Last Friday we took the day off from installing the steam pipes for our new brewery boiler, to bottle our first hard cider. This is the first new product to be released since I joined the team, and I had a lot of input towards its design. I have had some experience in the past creating hard ciders, both as a home brewer and wine maker, as well as commercially. Right after Mike and I shook hands to form our partnership late last November, I set off to Cornell University's Agricultural Experimental Station in Geneva, NY to take a week of workshops, primarily on advanced hard cider development and production techniques. The new information I picked up helped fine tune this cider into a great product over the past year.
We started with several different batches of sweet apple cider, fresh pressed from locally grown apples. Each batch had a different blend of apples and was fermented at cool temperatures using different yeasts. After the primary fermentation, the cider was taken off the lees (old, spent, dead and dormant yeast that settles to the bottom of the fermenting tank.) Then put into new tanks to age slowly for months and months, all at cool temperatures in our wine cellar. The cool temperature and slow, slow, slow, fermentation ensure that there will be lots of fresh apple flavor in the finished cider; as well as the tones and notes from the fermentation. Since each batch was made from different apples, and different yeasts; they had a completely different character from each other.
One of the craft secrets to creating a great hard cider is long and slow aging; and this we had done. The other is blending the cider. If you just make one, huge, batch of hard cider using all your apples, it tends to taste flat and one dimensional after fermentation. But if you make several smaller batches, with different apples in each, and later blend them carefully together; you get a final cider that is greater than the sum of its parts. Really great ciders save back some of the final blend to age even longer, and this is added to the blend the following year/s to bring in even greater complexity.
Next we took the blended hard cider and put it into a large fermenting tank to further age on oak. This additional maturation marries the blend of ciders, and the oak brings in a mild woodiness that pairs very well with the crisp, fresh apple taste. Now that the cider is almost a year old, it's just hitting its stride in both mature complexity, and fresh liveliness, with a final abv. of 7%.
We called our hard cider "Back Porch Maine Cider" as reminiscent of the feeling you get in late summer/early fall up here in Maine when you sit out on your back porch, looking out over the rolling hills, fields, woods, and streams below. Rachael, Mike and Joan's daughter-in-law, is our resident artist. She has an art gallery in our winery where we sell her drawings, paintings, and crafts. She also designs our wine labels, with a new painting gracing each one; and now our hard cider. She perfectly caught the feeling of Back Porch with an eye-catching painting that perfectly describes the stimulating, but relaxing feeling we were looking for.
Hard ciders really benefit from just a touch of carbonation, what the Italians call frizzante. Too much and you have a difficult time picking out the fine apple notes in the cider. Not enough and the cider lies flat and lifeless on your tongue. When you have the carbonation just right, the tiny little bubbles fizz in your mouth, tickling your tongue, and enlivening the cider; allowing you to discern all the fine flavors and aromas from the fermented apples.
To do this we put half of the batch of cider in a special tank in our cold room, saving the rest for later, and chilled it down to just above freezing. Then over the course of several weeks we slowly put it under gently increasing, but always mild, pressure with CO2. The long, cold, slow, light pressurization makes the CO2 dissolve fully into the cider, carbonating it, but lightly; so that you get tiny bubbles. Faster carbonation at warmer temps will give you big bubbles. It's easier and less time consuming, but we are willing to take the time; and do. It leads to a much finer end result.
During the whole cider-making process we only filtered the cider just enough after the primary fermentation to remove yeast sediment, but not enough to strip out any flavor. After that we left it alone, so it has a slight haze to it, significant because this means that it is packed with flavor.
We bottled the Back Porch it in crystal clear, 750 ml. sparkling wine bottles, with crown caps; the same style caps used for beer bottles. crown caps seal very well, you don't have the infection problems you get with corks, they are easier to remove than corks, and most crown caps have an anti-oxidation layer in the caps which not only prevents oxidation from gases passing through the seal, but remove any oxygen that may have been introduced during bottling. Hard cider is very prone to oxidation, and it can ruin a fine cider.
During the labeling an filling process the bottles are labeled first, then chilled down to the same temperature as the hard cider for 24 hours. This helps prevent wine or cider from erupting from a warm bottle before you have a chance to get the cork in or cap on. We finally got a new, pneumatic corker/capper for sparkling wines and beers a few weeks ago, so the process was a breeze compared to when we last bottled our sparkling apricot wine, Fancy That. Then we covered the cap and neck of the bottles with gold foil. We are still covering and twisting the foil on the bottles by hand, but Mike promised our next purchase will be an automatic foiling machine. My ice cold, and first numb; then sore and aching hands, can't wait.
