As I’ve written before on this site, I’m not much of a cider guy. I don’t hate it or anything, but I will nearly always reach for a beer first, and I admit to not completely understanding the current cider craze. Sorry, cider fans … I just think they all taste pretty much the same.
But there’s a time and a place for them, or rather several times and places. Two times and places that immediately come to mind are:
- My backyard in mid-May, when spring begins to turn into a scorching Texas summer
- A party at my house, when my kegerator is broken and I need a fast/easy small batch of something to serve to my friends
Cider – at least the way I make it – is so easy, it’s the go-to whenever I need a small batch to pop into the kegerator (or, in this case, into a KEGlove cooler sleeve) to fill an empty tap. All I do is pour a few gallons of organic unfiltered apple juice into a fermenter, pitch a bit of dry yeast, and wait. Okay, sure, sometimes I just pitch yeast directly into the glass jug the juice came in and ferment in that … I’m a Louisiana boy by birth, and we like to keep things simple.
Except when we don’t. And this time I didn’t.
I decided that for my recent batch of cider, I would mix things up a little bit. I’ve been hearing a lot about hopped cider – and having not tasted any (see above re: “I will nearly always reach for a beer first”) – and seeing as how I have a ton of hops in my freezer, I thought now was the time to try it out for myself.
The somewhat experimental cider – experimental not in the sense that no one is doing it, because everyone is; but experimental in the sense that I just winged it without bothering to do any research on how they are doing it – ended up being called Bineta Applebum Hopped Cider – in reference to the song “Bonita Applebum” off the first album by A Tribe Called Quest, but spelled B-I-N-E for bine, like a hop bine … get it?
P.S. – I know that if you have to explain a joke, it’s a shitty joke.
P.P.S. – R.I.P. Malik Taylor, a.k.a. Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who was taken from us in March 2016 in between the deaths of David Bowie and Keith Emerson and Prince and oh my God this year has sucked for music fans and it’s not even June.
You know what? To paraphrase Charlie Papazian, let’s just get on with the recipe.
This really is one of the easiest brews I’ve ever done. Here are the ingredients:
- 2 gal (4 half-gallon bottles) Trader Joes Honeycrisp Apple Cider (unfiltered juice)
- 1 oz Cascade hops (7.1% AA)
- 2 tsp yeast nutrient
- 1 packet Mangrove Jack’s Burton Union Yeast (M79)
The main point of interest here is the hops, so let’s talk about them. I chose Cascade because I have a crap-ton of them on hand, and I figured if this was an experiment I might as well use the most basic American hop imaginable just to keep down on weird variables. I wanted to add half the hops before fermentation, and half afterwards as dry hops.
For the pre-fermentation hops, I brought a pint of the juice to a boil, then turned off the heat and added a half-ounce of Cascade and the yeast nutrient. I steeped this mixture for as long as it took me to sanitize the fermenter and pour the rest of the juice into it.
A word about the yeast nutrient: it’s not absolutely essential, and I’ve made good cider without it. The sugar in apple juice is fructose, which is pretty easily handled by ale yeast. But I didn’t want to take any chances, partially because I was going for a clean ferment to let the hops shine through, and partially because my Mangrove Jack’s yeast was 11 months past the expiration date. (If you won’t tell anyone, I won’t … tell anyone else, that is.)
Once the bulk of the juice was in the fermenter, I added the hot hopped juice and pitched the limping-on-its-last-leg expired yeast (in case you’re wondering, it worked just fine). The OG measured 1.046.
The cider fermented over the next three weeks to a FG of 0.996, giving an ABV of 6.6%. Not too shabby for a bit of juice from a plastic jug and some bargain-bin yeast. I added the other half-ounce of Cascade I had set aside for dry hops. One week in the fermenter, and then into my small-batch keg it went.
The cider was a hit. It was refreshing, the hops came through nicely, and everyone at the party could detect a little something special in the cider even if they couldn’t quite figure out what it was. We nearly emptied the short keg in an afternoon … there was one glass left in the keg by the end of the day, which allowed me to get this picture and toast to a successful experiment:
I will brew this again someday, maybe even with more interesting hops, the next time I need a small batch of something to fill an empty tap or satisfy a party need. But I’m hoping that won’t be the case again anytime soon, because I have recently received a freight shipment of …
my brand new kegerator!
