by Stacy Lash, Accountant
I have to confess, I’m not a drinker. On perhaps two or three occasions a year, I might enjoy a sip or two of whatever alcoholic beverage my husband, friends, or family guilt down my throat. Other than that, I’m perfectly happy chugging down a Coke Zero or even a hot cup of coffee. Mostly it’s a result of being a complete and total lightweight. A mouthful of beer warms me up, two makes me tingly. Three will often be the tipping point where I either end up singing myself into a drooling sleep, or develop a hangover well before the bottom of the bottle is reached. My husband believes it’s a wonderful, cost-effective advantage of being married to me. I just think that my lack of alcoholic tolerance has spared me many an embarrassing moment in life. At least once I learned my limits.
I grew up on a farm where we raised cows, chickens, pigs, horses, and occasionally the odd guinea fowl or two. My front yard was a gigantic field that we hayed to feed our animals and the entire pasture area behind our barn was once an orchard. My step-father, Raymond, loved apples. Apples were treats for the horses, treats for the cows, treats for the pigs, and, when prepared properly, treats for the over-21 crowd in the family. Every fall, I’d look forward to apple picking season.
The first wave was always the big, juicy, perfectly ripe apples that we picked to eat and cook with. Raymond was best-friends with a local orchard owner and we always got a good deal. The freezer would be stocked with dozens of pies, homemade apple sauce, and sometimes even a pan or two of apple crisp. These would rarely last more than a few months as we couldn’t keep out of them. The second wave of the season was usually the most exciting for me. It meant the orchard was loaded with drops: apples that had ripened and fallen off the tree naturally, or sometimes by effect of the weather or other disturbance. Drops would lie on the ground and often become a little soft. They had bruises and wormholes and weren’t considered necessarily edible. So they had a different use. They were pressed down into cider.
Our final journey of the year to the orchard was to pick up gallons and gallons of pressed drops. The juice was sweeter and thicker than most commercial ciders, almost syrupy. Once we got it home, we’d fill up a few ancient oak whiskey barrels—the same ones Raymond’s own grandfather used—pour in a half-gallon of vodka, a bunch of sugar, pop in a line of thin plastic tubing, and seal the whole thing off with some wax. After that, it was a matter of waiting and watching. Ever so slowly the air tube would begin to bubble. Every night as we did chores, we’d check the progress of our brew. The bubbles would peak in intensity over the next week or two, then they’d come more slowly, until eventually, they’d stop altogether. It was time.
Over the summer, we’d accumulate a significant amount of Bacardi bottles from various beach parties and events. We saved them all, cleaned them out, and stored them for this very occasion. Raymond called the event “tapping the keg.” For a kid growing up in Maine, raised on hard-cider, you might as well have said, “Disney World” because it evoked the same kind of response in me. I’m sure that he grew tired of hearing me say, “Is it ready yet?” a dozen times a week. You’re probably wondering why a little girl would be so into hard-cider. Well it wasn’t because my parents plied me with alcohol as a youth. For me, it was more a matter of initiation. I got to spend time with the boys. Raymond, his brothers, his guy friends, male cousins. I felt special when he’d hand me the first few ounces of the newly tapped brew. My mother didn’t share in my affinity for cider. Nor did my brother. It was something that just Raymond and I shared and it grew to be so very meaningful to me over the years.
Raymond had another saying. I don’t remember it now, and I can’t ask him, because he died in 2008. It had something to do with the clover in a certain field at a certain time of the year, that somehow signaled it was nearing cider-making time. I wish that I had written it down, just like I wish I’d written down his cider recipe.
So this fall, during an attack of nostalgia, I decided to make a batch of my own hard-cider as a sort of tribute to Raymond. The best part of it was that it was a joint venture with my biological father, Milton (or Daddy). I will admit that I am one of the luckiest women alive, having not just one, but two loving fathers in my lifetime.
