A Summer Fling – my new favourite gin, apple and elderflower cocktail

Being able to mix a decent drink is a very useful country skill – it brings a splash of sophistication to life when you don’t live somewhere where you only need to chuck a rock to hit three decent cocktail bars.

Anyway, I had to share this one with you – it was suggested to me by an old school friend (who, fortunately for him, is safely on the other side of the world where I can’t hold him responsible for the consequences!) and it’s such a beautiful, fresh taste of summer, that I’ve fallen rather in love with it.

You will require –

  • Your cocktail ingredientsGin – whichever nice one you usually drink (beggars can’t be choosers at the moment at our house, so it’s Aldi’s London Dry Gin, which is surprisingly decent!)
  • Home-made elderflower cordial (or bought, if you really must – but they’re in full flower right now, so what a perfect excuse to make a batch!)
  • Really good cloudy apple juice, the best you can get, ideally quite a crisp, dry one.
  • Ice

In a tumbler, place three or four cubes of ice. Pour in a measure of gin (or why not a double – go on, you’ve earned it!). Now add a splash of elderflower cordial – only a little one! Finally, top up with apple juice.

Go on, have a sip!

There, how easy was that?

This is absolutely gorgeous (and one to try even if you don’t think you like gin). The apple juice is the star here, and really defines the character, so the better your apple juice, the better the cocktail (anyway, I’m sure it counts as one of your five-a-day). The elderflower adds a subtle sweetness and a gorgeous floral bouquet, and the gin just sits discretely in the background with a delicate waft of juniper and a little citrus zing. Be warned, though, it does go down very easily!

A sinister thought has occurred to me, which is that it might be possible to concoct a related drink, made with Plymouth gin, Cornish cider and hedgerow elderflower cordial, and call it a ‘Westcountry Wrecker’… Some experimentation may be required!

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Apple Of My Eye – apple and marzipan cake

A quick bonus recipe for you this evening – scribbling this down mostly for my own reference – as I definitely intend to make this again – but also because a couple of people on Twitter and elsewhere have asked for it.

Apple and Marzipan Cake

This rather spanking apple and marzipan cake is adapted from an apple cake recipe in the River Cottage Handbook ‘Cakes’ volume by Pam Corbin, adjusted for my taste and available store cupboard ingredients. Apologies for the lack of ‘making’ photographs – this one wasn’t really for the blog at all!

You will need –

  • 230g self raising flour
  • 20g wheat bran
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • Pinch of salt
  • 125g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 125g soft brown sugar
  • Two decent sized apples – cookers or eaters, whatever you have that needs eating up, I used one of each.
  • 50g marzipan
  • 1 egg
  • 50ml milk

To decorate –

  • Another apple – ideally an eating apple
  • Handful of sliced almonds
  • 1 tbsp golden granulated sugar

First, set the oven to 180 C. Butter a 7″ or 8″ deep loose bottomed cake tin generously, and line the base.

Combine the flour, bran, bicarb, spices and salt in a large mixing bowl. The recipe called for a mix of white and wholemeal self raising flours, but I only had white so I made up the volume with a little bran, which after all is the stuff that you sift out to turn wholemeal flour into white flour in the first place! The spice mix is to my taste – cinnamon would be very traditional with apples, but Hubby doesn’t like it. The recipe called for ground cloves, but I find them medicinal-tasting and a bit overwhelming, so follow your inclination!

Chop up the softened butter roughly and rub it through the flour mixture with your fingers until it’s the consistency of breadcrumbs. Now mix in the soft brown sugar.

Peel & core your two apples (if they’re lovely freshly picked home-grown apples, you might consider leaving the skins on – but these had been stored a while, and looked it!) and chop them into dice about 1cm to a side, and do the same with the marzipan. Mix these cubes into the dry ingredients.

Beat your egg with a fork and mix in the milk. Add this liquid to the rest of the ingredients in the bowl. It won’t look like there’s enough – but if you keep moving the contents of the bowl around, eventually all the dry ingredients will combine with the liquids to form a rough batter. It won’t look like there’s enough ‘cake mix’ for the diced apple, either, but don’t let this bother you too much. Spoon the mix into a deep sided cake tin – something like a 7″ or 8″ tin you’d make a Christmas cake in, rather than a sponge tin. Level the mix as well as you can.