… and the kegs of beer I have sitting in a fermentation chamber cranked down to 37°F to keep fresh will soon be on tap again. I hope to get the kegerator set up and running in the next few days, and don’t worry, I will document it here with all the appropriate fanfare and celebration. Watch this space for updates, and until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.
Several days ago I celebrated my 37th birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the day I became a homebrewer.
The day I became a homebrewer was not the day I brewed my first beer. That day was long ago in the remote fog of memory we call the 1990’s. It was the year I turned 21, and I got a 2-gallon Mr. Beer starter kit for Christmas. It came with a can of prehopped malt extract and called for a pound of table sugar. There was no boil and I think Fleischmann’s baking yeast was involved. At bottling (a week later!) I spooned loose sugar into each bottle for priming as directed.
The beers tasted like cider vinegar. Carbonation varied wildly from bottle to bottle. At the time, I assumed bad taste and inconsistency were inevitable. After all, I made beer at home, dude! I laughed at the comments and pinched faces of the friends drinking with me and enjoyed the buzz. Remember, I was 21.
And despite the results, I had fallen in love with the idea of brewing my own beer.
I was also trying to finish college, and didn’t find time to brew again. When I left home for grad school, Mr. Beer traveled with me. But it stayed in the box, and for years I kept it in the closet of one apartment after another until one day I finally just threw it out, vowing to brew again “someday”.
Four years ago, I got another starter kit on my birthday: the Coopers Micro-Brew Kit. In some ways it was like Mr. Beer grown up. The fermenter was bigger (30 liters/7.9 gallons). It came with proper brewing yeast and sugar drops for consistent priming. But the extract was still canned and prehopped, it still incorporated simple sugar (dextrose boxed with the kit) and recommended no boil. The beer also came out cidery, not how I wanted.
But I also got several books about brewing that birthday. Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew piqued my interest immediately and I read them from cover to cover. My homebrew wasn’t great, but I was reading about how great homebrew could be. I soon understood why extract-and-sugar kits yielded cidery beers. I realized what my own mistakes were. I looked forward to the next batch and considered what I would do better.
I had become a living embodiment of learning, ambition and self-challenge in the pursuit of better beer. I had become a homebrewer.
I brewed four Coopers batches before I ever touched grain or hops. Then I started working with extract, steeping grains and hop pellets. Then partial mashes for a year, and my first mead and cider. Less than two years after I got my Coopers kit, I brewed my first all-grain beer.
Now when I drink a pint of beer made from scratch from my own recipe, I’m often amazed how far I’ve come. And from what humble beginnings.
Extract-and-sugar systems like Coopers or Mr. Beer (which was purchased by Coopers in April 2012) are looked down on by many homebrewers. Some of that contempt is deserved. These systems oversimplify brewing to a fault: by limiting exposure to real ingredients and brewing processes, they take a lot of risk out of brewing, but at the cost of greatness. It’s almost impossible to fail to make beer with them, but equally impossible to make very good beer with them as sold. It’s disheartening to think of how many “homebrew curious” people must walk away from the hobby forever after tasting one batch of Coopers or Mr. Beer and assuming that’s as good as it gets.
There are also those who deride the kits for taking all the brewing out of “brewing”, and compare them to powdered drink mixes or boxed cake mix. Okay, maybe. You can’t just pour tomato sauce out of a jar onto microwaved pasta and say you made spaghetti from scratch (at least not in the Marchese family). You get more out of brewing when you put more of yourself into it, sure, but everyone has to start somewhere. With extract-and-sugar kits, you learn the basics of sanitation, fermentation, and carbonation: three essential skills a new brewer has to master, and for which there is simply no workaround in the home setting.
So extract-and-sugar is “brewing” more so than buying a six-pack is, just like jarred spaghetti sauce is “cooking” more so than going to a restaurant is. To say Coopers/Mr. Beer is “not brewing” implies that there is such a thing a “real homebrewing”, which I find a bit pompous.
Is it any wonder that some people are intimidated by our hobby? Walking into a homebrew shop for the first time can be terrifying for the uninitiated: shelf after shelf of mysterious products, bro-chatter filling the air with arcane jargon, and opinionated staff members with eccentric facial hair. My wife Lisa once ranked the homebrew shop as equal with the neighborhood comic book store as an intimidating bastion of male geekdom (and she lists beer and comics among the things she geeks on).