Daddy and I had tossed the idea around for a little while, not really certain how to do it or if it’d be a big waste of money. Eventually, we just went for it. Daddy called up the owner of the local orchard (Raymond’s friend), and ordered ten gallons of sweet cider. I researched recipes on the internet and tried to figure out all the intricate details of home-brewing. I was soon overwhelmed with information. A hydrometer? Specific gravity? Racking? Forget about the variations in the performance of various yeasts. We decided to take a trip to a local brewing shop and the owner, a rosy-cheeked man with a drowsy smile, helped us settle on some supplies. He asked me how potent I wanted my cider. I told him that I didn’t want it potent at all. Daddy told him he wanted something he could run his tractor on (with a hearty laugh, of course!). He told me that for each pound of sugar I added to the base, it would add roughly 1% alcohol by volume (ABV), and that the base ABV of cider without any sort of additional sugars was between 6 and 9%. Then he asked me if I liked it sweet. Well, yes, I have always appreciated a nice sweet hard-cider, I said. He suggested that I use a brewer’s yeast to give it a sweet finish. My father chose a wine yeast, hoping for a little more kick.
We drove home together and chatted the whole hour about how we were going to have a cider competition. We made bets on how long it would take, how good it would be. Daddy was sure that his would be stronger and decided upon a much more complex recipe than I chose for myself. I let him start his batch first because I wanted to see if it would work.
He took five gallons of cider and added two pounds of raisins, four pounds of dark brown sugar, and a pound of white sugar. I settled upon a very simple (and reminiscent) recipe of five pounds of white sugar only. Raymond had never added anything but sugar and vodka, so I figured mine would be just as good.
October 24, 2013 was the starting day. Daddy’s cider began to ferment immediately. The bubbles were jumping out of the air lock. Mine was a little slower. Every morning when we got up, we’d tell each other how fast our bubbles were coming. He’d say, “Mine was going every four seconds.” I’d say, “Mine was every nine.” He’d grin, assuming this was meant his would be “better.”
About a week in, my curiosity got the better of me and I simply had to have a sniff. Daddy’s smelled like true cider, mine smelled like…well… a dog that had eaten another dog’s poop mixed with some over-ripe fruit and had the farts. I was dismayed. A quick scan of the internet told me that what my cider was experiencing was called “Rhino Farts.” But the good thing was that it should go away after primary fermenting was complete. I wasn’t so sure about the prognosis and didn’t get my hopes up.
Christmas was coming and I really wanted to use the cider as a gift. Fermentation came to a near standstill about a month into the process and we decided to rack. Daddy siphoned off his cider, cleaned out his carboy, and poured the now almost clear liquid back in. It was a deep amber color, produced by the large amounts of brown sugar and raisins. It smelled amazing, and powerful! It was my turn next, and to my surprise, the Rhino Farts had gone away and I was left with a wonderful smelling, golden fluid. Daddy poured a cup of his and handed it to me. I didn’t dare to drink it. He handed it off to my little brother-in-law and we watched with wide eyes while he tentatively sipped. “It’s pretty good,” Santos said. Daddy handed me the cup with my cider in it. I, again, refused to drink it. He handed it to Santos. I closed my eyes, waiting for him to projectile vomit. I was certain it was filled with poisonous gases or had turned to vinegar. I peeked out a second later and saw him raise his eyebrows. “It’s sweet,” he said. Sweet? Is it possible? I managed to make a sweet hard-cider? I grabbed the glass away and finished it off. It was wonderful. Smooth and luscious, with just a hint of the vapors that I identify with alcoholic beverages.
Now the only question left was if I should bottle. Should I let it sit for a while? Finish off any residual yeast? Indecision made my choice for me as the longer I put off deciding what to do, the longer the cider sat. Two weeks later, and just about a week before Christmas we bottled. Daddy bought me some beautiful green champagne bottles because I had decided to try carbonating my cider. I boiled some corn sugar in water, poured it into my cider, and then we bottled and capped. I went online to Vistaprint.com and made some custom labels to make it look fancy.
The day of Christmas I packed up my home brew and headed out to visit the family. I handed off bottle after bottle and told them not to drink it for two weeks as the carbonation wouldn’t be complete until then. Plus, I figured if it went rancid, at least I wouldn’t be there to see their faces screw up in horror as they choked it down.
Well, what a wonderful surprise I got when people began to call me and ask for more! Even my grandmother said she liked it. One person even tried convincing me to produce it in larger quantities next fall and wholesale it to him.
First-time cider-making was a rewarding experience. It gave me a few cases of exceptionally delicious cider, but more importantly, it gave me a chance to bond with both my dad, and Raymond.
I cannot wait for next fall. This time we’re making fifty gallons as opposed to just twenty-five!
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March 6, 2014 / Stacy Bettencourt / 0
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