Wildcrafted Cider

Fri 5 Sep 2014 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Leave a Comment | Posted by: Michael

(Or, How to Drink Well After the End)

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Wild apples, late October 2013

Herein will I tell how I made really delicious alcoholic cider using only time, sweat, $2 worth of yeast, $18 worth of rented local cider mill, and a small mountain of fruit I wild-harvested entirely within biking distance of my house in Southeastern Michigan in the fall of 2013.

The result is in the running for the most delicious fermented beverage I’ve ever made. It has by far the lowest carbon footprint of any fermented beverage I’ve ever made. And it has the lowest cost of any fermented beverage I’ve ever made or tasted ($2 a gallon). It was also fun. And it filled me with profound satisfaction akin to nothing so much as seeing a piece of fiction I wrote appear in print.

1. The Wildcrafting Caveat

Wildcrafting is the art of knowing how and where wild things grow, when and how to harvest them so they grow back again the next year. I do it because wild food is cheaper than cultivated food, is made with less pesticides and generally less stupidity and a lot of the time it tastes better. I realize that if everybody did it, we’d all starve to death. So I do it sparingly. Please do the same.

2. A Cider for the Post-Apocalypse

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Not such a bad way to go?

Long have I touted cider as the gateway drug of the home fermentation hobby. It requires only two ingredients, apples and yeast. There’s no mash, no boil, no hop additions, practically no equipment to buy (a gallon jug and a balloon will do it on a shoestring), not really even any reading to do, at least to get that first batch going (I have done a lot of reading). Only recently did it occur to me that the same features may make cider the last practicable fermented drink to outlast the (zombie) apocalypse–at least for me, comfortably situated at the 42nd parallel, well within prime apple-growing range, in the water-rich Great Lakes State, at the far northwestern edge of Johnny Appleseed’s much-mythologized trail. Grain requires lots of work to get it to a fermentable place: not just tilling, irrigating, growing, but harvesting, drying, winnowing, sprouting, malting, mashing, boiling, cooling. Time, labor, resource and energy-intensive. Apples, on the other hand, in the right climate, in the right weather conditions, grow abundantly by the side of the road even when nobody’s paid them a lick of attention for twenty years. Not that there isn’t work in getting from a pail of apples to a gallon of cider, but in a good year the raw materials are there for the taking.

Michigan’s 2012 apple crop was devastated by an early spring heatwave. 80 degree temperatures caused trees to bud and even blossom. Then all those buds got killed in a more seasonable deep freeze that immediately followed. No buds, no apples. In 2014, the apple crop was likewise devastated, this time by the harshest winter in recorded history. Trees put all their energy into toughening up against the elements and made apples only as an afterthought. So much for free apples in the post-apocalypse? Not so! Not every year, at least. In 2013, apples grew in such profundity they were dripping off the trees, piling up knee-deep swarmed with yellowjackets on the lawn. People didn’t know what to do with them. One of my neighbors got so fed up he had his tree ripped out and chopped up for firewood. I, on the other hand, planted three apple saplings in my front yard. Nice thing about cider, if you do it right it’ll keep and even improve for 2-3 years. Ferment in sufficient volume (and hope for a lightweight apocalypse), and your supply will weather the dry years.

3. Harvest, Part the First: Apples

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Wild apples, September 2013

Over several weeks, late September to mid-October, I biked and hiked around town and woods, climbed trees, filled bike panniers with wild apples, muled them home. These weren’t, for the most part, the prettiest or even the tastiest apples: oft they were mushy in hand and had blemishes. Some were sweet enough, but lacking in tartness (acid) and bite (tannin). The vast available quantity enabled me to be picky–bruised or worm-eaten fruit I left alone–but not that picky. I harvested from seven different apple trees, best guess mostly ancestral Red Delicious and Cortland, plus one glorious Golden Delicious that entirely lived up to its name.

Let me put in a word in defense of Delicious. The grocery store/school lunch crowd know Red Delicious as an abomination, a horror of modern agricultural practice. If it’s pretty, who cares if it tastes like paste? But scroll back a generation or five to the ancestor breed of our modern candy-red pasteball and you’d find something entirely different. Should you care to refer to the literature or maybe ask your gran, you’d find Red Delicious was formerly in fact quite tasty and came well-recommended as a cider apple. So shut up, haters. These wild trees I was picking from were all well over 60 years old, huge, sprawling trees I climbed and swung about in like a monkey and occasionally fell out of not like a monkey, part of an abandoned orchard now overgrown and absorbed into the local county park.

4. Storage

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The hoard

When I got them home, I stored the apples in buckets on my back porch. I accumulated 2.5 bushels ~= 23 gallons of apples. Then I waited a few weeks. Given time, stored apples naturally soften, making them yield more juice. In the meantime I twice went through what I’d harvested and threw out any bruised fruit so it wouldn’t spoil the rest.