Now take your extra apple and core it, leaving the skin on. Slice reasonably thinly and arrange the slices over the top of the cake to decorate. Sprinkle over some sliced almonds. Finally, dust the top of the cake with a tablespoon of granulated sugar.

Pop it into the oven (turning if necessary to keep the cooking even) for about 45 minutes, then check to see if a skewer comes out clean. Mine actually needed about an hour in all to cook through. The batter, implausible as it might seem, will have managed to step up to the mark, and it will look like a nicely risen cake, rather than the chunky mess that went into the oven. Leave the cake in the tin for about half an hour after it comes out of the oven (it’s quite a crumbly texture and I suspect it would just fall apart if you took it out straight away) then ease it out of the tin and leave it on a wire rack to cool completely. It will then keep in an airtight cake tin for longer than it’ll take you to eat it (2-3 days, easily).

Sliced appearance

I love this cake! With nutmeg the dominant spice, it’s not over-sweet, has lots going on in the texture department, and is a very ‘grown-up’ sort of treat (though I’m quite sure that kids would love it too)! The marzipan adds lovely gooey sugary melty bits, which I just adore, while the texture of the rest of the cake is nice and light. The granulated sugar, apple slices and almonds add a lovely appearance to the top, too; and it’s a ‘self-decorating’ cake, which is a bonus – it comes out of the oven ready to go, which is a great time saver. And it looks utterly mouthwatering, which is even better!

Tuck in!

Hubby loves this, and I think you will to – so give it a try. Make yourself a nice cup of tea, and tuck in!

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Sinfully Simple Cider – yes, you really can brew this at home!

Home-brew has a bit of a mixed reputation, it’s fair to say!  This is my method for making great, simple, real cider (hard cider, for those of you West of the Atlantic!) with almost no investment in special equipment.  Sounds too good to be true? Follow these instructions, and in just a few weeks time you can be drinking great cider (at least as good as most commercial bottled ciders you can buy!) that you’ve made yourself, and all for only a few pence more than the cost of cheap retail apple juice.  I just wish I’d known how to do this when I was a student – it would have saved me a fortune and quite possibly made me rather popular, too!

Chilled and ready to drink!

Last autumn, I made real ‘Real Cider’ from fresh apples.  I promised then I’d post quicker and simpler instructions for a short-cut brew.  Well, rather belatedly, here they are!

First a brief note on the law – I have no idea if home brewing is legal in your country or jurisdiction, or what restrictions might apply.  If you’re restricted (by age, local religious observance, or otherwise!) from buying, possessing or consuming alcohol, it’s very likely local law enforcement may take an interest in you brewing it yourself, so please take appropriate advice!  In the UK, I believe home brewing is legal for personal consumption, however sale and distilling are tightly restricted.  

The minimum set of ingredients and equipment you require are –

  • The necessary parts5 litres of ‘pure apple juice’ (the clear, cheap, from concentrate variety from your local discount supermarket is fine, but it should contain no additives or preservatives)
  • Half a mug of very strong tea (use two tea bags – plain ones unless you fancy an unusual experimental flavour sensation!)
  • Wine yeast (this is widely available online or from your local friendly home-brew shop, and is cheapest in small pots rather than individual sachets – you could use bakers yeast as an emergency substitute, but it’s prone to producing strange flavours!)
  • A glass demijohn, or an empty 5l mineral water bottle
  • Home-brew steriliser (you could use Milton fluid as an alternative)

In another couple of weeks, you’ll also need to have gathered together –

  • A length of syphon tubing (between 1m and 1.5m or 4ft to 6ft in length)
  • Bottles, sufficient to contain your cider.  These must be able to take pressure.  Empty plastic screw-top fizzy drinks bottles are great for a first effort, and free.  The plastic will be somewhat gas permeable, so the cider won’t keep terribly well in them, but I doubt you’ll be laying down your first brew long-term!  Beer or champagne bottles are fine, but require special capping tools and equipment.  Please note that SCREW TOP GLASS WINE BOTTLES ARE COMPLETELY UNSUITABLE and are very likely to result in dangerously explosive bottles.
  • A few teaspoons each of sugar, and of a non-fermentable sweetener such as ‘Splenda’.

