Keeping it sweet

As we head into the New Year, the hard graft of collecting and pressing fruit is at an end, and its memory slowly recedes for another year as that incessant pain in your back starts to dissolve and you discover it’s once again possible to stay awake after 9:30pm. Attention now turns to looking after your vats of fermenting juice, monitoring pertinent variables and – if you’re that way inclined – trying to steer things in particular directions.

Sweet, sweet cider
It seems to me that the modern craft cider maker is always trying to resolve an intractable conundrum: real cider has a strong tendency to ferment to dryness – that means all the natural sugars present in the juice turn to alcohol – but at the same time the vast majority of cider drinkers want to drink cider with some degree of sweetness present.

You’ll always get a few die-hards who want a totally dry cider, but serve at a cider bar for a few days and you soon realise they are a relatively small minority, especially once you get out of the traditional cider producing areas of the UK. There’s little doubt this is at least partly down to habit – the majority of cider presented for sale in the UK is at least quite sweet and much of it very sweet indeed. Our pint-drinking culture also tends to mean easier-drinking (ie sweeter) products find more favour.

For many of us, it’s not until we try drinking cider with food that the advantages of the drier end of the spectrum become apparent – unless, of course, you sampled your first farm scrumpy on your dad’s knee back in the 1970s, in which case you’ll probably be thoroughly used to the subtle pleasures of dry cider. But believe me, if a cider maker doesn’t offer sweeter ciders in their range, they are seriously limiting the number of people who will buy and drink it.

So what are the options?
There are only three approaches you can really take to increase the level of perceived sweetness in cider:

First, you can wait until your cider ferments to dryness then add a fermentable sweetener like sucrose (ie sugar) or glucose and pasteurise (kill all yeast cells) or micro-filter (remove all yeast cells) to prevent fermentation re-starting. This method pretty much results in a ‘dead’ drink. Pasteurisation kills everything stone dead and has a profound effect on flavour. Micro-filtration removes a lot of colour and flavour components. And added sugar is an evident flavour in its own right.

Or, after the cider had fermented out, you can add a non-fermentable sweetener such as saccharin or sucralose. For me, this isn’t a brilliant solution as sweeteners all have flavour drawbacks of one sort or another. However, at least the drink is still living and hasn’t had the bejeesus squeezed out of it by filtration. Purists don’t like this approach too much, though, but it does comply with CAMRA’s current definition of ‘real cider’ (which, I might add, is under review).

The third way to resolve this craft cider conundrum is to attempt to manipulate the fermentation process and try to disrupt the lifecycle of the yeast so it ceases to function (almost entirely) while residual fruit sugars are still present in the fermenting juice. This is where we prefer to try to operate, but it’s a more technical and higher risk approach to the problem.

Naturally sweet?
So how is it possible to stop yeast fermenting in the presence of sugar? Well, fermentation is a three-legged stool: it requires the presence of yeast, sugar and nutrient (which the yeast needs to remain alive). Remove any of these three and fermentation isn’t possible. So as you can probably guess, in our approach yeast and sugar are both present, so we must be trying to remove the nutrient leg of the stool.

There are a few aspects to carrying out a depleted-nutrient fermentation. For a start, it helps tremendously to use the right kind of apples, at the right time of the season, correctly ripened and from a low-nutrient orchard. You’ll certainly need to deplete the nutrient further, but it’s a great start. It also helps to be using these techniques when the temperature is quite low: 10 degrees C or lower. Last September and October were very warm, and the chance of slowing down a fermentation at 20 degrees C is remote, to say the very least.

The French way
In northern France, a process called keeving is the standard way of making cider and it involves nutrient depletion. In this process, before fermentation starts an enzyme is added along with a small amount of a calcium salt such as calcium chloride. If you’re lucky, a gel forms at the bottom of the vessel, rising to the surface buoyed by small CO2 bubbles as fermentation slowly starts. As it’s charged, the gel attracts oppositely charged nutrient particles (among others things, such as apple solids) on its journey to the surface of the juice.

Once it reaches the top, this solid layer becomes what is called the Chapeau Brun. The slowly fermenting and now clarified and nutrient-depleted juice is then syphoned from beneath the crust and should run a slow and controllable fermentation that retains some element of sweetness at its conclusion. We have tried this method and the results can be good. However, you can lose a high proportion of your hard-won juice, and it’s by no means a forgone conclusion that it will work. Last year we made a lovely bottle-conditioned cider that shared many characteristics with a good bottled cider from Normandy or Brittany, so we have done a bit more of that this year.

Keeving in cider making
A nice, solid Chapeau Brun forming on 25 gallons of late-season cider during last year’s keeving process. Looks a bit horrible, but this bit gets left behind.

The English way
There is another little-used method that was apparently popular in England in the past. It’s called cold-racking and relies on repeatedly racking the fermenting juice off the gunge at the bottom of the fermenting vessel during bouts of very cold weather.

As I understand it, the theory goes that when it gets cold, the yeast slows to crawl in its work and tends to drop to the bottom of the vessel. As the yeast has attached itself to its nutrient already at this stage, racking from above leaves both yeast and nutrient behind.

Again, it’s a bit wasteful in terms of juice loss, but you don’t have to add any foreign substances to the juice and it’s a bit less fraught with timing issues than keeving, which has to be constantly monitored until the Chapeau Brun has formed.

We’ve had quite a bit of success with the cold-racking process in the past, yielding a lovely medium-dry cider with bucket-loads of fruity flavour from the residual fruit sugars in the drink. It’s an approach more akin to real ale making, as the fermentation never quite stops, so the cider keeps itself fresh and alive with a good quantity of CO2 retained as well.

This year, we’ll be trying to cold-rack all but the very earliest of our pressings from last year – I’ll let you know how we get on with it in the coming weeks!

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One Response to Keeping it sweet

  1. Leigh-on-Mendip says:

    Great post Mr Worley, most informative and hopefully educational

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