5. Pressing

I took my apples to a local hundred-year-old cider mill, where I paid a pittance for the privilege of feeding them into a hopper and watching them get shredded to bits, smashed flat, flash-pasteurized by bombardment with UV light, and finally poured out in glorious golden liquid form into two five-gallon glass carboys. Nine gallons!

6. A Word on Pasteurization

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Siberian crabapples

Pasteurization kills bad bacteria, but it also kills yeast. Yeast occurs naturally on apple skins, but as with sourdough bread yeast and wild Belgian beer yeast, different strains occur in different locales, and different strains are better than others for fermenting fruit sugars into alcohol. Had I been doing this in Western Mass, I could have saved myself $2, skipped the pasteurization and let the wild yeasts do their work, which under the right conditions they do robustly enough that they outcompete any of those bad bacteria anyway. It so happens, however, that the naturally occurring yeast in SE Michigan is crap for fermenting sugars into alcohol. So I was happy for that UV light: it saved me having to kill off the wild yeast with sulfites.

7. Testing

I took my nine gallons of cider home and tasted it. Insipid, sweet enough, but not very acidic (pH 4.0) nor very tannic. Acids and tannins matter to good cider because they enable a safe environment for fermentation and ensure a long shelf life. And they taste good, in moderation. So I needed to add some acids and tannins.

8. Harvest, Part the Second: Crabapples and Fox Grapes

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fox grapes, with shoe

I could have just added some powdered citric acid and malic acid and grape tannin, but where’s the fun in that? So I went back out into the woods and fields and brooksides and picked 4 gallons of Siberian crabapples (a genetic precursor to cultivated apples much used in landscaping and by kids for throwing at their siblings, also full of acids, tannins and sugar) and 2 quarts of fox grapes (tiny little native American grapes, incredibly tart and sour). I pulped and pressed these myself, at home, using food processor, colander, glass bowl and a 25-lb dumbell.

9. Blending

From all of the above raw materials plus a little local wildflower honey, I made the following:

Fox Grape Cider

  • 4.5 gallons cider
  • 7 cups crabapple juice
  • 1.5 cups fox grape juice
  • Lalvin K1v1116 dry white wine yeast
  • pH 3.7 (perfect, at the upper end of ideal for cider)
  • Original gravity 1.051, final gravity 1.005, 6% alcohol

Cyser (honey cider)

  • 3.5 gallons cider
  • 2.5 cups crabapple juice
  • 2 lbs wildflower honey
  • 1/2 tsp powdered citric acid
  • 1/2 tsp powdered tartaric acid
  • Lalvin K1v1116 dry white wine yeast
  • pH 4.0 (too high, but I let it go because it tasted great and I’ve known the sugars in honey to throw off pH readings in the past)
  • Original gravity 1.066, final gravity 1.005, 8.3% alcohol
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The payoff

10. Fermentation

I saved out a gallon of cider for use topping off carboys during the 3 months’ fermentation and bulk aging (also for sipping hot during the coldest winter in recorded history). Fermentation is the easy part. Just put on a fermentation lock, store somewhere cool and dark, sit back, rack off once in awhile into a clean carboy and drink something else you’ve got handy while you wait.

11. Aging

Then I bottled half, kegged the other half, aged another 3 months and have been sipping chilled, delicious cider ever since. If I pace myself, it just might last me through the glorious bumper crop (fingers crossed) of 2015.

12. Tasting

I’ve been making cider since 2006. I started in Western Mass, where due to long history and resurgent tradition (IMHO) the apples are the best in the country. It made me, I now realize, snobby about cider. I nigh gave up fermenting apple juice when I moved to Michigan because I knew I wasn’t about to find ready-to-hand blends of heirloom cider apples around every corner.

This experience, wildcrafting and blending my own, has completely turned me around. These two wildcrafted ciders are nothing remotely like ye cloyingly sweet mass-produced draft ciders–not much like the delicate flavors of the ciders of my homeland either I confess–but funky, complex, tart and sour, entirely satisfying and addictive.

And I owe it all to the crabapples. A month from now, if you live somplace where winter hasn’t killed them, go out and take a tiny bite of a crabapple or three. Try go get past the sourness and bitterness, or rather, try to recognize those as concentrated flavor elements. I did, and I was amazed at the complexity. (Wildcrafting has well prepared me for this effort–the domesticated palate, I fear, tends towards the bland.) Plus, as I learned from cider nerds at the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Festival last year, the higher the acid content, the longer cider will last in the cellar (and the longer it needs to age, because those acids need time to break down and become palatable).

So the blend is really the key. Ideally, you might make several batches with increasing proportion of higher-acid fruit: one batch for year one, another for year two, another for year three, by which time hopefully there’d have been another bumper crop so you could start again.

If you try it, let me know how it goes, won’t you?

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