Let me preface this by saying that although we are home brewers, we have no real idea on how to make cider. Sure, we hear the process is pretty similar, and there is a huge amount of online how-to information, but there seem to be so many different variables, such as the type of apples used, methods of pressing, using natural or purchased yeast, benefits and methods of pasteurization, or how to get a sweet cider if any additional sugar is 100% fermentable. What I’m saying is that even though cider is a lot like beer in some respects, it also opens up a host of new and exciting questions that people could argue for days over how to answer.
Not only that, but the Internet seems conspicuously silent on the subject of crabapple cider. Some will mix crabapples with other apples for a little extra tartness and flavor, but nothing too ambitious. Others will turn them into vinegar. Some just make a non-hard hot beverage for their kids. But we wanted real, brewed entirely from our free neighborhood crabapple trees, alcoholic, honest-to-goodness, true crabapple hard cider.
Keeping our learning curve in mind, what follows is not so much a how-to as a report on our process and our first really experimental brewing project.
Why Crabapple Cider?
So apparently this is the year for apples, because every apple and crabapple tree in our little neighborhood is full to bursting with fruit. It’s hard to drive down the narrow roads without seeing rotting apples piling up in the gutters in front of at least a few houses. In our yard this year, Michael aggressively trimmed back our crabapple trees, letting in copious amounts of light and providing a pleasant canopy to walk under. I’m guessing that this pruning, combined with the weather this year (frequent afternoon rains, lower overall temperatures, with no early frost) have contributed to the absolutely enormous supply of crabapples from the otherwise neglected and purely decorative trees growing in the far back of our yard.
Crabapples are gorgeous. They look more like cherries than apples: a bright, cheery red mingling at the edges with hints of a golden yellow, all with a slightly dusty lustre of homegrown apples. They are tantalizing the way that Snow White’s apple magically drew her into its spell. And while they aren’t poisonous, they are incredibly tart, so much so that many people write them off as being a completely inedible and useless little excuse for a fruit.
But what if they aren’t useless? We have so many of them! They’re free! And beautiful! And when picked at the right time, have a sweet spiciness lurking under all that tartness that gives them a delicious flavor all their own. Surely there could be a great way to use them.
In the spirit of many of the early American settlers from Europe, we realize that anything with some good flavor and natural sugars can probably be fermented into some kind of booze. (Really. This is why sorghum beers and pumpkin beers and other weird vegetables ended up in so much beer in the 1700s: people with limited incomes and vast natural resources got creative about how to get their drink on.) So as cider lovers ourselves, it seemed only natural to try to create our own delicious, berry-red crabapple cider using our existing brewing equipment and growing knowledge of fermentation.
The Basic Cider Process: An Overview
To begin with, let’s discuss the making of cider in general. We’ve already discussed on here the general process of making beer, and if you’re interested in the subject of home brewing, there are vast resources online for people of every skill level.
Cider is not too different. Basically, take the juice pressed from apples (either storebought apple cider or pressed from fresh fruit), add some yeast, ferment, and bottle. It seems pretty straightforward.
The hard part is figuring out all the details. Does it have to be pasteurized or unpasteurized apple cider to start with? Without an apple press, how do we get the juice out of the apples? What kind of yeast do we need? Since crabapples are so much more tart than regular apples, do we have to add sugar? If sugar ferments completely, how do we make it sweeter? Is it worth it?
After a bit of research and talking with our beer pals at Barley Haven homebrew shop, we planned on the following process:
- Boil the cut apples for a while to get out all the sugars, flavors, and juices.
- Strain the mashed apple/water concoction to remove any solids
- Chill the resulting juice to room temperature
- Add a wine yeast, which will keep it sweet, floral, and fruity
- Add a pectic enzyme, which will break down the pectins in the fruit
- 2 weeks in primary fermentation, 2 weeks in secondary, 2 weeks bottle conditioning
Some of this got modified along the way, as you will see, but that was our basic plan.
All of this is a huge experiment, and we knew we were going to have a lot of fun figuring it out.
