Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wild Cider

I used to homebrew quite a bit ... in college, of course, when many a lad finds extra meaning in the alchemy that turns water, barley, hops and yeast into something you can't buy without getting carded. At one point (well after my 21st birthday, in case you are my Mom), I noticed that I had around 35 gallons of beer in various stages of production or enjoyment. The apex of my craft was a Belgian ale I made using yeast that I cultured back to life from the residue in the bottom of a bottle of Chimay Red.

In the years after graduation, my brewing fell-off to nearly nothing. I managed to produce a gorgeous honey mead several years ago, made a valiant, but doomed, attempt at homemade sake and an equally dreadful batch of wine. Through all my fermenting experiences, the one predominant factor that always seemed to make or break a project was the control of microbes other than the intended variety of yeast I purchased and lovingly introduced into the wort or must.

Lapsed hygiene and imperfect sterility are the bane of brewers, and I'd guess that about one-quarter of my brewing projects went wrong -- usually apparent as a skanky sour flavor -- due to the accidental introduction of ill-mannered yeast and/or bacterial freeloaders. No matter how much bleach, iodine or expensive, proprietary sterilants I used to keep my brewing equipment clean, these nasty guys occasionally managed to slip-in. They are literally everywhere, in every breath we breathe and on every surface around us, so it's a constant battle.

Imagine my relief when I discovered Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentations, a book devoted to all sorts of fermentations driven by naturally-occurring yeasts. This is the same book that showed me the narrow, seldom-trodden path to chicha that I began to follow in my previous post (ptui!). One of the simplest recipes Katz offers is for 'Spontaneous Cider.'

Spontaneous Cider
adapted from Wild Fermentations

1. Buy a jug of preservative-free apple juice. Unfiltered is probably better.
2. Open the aforementioned jug and leave it out at room temperature. Cover the opening with a layer of cheesecloth or wire mesh to keep bugs out but let yeasts drift in.
3. Wait.
day one

In a nutshell, that's all you have to do. After a few days, the cider will should begin to bubble (my experience differed -- see below). Shortly after that, the fermentation may generate enough foam to overflow the jug, so it's wise to set it in a larger bowl to catch the spillage. When the bubbling settles back down, you could insert a rubber stopper with a fermentation lock (available at a homebrew supply store for a buck or two), as this will keep anything else from falling in. Then, again, what yeasty beasties are going to fall in that didn't already? One could simply set the cap from the jug loosely on top -- the key concept here is loosely -- so that the carbon dioxide can seep out but crayons, Cheerios and cat hair can't sneak in.

I put the theory into practice on Thanksgiving. I opened a half-gallon jug of Martinelli's apple juice, ready to let Nature have her way with it. Because it is a filtered juice, I figured that it wouldn't have much in the way of nutrients that the yeast could live on. To amend it, I added a couple of black tea bags (hey, that's good enough for kombucha!) and a small pinch of sea salt. I also threw-in some slices of apple on the theory that ... well, I don't know. Seemed like a good idea.

Three days later, seeing that nothing was happening, I added a small handful of organic blueberries. The greyish 'bloom' on berries is actually a film of natural yeasts, just waiting for their chance to get at the sweet juice within. Within a day, the juice had changed to a lovely coppery color and began to get cloudy, a sign that the yeasts had taken-hold and were multiplying like crazy. By the fifth day, the cider was bubbling vigorously and overflowing.

just beginning to get cloudy

As of this writing, two weeks from beginning, the bubbling is still evident although somewhat diminished. The cider is still cloudy and sweet but unmistakeably boozy. I could go through the effort of stopping fermentation with Campden tablets (aka, nitrates), bottling and then patiently aging the cider so it can improve over time. On the other hand, my sense is that this batch is closer to prison wine and should be drunk young and well-chilled. That's the plan.

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