Bottling our back Porch Hard Cider
Diary of a Distiller: Chapter 22 - An apple (cider) a day, keeps the Doctor away - Bottling Hard Cider(click thumbnails to view gallery)
After the cider bottling we got back to the last of the pipe installation. We attached all the connections of smaller steam in and condensate out lines, with steam traps, valves, etc. Then we spent half a day leveling out the full run of the pipe so that there was a slight down pitch from the far end, going back to the boiler. there are two reasons for this. Hot steam wants to rise, it is pumped uphill to the farthest point, with the steam being taken off of the top side of the 3" pipe here and there along the way, to be used for various equipment.
Diary of a Distiller: Chapter 22 - An apple (cider) a day, keeps the Doctor away - Construction(click thumbnails to view gallery)
The condensed and cooler steam is returned through the side of the large pipe as hot water and trickles downhill back to the boiler, where it is heated to steam again. Besides the gravity pulling the water back to the boiler, the steam flowing along the top of the pipe actually causes currents that force the hot water on the bottom of the pipe to flow in the opposite direction. So you get a two way flow within one pipe. Steam along the top going uphill, and hot water on the bottom going downhill. Thermo and fluid-dynamics, are weird, but great stuff.
We finished as much of the work as we could and the next step is for the steam boiler guy to come and inspect our work, assemble and install the boiler; make all the final connections, and test the system. Hopefully that will be next week.
Then we went back to work in the brewery to finish the piping for the cooling system for the brew kettle, chilling plate, fermenters, etc. The bulk of that will have to wait for next week as well. Have a great weekend folks and enjoy the beautiful Autumn foliage, I will!
Side Note: I was asked to give a few pointers on blending hard cider at home. So here's what first comes to mind.
Here are some professional tips to make a great hard cider.
First you need to make several batches of cider. Different apples in each batch.
Also try using different yeasts. Hard cider yeasts, different wine yeasts with various flavor profiles, etc.
After the batches have slowly fermented for a few weeks at cool temps, preferably in the low to mid-range for the specific yeasts. Try blending small batches with various amounts of each of the ciders. Focus on the strong and weak points of the batches. Play around. Wing it. See what develops.
One thing to remember is that hard cider oxidizes very easily. When making hard cider at home or at the winery, I have a tank of CO2, food grade, and top off the fermenter with the gas to flush out any air/oxygen. Remember with cider, and any wine or beer, once it is fermented, air/oxygen is not your friend. Especially with hard cider.
I use the CO2 tank to carbonate and keg my home ciders and beers in old Cornelius kegs, ie. soda syrup kegs. They are easier to sanitize and use than a zillion bottles, and they hold five gallons, a perfect home batch for beer or cider.
Also you can try adding other things to your blend. It isn't unusual, or wrong, in the science of blending hard cider, to add a little apple concentrate, or other fruit juice concentrates, or sweeteners like agave syrup or maple syrup, in very small amounts. 1-5%, to bring out sweetness, flavors, and aromas that you might otherwise miss. Before adding any sweetener you should kill off the live yeast with Camden tablets or other methods available to home winemakers and brewers. Then the yeast can't kick into gear again and ferment the sweetener.
When I was at that workshop at Cornell last winter on advanced cider production, we had a contest to see who could blend the best tasting cider. The one I created was considered the best. I used a blend of four hard ciders, one was real nasty and funky by itself, but when 7% was added to the three other nicer tasting, but innocuous ciders, it brought out all their good points and amplified them. While they covered up the negatives in the funky batch.
I also added 1% of sour cherry concentrate and 3% apple concentrate. This small amount of concentrate brought in barely noticeable flavors, but accentuated the ones already there, as well as the aromas. The apple concentrate also sweetened up the blend just a tiny bit, but it made all the difference.
Blending cider is both a science and an art. The only way to learn is to try out a bunch of stuff. Also if you get a batch that seems bad, or just doesn't work for you, save it. It may work really well another time in a different blend, or improve radically with age.
Good luck and let us know how it comes out.