Step 1: Gathering the Crabapples
Our goal, for a five-gallon batch of cider (although we only ended up getting 2.5 gallons) was 5 gallons of crabapples to start with.
We have two decently-sized crabapple trees in our yard. They’re just sitting there, unobtrusively growing between us and our neighbors, looking pretty in the springtime and barely hinting at the massive amounts of delicious goodness that could rain down on us if we chose.
At first, we were going to pick them off the tree. Then we realized that the sweetest crabapples would probably be those that had already fallen to the ground, and if they look intact, there’s probably nothing wrong with the fallen ones, especially since we were planning on straining out all the crunchy bits anyway.
Then, we realized that any time we picked one crabapple, several more would just fall off on their own accord. We decided the easiest way would be to spread a large tarp under the trees, shake the heavily-laden branches, and use whatever fell into the tarp. Michael used a garden rake to shake the higher branches.
This was brilliant, and it made us laugh. It was raining crabapples! Soon, we had a huge pile of beautiful crabapples in the tarp.
We had to sort out the leaves that had fallen, anyway, so we sat down on the tarp next to our pile and sorted the good from the bad. We weren’t very scientific. Generally, we decided that blemishes and rough spots were ok, as long as they didn’t break the skin. Again, everything solid was going to get strained out later anyway. If something was too wrinkled, mushy, or hole-y, we’d just toss it over our shoulders and then laugh when it hit the side of the garage with a thunk. On the one hand, throwing away so many crabapples felt like a waste; on the other hand, under the tarp were huge amounts of crabapples that had fallen before we got out there and would just break down and become part of the soil like they did every year. Anything we make with the crabapples is saving the fruit; anything we throw out would have been wasted anyway.
It was a beautiful day, and taking pictures outside where there is actually enough light for my dinky camera phone was fun.
When we filled our 5-gallon pot, we put our stuff away and hauled our bounty inside for processing.
Processing the Crabapples
One of the major barriers to using crabapples as a legitimate food source (aside from the exquisite and intense tartness) is that they are so stinkin’ small. Peeling, coring, and cutting regular-sized apples is still a chore; imagine if they were all the size of cherries. No, thank you!
Some websites that have crabapple jelly, butter, or applesauce recipes (future projects! I can’t wait!) instruct you to at least cut the stems and blossom ends off the crabapples. Even this sounds like way too much work. With five gallons of crabapples, this just wasn’t going to happen.
For cider, many people have an apple press, or make one for themselves. This presses out all the juice of the apples, separating them from the pulpy interior. It would also work for crabapples. Other homebrewers use a juicer, which seems like a good idea. Not to be confused with the little citrus juicers I used growing up in California, these big home juicers can handle juicing all kinds of weird root vegetables for super healthy hippie people who like things like carrot juice, so I’m sure they could probably handle apples just fine.
We don’t have either a press or a juicer, but we do have a nice Kitchen Aid with a nice Slicer/Shredder attachment. By choosing a nice, thick slicing setting, we could tear up our little crabapples enough to boil some of the juice out of them.
Here are the steps we used to process our crabapples:
- In batches, we washed the crabapples in cold water using our pasta pot with integrated colander. This got any residual dirt and bugs off of our pretty little apples. Because our pasta pot wasn’t big enough for all five gallons of crabapples, we’d just do a portion of them at a time. This turned out to work perfectly with the Kitchen Aid slicer, as it required periodic de-gunking.
- From the washwater, we scooped the crabapples up and into the feed of the Kitchen Aid slicer using a small mug. I would NOT recommend scooping them by hand! It’s too easy to get fingers too close to the slicing blades. Since there were two of us, one of us scooped the crabapples in, while the other operated the Kitchen Aid. Note: We did NOT take off any stems, blossoms, skins, or cores. That’s way too much work. We just tossed it all into the Kitchen Aid slicing attachment.
