So you have some apples… now is the time to get some juice from them and do some testing. You’re going to have to bear with me on this as it gets a little sciency and technical. As my favorite Doctor says its all “confusing wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey… stuff” but that’s what this is all about, right, the science of cider making.
Getting the juice
I use a juicer to run some apples through to make a good test batch of my individual apple cultivars. You can use a juicer or a blender and hand squeeze the pulp or “mash” through cheese cloth. You don’t need a whole lot of juice, just enough to taste and test probably about ½ cup. You can also make a little test press similar to this press created by Claude Jolicoeur shown in his AppleBlendingCider. pdf located on his site. Claude is a great cider maker who has a created a website where he stores his thoughts and processes of making this venerable drink. It is a bit technical but worth a view. He also just came out with a great book The New Cider Maker’s Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for Craft Producers you can purchase it at Amazon. Really the object here is to just get enough juice to test with. If you don’t want to make something then you can purchase something like these little presses.
What makes a good juice for cider making you ask? It really depends on the style of cider you are after. However, the juice for all cider styles have some things in common that we need to pay attention to: sugar levels, acidity, nitrogen levels, and pectin. Measurement and evaluation of these things is not difficult. Below is a list of things you will need.
• Sugar – hydrometer / refractometer (Aff Link)
• Acidity – Titration Equipment – acidity testing kit (TA)
• Tannins – Your Tongue
• Nitrogen – This one is a toughie if you do not know where your apples come from or how they were raised. We will probably just take a guess.
• Pectin – depends on the variety and ripeness of the fruit. How you make your cider will determine how pectin will affect your juice.
So now that we have some juice and know what we are looking for in the juice how do these things relate to our cider.
Sugar is the main fermentable component in apple juice. It is what the yeast will eat to produce alcohol. Without sugar you would have a bland tasting beverage with no alcohol or effervescent bubbles. This process works by good old chemistry; the yeast consumes the fermentable sugars (more on this later) and produces as a by product alcohol and co2, thank goodness! More sugar in your fruit means more alcohol later in your final product.
You can check out my post on Measuring Sugar Levels in Your Cider to get a better understanding of your brix level (amount of sugar) in your juice, which will give you an approximate alcohol percentage. If you have any questions on the process please drop me a line.
Acid is a very important component of the apple juice. It will play a large part in the overall quality of your finished Hard Cider. How you may ask? Well lets talk about that. Acidity of your juice can affect your cider in two very important ways: taste and spoilage protection. Acidity, or total acidity (TA), relates to our perception of crispness in the cider. It makes our cider tangy or zesty and without it our cider may have an oily quality or ropiness to it. We home cider makers typically just look at the pH of the juice, as pH goes UP acidity goes DOWN. If the juice does not have enough acid in it or the pH is too high, it is more susceptible to spoilage microbes as the acid can kill off many of the microbes that may spoil your cider early on.
In my NW American centric approach to cider and my lack of access to “real” cider fruit, we don’t need to worry about this a lot as most dessert apples are fairly acidic. Now we know what acid does for us in our cider making process, but how do we test for it and what are we looking for.
A lot of people agree that the best pH level of a cider juice is in the range of 3.2 to 3.8 pH.
To test your juice for pH I would recommend a Hanna Instruments HI 98129 pH Tester or if you are not going to be making many batches get some pH Test Strips. However, there are many quality test strips out there. WARNING!! Do not get or use soil test strips as they are not sensitive enough for our purposes and they do not have the ranges that we are looking for. Find good brewing strips that are in the 2.6 to 4.0 range. These strips are often calibrated to daylight color temps or natural light and so you will need a Full Spectrum Bulb or walk outside to view the strip. If you want to get really nerdy and all scientificy you can get a titration kit (aff link) and you get to be all mad scientist with beakers, chemicals, and stuff just like the science kits we used as kids. Here are a few links on how to test using a titration kit.
Ok, so your cider is in the range of 3.2 or 3.8. Lets move on to the next step of the process, Pressing, or if you want to know more about your juice read more below. But “WAIT!” you say my juice is below 3.2 or above 4.0 what do I do? Ok I’ll help you out, here is a post I wrote just for you where we discuss dealing with low or high pH a little bit more.
Some of you are like, “ Dude, why didn’t you put tannins under acids since that is what it is?” and I would respond “Dude, you are so right but Tannins are something a little special, and can really change the flavor of your cider”. So it really needs its own section.
Tannins are pretty hard to discern chemically. I feel they are best left to the human palate. Tannins are the acids in your juice that make your mouth feel something. I know, ambiguous, right? If you have ever had a cup of black tea you know what tannins are; in the wine world tannins are described by texture descriptors such as grippy, supple, firm, chunky, plush, silky, and astringent. These are terms used to describe how the cider makes your mouth feel to your tongue. Sort of like if you shoved a piece of fabric in your mouth, how does the fabric “feel” in your mouth? Tannins are responsible for a lot of the flavor profile of the cider (read about cider tasting here). Unfortunately North American apple varieties are short in taninc apples like Fox Whelhelps, Ashmeds Kernels, Kingston Blacks, and other “traditional “ cider apples that are popular in the European cider world. Since our apples are often have low tannin qualities like our eating and dessert apples we may want to explore some tannin additives to your cider. You can find out more about tannin alternatives here.
For most of us these last two items will be very difficult for us to figure out. Nitrogen plays a key aspect of the fermentation cycle, a higher nitrogen level will make for a faster fermentation that will not get “stuck” as easy. I would recommend adding a Yeast Nutrientto your cider just in case the orchardist has not fertilized his orchard in a while.
Pectin plays a part in the cloudiness (pectin haze) of your cider. If you are using fresh pressed cider, do not boil it as this will “set” the pectin and will make for a cloudy finished product. Just us some Campden Tablets to ward off infection, and if you are concerned with the possibility of a pectic haze then add some Pectic Enzyme. When using an enzyme it is best used before the juice has fermented as you will get the best results. I would experiment with the dosage as well, try and use less than what is recommend. If you are not concerned with a hazy cider, then I would forgo this step as it really is a perception thing and not a taste thing. Pectic haze will not affect the flavor of your finished cider just the look.
Ok so we have some juice, store bought or pressed, we have tasted and tested it for tannins, acids, and sugars, and have decided what additives, pectic enzymes, and/or some nutrients we want.We learned we can blend high acid /low pH juices after fermentation but should blend low acid / high ph juices prior to fermentation. And we know what our estimated alcohol level would be if we ferment to dry.
Ok what are your next steps?
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