Cyser Research

After using honey to carbonate and seeing this cyser recipe on reddit, I’m in the mood to try something with honey.

So I start doing some researching.  Theres quite a few cyser recipes out there (which is no surprise, as cysers go waaaaaay back) – and they all have a few things in common.  Those are apple juice, honey, and yeast.  They also tend to vary widely in how much of each of those things should be added.  You can make a mead using juice instead of water, or you can add a bit of honey to a batch of cider.  And anywhere in between.  Trying to figure out the ratio of juice to honey was rough, as recipes ranged from 1-7 lbs of honey per gallon of juice.  Guess its hard to go wrong.

The type of yeast can also vary wildly.  Many people recommended sweet wine or champagne yeast to accommodate a higher ABV.  Others specifically mentioned avoiding champagne yeast due to flavor reasons.  The reddit recipe used a saison yeast.  Nottingham Ale yeast was also recommended.  I’m most tempted to try the EC-1118 yeast, as I really like the Nottingham Ale yeast and plan to stick with it for most ciders.  Perhaps I’ll try two batches.

The only other consistent thing was that cysers take time.  This will not be a 2 week project.  Most sites recommended a 4 week primary and then 2 months in secondary to age before bottling.

So I better start finding some good local honey.  Maybe 2 lbs per gallon to start with.  Doing two batches with different yeast will let me compare them on equal footing.

Don’t add sugar mid-fermentation

I recently went on a trip to see some really good friends.  They’ve recently expressed interest in making their own cider, so we decided to order some basic supplies and grab a few gallons of juice from Whole Foods.  They started one gallon before I showed up, and then we setup the other two gallons a few days later.

When the first batch was ready, we bottled it into various pop tops and did different things to showcase what they could do with the other ciders.  Two bottles were the basic hard cider with nothing added.  For the first of those bottles, we tried adding it to a glass with maple syrup and a glass with honey.  Both were quite good.  The second of the basic bottles was drank as-is.  It was a bit yeasty as we didn’t do a secondary or let it age, but overall tasted like a solid farmhouse cider.  The last glass of the bottle was particularly yeasty in flavor, but a shot of fireball fixed that.

The other two bottles were carbonated.  One with maple syrup, and the other with honey.  Like the maple syrup batch I did, the flavor was greatly dulled by the carbonization process – but there was still a hit of maple and a solid bit of carbonation.  I think I’m going to save maple syrup for a sweetener with no carbonation as the flavor gets too dull.

The honey worked quite well though.  It added carbonization and a sweet honey flavor.  I definitely need to look into making Mead or a Cyser (Fermented apple juice and honey) soon.

After bottling the first batch, my friends decided they wanted a higher ABV, which would come from adding more fermentable sugar.  So they decided to take one of the remaining gallons and add sugar to it.  So they sanitized a new airlock, popped off the old airlock, and proceeded to add lots of sugar to it…in mid-fermentation.

It bubbled over.  A lot.

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It was quite amusing to watch.  Lots of sugar was added.  We’re not sure how much.  Or how much ABV it’ll end up at (they don’t have a hydrometer yet).  But it was certainly a learning experience.

Batch 5 – Primary

As mentioned in the Intro for Batch 5, I’ve decided to do a high ABV batch with some residual sweetness.  This batch will involve lots of sugar, ale yeast, and gravity math.

First step is to add pounds of sugar.  I’ve poured out some base juice into a large pot and I’m heating it up to add the sugar.  Not to the point of boiling (I’d prefer not to heat the cider at all to avoid messing with the pectin), but enough to create a supersaturated solution with the sugar.  Once I had 3 lbs added, I poured everything back into the carboy and mixed it up.  The gravity comes out to be 1.035 – right about where we want it.

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This will theoretically be above 18% alcohol if all the fermentable sugars were fermented.  I’m still expecting a 12-14% ABV with some residual sweetness – but we’ll see where the nottingham ale yeast takes it.

I’m guessing fermentation will take a bit longer due to how much fermentable sugar there is.  I’m also strongly considering a secondary for this batch to let it clear up and mellow out.