- When each batch of the washed crabapples was finished, we’d pause our operation, refresh the wash water, and clean out any gunk that was stuck in the workings of the Kitchen Aid slicer attachment. The stems, blossoms, and cores could be very woody, and instead of getting sliced, many would work their way in between the slicer blades and the plastic casing. We would put all of this woody gunk into a bowl standing by for compost. None of it was going to contribute anything to the juice. Of course, plenty of stems and cores made it through into the crabapple mash. That’s fine; it’s all going to get strained later.
- Also at these pauses, we would empty the fresh crabapple mash from Kitchen Aid bowl into our giant 7.5 gallon brewpot.
- Working in short installments like this, we processed the entire 5 gallons of crabapples. Most of this volume was turned into mash; there were only a few cups of stems and pits cleaned out of the machine that we discarded.
The entire process really didn’t take too long with both of us working. It didn’t take up too much space and was pretty efficient. Plus, there was NO chopping or peeling going on.
Boiling the Crabapple Mash
Now, our whole plan centers around boiling the mash into a nice juice, and then straining out the solids, the same way we would do it if we were making jelly. However, when we made jelly, we only boiled it for a little bit, strained it, added the sugar, and boiled it a bit more. For cider, we wanted to get more of the juice and flavor out, so we decided to boil it for a little longer.
Plus, there was decision of how much water to add. Purists might decide not to add any water to their cider, and purely use any juice that came from the crabapples themselves. When we were at the homebrew store, we showed a sample of our crabapples to the employee, who crushed one and put a few drops of the juice into a refractometer, which is used in wine making to determine the sugar content of the fruit. (Not being wine makers ourselves, we thought this was pretty awesome.) He said that our crabapples had a surprisingly high sugar content, and if left to ferment with no added water, could potentially yield an ABV of over 10%. Since we were aiming for about half that, we could add some water to bring it down into beer range.
In the end, we added just enough water to fill the brewpot to the 5-gallon mark, and arbitrarily decided to boil it for 30 minutes after bringing the huge brewpot up to a boil.
Sanitizing Remaining Supplies
Boiling sanitizes the solution and kills the germs that make your booze taste nasty. But just like with beer brewing, anything that touches the mixture after boiling runs the risk of introducing bacteria into your brew. This means that any equipment used after boiling must be thoroughly sanitized before use. We use Star San, which is a brewer’s sanitizer. It works quickly, won’t mess up your brew if an item isn’t entirely dry before using, and doesn’t introduce off-flavors.
For this project, we sanitized:
- A large plastic fermenter with lid
- An airlock
- A large strainer, to be lined with cheesecloth for straining the mash
- The beer thermometer
- A big cutting board for laying out our equipment to dry
We also filled a spray-bottle with the sanitizing solution, to sanitize anything else we may end up needing after we drain the solution. In this case, it ended up being highly neccessary, because we changed tactics halfway through straining and needed a lot more equipment sanitized suddenly.
Straining the Crabapple Mash
Once we decided that our crabapple mush was good and boiled, and that any possible juices within the mash were surely released from their pulpy prisons, all we had to do was strain it straight into our fermenter.
Now, when we made jelly, we used our largest strainer and lined it with a few layers of cheesecloth. This worked perfectly. Naturally, we believed that we could do the same thing again.
However, straining a few cups’ worth of juice for jelly is nowhere near the same scale as straining five gallons of mash worth for cider. The relatively small strainer/cheesecloth combo clogged up beyond hope almost immediately.
Instead, we decided to set up our mash tun (a large cooler in which we steep malted barley in hot water when making beer) with the sparge bag inside (basically a huge teabag set inside the cooler to hold the grains and prevent the spigot from clogging), and the false bottom, which holds up the bag of mash and allows all the liquid to drain through. If you’ve read our posts on home brewing, you might recognize this as the exact same setup we use when mashing barley to make wort for beer. The difference is that this time, we did it after boiling, and are basically just using it as a giant strainer mechanism.
Note: If you are a jam-maker and not a home brewer, you might already know that many people make jelly by squeezing all the juice from the pulp through a muslin sack or an old (but clean) pillowcase. This is basically the same functionality as our sparge bag and might work even better. Since we are new to jelly as well, it’s clear that we have a lot to learn.
