It seemed I was a mite of sediment
That waited for the bottom to ferment
So I could catch a bubble in ascent.
I rode up on one till the bubble burst,
And when that left me to sink back reversed
I was no worse off than I was at first.
I’d catch another bubble if I waited.
The thing was to get now and then elated.
—Robert Frost, In a Glass of Cider
(For the start of my cider-making exploits, see Episode 1: Traditional Hard Cider)
Today, I noticed that the bubbles of CO2 emerging from the airlock on my jug of cider had slowed to a rate of one per minute, indicating that yeast activity had tapered off and the primary stage of fermentation was complete. Being careful to leave behind as much of the sediment as possible, I siphoned off the clarified cider into a clean glass jug. Mostly, anyway–right at the end I decided I couldn’t help myself and redirected the last ounce or so into a pint glass for testing purposes.
And it worked! My crazy experiment worked! It tastes delicious: still a little sweet because the yeast hasn’t quite finished its task, but not vinegary at all, entirely different from the kind of overpowering bite you get after leaving a plastic jug of cider in the fridge too long. Most surprising to me is how well the flavors of my blend of apples have melded together. The flavor is quite clean (though there’s certainly room for improvement with age), the alcohol is noticeably present though hardly overpowering, and the bouquet is distinctively appley.
I am most satisfied with the results of my experiment thus far, and am sorry you couldn’t be here to taste it.
Left over from my siphoning and sampling, I now had at the bottom of my jug about a cup of soupy brown liquid, composed of fermented alcohol, settled-out apple solids, and dormant yeast. This goop, a byproduct of every fermentation process, is known as lees, and aside from having a cool name, it is by no means useless. The yeast has consumed all the sugar it could and is no longer active, but all it needs to come back to life is an infusion of sugar. Professional yeast companies actually bottle this stuff up, refrigerate it, and ship it off to homebrewers. Lazy amateur that I am, up until now I have always just poured it down the sink. But this time, fresh off my experimental success, I felt inspired to try something more. I had a little taste of my goop, and the depth of flavors, while not exactly appealing in a beverage, held promise of an almost-limitless potential.
Here’s what I worked out:
Cider Lees Bread
- 1 cup cider lees
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- 2 cups white flour
- 1 egg white
Add sugar to lees, and allow fifteen minutes to proof (i.e. wait for bubbles to appear at the top to make sure the yeast is still alive and kicking). In a large bowl, combine lees with all remaining ingredients except egg white, adding flour one cup at a time, until a stiff dough forms. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for 10 minutes, until supple and no longer sticky. Allow to rise in a greased, covered bowl until doubled in volume, 1-3 hours (variable because this is wild yeast we’re dealing with, and unreliable). Turn out onto floured board and knead for an additional 4-5 minutes, then allow to rest and rise on countertop for half an hour. Deposit dough in a greased 9″ x 5″ baking pan, brush the surface generously with egg white, and bake at 400 degrees for half an hour or until when you knock on the top it sounds hollow. Remove loaf from pan and return to oven for an additional 2-3 minutes to crisp the crust.
The result? Hmm. The bread is quite flavorful, but a bit heavy. Which probably means it could have used more yeast. Which means more lees. Next time I’ll have to brew more cider.
Anyhow, more on the cider in a month when I bottle it. In the meantime…
Non-homebrew beverage of the moment: Farnum Hill Semi-Dry Cider
I pretty much swore off commercially-produced ciders not long after developing a taste for beer. Even relatively small, local offerings like Woodchuck (which once upon a time I enjoyed quite a bit) now strike me as insultingly simplistic and cloyingly sweet, only a shallow step above those ghastly malt-liquor sodas that come in colors to match your outfit. Had I not discovered Farnum Hill Ciders, I probably would never have felt inclined to try making my own–not that whatever I end up will remotely resemble theirs. They make their ciders from heirloom apple varieties bred for centuries specifically as cider apples. They also most certainly do not take any chances with wild yeasts. And the difference between their stuff and pretty much any other cider I’ve ever had is night and day. The flavors are cleaner, way better balanced between dry, sweet, tannin and fruit, and far more complex. And the ciders are nicer to look at. The Semi-Dry is my favorite, but those more appreciative of the run-of-the-factory mass-produced varieties might want to lead with the Summer Cider. Check their website for a retailer near you–though if you live outside of New England I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
This cider book I’ve been reading, Cider, Hard and Sweet (an absolutely great book by Ben Watson which I took out of the library and now will be forced to buy), reveals to me something I already knew to be true: those “draft ciders” I stopped buying are, in fact, just a cheap knockoff beer soda. Real cider, due to “its relatively low alcohol content and its sensitivity to heat” doesn’t travel well and is best acquired locally. In order to ship their ciders all over the world, massive cidery conglomerates like Bulmer’s brew super-concentrated, high-alcohol still cider, then cut it with sugar and carbonated water for shipping. Farnum Hill, on the other hand, imports tree cuttings of British heirloom cider apple varieties like Pippin and Kingston Black and grafts them onto native Macintosh trees. Dedication! My wife and I have been talking about making the trip up to Lebanon, NH to pay them a visit next fall. I am excited already.
Update: One Month Later and Beyond
A month after transferring my cider to a second jug, fermentation had all but ceased, and I decided to bottle. If you’re at this point yourself, it might be worth looking at Episode 5: Bottling Your Homebrew for a more in-depth description of my process. In brief, carbonating any fermented beverage requires adding a small amount of sugar, which reactivates the yeast and produces enough CO2 to carbonate the contents of a sealed bottle, without producing so much CO2 that the pressure builds up inside the bottle and breaks the glass. A general homebrewers’ rule of thumb for carbonation (aka bottle-conditioning) is 1 teaspoon corn sugar per 16 oz. bottle. There are many options as to the sugar used (honey or concentrated apple juice, for example), but corn sugar is the most neutral in flavor and the easiest to measure consistently, so that’s what I used here.
I tasted the cider one more time before I bottled it. It had not lost any of its balance, but had become a little sharper and more dry with increase in alcohol and coinciding reduction in sugar content. My hope is that the introduction of the bottling sugar will add a lingering sweetness to the finished product–but this being my first try at cider, I’ll just have to wait and see.
And wait I shall. I’ve been homebrewing long enough to have developed a fair degree of patience. Since research indicates that homebrewed cider improves tremendously with age, it’s my intention to let the bottled cider age for at least a year before I taste it again.