 

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EDIT:  After 5 weeks, the airlock is still bubbling every 15 seconds or so.  Going to let it go for another week or two and rerack it.

Batch 5 – Intro

After the very successful backsweetening of batch 4, I’m going to try another method of obtaining a sweet cider.  That is, I’m going to push the ABV higher than the yeast can survive.  I’ll be using Nottingham Ale yeast, as it has a lower max ABV than EC-1118s.

So the OG of my starter tends to be around 1.050.  That produces a cider that is ~5.5% ABV.  The max ABV of Nottingham Ale yeast was hard to find, but seems to be around 14% (which is high for a beer/ale yeast).  In order to maintain some sweetness, I’m going to aim for enough sugar to make 18% ABV if it was all fermented.

From this site and other sources, it sounds like each pound of sugar adds 0.046 to the gravity.  In order to get 18%, I need an OG of 1.133 that ferments until dry.  Except my cider will ideally ferment until 1.040-1.050 or so to reach ~14% alcohol and have some residual sweetness.  To reach an OG of 1.133 however, I need to add 3 pounds of sugar.  Oh boy.

I’m definitely going to have to heat up my cider as I mix in sugar to create a super-saturated solution.  Its going to be quite interesting, as thats A LOT of sugar for a single gallon.

My main concern is actually going to be headspace.  I’m guessing the yeast will go CRAZY over this amount of sugar.  I probably should be using a blow-off tube, but I think I’ll increase the headspace a bit and simply keep an eye on it.

This batch will probably better be described as an apple wine rather than a cider.  I’m excited to see how it turns out though.  Especially when comparing the sweetness to that of batch 4.

Bottle Caps

I’m planning on starting one last one gallon batch before I go on a trip for a bit.  When I get back it’ll be orchard season and I’ll be switching to cider from a local orchard.  I’ll also be upping the size with a 6.5 gallon brew bucket.  Yay for scaling up!

However…

The pop top bottles that I like and have been using aren’t going to do so well with scaling up.  A dozen 16oz bottles costs over $30.  It takes about 7 of those bottles to cover a one gallon batch.  My 6.5 gallon brew bucket will likely end up with 5 gallons of cider when its all said and done.  Thats about 40 16oz bottles.  Given that I’ve got some aging and some cold crashed in the fridge, I’d basically need to order 3, if not 4 dozen more sets.  Thats basically $100 for empty bottles.  It also will just barely cover the 5 gallons.  If I start a new batch, I’ll need more unless I’m drinking 5 gallons of cider in a month.

So we need different bottles.  Something that will scale.  The answer is really easy actually.  Reuse regular 12oz bottles.  A 6 pack is about $10.  I need ~54 bottles to fill 5 gallons.  I’ve decided to aim for 48 bottles to start with, knowing I should have a few pop tops to cover the rest.  Thats 8 six packs for ~$80.  Its already cheaper than buying pop tops – not to mention all of those bottles come with cider/beer in them!  Add in that its very easy to ask friends if they’ll save you some of their extra bottles.  It’ll probably cost you far less.  You could even scrounge around in recycling bins and whatnot if you’re really desperate.

So now we’ve got 3 problems we need to solve.  Unlike pop tops, we need new caps for each bottle.  Also unlike pop tops, we need something to actually secure the cap on the bottle.  And finally we need (want, really) some way to store these bottles.  The good news is all these solutions are easy to solve.

Bottle caps are cheap.  You can find a pack of 144 caps with apples on them for ~$7.  You can probably get plain ones for cheaper with a bit of looking around.  I bet its also not expensive to get custom-printed caps.  Grab an artistic friend and make some logos to give your cider a professional look!  Given that I’m still using numbers written on tape, I don’t think I’m ready for custom caps – but the apple caps are a good compromise.

Now that we have caps, we need a capper.  Heres the one I picked up for ~$13.  Theres several other colors and brands that are less than $20.  Its really easy to use too.  Put a cap on the bottle, and use the arms to lock it onto the bottle.  Nice and easy.

