There was an apocryphal bad frost centuries ago in Hessen, Germany that wiped out that year’s grape crop. The distraught winemakers turned to apples and they haven’t looked back since. That region is now the heartland of Apfelmost—a hard cider, fermented with the naturally occurring microbes on the fruit and extant from year to year on the presses or in the barrels of the cider house.
Meanwhile, in Asturias and the Basque region of northern Spain, the beverage of choice for the last several centuries hasn’t been Rioja wine but sidra, produced from native apple varieties and also fermented spontaneously with the wild yeasts on the fruit.
Other cidermaking traditions rely on wild yeast to power the ferment: the keeved and slow-fermented cidres of Normandy, and the powerful, funky, and heady English West Country ciders made from bitter apple varieties.
Taking a cue from these disparate traditions, this month’s project is an adventure in wild cider (or, with apologies to Bill and Ted, WYLD CYDER).
What makes it tick
Unfiltered and acidic, complex and musty; funky up front and whooshing to a palate-scouring dry finish. Fans of gueuze and saison will find a lot to like here, while drinkers only familiar with the much, much sweeter mass-market American hard ciders are in for a Timothy Leary–grade mind expansion.
Many wild ciders are produced from heirloom or landrace cider (not table) apple varieties. But many little farmhouse operations also would have used whatever they had on hand, so there’s no reason not to pick up whatever your local orchard is throwing down.
The alcohol content of naturally-fermented ciders varies with the sugar content of the apples (in keeping with the precepts of non-interference, these wild ciders are not supplemented with any exogenous sugars), but usually clock in at 4–6% ABV.
A recipe to try
Target OG: variable, depending on harvest. Let’s plan for 1.045–1.055
If using fresh fruit and spontaneous fermentation:
- 5 gallons fresh, unpasteurized apple juice
- A pack of yeast for backup—see Key Points, next page
If using pasteurized or store-bought juice and lab yeast:
- 5 gallons preservative-free natural apple juice
- Your choice of yeast—see “Don’t necessarily g-g-gotta be fresh” in Key Points, below
Key points for key pints
• G-g-gotta be fresh. Source unpasteurized juice with no sulfites or other preservatives from a cider mill, or grind and press your own apples. The untreated fruit will contain a bolus of native microbes that we’ll harness to turn the juice into hard cider.
• Don’t kill the critters. Modern protocol would be to sulfite the freshly-pressed juice to nuke the wild yeasts from orbit and give the lab-cultured yeast a blank slate. Can’t do this with a spontaneous fermentation, so leave the Campden tablets in the drawer.
• Don’t necessarily g-g-gotta be fresh. If freshly-pressed untreated apple juice isn’t an option, just use store-bought juice (preservative-free). You will, however, need to add your own yeast. To approximate the effects of a wild fermentation, consider a commercial mixed culture—Wyeast Roeselare, or a farmhouse or lambic blend (e.g., Wy3278 or WLP670) would be good options.
• Have a backup plan. If the juice isn’t fermenting on its own after 48–72 hours, we’ll need to add yeast. If you don’t already have a spare pack of ale or wine yeast on hand, grab one before you get your juice.
• Cool temp for more aromatics. Traditionally, cider would have been fermented at harvest time when ambient temperatures were turning the corner from summer into autumn. Keeping the ferment somewhere around 60°F, plus or minus a handful of degrees, will suppress the rate of fermentation and therefore how much of the delicate fruit aromatics get carried out of our beverage along with CO2 gas.
¡Vamos Al Sidreia!
Rack the freshly-pressed, no-sulfite juice into a sanitized fermenter; record the SG, then cover loosely with sanitized foil or an airlock, adjust to around 60°F, and let nature take its course. Nota bene—If no signs of fermentation are evident after 48–72 hours (foam, CO2 production, gravity drop) add the backup yeast.
Store-bought juice/non-funky program:
Decant the juice into a sanitized fermenter; record the SG, then cover loosely with sanitized foil or an airlock, adjust to around 60°F, and add the yeast of your choice.
Fermentation and beyond
1. Wild fermentations (or fermentations with a lab mixed culture) can be very slow affairs, especially conducted at +/- 60°F, so remain patient. Once gravity is stable and flavor is to your liking (acidity and dryness tends to increase with time), rack to secondary.
2. Allow to settle and clarify in secondary for a few weeks or months. You can stabilize the flavor profile to a lesser or greater degree via cold storage (microbes will go dormant below about 40–45°F) or a dose of sulfite (to inhibit or kill the microbes).
3. Once the cider has clarified to your liking, package it. Many traditional wild ciders are served still, but kegging will make it easy to serve sparkling. If you bottle a non-sulfite product, use crown- or cork-and-cage beer bottles to accommodate any pressure that may develop as a result of continued yeast activity.
Until next time: Drink it like you brewed it.