Friday, 4 April 2014

How to make cider and have fun.

Thank goodness the Easter holidays have arrived. For it's been a hectic last week, not helped by the advent of BST (an hour's sleep lost), a dose of Saharan sand and a European smog cloud (of course, all this pollution must come from somewhere else). Add to that the fact that I always get my hayfever early in the season and it leaves me short of breath and it really was the perfect storm. All these factors have left me absolutely knackered for a few days, but the prospect of almost three weeks on the smallholding with no other work commitments is making me feel much more lively again.

As I write this, sat with my morning coffee, something has just mysteriously popped in the kitchen. It's a bottle of slowly fermenting apple juice, destined to become cider vinegar for the chickens. Sue squeezes the bottle in to allow room for the gases to expand and every now and again the plastic pops back out.

Cider making day - The team at work.
Last Saturday was cider-making day. This has become an enjoyable ritual which we perform a few times every year. A group of us get together and gradually demolish a third of a ton of apples, wielding various weapons with the general idea of reducing them into smaller and smaller pieces until they are almost unrecognisable.

The process known as "scratting"
We had a beautiful day for it and a newly arrived chiffchaff sang out for springtime as we chopped. We made faster progress on the initial chopping than usual and the scratting - further chopping using lawn edgers and a hoe - somehow seemed less arduous than usual. From there it was into the adapted shredder which does a great job of reducing the apple pieces into a fine pulp.

By lunch time, all apples were chopped, but there was a problem. The shredder had shorted and kept tripping the electricity. It was dismantled - note the use of the passive verb, as I kept well away from the operation - cleaned and left to dry out a bit while we took a lunch break. A delicious tomato soup followed by various bits and bobs which people had brought along. The biscuits from the Blokes Baking Group went down very well.
and smaller...
By early afternoon the shredder was recuperated and ready for another bash. There was quite a queue of buckets full of chopped apple to go through it and then it all had to be pressed, a job which cannot be rushed too much.

and smaller.

As the production line moved towards its end, I became more involved in operating the press. This is a beast of a machine, pretty much cobbled together from recycled and scrounged materials, but it exerts quite some pressure and the juice soon starts to flow out of the pulp. It reminds me of a medieval torture machine and brings new meaning to turning the screw.

And so to the end product. 110 litres of freshly pressed apple juice and nine bags of squeezed apple pulp. We shared out the apple juice to go home, ready to be converted into cider, apple wine or cider vinegar (or just simple kept as juice, though it doesn't keep too long without pasteurising or freezing). As for the pulp, that went into the back of my car and will keep Daisy, the chooks and the geese happy for quite some time. They seem to especially enjoy it when it starts to ferment. Funny that!

So, how do we turn the juice into cider?
Well, once we've got it home it's decanted into clean demijohns (the big glass containers with a narrow neck, readily available on ebay etc) and there it sits. Leave a bit of space at the top. The only other equipment you need is a bung with an airlock. You half fill the airlock bit with water. This works similar to a u-bend! Any excess gases bubble up through the water and escape, but the fermenting apple juice is not exposed to the air outside. You don't need to add anything. After a few days, sometimes a bit longer, the juice starts to develop a froth on top and not much later you start to hear strange bubbling sounds. Look closely and you will see millions of tiny bubbles of gas rising through the fermenting juice. It's really quite astonishing how active it gets.
This continues for about a week and eventually it all settles down. The bubbling stops and the sediment starts to settle. Leave everything to settle completely, then syphon the liquid off into whatever bottles (sterilised) you're using. There may be further development of gases, so old lemonade / coke bottles are good for this, or proper beer bottles, either the Grolsch type or normal bottles if you have a bottle topper.
Of course, it can be a bit more complicated than this. You can measure the specific gravity of your fermented juice, you can sweeten it, you may experience secondary fermentation (!). But, at the end of the day, we don't mind how it turns out as long as it's drinkable. Sometimes it's sweet, sometimes it's dry. Sometimes it's still, sometimes it's fizzy. To tell the truth, we don't know why. It just happens and it's always a good moment to find out how a batch has fared.
Of course, if you want to be more scientific and control the outcome a bit more, you can read up on it elsewhere. But the basics as outlined here should get you a fairly decent tipple.
None of the equipment costs very much. By far the most expensive is the press, if you're buying a new one. Pulverising the apples can be a bit of a chore too and you can buy various machines to do this for you. The best will set you back in the region of £700! You'd have to drink a lot of cider to make this worthwhile. Of course, you could always start up your own cider club. It certainly makes for a very pleasant day.

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