How is Cider made? (Part 3)

So, the ripe apples have been picked, washed, milled, and pressed for their juice. Now what do you do with it, where do you even put it? It's one of the big questions for a cider maker, both in a practical way and as different kinds of container will have different effects on the cider that results. 
Nature's Miracle: Fermentation
We already talked a bit about how fermentation works in the earlier email on yeasts, so now we're going to talk about a different cider to fermentation, what it happens in. As there's quite a mix of vessels a cider maker can use, and each is a slightly different home for fermentation to happen in. Generally speaking, when cider is fermenting, you want to be careful about letting too much air come into contact with the liquid, as it can spoil. But as we know, fermentation releases quite a log of gas, so makers use clever little valves (often with water in so the gas can bubble out). If you visit a cidery when such fermentations are at full pace, you'll hear all these infrequent little bubbling noises, from the fermentations working away!

Often, the valves will be on the top of a tank, such as a stainless steel tank, which can vary from a few hundred litres capacity, up to tens of thousands of litres or more. The joy of stainless steel tanks are they are inert, so have basically no effect on the fermentation and the taste of the cider that results; some makers say such tanks 'let the fruit speak', as a result. There are lots of other possible containers, like Qvevri (which are large clay amphorae that get buried in the ground, & have been used for winemaking in Georgia for thousands of years), or concrete tanks, but they are rarer to find when used for cider making.  

The traditional vessel to ferment your cider in is a barrel, which goes back to the days before valves were invented when a simple bit of fabric and a wooden plug was used (to hopefully) prevent air from getting in, whilst letting the gasses inside escape. Barrels also have a whole mix of possible effects on the fermentation & the taste of the cider that results. This is also why some makers may only have their cider in a barrel for part of the fermentation, or to mature after the fermentation, depending on how much 'barrel influence' they want from that specific barrel. There are a few things that barrels do, that can affect the fermenting liquid inside: firstly, they allow a very small amount of oxygen in, which can alter the final taste and aroma profile of the cider. Barrels also introduce more tannins to the liquid and can give it woody flavours. Often these barrels will have been used for making a different kind of alcohol before the cider maker got them; such as wine, or whiskey, but all sorts of barrels get used, and so flavours from the previous use of a barrel can be imparted into the cider. Older barrels are typically used, because the effects of a brand new barrel on the cider can often be overpowering, risking an overly woody taste. So barrels can be fascinating and varied objects to work with, but when used well, they can be another brilliant tool for the cider maker, adding more possibilities for complexity and flavour!  

Racking = Control (Kind of)
Deciding when to 'rack' a cider is another important choice for a cider maker. Some ciders might never be racked, others racked a lot. 'Racking' is the process of siphoning/carefully pumping the fermenting apple juice into a new container. As fermentation happens, sediment (dead yeasts), called the 'lees', builds up in the bottom of the container. Racking the cider carefully leaves this sediment behind, and stops it from influencing the flavour of the finished cider. Racking also helps to slow down or even halt the fermentation, which makers often have a variety of reasons for doing. And say a maker wanted to move a fermentation from a barrel to a tank, well they'd have to rack it to move it! Hence why racking is a fundamental step in the cider-making process to know about. 

The Art of Blending
After these long slow fermentations have finished, and maybe even after some time maturing, a maker has to decide what to do with each batch of cider made. When a maker has fermented the juice of one apple variety, and they decide to keep the finished cider as it is (i.e. one variety), it is called a 'single variety cider'. Sometimes they will blend several of these single variety fermentations together to create a blended cider. And on other occasions, the maker might have even blended the juices of several apple varieties together before the liquid was fermented to cider. Often this is done by pressing the selected mix of apples together, instead of loading the different varieties into the press on separate occasions. Each season, most makers will create ciders from a mix of these approaches, allowing them to create a few single variety ciders, but also a few blends. 

It's a real art form blending. It creates even more opportunities to develop complex and layered characteristics in the finished cider, greater than the sum of its parts. But it takes skill and experience to do well, as the result of blending two different ciders together often won't be quite what you expect it to be! So makers usually rely on past experience, or do small volume blends, before risking an entire season's worth of cider! Differing the ratio of ciders used in the blend, even by a single percentage point, can change how the blended cider tastes. So when a maker has to decide which ciders to add to the blend, and in what ratios, the options for blending are huge! And this is where the skill & instinct of the maker really shines through, in creating the finest blends!

So what's the taste difference between a single variety and a blended cider? Well of course it varies hugely, but as we know, different apple varieties contain different levels of tannin, acidity, sugar, plus a few other characteristics, that can each vary with the changing weather each season, in addition to the region (even the orchard) from which the fruit has been harvested. The result is vastly different finished ciders (despite the same varieties sometimes being used). Relatively few apple varieties are considered well balanced enough, and complex enough to make a single varietal cider; although any apple can of course be made as a single variety. If a maker gets lucky and a certain variety turns out brilliantly that year, it's all about the maker taking what that season's fruit gives them and then figuring out the best thing to do with it, whether to create a single variety cider or use it as part of a blend. Indeed it was such single variety ciders that were most prized in the 17th & 18th-century heyday of cider in Britain. But in general, most makers today will do some degree of blending, even if just of a few varieties, as this can allow them to make a cider that's more likely to be well balanced and perhaps even a little more interesting!

First things first, are you of legal drinking age?

No, but I'm working on it