Well now, folks, that fine, fine moment finally arrived this past week. After all the finding and grinding, all the packing and pressing, the time finally came for testing this year’s first batch of hard cider.
It’s no small thing making hard cider the way I make it. Randa and I gathered up several hundred pounds of apples. Jay and Leah and Kevin spent a few hours helping grind them up. We sorted out the twenty-something gallons and shared some with friends and relatives. About twelve gallons went into the fourteen-gallon fermenting vat that I bought several years ago just for such occasions. I hauled that vat of super-fresh, undefiled and unadulterated juice all the way from nearly Nebraska to nearly Oklahoma.
Apparently cider yeast enjoy agitation and unseasonably warm weather nearly as much as a busload of social activists after a power plant explosion.
Usually, it takes several days of aerobic phase fermentation to get the cider ready for the second phase. That’s when you screw the lid down good and tight and put the special water valve in place that lets carbon dioxide escape and keeps oxygen from getting in. You see, my friend, oxygen is the enemy and you want to keep it away from the cider. The inverted tiny plastic cup in the water valve rocks and tilts and releases the carbon dioxide from inside the container and keeps oxygen from going the other way. Early on, that little booger is practically dancing. As things slow down it might only gurgle once in ten minutes or so. Eventually, it’ll quit but you want to bottle the cider before things get to that point.
Trouble was in this case, things were already at the point. The unusual warmth (and maybe the two-hundred-and-fifty miles of agitation) had so encouraged the little fellows that they had just really outdone themselves. They were done. I tried adding sugar and different yeast and finally went ahead and hand-bottled the whole batch. I stacked the nine half-gallon growlers and the three crates of bottles in the utility room and hoped for the best.
I popped a top on a sample bottle last week and was very pleased to see some carbonation. A half-inch of fizz formed at the top of the glass as I poured the cider. “Ah, good,” I thought, “maybe this is going to turn out okay after all.” Then I lifted the glass up to my face.
My hopes took a mighty hard hit at that point. The bouquet was somewhere between nasty dishrag and low-grade disinfectant. It didn’t smell like something had died but it was proper sick for sure. The flavor, actually, was considerably better than the aroma. Definitely sour and definitely disappointing but tolerable. Assuming the cider is very cold, the day is very hot and the consumer is very thirsty.
Sometimes in spite of our very hard work and everything else we have put into something, things just don’t work out the way we had hoped and planned. Sometimes they stop a bit short and sometimes they turn out about as opposite as possible. It’s disappointing, yes, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. But it’s nearly always survivable and even thrivable if we take the lessons learned and turn them into better choices on the next go-round.
So… I’m looking forward to next season and looking for some folks who like the taste of pale ale accompanied by the smell of vinegar. If I don’t find them, I’m thinking this stuff might work as weed-killer or concrete-etcher. Just not ready to pour it all down the drain just yet.