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. 
The Fermentation
We already talked a bit about how fermentation works in the earlier article on yeasts, so now we're going to talk about a different side 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 a 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 lot of gas, so makers use clever little valves (often called 'air locks', which use water to allows the gas to bubble out) to let this gas escape. If you visit a cidery when such fermentations are at full pace, you'll hear all these lovely 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, and 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 escape from inside. Barrels also have a whole mix of possible effects on the fermentation and 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 for that cider.
One of the key things that barrels do, is 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 things to work with, but when used well, they can be another brilliant tool for the cider maker, adding more possibilities for complexity and flavour!  

Deciding when to 'rack' a cider is another important choice for a cider maker. '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 they have 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'. But often 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, all at once, instead of pressing the different varieties individually. 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! So makers usually rely on past experience, or do small volume blends, before risking blending big batches! Differing the ratio of ciders used in the blend, even by a single percent, 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 relatively few apple varieties are considered well balanced enough, and complex enough to make a really good single variety cider; although of course you could make a single variety cider any apple. So a key element to blended ciders tends to be balance; the maker can add in the elements they desire, to give complexity and balance. But the unique character of a single variety can be really distinctive and fascinating. So each has its merits. 
Ultimately, it's all about the maker working out what the best thing to do with a certain variety is; for the kind of cider they want to make, and how that seasons fruit grew. Indeed single variety ciders were the most prized in the 17th and 18th century heyday of cider in Britain...

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