Archive for December, 2007

Snow and Cider

December 22, 2007

The snow keeps falling, never more than 6 or 8 inches at a time, but it has piled up to the point where it came most of the way to my knees as I carried the compost out to the pile.  After so many years of lame winters, it’s exciting to have one that’s living up to the New England reputation.  Like most contractors in the northern latitudes, my dad plows driveways in the winter, and he’s already plowed more times this year than he did all last season.

I’ve been busy traveling and doing engineering stuff (I’ve decided on a new job, working on high efficiency solar cells), but the last two carboys have been ticking along in the closet, and the two kegs of 07 cider are chilling in a drift outside the door, to be bottled this afternoon.  The blueberry cider is producing noticeably more gas than the straight apple cider despite less volume and receiving somewhat less than half of the starter; there must be something in the blueberry juice that the critters (Red Star Champagne yeast) find nutritious.  I’ve already cleaned out the airlock once, and it’s already getting some more gunk in it; maybe I should start using a blowoff tube.

07 Cider Roundup

December 16, 2007

The few wizened apples left on the trees in the yard are frozen solid, and Poverty Lane is about done pressing for the season, so as of mid December I’m finally cut off from sources of quality cider, so it’s time to take stock of year 3.

We made a total of 13 carboys of hard cider:

  • 2 jugs that Brock and I  made from early-season Poverty Lane apples, by the garbage disposal method
  • 8 jugs of mixed mid-season cider that we pressed at the shindig in Maine, using pedal power
  • 1 jug of single-variety Roxbury that we pressed at the same time
  • 1 jug of late season juice, purchased from Poverty Lane
  • 1 jug of blueberry-apple, Pov + Trader Joe’s

Adding to that around 30-35 gallons of fresh cider, and the year’s production is on the order of 100 gallons, corresponding to perhaps 1200 lbs of apples.   The internet says apple productivity ranges from 8000 to 15000 lbs per acre, so once our initial 1/3 acre orchard in Maine comes into bearing we are going to have significantly more fruit to deal with, and there are further varieties that I’m itching to plant as well.  Time to start thinking about that upgraded press concept!

Cider Factory

December 16, 2007

With the temperature in the garage finally edging below freezing in a mid-December cold snap, it was time to do something with the four carboys that were settling quietly on top of the table saw. So yesterday we went into production, and bottled two batches of cider – about 10 gallons or 48 750 ml champagne bottles. When these hobby craft projects take on lives of their own and try to eat a whole weekend, Becky sighs and calls this strange compulsion toward anachronistic productivity “The Factory”.  This time it was the cider bottling factory.

I started by sanitizing two Cornelius kegs, reassembling the fittings, and siphoning the cider from two 5-gallon carboys into the kegs.  By tilting the carboy and arranging the keg and carboy at suitable heights, it is possible to siphon cleanly down to the last pint or so of sludge in the bottom.  The next step is carbonation, from a 5 pound CO2 cylinder with a cheap single-stage regulator from the homebrew store.  I rearranged the tubing to flow CO2 into the outlet of the keg, such that it was forced down the dip tube to bubble up through the cider.  To carbonate quickly, I set the regulator to 35 psi and agitated the carboys for a few minutes, which forms fine bubbles inside the keg to speed diffusion of the gas into the liquid.  The solubility is significantly higher at cold temperatures, so it helps that the cider is still ~32F.  We set the quantity of CO2 by taste, but it seems to amount to around 20-25 psi when the cider is cold.

Then, we set up the bottling line on the kitchen counter and go to work.  It looks something like this:


Alexis washes the bottles using a pressure-actuated valve that screws onto the faucet of the kitchen sink,  then sanitizes them with a pump-action fountain sanitizer and inverts them in a pot to drain.  I operate the bottling system, which I borrowed from Holly; one of these days I’m going to make one for myself.  A counterpressure bottling rig is basically a two-way valve that serves to pre-pressurize the bottle with CO2 before introducing the cider, and to control the flowrate of cider into the bottle by regulating the flow of gas out of a fitting at the top.  Holly made his from parts ordered from McMaster-Carr, but lots of designs are available for sale on the internet.    To operate it, you introduce the flow tube on the bottom of the valve assembly into the bottle and seat the rubber stopper in the mouth of the bottle so it seals, then move the valve to the gas inlet side briefly to pressurize the bottle with CO2 from the regulator.  You then quickly move the valve to the cider inlet side, and cider begins flowing into the bottle, driven by the pressure in the keg, which is also hooked up to the regulator.  The flowrate of cider is controlled by manipulating a threaded fitting at the base of the valve; the gas escapes from the top of the bottle via a concentric tube that surrounds the flow tube.  When the cider reaches the desired level, you move the valve to the center (off) position, and the remaining pressure bleeds off through the fitting.  The net result is that the bottle is filled without triggering the CO2 to come out of solution.  Alexis then caps the bottles with a lever-action capping apparatus, and places the bottles back in the case.