You might also like to add the following, which are not essential but will make the process simpler or more reliable –

  • A drilled rubber bung (or grommet) & bubbler airlock, to fit your bottle or demijohn.  If you don’t have these, you’ll need enough cotton wool to firmly plug the neck of your fermenter. [How to set up and use a bubbler airlock]
  • Yeast nutrient (This contains all the trace elements and minerals required for healthy yeast growth.  Apple juice is already pretty good for these, however, so it shouldn’t be necessary.)
  • A kitchen funnel
  • Bottle brush
  • Hydrometer [How to use a hydrometer]
  • Racking cane and tap or bottler attachment for your syphon tubing.
  • Capping device and / or appropriate caps, gaskets, stoppers and closures, if you prefer to use recycled beer or champagne bottles.

If you’re lucky enough still to have a local home-brew shop, now is the time to go and make friends!  You’ll get tons of helpful advice and guidance, and while the item costs are likely to be higher than from web retailers, you save on postage which can be a big consideration with small purchases.  There are also lots of home-brew suppliers on the Internet, of course.  I tend to use http://www.the-home-brew-shop.co.uk/ for most of my home-brew purchases, Amazon and eBay are also full of useful retailers for odd bits and bobs.  Freecycle is the best source I can find for old-fashioned glass demijohns, and people are often giving away bottles, buckets, and other unwanted brewing items, it’s well worth posting a ‘wanted’ notice, these have served me very well for supplies in the past.

A quick totting up suggests you can get all you need for less than a tenner, and nearly everything except the apple juice is re-usable over and over (or at least, in the case of yeast and steriliser, for a good few batches!).

The process is really very straightforward, and divides neatly into four –

  1. Fermentation
  2. Bottling
  3. Secondary fermentation, and
  4. Drinking!

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Stage 1 – Fermentation

First, wash out your demijohn very carefully, and sterilise it following the instructions on your steriliser solution.  Second hand glass demijohns have often been abandonned in a slightly grubby state and will need a little TLC to get back into a usable state (a cranked bottle brush will be helpful if so).  Pay close attention to the instructions that come with your steriliser solution, particularly where it comes to strength, contact time, and rinsing, since lack of attention to sterilisation and rinsing are responsible for most home-brew failures.  While you’re at it, sterilise anything else you’re going to be using – including the bung, bubbler airlock, and a funnel if you think you’ll need it.  Don’t neglect cleanliness, it’s critical to the success of any home-brewing enterprise.  Sometimes I think home-brewing is really just washing up with benefits!

Now I just need my finite improbability generator!Pour four litres of the apple juice carefully into your demijohn.  There will be some bubbly froth on top, this is fine (the juice will be nicely oxygenated).   The demijohn will not be full – this is intentional!  Add your half mug of very strong luke-warm tea, which provides some tannin for the cider, as apple juice intended for drinking will generally be quite poor in tannin.

Apple juice in the demijohn

Add a teaspoon of yeast, and one of yeast nutrient if you have it to hand, and fit the bung and airlock or stopper the bottle with your cotton wool, tightly enough to stop bugs getting in.

Can you see the family resemblance?Now put your demijohn somewhere safe at room temperature (18 – 21 degrees is ideal, warmer temperatures such you’d have in an airing cupboard will certainly speed the process up, but are likely to be too warm and can produce ‘off’ flavours) and wait for the magic.  If you’re lucky, this should start within as little as six hours or so, though this depends on how active your yeasty beasties are, and the prevailing temperature.  While you could put it in a dark cupboard, I think you’ll want to keep it out somewhere where you can see it!

Yeast added and bung & airlock fittedThe first thing you’re likely to notice is the pellets of yeast starting to float around in the juice. Within 24 hours, there will probably be bubbles coming through the airlock.  You can see the meniscus of the airlock water is pushed around in the photo on the left.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel compelled to stand around and watch it go ‘glug’.  The apple juice will become more and more cloudy, ending up rather a murky muddy brown colour, and will form a thick layer of frothy foam on top, which may also include some visible yeasty ‘crud’ – this is why we’ve under-filled the demijohn for now, you don’t want the froth trying to force its way out of the airlock!

