The Milkweed Diaries

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Adventures and Misadventures in Fermentation

Experimenting with fermentation over the years, I've learned that you win some and you lose some. And then there are the ones that you really, really lose.

When something that has just been fermenting for a few days or weeks goes awry, it's no big deal. But when it's been a lengthy, elaborate, labor-intensive process involving a months and months of fermentation...then I turn for comfort to pop-psychology clichés about learning to let go and tired yet soothing bromides such as "life is a journey, not a destination."

Last fall we borrowed a cider press, our farm interns Ali and Dau gleaned a whole bunch of apples from a neglected nearby orchard, and six of us spent an afternoon making fresh apple cider.

First the apples had to be chopped into a mash.

Then came the pressing. Lots and lots of pressing.

What was left of the apples after the pressing

Then came the straining.

Fortunately, at that point we drank quite a bit of fresh cider on the spot and bottled up a bunch for drinking fresh in the week to come. It was ridiculously good.

The last three gallons of cider we set aside for fermentation into hard cider. Two gallons were poured into glass gallon jugs with a plastic bag/rubber band lid for a controlled fermentation and the last gallon we fermented in a cloth-covered crock for a "spontaneous" hard cider a-la Wild Fermentation.

The spontaneous cider was awful. We still have a dozen or so bottles of it around because I hold on to the notion that aging in the bottle might improve it and I can't bear to let it go. The glass jugs first fermented like crazy for a while and then once they were done "working," we switched out the plastic bag/rubber band combo for an airlock.

11 months later, I tasted it. The first gallon was tolerable. The second gallon was downright ¡guácala! as they say in Español.

Because I haven't learned that aforementioned "letting go" lesson, I bottled up the first gallon and decided to convert the second into apple cider vinegar. The vinegar-making is a nice diversion - I've convinced myself it's a great use for the end product of all of that work (something about lemons and lemonade comes to mind).

We use tons of apple cider vinegar for pickling, preserving, and everyday consumption, and it seems like a staple while hard cider seems like a luxury item.

The best apple cider vinegar is apparently made from hard apple cider and here is how it's done:

  1. Pour the hard cider into a ceramic crock or wide-mouthed glass jar
  2. Add a bit of live-culture apple cider vinegar (not pasteurized - with "the mother")
  3. Cover with a cloth to keep bugs out and ferment for 4-8 weeks at 70-85 degrees.
The fermentation adventures continue. Here's hoping that my trusty 1-gallon crock will come through with its magical powers of transformation and we will have a gallon of delicious apple cider vinegar in 4-8 weeks. One year, lots of effort, and lots of microbial activity later . . . . lemons / lemonade, journey / destination, etc, etc, etc.

UPDATE (September 1, 2011): The end result was the best apple cider vinegar I've ever tasted. Since we actually use a much larger volume of apple cider vinegar than hard cider, I consider myself fully satisfied with this fermentation project.


Amber said...

Ouch! I hate it when those long term projects go wrong. I made a blueberry pomengranate wine that turned into a terrible vinegar.

I look forward to making apple cyser this year (mead with apple juice), using bottled local cider and honey from Haw Creek. I don't have the gumption or tools to do the long haul like y'all did with that press!

But good job using what was ick to make happy vinegar. Maybe you can do that with the bottles that are gross as well?

We should do an Asheville brewers meet and greet and taste test! :)

Milkweed said...

Hey Amber and thanks for reading! I would bet money there's already some sort of brewers meetup for the beer types, but haven't heard of anything for mead/cider/wine makers except that at the Permaculture Gathering at Celo there's usually a mead tasting....

Aimee said...

My hard cider experiments have been a dismal failure as well. But here's a tip if you want one: Take the best tasting, sweetest fresh cider and just leave a gallon of it out on the counter with the lid off (cheesecloth against flies) for a few days. It will become slightly fizzy and very slightly alcoholic. At this point, it's what Mexicans call "tepache" and you couldn't get drunk off it if you drank the whole gallon. It's about 2% alcohol. BUT if you put that gallon jug in the freezer, then you will have a block of ice floating in a much stronger alcohol mixture, maybe 6 or 7%. My friend calls this "applejack" and it's quite tasty and will get you tipsy, too!

Leigh said...

Hello! You visited my blog earlier this month and I'm just now getting my return visits done. My fermenting so far has been veggies, but would love to try some juices. I've only seen a press like that once, and had the great experience of helping press a zillion apples. That fresh cider is fantastic.

Milkweed said...

Oooh, Amy I love the easy wild fermented tepache/applejack recipe. Thank you! And Leigh, thanks for visiting!

Milkweed said...

Update: the apple cider vinegar turned out to be amazing. So good. So all's well that ends well.