How We Make Cider – Part Two

Fermentation, from the Orchard to the Barn

In this series, we look at ‘How We Make Cider and Perry’ – alcoholic drinks fermented from apples and pears. In part one we looked at the Apple, the Harvest and the Pressing – you can catch up here

This time we look at Fermentation.

So, you have your apple or pear juice, how does this turn to cider/perry? Fermentation is the process whereby sugar is converted to alcohol by yeasts.

Primary fermentation – starting with the froth

There are two stages to this, a primary fermentation followed by a slower ‘malolactic’ secondary fermentation.

Primary fermentation begins

Primary fermentation starts quickly, but the time taken for yeasts to use up all the sugars in the apple juice is dependent on the type of yeast used, of which more later, and on the temperature at which fermentation takes place.

Fermentation starts with an aggressive froth, as this slows airlocks will keep out exposure to bacteria in the air..

Warmer ambient temperatures will help yeasts work quicker but many cider makers will leave the cider over winter for a longer slower fermentation. In perry, not all the sugars are available to the yeast. Pears contain sorbitol which is a non-fermentable sugar. It is this that gives perry its natural sweetness.

Slowly maturing – malolactic fermentation

Fermenting barrels at Ross on Wye Cider

During the secondary fermentation the sharper malic acid is converted into softer lactic acid. This is carried out by lactic acid bacteria which are present in the apple juice and in the area in which the fermentation is carried out and normally happens in the late spring or early summer.

This maturation process takes anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years and is essential for a good flavour balance. It is during this period that apples high in tannins, cultivated especially for cider, can develop their broad aromas and will need longer to mature than the more acidic eating and cooking apples.

Choice of yeast

This step is probably the most widely discussed stage in cider making and as always there are many ways of going about it – but they essentially break down into using a cultured yeast or relying on wild fermentation.

In a similar manner to brewers, lots of cider makers will add a specifically chosen strain of yeast to carry out their fermentation. The choice of yeast will influence the characteristics of the final cider – for example, the use of wine yeast will produce a more ‘wine-like’ cider – bright with a juicy acidity.

The idea of using cultivated yeasts is to get consistency from batch to batch of both flavour and fermentation time. This approach is used by both small scale ‘craft’ producers as well as some large-scale cider makers who aim to complete the whole fermentation in just 7 days!

Wild fermentation

Many excellent ciders are made using commercial yeasts, sulphites will first be used to kill the wild yeasts. Some will delay this sulphiting for a few days to introduce a bit of the wild funk.

Minimum intervention wild ferment ciders and perries by producers such as Tom Oliver, Little Pomona and Ross Cider are produced differently.

Blair Cote from Little Pomona Cider in Herefordshire, volunteered on the Rethink Cider Bar at MBCF20 for two days.

In this spontaneous fermentation the yeast used to turn the apple sugars into alcohol exists within the fruits’ environment (in the air or on their skins) rather than grown in a lab. The resulting fermentation reflects the place and the environment which is part of what in the world of wine would be called ‘terroir’; and provides deeper, more natural flavours.

This is where tradition meets modernity. Cider makers such as Tom Oliver have championed the return to traditional wild ferment cider making, but to be presented in a modern way, much like the Natural Wine movement.

From the Orchard to the Barn

Wild yeasts are everywhere, on the apple skins and collecting in the orchard. With each pressing they stay on the cloths, the equipment and in the barn.

Just like in wine making or Belgian Lambic beer production the wild ferment ciders will take on a style reflecting the age and form of the orchard and the ‘in-house’ yeasts of the orchard and the barn.

Spontaneous fermentation

Traditional producers of ‘Natural Cider’ are the spontaneous fermentation experts. Apple juice will ferment spontaneously with great ease using an ecological succession of yeasts.

The first yeasts from the orchard start a rapid fermentation but as alcohol levels develop, they die out and slower and stronger yeasts move in and finish off the primary fermentation stage.

Why are more modern ciders being made in the traditional way?

Firstly, the cider makers believe the depth of flavour and complexity achieved from a ‘wild’ or natural fermentation to be greater.

Secondly, commercial yeast strains have specific temperatures that they like to work in and require temperature control and a more ‘industrial’ environment.

Plus, on a slightly more philosophical level, the new modern traditionists are trying to make a purely Natural Cider and, to truly do that, they think you need to not only be using local fruit, but also local yeasts at local temperatures.

The search for consistency

The choice between wild ferment or use of cultivated yeasts is often influenced by the choice to create a consistent cider year on year or for a cider that expresses the place of its making, and which each year will reflect changes of in weather and environment. Many drinkers want their favourite cider to taste the same each year, others prefer the natural diversity of wild ferment. The use of specific yeasts can also produce ciders with a particular flavour profile, for example Hogan’s Cider use Brettanomyces yeast to create the sour flavours in their ‘Killer Sharp’ Cider; Hawkes Cider us a Sauvignon Blanc yeast in their Soul Trader Cider, to add citrus flavours to the Braeburn apple; others use Champagne yeasts to produce Traditional Method sparkling ciders..

