How to Make (good) Cider at Home

cider apples

Ever fancied making cider? Ever made it and regretted it? Well, one wander around Peckham’s cidery in Tasman’s Moutere hills during the autumn harvest will surely send you home fermenting a plan to make your own cider. Branches laden with glowing mellow fruit, crisp mornings, damp grass and a sweet smell rising from heaps of pomace (spent pulp) have me reaching for my basket and press. A great mellow filter descends on the Tasman region each autumn, and you half expect rosy-cheeked children to be picnicking under the next tree.

But don’t be fooled, cider making is not all wandering and wassailing – especially not during harvest. On an autumn Saturday, Alex and Caroline Peckham spared me time to discuss the art and science of it, between the pressing task of making cider. For the past ten years, they have been honing their knowledge and skills as cider growers and makers to turn this bounty into some of the country’s finest artisan ciders, winning acclaim and awards for the Peckham’s brand along the way.

Cider is wines friendly cousin. Not many of us attempt to make a pinot noir in the laundry but cider is more accessible, with apples often readily available and a less daunting process anyone can make cider. Press apples, ferment juice then drink right? But to make a good cider, the Peckhams generously shared a few of their hard learned tips.

cider press
Photo Daniel Allen – www.danielallenmedia.com

Firstly we talked about what is cider? Well, it is not made from peaches for a start, nor is it sweetened with sugar to within an inch of an RTD. True cider is an expression of the fruit and the soil and the maker. It is made with apple juice and skill. That doesn’t mean it is stuck in a rut; cider is evolving as the new craft beer with cideries popping up everywhere.

But a good cider still sticks to the fundamentals. And these basic tenet’s of fruit and land and technique have given the Peckhams more than enough room to create a range of ciders that suit the Kiwi palette. The pure fruit flavours shine through – without adding sugar. One of the biggest disappointments of the home cider maker is creating a mouth puckering bone dry brew that bears no resemblance to their favourite tipple. And while fermenting out all the natural fruit sugars is a common trap for new makers, Alex believes, dry is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s dry is another man’s medium, and Caroline agrees. Even in the last few years at tastings, she has noticed a shift in customer preferences away from the sweeter ciders to the dryer, more complex flavours of some products in their range.

And if you do over-ferment and create one of these bone dry brews at home all is not lost. Caroline advises that with the addition of a little apple juice or elderflower cordial there is every chance that you will be able to turn your cider from puckering to perfect. Just don’t put the lid back on it and pop it in the cupboard as it may well start to ferment again.

cider apples
Photo Daniel Allen – www.danielallenmedia.com

Varieties and Sourcing

Trees of specific cider apple varieties are hard to come by in New Zealand. The Peckhams built up their collection of over 30 varieties by obtaining graft wood off other growers and trees from Allenton nursery in Ashburton which has now closed.  Lambourne Marketing in Tasman carry some varieties of cider apples in their catalogue.

Cider apples have flavour profiles such as bitter, bittersweet and sharp, and a mix of apples from each profile goes into making the perfect blend – not unlike blending whisky. Choosing varieties is all about getting a blended juice with a good structure, you want a balance of astringency, tannin, and sweetness with a good aroma. Most ciders are blends for this reason, and for the home orchardist, if you are only planting a couple of trees the Peckhams advise choosing ones that give a balanced blend and ripen at the same time. Kingston Black and Sweet Alford would be one such pairing.

But if you can’t get your hands on specific cider varieties it doesn’t mean you can’t make good cider. The secret is tasting the fruit. Alex feels there is a belief that if you eat a sharp apple, then that is the one for cider. But while pressing a bucket of Granny Smiths might make a lovely clean, crisp apple juice it may ferment into a decidedly sharp cider without further special malolactic fermentation. Whereas the juice from a nice Egremont Russet or Bramley may give you a wonderful base for cider with just a hint of acidity from a few added crab apples. Training your pallet to taste the juice and adjust accordingly is one of the best things a home cider maker can do.

