallons of organic grape juice, sugar and yeast. I added a little ginger and cinnamon for my own personal flare and a month or so later, I had five gallons of grape juice that tasted like it had alcohol in it. This was not where I wanted to be.

Frustrated but optimistic I stopped at a small home brew shop in Coopersburg, PA.  The owner was friendly and a fan of Italian wines. He seemed knowledgeable and I explained what I had been trying to accomplish. “I lived in Northern Italy for years and the climate is not much different than Pennsylvania. Why can’t I make Italian wine here?” His answer changed my direction. “You know? It has nothing to do with the climate. Vineyards in Italy grow their grapes on hillsides that are essentially covered with thousands of years of volcanic ash. Hills here are made with granite slate and stone.” Different soil, different grapes, different juice.

Solebury Orchard cider; photo by Kelly MadeyThere it was. I needed to learn about what grows well here in Pennsylvania and naturally contains lots of sugar. The answer was apples. I was going to start making cider. Cider was the drink of choice in early America, for the same reason wine was the drink of choice in Italy. The ingredients grow in abundance and variety, and they ferment very easily.

There is a little more to cider than simply squishing some apples to get the juice and letting the juice ferment.  There are many different varieties of apples, from the Ashmead Kernal loaded with sweetness, Kingston Blacks, with their bitterness, to those annoying crab apples loaded with tart, and everything in between. With so many different varieties of apples there are also many faithfully guarded cider recipes. Go to any orchard that sells their own cider and ask them what types of apples they use. You’ll either get a laugh or sent out the door. Either way, you can bet you won’t be leaving with a recipe. Local orchards take great pride in their cider recipes and for good reason.  The best orchards have spent years mastering their balance of sweet and tart.  I acknowledged that I was not going to plant my own orchard and to make cider I would need to start with a base; I needed to find ‘the juice’.

Local honeyThe next few months I learned a lot about apple growing seasons and when fresh cider was produced. I sampled many blends from orchards around Pennsylvania and New Jersey, until I found a personal favorite – Uncle Pappy’s Orchard & Lisa’s Kitchen on Cassel Road in Coopersburg.  Their blend was perfect. It was local and there was absolutely nothing else in the gallon container but their cider/juice blend. Moreover, they support a local bee-keeper and have pounds of raw honey dotted throughout the store. I decided to start a test batch.

In making my cider I decided again to keep it simple. One gallon of Pappy’s cider, one pound of honey and a little commercial yeast. After a few days the yeast showed signs of life. After about a week and a half it had done its job. The fermenting had stopped. I siphoned the now ‘hard cider’ off the muck at the bottom of the container and into a clean container to rest. A little less than a month later it had cleared to a crystal golden white color. After an initial taste I knew I was on the right path but it wasn’t quite what we expected. The yeast had consumed all of the sugar. What was left was a dry white cider with hints of apple and local flowers left behind by the honey.

JC Scott and his ciderI had created a simple local, natural cider without preservatives or processed sugar, and with more antioxidants than red wine. I had in fact created something that wasn’t far off from what our Founding Fathers enjoyed every day. It may not be a Pinot Grigio from Friuli, but it isn’t supposed to be. That was the hardest lesson to learn. You can’t force wine or cider or anything else you put on your table into something it is not. The only way to create something truly, deliciously pure – and to represent your own culture – is to first not attempt to be another. Use what you have locally and get creative with those elements.  The results can’t help but be delightful.

Editor’s note: For other Bucks County sources for apple cider and apple juice, try Solebury Orchards (Solebury), Manoff Market Gardens (Solebury) and Snipes Farm (Morrisville).

Some notes on cider, apples and America… For the cider purists who may be reading, I’m aware that aside from Crab Apples, apples aren’t really native to America. They were brought over from England. They aren’t really native to England either as they were introduced to the English by the Romans. But for the past 400 years or so many apple species have been able to thrive in America and reproduce on their own.

I also know that there are several areas of contention with regards to ‘true cider’. It is acceptable to say that ‘true cider’ is no more than 3% or 4% alcohol by volume (abv – alcohol content), about that of a standard beer. Back in the 1700s (and today as well, for that matter) multiple yeast strands grew naturally on apples, but they weren’t particularly strong strands of yeast. Strong yeast can tolerate an environment that has higher alcohol content, and are thus able to eat more sugar and produce a more potent cider. When the apples were pressed and the juice extracted, the yeast followed. The yeast wasn’t alone. There were lots of other little microbes and organisms that can make you very sick. Without truly understanding the science, the hope early Americans had was that the good yeast ate up enough sugar in the juices fast enough to create an alcohol rich environment where the bad microbes could not live. Since the yeast was not a very strong strand it too would usually die off when the alcohol content reached about 4%. To the cider purist, anything else is not technically cider. And I suppose the purists are correct. Keep in mind if you are buying ‘cider’ from a big commercial brewery, you’re probably not drinking ‘true cider’ either, regardless of what the label says.

With that said, the cleaning process today and flash pasteurization of apples when creating cider for retail sale, kills off all the naturally present yeast that would make the alcohol, along with the bad stuff that would make you sick. But we no longer live in the 18th century and the law forces cider makers to either pasteurize or chemically purify their cider before they can sell it. So unless you have your own orchard it will be impossible to make ‘true cider’.

But I believe it’s okay to use a little commercial yeast and even bump up the alcohol content with a little raw honey, and still call the end product cider. Cider can be an excellent table drink that pairs wonderfully with anything a nice Grigio would go with. I try to make cider upwards of 15% to 16% abv for two reasons. Alcohol acts as a purifier killing anything in the cider that might make you sick. Alcohol also acts as a preservative. As long as you have a good seal in your cork, cider at 15%-16% abv can be stored for a long, long time. Also a strong cider makes you feel pretty warm on a cold night.

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