The modern craft cider makers ambition

The modern craft cider makers ambition to express the flavours of the chosen apples or pears and to make a cider that truly reflects their local environment, their terroir if you like.

Richard Withecombe

Part Three of this series – Process and styles – will appear in the June 2020 issue of Beer Buzz

All photos from Ross on Wye Cider and Perry and Little Pomona Cider. Copyright.

How We Make Cider – Part One

The Apple, the Harvest and the Pressing

In this series of four pieces we look at How We Make Cider and Perry – alcoholic drinks fermented from apples and pears respectively. The UK is still the largest producer and consumer of these drinks although other countries are catching up fast!

The apple

Apple variety is a defining characteristic in cider; the best ciders are made with cider specific varieties. Like wine grapes, cider apples have the tannin, acid, sugar and aromatic precursors necessary to make a complex fermented drink. These characteristics are sometimes contained within one variety, but more often are blended.

Apples used in cidermaking are classified as bittersweet, bittersharp, sweet or sharp. These terms don’t explicitly include the sugar content of the apples, though this is also an important factor in cidermaking as it drives the alcohol content of the finished product. 

A variety such as Dabinett or Yarlington Mill is called bittersweet as it has a low level of acidity and a high level of tannin; others like Kingston Black or the lipsmacking Foxwhelp are classified as bittersharp as they contain high levels of both.

A sharp such as Braeburn is high in acidity but low in tannin; in a Cider made from ‘eaters and cookers’, a cooking apple such as Bramley could be considered a ‘sharp’.

A Sweet Coppin or Sweet Alford apple is categorised as sweet due to low tannin and low acidity. The term doesn’t necessarily refer to its sugar content relative to other apples, but more to the perception of sweetness, because of this lack of sharp flavours. In an Eastern Counties acid led cider using eaters and cookers, apples such as Discovery would be classified as sweet.

For Perry, there are two classifications: Perry Pears are rich in tannins, with varying degrees of acidity and sweetness (though all Perry Pears retain some sweetness after fermentation due to a natural sorbitol). Table pears which are very low in tannins are sometimes used to produce a Pear Cider, sometimes called a modern Perry.

The harvest

Craft Cider is a seasonal drink, it gets made just once a year during the apple harvest.

Chris Hewitt (Dunham Press Cider) and Nicky Kong (The Crown & Kettle) harvesting apples ( ©Richard Withecombe)

Unlike apples bound for the supermarket, which are often picked before fully ripe to prolong shelf life, for cider ripeness is critical. Part of the skill of an Orchard based cider maker is knowing exactly when to harvest, by hand or from the ground, to attain optimum sugar and flavour levels.

Harvesting season can be roughly divided into two halves, early and late. The early apple varieties such as Major and Foxwhelp start to ripen in early to mid-September. The later varieties such as Dabinett and Yarlington Mill tend to start coming in late-October to mid-November.

Pressing is in three important stages; first scrupulously cleaning the apples, second using a scratter to break up into a pressable pulp, and third pressing. At home chopping up apples or using a hand scratter and a hand press will produce a low yield of juice. The more powerful the press, the higher the juice yield that can be achieved.

Factory produced ciders

Industrial cider making does not follow the seasonal nature of craft, orchard-based, cider making. Therefore, it manipulates the process in several ways, one of which is very prevalent. This is to use concentrated apple juice, which can be stored and fermented year-round by industrial processes.

With the growth of many industrial fruit ciders, we have seen an increase in use of bulk concentrates and as more fruit or concentrate is brought in from the world market, orchards in the UK are in further decline. This is a trend which stretches back several decades due to other factors such as improvements in agricultural techniques and technology, causing the price of apples as a commodity to consistently fail to rise even in line with inflation. For UK apple growers, it is an uncertain future.

The actual apple content required in UK ciders is shamefully low; a paltry 35% minimum.

Even worse, fruit ciders are regulated differently as ‘made wines’ for which there is NO minimum juice content. Virtually all “Fruit Ciders” regardless of production scale or quality of ingredients are diluted to 4% abv because of exorbitant tax bands above that.

There are exceptions such as Tom Oliver’s At The Hop range  and Turners Elderflower, both coming in at 5.5% abv. Here the makers have made the decision to not add more water or unfermented juice to hit the 4% mark and have taken the hit on the extra duty this alcohol level incurs. This takes a degree of integrity as a cider maker and, in my view, should be recognised and celebrated.

Part Two of this series – Terroir and fermentation – will appear in the March 2020 issue of Beer Buzz