And there’s the cost. Extract-and-sugar kits offer a reasonably priced entry point into a hobby that can be expensive to break into, with a minimum of specialized equipment and ingredients so that if you don’t get bitten by the bug, you haven’t blown the baby’s college fund on shit you’ll never use again. These days, there are other inexpensive options available such as the Brooklyn Brew Shop 1-gallon all-grain kits that can be found at many non-specialty stores. Those kits didn’t exist when I started brewing, so I don’t know anything about how good they are. I’ll admit they seem cool.
But all-grain brewing introduces a lot of variables. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Brooklyn Brew Shop kits produce better beer than extract-and-sugar kits in a best-case scenario. But if something goes wrong, there’s a lot to troubleshoot. Why not master a few basic techniques first and then learn additional techniques one at a time?
Ultimately, there are many paths to the same goal of making the beer you like in the way you enjoy making it. The point I’m making is just that there’s no shame in the simple extract-and-sugar kits. With a little knowledge, like I had, they can be the start down a road to bigger challenges and better beer. And that, after all, is why we do it.
In my last post, I described the brew day for my Bronze Age-inspired fig beer, which ended with me pitching a yeast starter made from Dogfish Head Midas Touch dregs. I didn’t have an especially good reason for fermenting this brew with Midas Touch dregs, except for thinking that it would be good luck for my ancient ale experiment. Moreover, it was my first time cultivating bottle dregs, and I didn’t really study up on it that much ahead of time. I was making it up as I went.
I watched the fermenter, counting the hours of the lag phase and waiting for signs of fermentation. 24 hours passed. Then 48. The airlock refused to bubble. I didn’t panic, knowing that the lid on the small-batch fermenter I “made myself” (translate: “bought a 2-gallon pail and drilled a hole in the lid to fit a stopper and airlock” – sorry, I’m not exactly Bob Vila) doesn’t always seal perfectly and gas might be escaping from somewhere besides the airlock.
After three days, I picked up the pail and looked through the translucent wall for krauesen. Seeing nothing, I decided it was time to intervene.
When I cracked the lid, it was like looking at the surface of a dead alien planet. The wort was still and clear, reflecting the concerned look on my face like a pane of amber glass. The only blemishes on the surface were a few bits of fig seed that had started to grow mold. Aside from that, there was no sign that anything was living in there.
The first thing I did was remove the moldy fig seeds with sanitized tongs. Well, no – the first thing I did was drop an F-bomb. Then I removed the moldy fig seeds.
I took a sample of the wort and tested the gravity. It was 1.073, 5 points down from original gravity, which I attribute to the fact that the OG was taken before I added a relatively high volume of lower-gravity starter. In other words, fermentation had not commenced.
I tasted the sample, finding it as sweet as the day I made it. I tasted honey, figs and malt. No alcohol, no bready yeast flavor and no transitional fermentation by-products like acetaldehyde. Fortunately, there was no apparent infection flavor, either: no musty mold taste and no sign of bacterial souring. So it was in stasis, not ruined.
There was really nothing to do except to pitch fresh yeast. I had a packet of Fermentis Safbrew T-58 on hand for exactly this emergency, so I measured out 6 grams and pitched it. I attempted to stir it with my drill-mounted whip to re-aerate the wort, but the drill battery was inexplicably dead (I’ve recently deduced that I have a kleptomaniac poltergeist in the house with an eyewear fetish; perhaps it’s fond of power tools as well). No matter, I closed the fermenter back up and within 12 hours the airlock was gurgling like a freshly risen zombie.
To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised that I didn’t get viable yeast from the bottle. I never did see any definite fermentation activity in either the first or the second stage starter. And the second stage starter had me a little nervous all along. I couldn’t say what was wrong with it, but it never looked right.
What did I learn from all this? Quite a lot, actually. Here are the CliffsNotes:
- Leaving something as important as yeast selection to superstition isn’t going to get us anywhere.
- Read up on new techniques before trying them. Always.
- When winging it, expect setbacks and have a Plan B.
- Trust instinct more when something doesn’t seem right.
- Always check the drill battery the night before it might be needed.
There’s one more thing I learned. This was my first infection ever in four years of brewing. It happened in a wort that contained solid fruit and that I essentially didn’t pitch yeast into for 3 days. And the extent of unwanted microbial growth was two mere spots of mold on floating fig seeds, nothing more. That’s evidence that my sanitation practices are legit. I’ll drink to the knowledge that I’m doing something right.