[From Us] Cider Day 2018
Fall in upstate New York means one thing. Apples. Lots and lots of apples. We’re surrounded by apple orchards here in the Hudson Valley, and we’re even lucky enough to have a few apple trees on our property. We love all things apple - apple pie, apple crisp, apple sauce, apple butter, apple cider, cider donuts… but our absolute favorite is hard apple cider.
Hard cider has really taken off in the northeast over the last few years, and it’s definitely one of our favorite adult beverages. A few years ago we had a really productive apple crop from our own trees and thought it was a great time to try our hand at making our own. We talked with a friend who had some experience with homebrewing beer and she was all in to help us start crafting our plan. Our first challenge was that we didn’t have an apple press, and they are quite expensive to buy for a first attempt at trying something new. Matt spent a few hours scouring the internet and YouTube and came up with a plan to build our own. It’s pretty simple, was quick to build, relatively cheap, and quite effective. It used the jack from our Jeep to push down on the apple mash.
Our second challenge involved the apples themselves. We don’t spray our apples, so they were covered in spots and bits of mold, wild yeast, and who knows what else. We didn’t want those organisms to interfere with our cider flavors so our plan needed to involve removing the skins. This was also beneficial because our apple press couldn’t handle full apples. We needed to get the apples chunked up first for the press to actually be effective.
So we decided on a procedure to peel and core the apples, then run the chunks through a food processor to make a sort of chunky applesauce consistency. From there, we wrapped that mash in cheesecloth and placed it in a stainless steel pan that we drilled holes into, to allow the juice to run out. We placed this on our press, laid a slab of wood on top, and began to press the cider. We turned 5 five-gallon buckets of whole apples into about 5 gallons of fresh cider. After pressing, we boiled the cider to pasteurize it, and kill off any bacteria, mold or wild yeast that might give us undesired flavors. Once the cider cooled back down to room temperature, it was time to add the yeast. We had a variety of one gallon glass carboys to work with and we decided to experiment with different types of yeast to see what flavor profiles we might get. We used a typical cider-style yeast, a champagne yeast, an ale yeast, and then we added cinnamon sticks to a carboy using the cider yeast, giving us four different flavors.
After roughly one month of fermenting in the carboys, it was time to bottle and cap our cider. We had decided that we wanted carbonated cider, so that meant we had to siphon the cider into a clean, sterile bucket and mix some honey in. The remaining yeast would digest the newly added sugar, and the caps would prevent the carbon dioxide gas from escaping, keeping it in the liquid and giving us a carbonated beverage. Two weeks later, our cider was ready to drink. Upon testing out the very first bottle we learned that carbonation using the honey-priming sugar method can vary substantially, probably because it’s not well mixed and homogenized across the liquid. The first bottle we opened was way over-carbonated. The second bottle we opened turned out the opposite - it was under-carbonated. Aside from that issue, everything turned out great. Not only was it drinkable, but we had ourselves tasty, and roughly 8% ABV homemade libations and we were damn proud. It was just in time for us to share our creations with friends and family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And a fun fall tradition was born.
This past Saturday we hosted what has become our 4th annual Cider Day party with our friends. Our little experiment with 5 gallons of cider has grown into one of our most favorite activities of the year. After that first year, we decided that we wanted to scale up. We wanted a greater volume of cider and we wanted to try out some new flavors. We also wanted to see if some of our other friends might want to join us for the fun. Not only could we make this a party, but we’d need some help processing more apples! We were kind of at our limit with the 6 people we had originally. If we had more people involved, we could have an assembly line and increase our production and our efficiency. Cider Day has grown to about 25 people and it’s definitely one of the most fun activities any of us do in the fall.
Every year that we do Cider Day we improve on the process. For the second year, we added some more people and improved our assembly line. We also replaced the kitchen food processor with a more “industrial” pulverizing technique - one of our friends sharpened some blades on a paint stirring attachment for a power drill. We were now able to mash apples in a five-gallon bucket. We also replaced boiling all of the cider on our kitchen stove with boiling outside with the large propane turkey frying pots and burners. We had everyone bring a bushel of apples to contribute to the party, and when it was all said and done, we had about 25 gallons of cider fermenting at the end of the day. We were able to add another flavor to our list - a ginger cider. Instead of using honey as priming sugar for the carbonation, I found these little priming sugar tablets at the local homebrew store. We swapped out swing-top bottles and tried our luck at hand-capping our own. We created these fun labels that our friend drew for each flavor.