The temperature continued below freezing, and I worried about the two glass carboys in the garage, so as soon as the kegs were empty I cleaned them and siphoned the cider from the next two batches.  I then brought the kegs inside, and carbonated the cider while it was still cold.  I think I’ll need more bottles to finish off those batches though.  We also have one six-gallon carboy on secondary with the single-variety Roxbury Russet cider in it; it’s taken forever to settle but is finally starting to clear so I may rack it again, or just let it sit until I have a keg available for it.

I also started one last batch of cider, with juice I bought from Steve Wood and company at Poverty Lane.  I got 9.5 gallons, and started a 6 gallon batch, plus an experimental batch with a gallon of Trader Joe’s pure blueberry juice mixed in.  Steve is a purist in matters of cider, and would rather drink clorox than cider adulterated with other fruit, but in the interest of science I feel compelled to try experiment beyond the bounds of tradition, and make my own mistakes.  In my defense I’ll note that that West County Cider down in MA also makes a blueberry-apple cider, though I’ve never tried it.  It was kind of cool – the Poverty Lane cider was almost 8% potential alcohol while the blueberry was just over 5% – significantly less dense, and the blue juice mixed with the cider but stayed mostly on top, so the contents of the carboy segregated by color.  Here’s the cider, including the one with funny purple juice – don’t tell Steve.


Quiet season

December 9, 2007

Cider activity has slowed down since Thanksgiving, with five carboys settling in secondary fermentation (more at Holly’s) and cold weather setting in. We got our first real snow, about 8″ last weekend, and it’s been cold enough to keep it around; there’s still a bunch in the neighbor’s apple trees and bushes across the street. We’re starting to burn through the wood pile as well; too soon to say how long the two cords will last, but so far we’ve used less than a quarter tank of heating oil and maybe a third of a cord of wood. The programmable thermostat lets it get down near 50 at night, but it rarely gets that cold if the wood stove is loaded with a full charge and dampered down at bedtime. Then the furnace kicks in to warm things up before we wake. With plenty of hot tea and a 30 watt electric pad on my chair, I can tolerate sitting at the computer all day with the office at around 56 degrees. It is possible to live in a brick house with uninsulated walls, but not recommended. At least there’s thermal mass – I’ve kept a quart lexan bottle of water out in the garage (also brick) and it hasn’t frozen at night despite nighttime temps around 10F, presumably because of thermal mass and leakage through the common wall with the house.

Yesterday I hauled four of the carboys from the office closet (temps mid fifties) out into the garage, where temps in the thirties should further tamp down residual fermentation and help clear the cider. The fifth is the single-variety roxbury russet, which continues cloudy and is just now showing first signs of clearing. There aren’t so many weekends left till Christmas; gotta get the bottling and labeling done soon.

I also cleaned up another skanky used Cornelius keg (courtesy of Holly, who bought a bunch online a few years back), to receive the cider from the secondary carboys. These are the tall, cylindrical stainless steel soda kegs that used to be the standard for delivering soft drinks in restaurants. They are naturally useful for other types of carbonation as well. There is an elliptical port in the top that’s big enough to admit a (skinny) arm for scrubbing out the inside, and a gasketed plug that seals up the hole. There are also two quick-connect ports on either side of the top, one to admit gas, and the other with a dip tube that draws liquid from the bottom. We typically reverse the ports to send the gas in at the bottom for carbonation, and shake the kegs vigorously for a few minutes while connected to a CO2 tank to speed the carbonation, which can otherwise take days to go to completion. It would be nice to have a way to meter the amount of CO2 going in; maybe a project for next year.

Finally, I soaked the labels off of a bunch of cappable empties that I’d been keeping, cleaned them up, and got them ready for filling. Every time I do this I remind myself what a pain in the butt it is, and how cheap bottles are at the brew store, but I can’ t bear to see good bottles smash into the heap at the bottom of the town recycling station, especially if they are larger than the usual 12 oz.