It worked like a charm, and we got about 3 gallons of juice from our 5 gallons of mash/water mix.
Instead of being clear, like our jelly juice was, this is thick, without being pulpy, and cloudy with no visible precipitate. It’s a gorgeous shade of rose.
Unfortunately, when we tested the juice with the hydrometer (which measures the density of the drink, giving us an idea of sugar content before and after fermentation), it wasn’t anywhere near what we were expecting based on the measurement taken at the brew store. What went wrong? Did we boil it for too long? Did we use too much water? Was the average sugar content of the crabapples lower than that of the sample we brought to the store? With too low of a density, there may not be enough fermentable sugars to get the alcohol content in the nice, drinkable range of 5.5% ABV.
After considering our options, we decided to add some white table sugar. Table sugar is 100% fermentable, which means that yeast will be able to eat all of it, converting the entire contribution into alcohol. The added sugar does not, then, make the cider more sweet, but more alcoholic. We’ve never added sugar to our beer, (with the exception of the small amount added for bottle conditioning to make it fizzy at the end) but sometimes it is done with Belgian beer recipes.
Taking a total random guess based on my preference when making sweet tea, we added 3 cups of sugar (one per gallon of juice) while the juice was still warm. We stirred it into the fermenter and hoped for the best.
Chilling the Cider
Yeast doesn’t like super hot environments. Heat will kill off yeast. Our crabapple juice had cooled down a bit during the straining process, but still needed to chill to close to room temperature before we could pitch (add) the yeast. Many home brewers have a wort chiller, which runs cold water through a coiled copper pipe, which is then immersed in your beer. They are not cheap, and we still haven’t gotten one. Instead, we toss the brewpot (or in this case, the fermenter) into a bath (or sink) of very cold water and wait for it to cool down.
Without a wort chiller, this can take hours.
Pitching the Yeast (and adding a pectic enzyme)
After we were tired of waiting, we sprinkled the yeast into the top of the fermenter. Normally, we brew beer with a liquid yeast, which must be refrigerated and doesn’t require re-starting in a separate step. Dry yeasts usually require starting in a little warm water before pitching, but the brew store guy said that with this particular yeast, he just tosses it into his delicious blueberry beer as-is and it does just fine. This is why it’s great having other brewers to talk to; we take chances we might not take otherwise. Fun times.
Pectic enzyme is an enzyme that breaks down pectin in the brew. Pectin is what makes jams and jellies jell properly. Apparently, crabapples are very, very high in natural pectin. In fact, our crabapple jelly recipe doesn’t even require any additional pectin to work properly, unlike our pepper jelly recipe. In fact, the only real difference between our cider process outlined above and our jelly process is a) the amount of sugar used and b) the fact that it is poured into a fermenter with yeast instead of little jelly jars. (We are still fine-tuning both recipes and will probably make a lot more decisions differently for each, so this is a simplification, but the basic process and steps are the same). We don’t want our cider to jell! Adding the pectic enzyme breaks down the pectin, so that it will not hinder the process of good fermentation and a good cider.
Well, that’s about it. We popped the airlock on that thing, set it aside, and now it’s bubbling away happily, indicating that good fermentation is going on inside.
In a few weeks, we’ll rack it to a secondary fermenter (getting it off any dead yeasts and their contributing off-flavors) and then bottle-condition it and put it into a few bottles.
I have absolutely no idea how it will turn out. It’s all very exciting. I’ll update later when we have more information.
Postscript: All the Possibilities!
There are a ridiculously huge number of ways for us to tweak this basic process to get a better cider, once we figure out what we’re doing. Here are some of the variables I’m thinking about, and wondering how each would affect the final product:
- Amount of Water Added: We added a fair amount of water to our mash, with the understanding that the sugar content of our cider would be high enough to get a good ABV. But then we added sugar later to compensate. If we added less water per apples, would we have a higher natural sugar content? What would this then do for the taste? Would we be better off squeezing our crabapple mush and adding no water at all? If so, we would likely need to add to our fruit volume and maybe even build some kind of press.
