It all began with a big sign on the window of our local home-brewing shop, the unfortunately named Brewer’s Droop: ‘It’s Cider season! Borrow our cider press!’
We’ve been blessed with apples this year. Or rather, with some extensive YouTube study and a five hour pruning session in February, I managed to get the unproductive tree in our rented property to produce hundreds of absolute whoppers. I have hitherto been almost the opposite of green fingered, so I’m inordinately proud of this.
We had already made pies, frozen puree, made apple butter and eaten apple pancakes for breakfast every day for two weeks. But, still, we had loads.
So I wandered into the shop to find out more and came out fixated on the idea. As in, Ray asking, “What are you thinking about?” as I stared into the middle distance pondering the process. As in, drifting off to sleep with visions of sweet juice flowing freely from the press.
The shopkeeper told me I could hire a scratter (pulper) and the press on a daily rate. I didn’t need any other kit as we already had fermenting vessels and campden tablets. That just left a couple of issues to sort before pressing day.
Firstly, it turned out that, though we were trying to deal with an apple surplus, we’d actually need more apples – “at least five 20 litre buckets to make it worthwhile,” said the helpful chap in the shop.
Fine, no problem: I contacted a couple of friends who also have apple trees and then had the bright idea of putting a sign up in The Drapers Arms. This turned out to be wildly successful and mildly stressful.
We had to get them from the pub to home on foot. Garvan, landlord of The Drapers, lent us his sack truck but, still, we still end up scattering apples around the pub and Hansel and Gretel style along the Gloucester Road.
It all worked out, though, and without any planning at all we hit upon a good mix for cider – mostly eating apples, a few cookers and some actual cider apples.
Unfortunately, not many people left their details so I have no way to say thanks to lots of the donors apart from here, and perhaps another sign in the Drapers. So, thank you all, it is really appreciated.
Next, I had to work out what processes to follow and how to use the kit.
Cider production, even more than brewing beer, seems to be a field full of contradictory advice and inconsistencies, with reputable sources disagreeing on methods.
“You don’t need muslin”, said the bloke at the shop – not much of a salesman, with hindsight.
“You definitely need a straining sock or something similar,” said two Drapers regulars, referring to a system for lifting the crushed apple out of the press when it’s done.
“You’ll need Campden tablets and a cider yeast,” said one; “I never use yeast, just let it do its thing,” said another.
I eventually settled on no straining sock but decided I would do the Campden tablet plus yeast thing.
I learned a few things in the thick of it:
> You need at least one other person, and preferably three or four. That way, you can be scratting while someone is emptying the previous pressing, or putting more pressure on the press, or making a round of tea without a break in production.
> Pulping apples in a hand cranked scratter is incredibly satisfying but the juice and pips will fly several metres as the fruit disappears into the maw, so either do it outside or cover everything.
> Yes, you definitely need a bloody straining sock. Digging out compacted apple cheese from a press is a lot harder work than digging out a mash tun, and you have to repeat it several times.
> The press can always be turned one more time, though it might not be worth the effort after a while.
> Size of apple really matters in estimating yield. “About five buckets of apples to one bucket of juice” said the chap in the shop. “About three times as many apples as volume of liquid,” said a cider making expert in the Drapers. I think my yield was more like one bucket of juice from six buckets of apples. I think that’s partly because a lot of our apples were huge – the bloke in the Drapers has a tree that produces lovely little red apples, hence, I reckon, his much better yield.
We learned afterwards, from books:
> As well as size of apple, amount of juice is dependent on when you pick the apples and press them. We don’t really have the room to do what most sources suggest, which is to pick the apples and leave them for up to four weeks before pressing, so we probably couldn’t have done this differently.
> We should have aimed for a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin in the juice, and should have made adjustments to achieve it. Well, the juice we got was absolutely beautiful, but I’m not sure if it will have enough acid or tannin to make good cider.
We got 30 litres of juice in the end after about 17 hours of hard labour, mostly me but with Ray’s help in the evening.
That juice is, at present, still juice, as fermentation does not seem to be quite kicking off as it ought to.
One of the smaller carboys is going fairly well, though not spraying foam everywhere as promised; the other is more sluggish. Our massive 20 litre jar seems to be going nowhere, at the time of writing.
It’s all the same yeast so perhaps I used too many Campden tablets and killed it? We will probably mix up the one that is going with the one that isn’t and see what happens.
At the moment, then, we don’t know if all the hassle was worth it, and by all accounts, even if we do get cider, it won’t be drinkable for another year. Still, we’ve already gone from “Never again!” at one o’clock on Friday morning to “When we do this again next year…”