How to prune and spray them

All apples benefit from some pruning and spraying, and cider apples are no exception. While the Peckhams don’t manicure their trees like culinary apple crops, they do still prune for structure and do some fruit thinning to overcome the biannual bearing habit of some varieties. Their trunk pruning regime involves taking out up to 3 or 4 branches from a tree to aid openness for fruit ripening and harvesting. They have noticed lower yields without this pruning. They have also found a basic spray program for fungal diseases is necessary.

When to harvest them – fruit fall and ripeness

The ripeness of fruit is all when it comes to a good cider. Alex and Caroline ground harvest a good portion of their crop and the rest is hand harvested when very ripe. In early April, while the culinary apple crop is all but picked, the Peckhams are still hard at work bringing in their cider apples.

Just when is ripe enough can be determined technically by brix meters to measure the sugar, but the Peckhams have some simpler tests to help them judge ripeness. The first is taste the fruit. Take an apple like Cox’s Orange Pippin, Alex describes an under-ripe Cox, perhaps picked for supermarket sale, to be crisp, bland, acidic with moderate sweetness. But take that same apple at peak ripeness and not only will you have the acid and sweetness but you also get all the mellow nutty flavours that linger on your palate. These are the flavours that properly ripe fruit impart to a great cider.

For the home orchardist or forager, regular tasting of the fruit in the weeks leading up to picking is their advice – until you get those nutty flavours as well as the crisp, clean acid and sugar. That is not to say the fruit should be rotten. It is a balance, and any rot in the fruit will also come through as musty notes in the finished cider. Washing, cleaning and sorting apples are key to weeding out unwanted fruit and debris.

The final simple two tests are pop and pip. If your thumb can press into the apple with a pop and leave an indent without mushing it, then it is ripe. The colour of the pips when you cut it open also indicate ripeness – black pips are ripe while light brown is not.

ripeness test apples

How to press them

Before pressing the apples are milled into suitably sized pieces. Home cider makers employ all sorts of devices from electric garden chippers to food processors to achieve this job. Whatever you use, ensure the parts in contact with the fruit and juice are food grade as apple juice is acidic. The Peckhams advise that you should be aiming for irregular pea sized pieces – not so fine as a grated apple.

Depending on the press and type of apples you should aim for a yield of around 70% of the volume of juice to fruit – so 20 kg of apples will yield you 14 litres of juice. The pulp of cider apples is spongy and yields slightly less juice than less dense culinary varieties. Apple presses are specialist pieces of equipment, and it is hard to get home-scale ones that work well. I have a press made by Bob Croy from Wakefield, and it is a sturdy piece of equipment that I have used for years. Bob sells them on Trade Me.

How to ferment them

Once you’ve got your juice and you’re ready to make cider you have a couple of remaining key decisions to make. The first is which yeast to use. You can try the wild and free method, adding nothing and letting the natural yeasts on the skins of the fruit ferment as they will. This may result in something spectacularly good or bad. And for the home cider maker, this is a risk that may be worth taking. However, if you prefer a bit more certainty in your brew, the Peckhams recommend adding a Campden tablet to remove unwanted bacteria that can produce those “off” flavours and then use a white wine yeast to ferment the juice.

The second is temperature. One of the biggest mistakes home cider makers fall into is fermenting their brews at too higher temperature. Apparently, cider prefers a slow cool ferment at temperatures as low as 8°C up to around 14°C. So don’t stick it in the hot water cupboard.

Alex succinctly sums up the key points for success “Ripe fruit – not too much acid, some tannin, and a cool slow ferment.”

For more pictures of the orchard and cidery visit peckhams.co.nz or find their range at Farro Fresh, Moore Wilsons and Fresh Choice throughout the South Island.  For more information on cider making the Peckhams recommend a visit to cider.org.uk

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