Saturday, March 30, 2013

Summer Remembered: Hard Apple Cider

Summer was rapidly transitioning into autumn and that means one thing in my hometown, apple harvest! Though the Jonathan, Rome, and Golden Delicious organic heirloom apples were just ripening, the nationally famous Gravensteins were already on the ground. Charged with cleaning up the fallen partially fermented Gravensteins to detract yellow jackets from crashing our upcoming party, I had to shake apple after apple as intoxicated hornets fell to the ground helplessly kicking while I muttered with a chuckle “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” As I removed the bad apples it became increasingly evident that that near one third of the apples present were prime for hard cider. Now, at this point, some might be thinking “Eeeew, the apples are on the ground!” Well as my Dad once explained to me on top of a mountain in the eastern sierras during an archery deer hunt “there’s clean dirt and there’s dirty dirt! Clean dirt,…” he continued as he set his fire- grilled steak sandwich on the granitic sandy soil to prove the point, “…Clean dirt is like this, the kinda soil almost no one has set foot on in years. Dirty dirt is like what you’d find in a city ally soaked with oil, runoff, and garbage.” The sandy silty loam in our organic apple orchard is premium quality “clean dirt.” In fact it is common practice among the apple orchards here to shake the trees to ensure that the fruit reaches the dirt before pressing the juice. I borrowed my neighbors press after gathering sufficient fruit and set to work. The only thing about the apple harvest better than the sound a ripe Gravenstein makes as it falls from the tree, hits the soft ground, and bumps a pile of ripe apples, is the taste of the first glass of fresh pressed juice. I held my glass below the steady flow of the press and caught its sweet nectar. Unlike the filtered yellowish store-bought juice many are used to, this “liquid sunshine” is deep reddish brown, unfiltered, raw and wonderful! My first sip was accompanied by a flood of memories of childhood adventures playing Robin Hood or Tarzan in the trees, or even running home black and blue from high velocity projectile apples after being caught up in a local “apple war.” “The flavor,” as a good friend once put it, “is like a blend of apple, strawberry and pear, sweet to start and finishing off with a crisp tang.”
Eight gallons separated into two glass carboys in no time flat. I pitched the yeast that I had bought at our local homebrew shop, The Beverage People, put on the air locks and sat back with a content smile. An old acquaintance of mine had summed it up best “Yeast,” he said, “is a wonderful little critter. It drinks sugar, pisses alcohol, and farts CO2.” Today I was happy to have this little creature over for a visit. Two weeks later, I was delighted to see that the air lock had slowed to one bubble every thirty seconds, a clear indication that fermentation was nearly complete and it was time to bottle. At this stage I siphoned the cider away from residual sediments in the primary fermenter and poured the hard grog into a sterile second vessel. A small amount of priming sugar was added to wake the yeast up, and then the cider was siphoned into individual bottles. One must make sure that the right amount of sugar is added…too little and it will not be carbonated, too much and your bottles will explode! After this the bottles were stored at room temperature for a week while the yeast stayed alive charging the bottles with CO2. At this stage the next move is up to the home brewer. I usually chill half for drinking and sharing in its young stage and save half to age for a year.
I don’t add non-fermentable sugars to add a sweeter taste to the brew. Just juice, yeast, and a dash of priming sugar. The result is a dry and slightly tart beverage with a clear apple flavor and a high alcohol content. “It’s like apple Champagne!” my Dad commented. “More like poor man’s Champagne” my Mom added.
My girl and I are poor college students, but every time we crack a bottle of our own organic heirloom hard cider, we feel like royalty. I urge you to try it yourself, and take it from me…apples are only the tip of the iceberg. Enjoy the process, drink responsibly, and remember, keep the old ways alive! -Kevin Smith

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