For the third year of Cider Day, we made a few more improvements. We had our largest group of people participating during this year’s event. Instead of having everyone bring apples, we decided on a new system - everyone would chip in money to cover the expense of buying a large crate of apples from a local orchard, to cover the new brewing equipment we’d need in order to expand, to cover the expense of ingredients like yeast, and to cover the expense of new bottles. In the past, we tried to save and re-use beer bottles, but found it to be a whole lot of brutal work to get them clean and remove the old labels. For this round, we decided to start with fresh bottles and save ourselves the hassle. So everyone chipped in $40 and we treated it like a crop-share - they all received an equal cut of the final product, which worked out to be a 12-pack per person. Matt and I were also gifted an apple grinder for our birthdays, from two of our friends. This was added in as an alternative to peeling the apples, as our press wasn’t able to handle apple peels well. We also built a new press - this one out of steel beams that were welded together by a group of the guys. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to experiment with this press before the big day, and it turned out to be less efficient at pressing the apples than the old wood one. The leverage from the car jack was really effective, and the leverage for the metal press (more of a crank system) needed some fine tuning (but don’t worry, the metal press made a come back this year!).
Instead of using a hodge podge of mixed glass and other random carboys, we decided to buy all new fermenting buckets called “Ale Pails”. These each hold about 5-6 gallons of cider, beer, or wine and worked really well for our purposes. We purchased all of these supplies and equipment from a local homebrew supply shop called the Homebrew Emporium (https://beerbrew.com), located just down the street from my work. We absolutely love this place and we recommend them for any homebrewing needs, whether it be supplies or answers to questions. The guys here are so friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. They’ve given us a number of ideas over the years that we’ve incorporated. For example, we added yeast nutrient and pectinase enzyme to our fermentation with the yeast during this round of cider making. The yeast nutrient helps the yeast be more active and productive and the pectinase helps increase juice yields and clear out the haze from your cider. We currently do not do a secondary fermentation step, so this is really helpful at clearing out the extra particulates and sediment. Cider Day 2017 yielded about 40 gallons of hard cider, which became 8 different flavors - Drunken Apple (cider yeast), Vivacious (champagne yeast), Cider Beats the Hops (ale yeast), Sinnerman (cinnamon), Soulless Ginger, Stop Collaborate and Drink It (Vanilla), Glazed and Confused (Maple), and You’re My Boy, Blue (blueberry).
For Cider Day 2018, we decided to expand things a little more - we pressed 2 crates of apples. Two crates of apples turns out to be about 2 pickup truck beds full. The apples came from Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie, NY (www.goldenharvestfarms.com). Two crates might have been a little ambitious, especially considering we were short about 10 or so people from the group we had in 2017. From the back of the trucks, apples were carted over to a sink we just installed in the garage for just this purpose, where they were rinsed and lightly scrubbed free of leaves and debris. From there the cores were removed and they were processed through the apple grinder. After the apple grinder, the coarse mash was pulverized using the drill paint-stirrer blades. This year, rather than using a whole bunch of cheesecloth to wrap the mash for pressing, we found these large, fine-mesh, nylon bags at the homebrew store. The mash was transferred to these bags and then placed into the new and improved metal press.
The metal press got a make-over this year. Matt and our friend Jesse built these great wooden slatted racks and base to increase the surface area in contact with the apple flesh and allow the juice to flow out evenly. The same leverage concept was used as with the old wooden press, but instead of a car jack, a bottle jack was used this year. This new press technology allowed us to improve our yields significantly.
From the press, the cider made it’s way to our boiling station that was set up with 3 large propane burners. After maintaining a rolling boil for 15 minutes, the cider was then cooled to room temperature. In the past, to speed up the cooling, we set the hot pots of cider into an ice bath. To facilitate that this year, we bought this handy coiled wort-chiller that’s made for cooling homebrewed beer. You run cold water through these coils and it dramatically speeds up your cooling by increasing surface contact area and transferring the heat. This new piece of equipment removed a major bottleneck in our assembly line and really improved our efficiency.
Lastly, the cooled cider was transferred to the sterile “Ale Pails” and pectinase enzyme was added. After at least an hour, yeast, yeast nutrient and other flavorings were added. A sterile air lock was fixed to the top of the bucket lids, and they were transferred to our basement where they’ll do their magic over the next few weeks. We pressed an estimated 5,000 apples. Our homemade technology yielded us 90 gallons of fresh cider, 60 gallons of which are fermenting in our basement, and another 30 gallons are being further processed into higher-proof spirits. After 9 hours of hard work, we were very pleased with our volumes of cider and we threw in the towel, but we think we could have pressed probably another 20 gallons of cider by reconstituting and re-pressing the mash to squeeze out every final drop. All in all, it was an incredibly long and productive day. Every muscle in our bodies hurt, like we just went to war. But we had the best time. We were surrounded by all of our best friends, our assembly line teamwork worked seamlessly, and I’d say we had as much fun making this cider as we will have when we get together and drink it.
Stay tuned for an update after we bottle and sample our finished hard cider from Cider Day 2018!
We’re training up the next generation!