Our area’s supply of hard cider is almost as big as its apple harvest, but what exactly happens to go from fresh-picked to fresh-poured pint? Kimberly Kae, who, along with her husband Matt DiFrancesco, owns and operates Metal House Cider in Esopus, shares insight on the three major components that dictate how cider will turn out: sourcing, pressing, and fermenting.
While the process of creating hard cider varies between cideries, makers, and the style they’re aiming for, three major components — sourcing, pressing, and fermenting — dictate much of the finished product. Many ciders you’ll find in the supermarket are made in as little as four days, using a very controlled technique, filtered of yeasts, doused with flavorings, force carbonated, and swiftly sent off to bottling.
Metal House Cider, however, believes that good things take much longer. They start with sustainably grown, untreated apples, “not just because it’s better for the health of our soil and ourselves, but because we believe the apples actually taste better,” shares Kimberly Kae, who co-owns and operates their small cidery and orchard.
How long does it all take? According to Kae, “the cider in the beer aisle of the store may have been made in as little as four days. Many times, you will find additives and flavorings in this type of cider. To make a still cider naturally, you would press in fall and ferment through the winter. This would then get bottled in the spring, taking six to eight months total.”
She and husband Matt DiFrancesco (MHC’s other owner) are in the midst of stewarding another nearby orchard back to viability by working with a consultant and only spraying organically when any management becomes necessary. They recently premiered their first ciders, 2015 and 2016 vintages, created using apples picked from their own orchard and two others in the immediate vicinity that haven’t been sprayed or treated in over ten years.
Kae explains that to make a still cider naturally, “you would press in fall and ferment through the winter. Then, sometime in spring, depending on your climate, you would bottle.” But MHC takes this process even further, using the Methode Champenoise — the champagne method — for its intricate flavor and structure. This means that after bottling, MHC adds a specific dose of yeast and sugar. “The yeasts convert the sugar to carbon dioxide, thus creating the bubbles. This second fermentation is known as bottle conditioning,” she says.
Any yeasts then die and form a sediment. “The longer the cider sits on this sediment, known as the lees, the greater the flavor imparted to the cider,” Kae recounts. “In our view, the cider tastes better with this sediment removed, which is where the riddling and disgorging come in.
“Riddling is the process of tilting the bottles upward, allowing the sediment to move into the neck of the bottle so that it can be ejected in the final step, known as disgorging. In this step, the necks are frozen so that the force of the pressurized CO2 will swiftly eject the sediment, but not the liquid. The bottles are then topped off and capped, and ready for labeling.”
MHC ages their ciders on the lees, and disgorges bottles as necessary, on demand. The process may be time-consuming, but the result? A delightfully dry, effervescent, sparkling drink.
Here’s a breakdown of the process:
First, “the type of apple will greatly influence the flavor and type of cider produced,” explains Kae. “Most eating apples are not great cider apples — there’s too much water and not enough tannins or acid. Historically, there are a number of cider varietals which used to be common in North America, and some are now being planted in cider-specific orchards. There are also bittersharp and bittersweet varietals found more in Europe, which many are trying to grow here. As with anything else, the quality and character of the ingredients will make a better product.”
Around 20 bushels of apples will produce 60-75 gallons of cider, though this could vary between makers. These are washed (if they’ve been sprayed) and ground up, then put through a press. Some presses are large and hydraulic — like those used for commercial ciders — others, like a basket press, use a screw to incrementally add pressure to crushed fruit. Metal House uses a rack-and-cloth press, which essentially works to squish the apple pulp through a much more intense version of a cheesecloth, that’s similar to burlap.
Fermentation comes next, in which yeasts are added to any resulting liquid to help the natural sugars convert to alcohol. This can be controlled or done naturally. “Controlled inoculation occurs when a dependable yeast — with desired characteristics — is added,” says Kae. “Natural fermentation allows yeasts native to the environment to inoculate the juice.” The latter method is less controllable and can be risky “because you can have a yeast that won’t consume all of the sugar, causing the fermentation to stop before you want it to.”