I have been making wild fermented hard cider for about two years, and I’m starting to feel like I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. Making cider can be incredibly easy but also a long quest.
Most commercial producers make a fairly clean-fermented product. They source shelf stable apples, pasteurize the pressed juice, pitch a champagne yeast for a clean fermentation, add a few nutrients, then sulfite the cider and force carbonate it, perhaps adding sugars to the finished product. These ciders are sweet, bubbly, and straightforward, but instead, I want something wild, funky, and almost magical that calls forth the fruit it began with.
Many cider and wine recipes will tell you follow the commercial producers, adding to add yeast nutrients, pasteurized juice, sulfites, and tannins. There is another way.
At its core, wild hard cider is very straightforward. Begin with raw apple juice in a fermentation vessel. If you like, add a culture of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, or brewer’s yeast. If you’d like to simply stir the cider a few times, Saccharomyces is already there in the unpasteurized juice, and you could also let this wild yeast take its course. Airlock the juice and leave the cider to ferment, anywhere from one to six months. Taste occasionally to see how the cider progresses. When it has reached a sweet and dry level to your liking, bottle, perhaps conditioning for a few days, and store refrigerated or enjoy quickly. Ciders that are more sweet will produce more carbonation in the bottle – be careful to refrigerate very sweet ciders after 2-5 days of bottle conditioning. You can take alcohol measurements using a hydrometer, but ultimately the cider will most likely produce an alcohol percentage between 5-8% alcohol by volume – again ranging how much sugar you allow to ferment dry.
That’s it. No added sugar, no nutrients. You need not even add commercial yeast, although you can if you like! Let your cider ferment for a period of time, until it is lightly sparking and sweet, or perhaps dry and tart as a sour beer.
From here there is much more to explore!
Foremost, there are many varieties of cider apples that have more complex flavors, tannins, and fermentable sugars than eating apples. These can be harder to source, but will yield far more interesting and complex flavors than a run of the mill Golden Delicious or Gala apple. Varieties also vary by climate region and season, so cider around the states and the globe has the potential for vast differences. Different apples also contribute different flavors. For the dedicated cider maker, you may want to set up a home blending practice, testing different yeasts, apple varieties, and fermentation techniques. You can experiment with other fruits (I have made raspberry, peach, and strawberry wines as well), add honey and herbs, and make perry – cider from pears!
While I do use a free software program to brew beer, I have not found any software that seems useful for wild fermented wines, so to some end, in terms of calculating alcohol, sugars, fermentables, and acids, you’re on your own a bit. The world of wine science is quite good at producing consistent, predictable products from strict farming, varietal, and production guidelines, but if you’re still reading, I suspect that’s not what you’re after.
There are endless possibilities of that a few producers in the United States are just beginning to explore, and there’s much more to be discovered. I am just beginning my journey of learning from fruits, microbes, and seasons, and I have found the sources below interesting and useful. I suggest you do some reading to start your own journey!
- Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, Chapter 10: Wines. A great primer on wild fermentation techniques and equipment.
- Cider Made Simple, by Jeff Alsworth. A nice book that gives an overview of cider traditions around the world, a good read for some context to different historic cider approaches.
- Apples of Uncommon Character, by Rowan Jacobsen. Beautiful book of apple varieties, a good resource to learn about the differences between types of apples as well as several American and English cider varieties.
- Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, especially chapters on mead. Lovely book on the healing and spiritual properties of herbs, as well as alternative fermentations.
- American Sour Beers, by Michael Tonsmeire. Rather technical, but a good, in depth primer on souring microbes and blending. The focus here is primarily on beer and grain brewing, but there is also excellent information on traditional and modern beer blending concerns that are very informative for a cider maker.
- The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart. Great overview of fruits and botanicals that have been used in alcoholic beverages.