Froth and yeast crud on the surface of fermenting ciderIf you’re using an airlock, timing the bubbles as they escape is a great way of gauging how fast your cider is fermenting.  The rate of fermentation will speed up as the yeast population multiplies, and then will start to fall again as the sugars in the mix get used up.  At peak activity, you can expect a bubble every two seconds or possibly even slightly faster.  For me this usually happens about a week after fermentation starts, though it depends on temperature, the sugar content of your apple juice, and how viable your yeast was in the first place.  You will notice a layer of yeast forming on the bottom of the demijohn, too, which is quite normal.

If you’re not using an airlock then you’ll have to rely more on appearances to judge when peak fermentation has passed.  As things start to slow down a little, you’ll notice the frothy crud on the surface reducing and being replaced by a layer of much ‘cleaner’ looking bubbles, and the contents of the demijohn will appear to be ‘fizzing’.

'Cleaner' bubbles on the surface, after topping-upOnce this has happened (and the rate of bubbles through your airlock has reduced to one every four or five seconds) carefully remove the stopper, without contaminating it, and top up with the rest of your apple juice, to half an inch or so below where the shoulder of the demijohn meets the neck, before re-stoppering.  You’re adding a nice dollop of extra sugar, so expect the fermentation to speed up again for a bit, but hopefully it shouldn’t foam the way it did to start with.

Apart from providing a useful gauge of fermentation rate, the airlock serves another important purpose – it allows the waste gas from fermentation out, so that the demijohn doesn’t pressurise (which would be extremely hazardous!), but prevents exchange with the oxygen in the atmosphere.  This keeps the cider bathed in carbon dioxide, which prevents oxidation of your cider – oxidation leads to spoilage, and even allows the accidental creation of cider vinegar if appropriate microorganisms are present.

Why, then, have I suggested you could go ahead without one?  Carbon dioxide, conveniently, is heavier than air, so while the cider is actively fermenting, it will form a protective blanket over the cider and should prevent oxidation.  The key detail here is ‘actively fermenting’.  With an airlock fitted, there’s no rush to do anything once fermentation finishes, as the blanket of carbon dioxide is retained in the demijohn.  This gives the option of a longer period ‘resting’ in the demijohn, either for convenience or maturation, once fermentation is finished.   The cotton wool plug will keep bugs out (at least it will if it’s fitted properly!), but won’t stop the progressive exchange of gasses from the atmosphere once there’s no active CO2 production forcing the air out, so accurate identification of the end of fermentation and rapid bottling at this stage is particularly important.

Fermented outNow you just need to wait for it to finish fermenting.  The rate of bubbles (and fizzing in the cider) should slow down progressively, and eventually stop.  When it does, there should be no visible bubbles rising in the demijohn, no layer of bubbles on the surface, and no activity in the airlock.  The cider will start to ‘drop clear’, that’s to say the yeast in suspension will settle to the bottom and the liquid will be clear again – and look surprisingly like it did in the very beginning. From topping up to dropping clear, in a 4.5 to 5 litre volume, tends to take about a fortnight to three weeks. Be patient here and don’t rush it, but also don’t leave things too long if you’re using a cotton wool plug (if you’re ‘under lock’, you can ignore it for as long as you like – I’ve left cider at this stage for several months before bottling with no ill-effect).  If the end of fermentation coincides with a particularly chilly day, maybe give it a day or two to see if it re-starts when things warm up a little again.

The only cast-iron way of knowing whether your cider has finished fermenting fully (or is ‘fermented out’ in the jargon of brewing, that’s to say, fermented until there are no fermentable sugars left) is with a hydrometer.  In any case hydrometers are really cool-looking, delicate pieces of laboratory glassware and it’s almost worth buying one just because they’re so neat!  Rarely, fermentation can stop before this point, a situation known as a ‘stuck fermentation’ leaving sugars behind that could let fermentation re-start in an unpredictable way in the bottle.  The risk here is that you could accidentally create ‘bottle bombs’ which pressurise excessively during storage and risk exploding (please don’t dismiss the potential hazard of flying shards of glass shrapnel!).  For this same reason, do not under any circumstances be tempted to bottle early in an attempt to achieve a sweeter cider – the only safe approach is to ferment out to get a completely dry cider, and then correct this ‘issue’ (if, that is, a bone-dry cider isn’t to your taste!) later on in the process.