- Time to Boil: Beer is boiled for a number of reasons, including timing the addition of hops or other flavors, and doing something to the proteins. Cider is made from apples instead of barley, and thus has completely different proteins. Boiling might not be necessary. What does boiling do to the flavor of the crabapple juice? Will a longer boil truly get out more flavors from the mash, or does it just introduce more tannins and off-flavors from the pulpy mush? What does a longer boil do to the clarity of the drink? Should we boil a little bit to release the juices, then strain, then boil the juice longer for some other reason? What’s the science going on here?
- Pasteurization: One reason to boil the mash is to kill off any invisible nasties that might be lurking on the surfaces of our home-grown crabapples. I’ve also read that it’s better to pasteurize at just under a boil for a sustained period of time, to preserve the flavor. If that’s the case, should we pasteurize just the juice after straining the mash?
- Clarity: In my mind’s eye, I see a crystal-clear, ruby-red, sparkling crabapple cider. I don’t know if this is possible, but it is beautiful and tantalizing. The pectic enzyme we added should help by breaking down the pectin, but the cloudiness of the fruit juice probably also stems from other factors. Would reducing boiling help with clarity? What about other clarifying agents often used for beer? We tried bentonite clay with our apricot beer with little success, but that could just be our lack of experience. How would we heavily filter it if we wanted more clarity, like a filtered wheat beer? Or maybe a cloudy, frothy pink cider is exactly what this drink needs to be. There are so many options!
- Sweetening: Crabapples are very tart, although they also have this delicious, rich flavor. Many people steer away from purely crabapple cider because sweetening it to a drinkable state could present a problem. We’re really not sure how this batch will turn out; it will NOT be as sweet as a commercially-produced Woodchuck cider, for example. If we wanted to sweeten a batch, how would we go about it? Adding sugar before fermentation just ups the alcohol content, not the flavor. Adding afterwards, before bottling, is a great way to add fizz to the bottle, but adding too much might make too much fizz and the bottle could explode. Adding carbonation with a keg instead of bottle conditioning would mean that we could pasteurize the cider prior to bottling and add sugars after the yeast is dead and filtered out. Artificial sweeteners could sweeten the cider without feeding the yeast, but that feels a little…. wrong… for our all-natural homegrown free cider. Some brewers add in unfermented, pasteurized apple juice before bottling to increase the sugar content of their ciders. I’m sure there are other ways, but we would need to read up on this and experiment to see how these things change the flavor.
- Additional Processing of Crabapples: We know that fruits left out or in paper bags continue to ripen. What if we were to use this method to ripen our crabapples? Would this increase sugar content? What if we roasted or caramelized them? How would it affect the flavor or fermentability of the fruit? It’s also been suggested that freezing the fruit would allow it to easily break down the pulp and release its juices. Is that feasible?
- Time of year/Weather patterns/Tree Choice: Our neighbors’ crabapple trees are slightly different from ours. There are also a lot in the local park that are even more tart and less sweet. This season has been particularly prolific. What if we picked them sooner? Later? Better cared for our trees?
- Freeze distilliation: One method of distilling alcohol with a low ABV is by freezing it after fermentation. The water will freeze before the alcohol. By scooping off the frozen water from the mix, the resulting drink is a much higher ABV. You can lose a lot of volume this way, but I hear it can make some mighty tasty drinks. We’ve never tried it, but apparently cider is a great candidate for this type of experiment.
Ok. It’s easy to get very excited about all these options.
Some of these variables can be tightly controlled. Even with our existing batch, for example, we can experiment with several different sweeteners added right before bottling, or none at all. With the next batch, we could try a different boiling times. We could work on smaller batches, pick one variable, and make pretty charts showing our results. It could all be very scientific.
Or we could just go outside, knock another five gallons of crabapples off the tree, do something completely different, and see what we end up with.
Brewing is so much fun.