I've been unveilling the mystery of making alcoholic apple cider versus apple cider vinegar. I left a batch of apple peelings fermenting in water and honey, intending them to turn to vinegar, went away on tour, and came back three weeks later to find I had a delicious alcolic cider - not sour at all. Sweet and warm from the alcohol. Yum! I immediately started a new batch, but strangely, this next batch turned sour really quickly, before it passed through that delicious alcoholic stage. Why?
Sandor Elix Kratz provided the answer in his fantastic book, Wild Fermentation. It seems that when you put a sweet, fruity liquid on the bench, wild microorganisms from the air get to work on it quickly to ferment it. Within a few days it's bubbly, and slightly alcoholic, thanks to the work of these microorganisms. At this stage, a different kind of microorganism is attracted to the brew - one that consumes the alcohol and remaining sugar and turns it into vinegar. If you want to make alcoholic mix, then you need to stop the vinegar-creating microorganisms from accessing your brew. You can do this by putting it in a bottle with a narrow neck (so there's not much air exposure at the top), and putting on a lid. As the alcohol microorganisms work, they create carbon dioxide (the stuff that makes it fizzy), and if this carbon dixioxide isn't released, the whole thing can explode. I can vouch for this personally - on my last tour I left something to ferment for more than a few days, and it exploded all over the hotel kitchen - yikes!
Anyway, now I know why my first batch of cider turned alcoholic, rather than to vinegar: before I left, I put a ziplock bag filled with water on top of my cider. I did this to keep the apple peelings immersed while I was away. Usually I stir every couple of days and that does the trick. If the apple is exposed for more than a couple of days, it tends to turn mouldy, which is not good. My ziplock bag obviously prevented air (and the vinegar-creating microorganisms in the air) from accessing my brew, but happily it still allowed the carbon dioxide to escape out the sides - when enough pressure built up, it pushed the bag out of the way, and the bag flopped back once the bubble had been released. I didn't repeat the bag arrangement though, because I lost half the brew as it floated above the bag and overflowed. That's why my next batch turned quickly to vinegar.
So.. how to make an alcoholic cider without losing half of it to my bag method? I simply put it in a plastic mineral water bottle with a narrow neck, and put the lid on. Several times a day, I loosen the lid enough for the carbon dioxide to escape, which it does with a little hiss, and then retighten the lid. This is called burping the bottle! You can do this with a plastic bag too. Simply put your brew into a plastic bag and secure it with a rubber band or drawstring. Every few hours, burp it - squeeze out the carbon dioxide but don't let any oxygen in. Another way is to put a balloon over the neck of the the bottle, instead of a lid. As the carbon dioxide is created, the ballon blows itself up. But you need to burp the balloon every now and then, so it doesn't pop.
My burping plan was foiled when I woke up the other morning and realised that since I'm going away for a few days, I won't be able to burp my cider! I didn't want to risk it exploding, and I didn't want it to turn to vinegar. I did what the pros do: use an airlock. It's a little plastic tube that winds up and down, and can be secured to the top of your bottle. Water sits in the s-bend of the tube. When carbon dioxide is created, a little bubble of it flows through the water and pops out the top. But no oxygen can get in thanks to the water. An airlock is amazingly cheap - this one cost $3.
While I was at the homebrew shop, I also bought a bottle capper for $12, and a bag of bottle tops for $5. With this grand outlay, I can now recycle beer bottles by giving them a wash, filling them with my cider once it's suitably alcoholic, and tapping on a new cap. Right now the apples at the farmer's market (and in the dumpster we visit from time to time) are old: they've been in cold store all winter, and they are starting to turn. We've been rescuing them by peeling and coring them then stewing them. The peels and cores go into a bucket with water and honey, and that turns into cider. I hope to make a batch that will last us the summer, and store it all in beer bottles.
By the way, when I was at the homebrew shop, as soon as I mentioned apple cider, they rushed me over to their apple cider kits. where you buy some special yeast and other various formulated ingredients and follow a very precise recipe. I'm sure that works, but I love the simplicity of my method: making use of the wild microorganisms as they do their thing, putting some food scraps to good use, and ending up with a slightly different flavour for every batch. It's healthier too - those wild microorganisms are fantastic for our digestive tracts, and it's better for the environment to use them than some that have been packaged up and shipped to us from god-knows-where.
Recipe for Wild Alcoholic Apple Cider and Wild Apple Cider Vinegar
Put apple cores and peels into a bucket with water and enough honey to make it nice and sweet.
Put a plate on top to keep the apple pieces immersed, or stir it every two days instead.
After a few days it should be nice and bubbly. At this stage you can leave it in the bucket, stirring intermittently, until it turns into vinegar - this could take a few more days or a few weeks, depending on temperature. Alternatively, you can pour it into a bottle or bottles with a narrow neck, and utilise one of the following methods of burping it:
- buy an airlock from a homebrew supplies place
- put a balloon over the neck and burp it from time to time
- screw on a tight fitting lid, and burp it frequently by loosening it briefly.
Taste it every now and then and start drinking when it tastes good. If you have any left when it no longer needs to be burped (not sure how long this takes - could be a few weeks), then you can pour it into screwtop bottles for drinking soon, or you can age it.
If you want to age it, put it into a clean beer bottle and affix a new cap. You can put in another teaspoon of honey at this stage, and I'm told that will make a nice fizz when the bottle is opened. Label and date your bottle and store it till you are ready to drink it. By the way, if you put this in a wine bottle and cork it, you run the risk of the cork popping out if more carbon dioxide is created. That's why you use the beer bottle and cap - they should be strong enough to withstand a bit of fizz.
When bottling it, there will be sediment sitting at the bottom of the vessel you used to ferment the brew in. Apparently if you siphon off the liquid into their bottles for aging, and leave the sediment behind, you get a finer flavoured cider once it's aged. But I was too meanfisted to shell out $16 for the siphon, so I'm drinking my sediment.