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Finally I wanted some way to store this set of bottles.  I was envisioning a plastic crate that is used to hold bottles/cans/glasses – but I found something slightly different.  I found a drying rack that holds 48 bottles, perfect!  It comes with a tray to catch liquid, and 2 stackable racks that hold 24 bottles each.  According to the manufacturers, you shouldn’t stack higher than 2 – so I might pick up a second set if I get too many bottles.  Or continue looking for crates that might work.

So now that I’ve got all the pieces lined up, I just need to drink a lot of bottles of cider and beer (and convince my friends to as well).  Good stuff.

 

Batch 4 – Cold Crashing

So after 3 days of carbonization, I decided to pop open a maple (4.2) cider and see how it turned out.  The crisp pop and release of pressure when I opened it was awesome.  I may have to start carbonating all my ciders.  The maple cider still tasted great, but the maple flavor had been toned down a bit.  I’ll have to over-sweeten it with maple if I want to keep that same flavor we originally had.  I decided to move all of my remaining bottles of 4.2 to the fridge to be cold crashed.

Before moving on though, a warning about drinking actively fermenting cider.  Don’t do it.  Your stomach will not be happy.  Its not particularly dangerous to ingest yeast – we eat and drink plenty of things with yeast.  Theres yeast in the air.  Normally, our stomach will break down yeast and sugar long before the yeast has a chance to get started.  I found out first hand, that this isn’t the case for active yeast.  The cider I drank was in the process of being fermented, so the hour or two that my stomach needed to digest the yeast didn’t help.  My stomach was basically fermenting cider for a small bit, which means CO2 was being created, and I got a stomach ache.  It wasn’t terrible.  I felt like I needed to burp, and it went away after an hour or two as the yeast got digested.  Its still not an experience I would recommend.  The good news is that drinking a cold crashed cider should be fine.  The yeast will be dormant and will be digested before it becomes active again.

Given the overly-apple flavor of 4.1, I decided to let it go for a 4th day before cold crashing it.  Since then, I’ve popped open a few and the apple flavor is much subdued from what it was originally, and it tastes pretty good.  Its sort of tastes like an unfiltered angry orchard.  This is definitely the method I would use to recreate the flavor of most generic sweet ciders.

Overall I’m very happy with the backsweetening process.  I could certainly have left my bottles out longer for more carbonation, but it would result in less sweet (and slightly more alcoholic) cider.  Given how easy it is to sweeten individual bottles, I can easily sweeten just part of a batch – so I can have some sweet and some dry cider at all times for when people come over.

Side Project – Balloons!

When first getting interested in cider, theres a few sources that recommend adding yeast and only somewhat tightening the cap on a bottle or adding a balloon.  It might be more accurate to call it hooch than cider, but it theoretically will work.  The slightly loosened cap is very difficult – you need to tighten it enough to let CO2 escape while preventing air from getting in.  The balloon method is slightly different.  The CO2 will rise and make the balloon expand.  No oxygen will get in, and the CO2 will have plenty of room to fill expand.  Theres definitely a concern about the pressure forcing the balloon off the lip of the bottle, and if theres too much CO2 – the balloon might expand too much and pop.  But we decided to try it.

Our work has small bottles of juice.  One day I decided to check the ingredients of the apple juice and noticed that there were no preservatives that would prevent fermentation.  So we decided to grab a couple of bottles and add balloons!  The small bottles will hopefully not generate enough CO2 to pop the balloons – and its much easier than trying to fit an airlock or sneak enough small bottles home to fill a gallon.

 

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We have Welch’s apple juice and cranberry apple juice.  The cranberry apple might have some preservatives that interfere with fermentation – we’ll see.  We added a small bit of EC-1118 to each bottle and popped a balloon on top.

 

Make sure to really sanitize your balloons!

 

 

UPDATE 1 -Not a day later and we’re definitely seeing some action!  The apple juice is definitely working.  Balloons seem to be securely on.

