Is rejecting tradition more traditional than you think?

Recently J-Man and I had a chat about cider making after sampling the cider I made last fall. During the discussion, I presented my philosophy of hard cider making, and the madness behind my method. Really, I have no method, other than sending the chosen apples to their destruction through the maceration machine.  You may recall my non-traditional cider press, the juicer of death, from last years posting on cider day. As I have said before, the use of a juicer for this process is nothing more than necessity for me. I would love to go the traditional route and construct a giant apple scratter and a press in my backyard. But being as I have only a small backyard and no apple trees of my own, that route seems like going too far to be traditional for the small amount of hard cider I make each year. Most of the time I’m all about tradition, and doing things the hard way, just to feel a sense of accomplishment knowing I chose the hard route. My enjoyment of all-grain brewing stems from that sense of accomplishment. So utilizing the juicer allows me to make cider on my own terms. I get to pick which apples go into my cider, I get to juice them myself, and I get to do it with equipment I already own. So there is my method, but what about the madness?

My knowledge of cider making is very limited. Basically its the knowledge that apple juice contains sugar, so you can ferment it. That’s about it. This year while attending the National Homebrewer’s Conference, J-Man and I sat in on a seminar on cider, and learned some very traditional ways to make and ferment it. Many of the ciders and methods presented made me think about why they are made the way they are. Are the recipes purely based on taste? Are the techniques based on tradition or science fact? After thinking about this for a while  I have since solidified my own hypothesis on cider making and brewing in general. My idea is not an new one, it is merely “Necessity.”

Let’s look back a bit and think about why people made alcoholic beverages to begin with. 1.) It gets you buzzed, and humans for the most part, enjoy it. 2.) As a side effect, the beverage tends to be safer to drink than water, as the process itself  kills harmful organisms 3.) Early brewers also discovered it was a good way to store harvested grains and fruit by preservation in an alternate form. Humans as a rule like variety, so drinking beer and eating bread, even though it may come from the same basic grain, adds variety to our diet from the same basic materials. All that sounds good, but really, its all about number 1.) Alcohol.

Hard cider is just one of the ways to make that beloved alcohol with the available agricultural products you have. Over time humans refined techniques to produce not only alcohol, but how to make it taste good too. But tasting good can be a matter of acquired taste. You may like something others do not because you are used to it or you grew up eating/drinking it. Tastes also change over time for many reasons 1.) because techniques and supplies of raw products change. 2.) People discover new things from other regions by design or necessity which influence taste. If your local supply of grain is unavailable one year, you must substitute or go without. Most of us homebrewers know this all too well with the most recent hop shortage.

Also, tastes may be a fad of the time ( many of you may remember Zima… ) In the case of cider, I present my idea as this: Humans made alcohol from the apple trees that were nearby. Apples, being a somewhat delicate and heavy fruit, are difficult to transport over long distances without great cost. Most people in history probably made cider at home for personal consumption, so again, they used what was available. They probably ate the best, shiniest apples out of hand, and made pies and preserves from the seconds. The apples that were not suited for this were used for other things such as cider and animal feed. This procedure generally continues today. Humans ( and specifically Americans ) don’t like to eat fruit that is damaged or not “pretty.”

You may hear from some traditionalists that there are specific apples for making cider, and that you must use them in order to make good cider. They may also say that the apples we consider “table” apples are not cider worthy. But I believe that this is a fallacy presented to us, for no other reason than tradition itself. Much like the tradition that most homebrewers mash for 60 minutes, when starch conversion with modern malts may take place in as little as 5 minutes. We do it because that’s how its done. Period. Another reason certain apples may have been used is because they were not good for much else. Bruised, bitter, small, or sour apples may not be palatable to eat out of hand etc, so humans found other uses for them. Mixing different types of apples not only makes for a better tasting more complex, balanced cider, but also makes sense. A cider maker with limited apple availability would probably take all of the fruit they could get their hands on, or possibly go without. My final thought on certain “cider apples” is that certain apples may promote a good fermentation bringing wild yeasts to the party. You might always use a certain kind of apple if it gave you a good fermentation, no matter what it tasted like. And if it worked for you, your neighbors might also add them to theirs.

My cider making process has been based on necessity, but also on taste and my lack of traditional knowledge. I use apples from the orchard down the road because the orchard is close, and I choose my favorites from the apples they have at the time. I don’t have to use apples because they are rejects, I get to pick the very best they have if I wish. In the last few years I have made some good cider based on this simple rule – tasty apples make tasty cider. Last year my family kindly shipped me Granny Smith apples from their backyard which I used in conjunction with the Honeycrisp variety to make some good cider. So there was some choice and some necessity, what else was I going to do with 40 lbs of granny smith apples?.

So this year I decided to try an experiment. We are making two batches of cider, one with apples we selected in a ratio of our choosing. Some tart, some sweet, and some in-between.  And for the second, we are using what the orchard calls “Deer” apples. These are random rejects, for size or bruising etc. Acquired at a very modest price, they are sold in 50 lb bags of total Anarchy. This will be my “Necessity” test batch. I had no choice in selecting what I was getting other than buying the bag out of necessity. I needed 50 lbs of apples. There was a large variety in the bag, some of the apples were over ripe, others were the size of cherries. It should be interesting to see what happens. I’ll post the results of my experiment later, but I do guarantee on thing, it will have alcohol in it. By no means am I saying that my deer apple cider will be as good as a cider made by experts with years of blending expertise. But what I am saying is, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes throwing well known, comfortable,  traditional techniques out the window might actually bring you closer to the very goal or tradition you were looking for.

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