Your finishing gravity, if using a hydrometer, should be near enough 1.000, and be stable for at least 24 hours.  It goes without saying that the hydrometer and jar, like everything you allow into contact with your cider, must be carefully sterilised and rinsed before every use!  For extra brewing-geek credit, if you also take the starting gravity of the apple juice before you start fermenting it, you can work out the alcohol content of your final brew.  There are calculators on various websites to help you with the maths!  To be quite honest, I tend not to bother with the  hydrometer when I’m making this cider – so it’s a bit of ‘do as I say and not as I do’!

When you’re confident your cider has fermented out fully, and it’s dropped clear in the demijohn, it’s time to bottle.

Stage 2 – Bottling

Sterilise all your bottles and caps following the directions with your steriliser, and rinse very carefully.  Also sterilise and rinse your syphon tube and any associated nick-nacks (racking cane, tap / bottling stick etc).  Place your demijohn on the table or kitchen work top, and your bottles on the floor below them.

Into each of the bottles, you want to have added a small amount of sugar, this is to allow secondary fermentation in the bottle – but just a small controlled amount.  This process is known as ‘priming’.  This will produce a little carbon dioxide – in a pressurised container this time – and make your cider sparkling, which is how most people like it!  You can also add some non-fermentable sweetener if you want your cider slightly sweeter.  I favour ‘Splenda’, which seems to lack the bitter back-taste you get with some artificial sweeteners.   If you’re going to use something else check carefully that it really *is* non-ferementable.

I add one teaspoon of sugar per litre of cider (half a teaspoon in a pint bottle, about 3/4rs of a teaspoon in a 750ml).  These should be safe quantities and shouldn’t create any bottle bombs, while providing a nice sparkle.  Do not be tempted to exceed them!  I enjoy quite a dry cider, so I add a matching amount of Splenda – you can adjust this to your taste, though, so experiment.  Put the sugar and sweetener, if using, into your bottles before you start to syphon, since adding it afterwards tends to make everything fizz over (it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Mentos-in-cola trick, but a bit less dramatic!).  If you’d rather avoid artificial sweeteners but don’t enjoy a dry cider, you can top up your cider with a splash of apple juice in the glass at serving time.

Ready for bottlingIf you can secure the use of a glamorous assistant, they will come in very handy for bottling, since you can leave them in control of the top bit of the syphon tube.  [How to syphon your home-brew.]  If you have a racking cane, siphoning can be a one-handed job, as the ‘u-bend’ attachment should stop the yeast sediment being drawn into the syphon.  Without one you’ll need some way of keeping the tube out of the bottom of the demijohn.  In the absence of an assistant, you can rig something up with string and tie the syphon tube to the neck of the demijohn at an appropriate depth.  A spare pair of hands is more reliable, though!

Racking cane in the demijohnYou may well be wondering why the faff with a syphon tube when you could just pour the cider into the bottles with a funnel.  There are two reasons, really – the first is to reduce the amount of yeast sediment disturbed, which in turn will reduce the amount of sediment in your bottles, and in your finished drink.  The second is our old friend oxidation – correctly performed, siphoning minimises the contact between the air and your precious cider.

Filling bottles using a bottling stickSo, carefully syphon your cider into your bottles, leaving about a 1″ space at the top.  A ‘bottling stick’ or a tap in your syphon tube makes controlling the flow a lot easier.  You want to fill the bottles with the end of your syphon tube right at the bottom of your bottle, so that it stays under the fluid level and minimises exposure of the cider to the air.  There’s a bit of a knack to syphon-filling bottles, but you’ll get there eventually.  Do put newspaper or something absorbent down on the floor if it’s not easy to clean!  Try to avoid drawing yeast sediment or crud into your bottles from the demijohn as much as you can, but don’t worry too much about it, it’s not a disaster!  Any extra cider that isn’t a full bottle’s worth?  Drink it – it’s your first taste of your brew, and while it’s not ‘finished’ yet, it’s definitely cider, in a flat, old-fashionned-scrumpy kind of way!

Sanitised bottlesAbout my bottles, incidentally – they’re old lucozade-type inner-threaded fizzy drink bottles with rubber-gasket stoppers, which I was given by a lovely chap on Freecycle.  They’re more or less the perfect home-brew bottles as they’ll take some pressure but don’t require capping equipment, and aren’t gas-porous like plastic, so if you’re offered any, snap them up, even if they need a bit of TLC, new stoppers and gaskets remain available from home-brew suppliers.  Obviously, discard any chipped or cracked bottles, since these are at high risk of explosion!