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UPDATE 2 – Sorry for the not so great lighting, but it looks like the cranberry apple juice is seeing some action too!  Its interesting because it did nothing for nearly a week.  The preservatives might not prevent fermentation, but may prevent yeast reproduction.  So whatever yeast we put in is going to have to do all the work.  It’ll be very interesting to see if its any bit alcoholic.  Unfortunately I don’t think theres enough liquid to actually take the gravity, so our only way to tell will be a taste test.

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Batch 4 – Bottling

I ended up being a bit busy, so this sat in primary for a few weeks extra.  But boy was it worth the wait.

So we have a gallon of 4.1 (brown sugar) and a gallon of 4.2 (maple syrup).  The additional sugar at the beginning changed the flavor a bit, but mostly made it more alcoholic (~6.5% instead of ~5.5%).  The brown sugar was fairly reserved, but had a slight difference.  The maple syrup was definitely a bit woody.  Not too bad on its own, but this is the backsweetened attempt!

First thing we did is we reracked 4.1 to remove sediment and allow for more room in the carboy.  We then added 1 and 1/3 thawed apple juice concentrate and let it mix while bottling 4.2.

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For 4.2, we added a teaspoon or two (we weren’t being too accurate) of maple syrup to each bottle before filling.  We also added some to a glass that we filled – it was delicious.  Sweet and lots of maple flavor complimenting the cider.  Definitely needed a wet rag to wipe down the bottles due to the maple syrup.  We also did an unsweetened bottle to see how the wood flavor ages.  Seems like a good time to introduce a new element to our versioning – an ‘s’ will now indicate that its been backsweetened (and hence, will need cold crashed).

 

 

Once the maple was done, we turned out attention back to 4.1 with the apple juice concentrate.  Our taste test had me worried.  It was VERY sweet and VERY apply.  Too much so.  I think the extra 1/3 might have overdone it.  Good news is that I’m going to let it carbonate, so it’ll hopefully eat some of that and tone it down.

 

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Overall it turned out to be a great session.  The maple was delicious as any maple cider I’d had.  The super-apple flavor was a bit strong, but would hopefully be fine after letting it carbonate.  Both batches have gone into a bin (to contain any bottle bombs) and I’ll cold crash them in a few days.

Brew Bucket!

As my cider-making experience grows, so does my cider volume.  I’m thinking about moving to a slightly bigger operation, but wasn’t quite sure of the exact logistics.  I know that a 6.5 gallon carboy for primary and a 5 gallon carboy for secondary is a common setup.  However I’ve actually found a cheaper and (hopefully) more effective options.

A Brew Bucket!  Or an Ale Pail?  Technically I’m not brewing or making ale, so I need a more accurate name.  Theres only so many synonyms for a bucket, and I have yet to find one that works with cider or apples or something.  Anyways its basically a food-grade (BPA-free) bucket that has a couple of unique additions.  First is the hole in the lid, fitted with a rubber grommet that is the proper size for an airlock!  Second is a spigot on the side of the bucket, about 2 inches from the bottom – so you can bottle directly from the spigot, which is pulling cider from above the yeast sediment (lees)!

I ran into this idea and I just couldn’t get it out of my head.  I looked into making it, however I wasn’t quite sure what the actual dimensions would be or what tools I would need.  It wouldn’t be hard to find the bucket, grommets, and spigot and your local hardware superstore – and it’d probably be around $15.  Since I didn’t have the tools or a design, I ended up purchasing this bucket from amazon for about ~$20.  Depending on how it works, I can make my own in the future if I want a second one or have an idea on how to make mine work better than this one.

 

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So how does a bucket work from a brewing perspective?  Is it better or worse than a carboy?  Lets take a look.

There are (in my opinion) three main reasons to use a glass carboy when fermenting cider or brewing beer.  First is that the narrow neck of a carboy reduces the amount of liquid exposed to the air.  Second is that flavors don’t stick to glass, so you can reuse them without worrying about how your jalapeno beer might affect future batches.  Third is that glass is a much harder surface, so it won’t scratch on the inside and create footholds for things to cling to and grow.  So why am I excited about a brew bucket?  Because for cider, we can get past these things.

