One Cidermaker’s Thoughts
by Katy Dang
I am sick of having ideas and being afraid to act on them because I am afraid someone will just rip them off. So fuck it: I am just going to start writing this Cidiary and see where it goes. Hopefully, no one will try to take it as their own. But, as Kurt “Hurricane” Hurley once told me, “Just keep doing what you do.”
I make cider. My cider does not have flavors: it is cider. It is fermented apple juice.
There are subtle ways to have different tastes to the cider: there is the type of apple you use or blend, there is the type of yeast that you use. There are always variables that affect the outcome: the temperature of the juice during fermentation; the time that it takes to achieve secondary fermentation; plus any of the little bits of air or cleaner or what have you that make their way into each batch.
But there are also other things that affect the taste of the cider.
I discovered this in its celestial form (bear with me here) when we experienced a total solar eclipse here in Idaho a few years back. (I could look it up on Google and give you the exact dates, but so you could you, for that matter). My cider was in the stage of secondary fermentation where I was just tasting it daily to see if I loved it enough to put it in kegs and bottles and send it out into the world. So I tasted it one day and it was delicious, but still not quite ready. Then I went off for a couple of days to camp with friends and stake out a spot to experience the total eclipse which, for the record, was life-altering. Truly: when the sun went dark in the middle of the day for 6 minutes, the way the birds and animals and we humans all responded was a reminder of our elemental fears and focus: survival. It was primeval.
Anyway, we made it back home and the next day I went to taste the cider.
It had changed taste completely. I mean; completely.
I don’t know how to explain that particular phenomenon, but I know that it was very real to me.
One of the things I will be trying to do in this CiDiary is come up with the words to describe the different tastes that you get with cider. I know you can use the phrases that have been determined to be commonly acceptable for wine and even beer has some fancy (if bullshit) lingo, so I will be working hard to try to explain taste and smell in words. There are the known descriptors of Organoleptic Profiles, but I am looking for something new.
That, and talking about how music affects my cider. On purpose.
(P.S. COPYRIGHT ME!)
Today will mark the first day that I use a brite tank to carbonate my cider. (* See End Note)
For the past 4 commercial batches (and countless others for personal use and experimentation beforehand), I have bottle and keg-conditioned my cider. It is always tense, wondering if it will work and how it will turn out. For years now, we have talked about the benefits of using a brite tank, but now that that day has arrived, I find myself equally, if not more, apprehensive about using modern brewing technology to create my cider.
Is using CO2 manipulating the cider? At least, is it more so than adding sugar and balancing the sugar with the residual yeast, carefully preserved, to create carbonation?
I suppose I feel like any mechanized equipment falls into the category of manipulation. I worry about how flavor will be affected, always. Not being one to back-sweeten my cider, I rely on its own adaptation to environmental factors to achieve the desired flavors. While the gas itself likely has no taste of flavor to speak of, I can’t help but wonder what, if anything, the cider will think.
*END NOTE: I didn’t do it. There was no brite tank used in the making of my cider, and heretofore, my ciders will continue to be bottle- and keg- conditioned.
** A note on back-sweetening**
I feel that this is cheating. It is not any different from the Bartles and James flavored wines of the 1980s, where you are taking a base alcohol and adding flavors. Any cider with flavor added to it after it has fermented—AND I INCLUDE APPLE FLAVOR IN THIS—should not be called cider. What, then, shall we name it? I do like Cider Master Andrew Lea’s reference to “Alcopops”. Perhaps they should be called “Flavored Cider Beverages”? In any case, (most) winemakers do not stoop to such tactics, nor do (most) brewers. I do not understand why it has become so prevalent in our preferred techniques.
But I tell you what: I ain’t doing it.
I said to a friend who asked how the cidermaking was going; “You know, everything that I can control is going great. It is all of the other things that go poorly.”
Part of making cider is relying on equipment. Even with limited manipulation in cidermaking, there are a few basics that are crucial to success. All of these concerns have to do with keeping unwanted growth in the cider. Hell, let’s just call it what it is: mold. While mold can certainly be effective in making another favorite delicacy of mine—cheese, Grommit!—it is a deal breaker for cider. There cannot be any infections of the cider, so there are basic steps that have to be followed and taken very seriously. First off, everything has to be clean and sanitized. I would say that approximately 80% of cidermaking is cleaning and sanitizing. All of the tools, the tanks, the hoses, the kegs, the bottles; anything that the cider will come in contact with must be clean clean clean and sanitized. The juice has to be moved from place to another—toe to tank, tank to secondary, secondary to bottles & kegs. All of these require a dependence on equipment.
Equipment is something that I cannot control. I mean, I take good care of things and understand the basic workings of small engines, but if one of the pieces of equipment chooses to malfunction, it can throw the whole process into a tizzy. Such things I cannot control, and so go to the phone, looking for the experts that can get things back up and running. This batch, it’s the chiller.
Oh, the chiller, that large, loud silver box that keeps the tanks at the proper temperature for fermentation and storage. We rely so much on its ability to do its job.
Coming soon: “Ode to the Chiller”