Stage 3 – Secondary fermentation

Filled bottles ready for conditioningNow seal your bottles tightly, up-end them a few times to dissolve the sugars, and then stash them somewhere, upright, for a couple of weeks for the secondary fermentation to complete.  If they’re clear bottles, you can monitor this – the contents will go slightly cloudy, before clearing again, ‘throwing’ a thin layer of yeast on the bottom of the bottle. Once they’re clear, they’re ready to drink (though they will keep for at least a year – I bet you won’t wait that long though!).

Stage 4 – Drinking!

Chill in the fridge door (keeping the bottle upright will minimise disturbance of the yeast sediment) and then open on a suitable occasion to share with good friends – let’s face it, they’ll *have* to be good friends to be willing to be guinea-pigs for sampling your first home-brew experiment!  The bottle should open with a gentle ‘pssssst!’.  Pour your cider gently, but all in one go, leaving as much of the sediment behind as you can.  Don’t worry if you get some yeast in the glass, though, it looks quite traditional and won’t spoil the flavour – and contains lots of lovely B vitamins!

Share and enjoy!

Sit back and enjoy – your care and patience has hopefully been richly rewarded with a perfect crisp cold glass of home-brewed cider.  Get going now, and you’ll be all set when summer finally arrives!

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Foraging Skills – how to get ahead!

I’ve been thinking about foraging recently.  There’s very little quite as special as a lovely – and free! – treat garnered from a hedge.  I’m thinking about a wild mushroom risotto, pots of crab apple jelly, a steaming blackberry crumble or a bubbling demijohn of rosehip wine.  Foraging is really an autumn sport, though, borne from the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, so why am I writing about it now?

The thing that makes a really good forager isn’t being able to spot a laden crab apple tree at three hundred paces  – it’s knowing where that tree is in the first place.  Being a successful forager depends on keeping your eyes open all year round – if you notice things now, and remember them, you’re well on target for a bumper summer and autumn foraging season.

So just now, keep your eyes open for these, and make a mental note –

Hazel catkins in hedge

They’re hazel catkins, and where they’re hanging in profusion from the naked branches of hedges and shrubby trees now, there should be some lovely cob nuts in the autumn – they’ll be much harder to see then, when there are leaves on the tree, and hazels growing in mixed planting aren’t especially distinctive looking.  Watch like a hawk though, come autumn, and pick them slightly green and sweet – because the mice will want them too!

A little note on the legality of foraging – if the item is being grown as a crop, then it’s not foraging, it’s scrumping (or stealing!).  It’s very unlikely that cob nuts or blackberries growing in a field hedge are intended as a food crop, but the nuts and sloes in my garden hedge definitely are!  So if it looks like someone’s caring for a tree or a hedge, it’s in an orchard or garden or looks intentionally planted, tread with care!  That said, there at lots of edible crops grown incidentally on trees planted ornamentally, on streets and in council amenity spaces, particularly in urban areas – foraging doesn’t have to be just a country pursuit! – look out for apples, plums and cherries, too!

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In Fermentation We Trust – apple juice turns into cider

On a lovely bright November weekend, I pressed a load of apples for cider-making.

For the next part of the process, you need to put together the following bits and bobs:

  • Your apple juice (which is already in a fermenting bucket with any luck – you’ll need the lid, if it’s one with a hole for an airlock, so much the better – if so, you’ll also need an airlock)
  • Wine or cider yeast, and yeast nutrient
  • A nice warm location at about 18 – 21 degrees celsius
  • Enough demijohns (plus stoppers and airlocks) to contain the volume of apple juice you’ve collected.  All my demijohns have come from Freecycle, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open.  For recommendations of UK homebewing equipment suppliers, see the suppliers list.
  • A syphon
  • Homebrewing steriliser solution

Now, time to turn your wonderful juice into cider (for any Americans who might be reading, we mean hard cider – the traditional alcoholic sort).  Traditional ‘real cider’ makers would do nothing with it at this stage, and wait for the natural yeasts which you hope are already present on the apples to do their job and get fermenting.  There is an alternative approach which involves using campden (sulphite) tablets to kill off the wild yeasts and then adding some wine or cider yeast of your own, which with any luck should guaranteed a ‘clean’ culture of your chosen yeast strain.  I decided to go a third route, didn’t use any campden, but did add wine yeast and yeast nutrient to give the process a ‘kick-start’ and make sure that an appropriate culture was at least in there with a fighting chance!