The first reason is a bigger concern for beer, but is something to consider for cider as well.  We would prefer our cider being exposed to as little oxygen as possible.  The good news is that primary fermentation creates more than enough carbon dioxide to push any oxygen out of the bucket.  Our airlock will keep oxygen out – so it doesn’t matter how much surface area is exposed.  Note that this only applies to primary.  For secondary, fermentation is more or less done (depending on what we add to the cider), so there won’t be enough carbon dioxide being created to protect our cider.  So as long as we only use the bucket for primary, we don’t have to worry about the first reason!

The second reason isn’t a huge concern for us either.  We already know that we can only use the brew bucket for primary fermentation.  Basically any flavor we add is going to be in secondary.  So we won’t have any strange or crazy flavors in our brew bucket – just an apple juice flavor.  Oh no!  Our apple cider got influenced by a slight hint of…apples?  Oh wait.  As long as we only use our bucket for cider and keep flavor additions to secondary, then we should be fine here too.

The third reason isn’t a huge deal for the most part either.  We’re always going to sanitize our bucket before use, and I’m going to always have pasteurized cider going into the bucket.  Its really hard to get unpasteurized cider unless you are juicing the apples yourself, and then you can pasteurize it on your own.  For now, I don’t have an orchard or anything – so I’ll be purchasing local cider if in season, or store-bought juice/cider if not.  Both of which are going to be pasteurized.  So we don’t really have to worry about anything growing.

So given those reasons, I can use my 6.5 gallon brew bucket for primary.  I’ll probably have about 5 gallons of ciders or so for secondary.  While I could easily go find a 5 gallon carboy at my local homebrew store, I actually have a ton of 1 gallon carboys from my store-bought juice.  This means I can do a primary in the bucket, and then fill five 1 gallon carboys for secondary.  I can also directly bottle anything left over.  This means I can take one batch and actually try 5 different flavors in secondary.  I’m so excited for the potential.  I can’t wait to fill this thing up with local cider and see how it turns out!  I’m gonna need a lot more bottles…

So yay!  Heres some pros and cons to the brew bucket.  I’ll add more if I find any while using it.

Pros:

  • Good for primary
  • Cheap to buy or build
  • Built in protection from the sun
  • Don’t need a bung, just the airlock
  • Spigot greatly simplifies bottling/racking process
  • Can make star san mix in this bucket to sanitize, and then dump into smaller bucket to sanitize other things
  • Great place for stickers

Cons:

  • Can’t see exact levels of cider and yeast sediment
  • Can’t use for secondary
  • Bucket lid may be harder to get an airtight seal than a carboy and stopper (may need to look into standard lids that have a rubber sealing ring)
  • Still haven’t thought of a cider-specific equivalent to brew bucket or ale pail.  How about “The Cider Provider”?  Or “Theres Cider Inside ‘er”?  Bleh.

How to remove labels from glass containers

So while not directly related to cider making, its really nice for homebrew operations to be able to remove labels on their glassware that is being reused.  My go-to juice base comes in a nice 1 gallon glass carboy, which comes with its own label on it.  You can find beers and wine in pop-top containers that can be emptied (yum) and reused.  Likewise, if you are using a capper – almost every  beer becomes a potential cider container!  But how do you remove the label?

Googling for instructions shows a ton of different ways.  How well those strategies work depends on the type of glue that the bottle has.  After trying a couple different ways, I’ve found that washing soda works best.  You’ll need a container that is larger than your bottle, washing powder, and a sponge with a rough side.  I use a 3 gallon paint bucket that I found at my local grocery store for ~$3.

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Mix a few tablespoons of washing soda in some water.  Fill your bottle with enough water so that it sits nicely on the bottom of the bucket and let it soak for at least 30 mins or so, and then see how the label is doing.  Use the rough side of a sponge to try and take the label off.  If it isn’t coming, let it soak for longer.  I often just let things soak overnight – no harm for letting it soak too long.

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This has worked really well for me.  Its much cheaper and easier than a lot of other methods.  Its worked for everything for me so far except one rum bottle, which took a few rounds of soaking and elbow grease to get clean.

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