Apple juice before fermentation

You should probably take the specific gravity of your apple juice before you start fermenting, as this will tell you something quite important – with a bit of arithmetic (or there are online SG to ABV calculators out there you could avail yourself of) you should be able to work out how alcoholic your cider ends up.  This is relevant both for keeping your driving licence, and for making sure your cider contains enough sugar, and therefore after fermentation, enough alcohol, to keep well.  You’re aiming for a minimum of about 3.5% ABV, real ciders can easily get up to about 8%.

I didn’t test my juice (do as I say not as I do, right?), but it tasted nice and sweet so I think it’s likely my cider is about the 6% mark. Invest in a glass hydrometer (they’re cheap, easy to use with a bit of practice, and ever such pretty bits of old-fashioned looking laboratory glassware), you won’t regret it!

Fermenting by the fireThere is lots of advice that you should ferment your cider under lock.  I didn’t have an airlock capable bucket available so just kept the lid loosely on.  My experience from beer brewing is that the CO2 produced during fermentation will give a good blanket over the brewing liquor, being heavier than air, and oxidation shouldn’t be a problem at this stage as long as you don’t disturb the fermenting juice.  If your bucket does have an airlock, after adding the yeast and nutrient close the lid tightly and set up the airlock.  If it doesn’t, just fit the lid loosely so that the gas produced during fermentation will be able to escape without blowing the lid off!  Put your bucket in a nice warm place and try to avoid peeping.  Mine went by the fire in the living room for the first few days, as we were having a bit of a cold-snap.

Ready for rackingYou’ll be able to tell fermentation has started when you see bubbles through your airlock, or when a nice loose foam starts to form on top of your apple juice (because you’re not peeping, right?).  During fermentation, the dead yeast and quite a bit of the solids from the apple juice will settle out in the bottom of the bucket, and the colour of the juice changes from brown to a yellow-orange.  In general, the cider will not clear completely, but it will be brighter than it was before.

Top fermenting yeastOnce fermentation seems to have stopped (I gave mine a generous month), you’ll have a nice thick layer of debris on the bottom of the bucket with cider above it.  Now it’s time to ‘rack’ the cider into demijohns for bulk conditioning.  When I opened the bucket, I found rather an alarming-looking layer of yeast floating on the surface of the cider.  I can only assume that this was a wild, top-fermenting yeast strain, as it seems to have done nothing awful to the cider so far!

Clean and sterilise your equipment (demijohns, syphon, stoppers & airlocks) carefully this time, following the directions on your steriliser.  Now the cider has fermented you risk accidentally making cider vinegar if acetobacter bacteria were to get in.  It’s also important to avoid introducing oxygen into the cider at this stage – acetobacter need oxygen to make vinegar from alcohol, so even if there’s some contamination they’ll struggle to get going if the cider stays free of air.  Syphon carefully, keeping the outlet of the syphon below the level of the liquid and avoiding introducing bubbles.  Then fit your stoppers and airlocks and put the cider in a cool dark place to mature for a few months before bottling. Keep an occasional eye on your airlocks to make sure they’re not drying out.  I expect to leave mine in the demijohns until spring, and will then bottle into champagne bottles with a bit of priming sugar to make sparkling cider.

Filled demijohnsWe had a couple of pints more cider than fitted in the demijohns, and it would have been inconceivable to waste it – I can report that it is, already at this stage, definitely cider.  It’s a bit rough around the edges with quite a hard tannin that hopefully will mellow a bit with maturation, but has a lovely fresh apple aroma and definitely shows promise!

If you’re going to try it, I would recommend having a bit more of a read about the process before you start.  Some of my favourite books on home-brewing are listed in the library.

And if all that seems a bit complicated and labour-intensive, I’ll give you my directions for the quickest and easiest (and remarkably tasty!) home-brewed cider in the world very soon!

Hard Pressed – making real cider, the old fashioned way

Apple harvestAt the end of October, a lovely holiday in Cornwall yielded an unexpected bonus – three sacks of apples from the orchard where we stayed.  There was only one thing to do – make cider!  Only one problem – I didn’t have a cider press.  We’ve been faffing about building one for the last couple of years, but hadn’t got round to it.  A bit of pleading and cajoling later, and I’d managed to score a brand new apple press for an early Christmas present – what a result!

Ben's Red applesOf course, apples don’t just press themselves.  Real cider making – unlike most of the country skills in this blog – is time consuming (and good exercise!).  Set aside a nice sunny autumn day, and if you can talk some friends into coming around to help, so much the better.

For an idea of how much apple juice you’re likely to produce, we got a yield of just over a gallon per bag of apples – the bags are the sort you buy logs in.  It’s possible that with more practice and different equipment we may have done slightly better, but I doubt there was much waste.

As well as apples – lots of apples, all different sorts if possible – you will require:

  • a cider press – bought or home-built
  • a robust bucket, and a crushing pole (or a proper scratter, but they’re expensive) – we did try a cheap plastic bucket from B&Q but caved the bottom in very quickly, so ended up using a carefully washed old metal wastepaper bin
  • a large bucket for washing apples in – I used a big garden trug – and clean water
  • knife and chopping board
  • sieve / colander and muslin for straining
  • bucket or demijohn for collecting the juice
  • wine yeast and yeast nutrient (optional)

A quick note on sterility, first.  Home-brewers are obsessed with sterilising things.  I am not washing my apples in camden to kill off wild yeasts, my ingredients (the apples) and tools (wooden equipment and press components) will not be sterile.  But do wash everything very carefully in hot soapy water (not the apples, obviously), and rinse them carefully before using.  There is general advice to avoid metal tools and receptacles when cider pressing – we used a metal bin for crushing in the absence of any alternative – it was enamelled and in good condition, and does not appear to have caused any obvious problems, I suspect because the apples and juice were not in contact with it for very long.

Washing applesIf you have time (and let’s face it, if you’re planning for next year, time is on your side!) there are various plans for DIY presses on the internet, or have a look at some old-fashionned presses, they’re quite simple things really.  I was going to build something using a car jack for the pressing mechanism.  My lovely bought press has a 6l capacity which seems about right for domestic production – the bottleneck on our two-man production process was the crushing stage.

Chopping applesStart by washing your apples in the big bucket, you can do this quite a large batch at a time.  Then slice the apples up into quarters or eighths, discarding any obviously bruised or damaged areas.  Transfer these a batch at a time into your crushing bucket.

Crushing pole - end To crush you could use something like a new clean round-section piece of timber, we bodged a crusher together out of a small piece of inch-square timber we had and a plum-wood log, trimmed and stripped of it’s bark and formed into a blunt wedge at the end.  Avoid using anything which has been treated with timber preservative as it will be in intimate contact with your apples.  Make sure the pole is long enough that you can use it in a comfortable standing position above your bucket, or you’ll hurt your back and shoulders.

Crushing applesNow crush your apples to a rough pulp, until they’re making a wet squelching noise when the pole goes down and there’s just some free juice in the mixture.  The aim is to make it easy to extract the best juice yield you can from your precious apple harvest, so do put in the effort here, our first batch was definitely under-crushed and we got much less juice from this than from subsequent ones.

Loading cider pressNow load up your press.  Mine has a mashing bag to retain most of the solids within the press, some will use muslin cheeses or other approaches.  Once the press is loaded, apply pressure slowly, building it up over a few minutes, rather than trying to get the press as tight as possible straight away.

Cider press in useCollect your juice into a bucket through a  muslin to take more of the solids out.  It’s ok to taste some juice at this stage (and it should taste absolutely awesome!).  It will look… well, dirty brown coloured, probably.  This is a result of being hardly-filtered, and the tannins in the apple juice reacting with oxygen.  Don’t worry about this.  The leftover apple pulp (‘pommace’) can be fed to livestock, or composted.  My hens loved it, but be careful not to overdo it.  The rest can be composted.

Pressed juiceAt some point you will run out of daylight, apples, or energy.  At this stage you’re done.  Admire the juicy product of your labours.  At the moment you have unprocessed, unfiltered, unpasteurised apple juice.  Smells marvellous, looks decidedly suspect.

Next time, we make the juice into cider – that’s proper, ‘hard cider’ to any Americans reading!