In an unseasonal and unusual departure, this week's post is about booze; well, free booze with a bit of cycling and homebrewed technology.
In the Autumn, I posted about the wonders and challenges of using a trailer with my bike and part of the post included photos of it full of apples. I didn't actually explain what the apples were for. Well, they were for making cider and over the weekend I casually tweeted that I had bottled my brew ready for drinking in a few weeks' time. It turns out that quite a few people were interested in how it was done and so in the spirit (geddit) of sharing the wealth, I'm giving you the lowdown. We are a long way from apple season, but it gives you a few months to plan your own homemade cider run!
One of my hobbies (other than ranting about infrastructure and pootling around on bikes) is brewing. I am not an expert by any means, but after a few years of messing around, I have settled on making my own beer, wine and cider. The beer is made from bought ingredients, so I cannot claim to be self-sufficient in the miles department, but it is far tastier than the cheap supermarket deals. Wine is mainly red and it is made from Terry-down-the-road's grapes, but the sugar still has miles (although UK-produced). I also make vodka with sloes and fennel, the former foraged in my local area, the latter from my fennel plant (vodka is cheapest I can buy, but still the sugar is needed).
Cider is a different matter. I mainly use apples and pears* foraged within 3km of home, sometimes supplemented with those from friends who were passing. A work colleague has a house in France and this autumn he has promised to bring some back (OK, car miles, but he is making the trip anyway). The point is, the fruit is free and it is full of sugar, plus it has its own natural yeast. In terms of recipes (and brewing more generally) I have two bibles; Booze for Free by Andy Hamilton and Booze: River Cottage Handbook No.12 by John Wright. They are interesting reads in their own right and give plenty of alcohol-related ideas.
I got into home brewing when my Brother bought me a starter kit for Christmas one year. It was a one-box to get you going affair with a plastic fermenting bucket, beer can kit, yeast and so on. I bought some bottles and away I went; although my first ever brew was a nettle beer after seeing Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall make some on one of his River Cottage shows. These days I have nettle patch, plus some fruit trees which were planted to give me some brewing raw materials (well eventually).
Back to the Cider. I have been making it for three years using a home made press which was based on this one and it works quite well. So, let's run through the process with some photos.
The first job is to get some apples and/ or pears and smash them up. I am planning to make a hand-powered smasher at some point (called a scratter), but apparently a garden shredder does the job. At the moment, I use a big plastic trug, sledgehammer and muscle-power to smash the apples to a pulp. Actually, perhaps I need a bike-powered scratter!
It take a bit of effort to get going, but it works. You can use cider apples (grown for the right taste), but I use what I can find and generally, the more you mix them up, the less risk there is for it to go wrong and you maximise catching a decent yeast from the apple skins.
The press itself is made from planed roofing timber (100mm x 47mm, or the old fashioned 4 by 2 in inches - although timber is specified in its un-planed dimensions just to be confusing). The press is held together with steel threaded bolt and nuts. You can see a couple of stainless steel cooking pots on the press. The larger one has a 10mm hole drilled in the bottom, near the edge to allow the juice to run out when the apple pulp is squeezed. The smaller one on the floor catches the juice.
The clever bit is the upper pot is lined on its base and walls with expanded plastic mesh. It's loose laid as the pulp holds it in place as you fill. I had the mesh from an old pond filter and so I am not quite sure where you would get it, but there are websites showing the kind of thing I mean.
The mesh creates a gap between the pulp and the pot wall which allows juice to run down inside the walls of the pot. A double layer of mesh at the bottom allows the juice to flow into the base and out of the hole.
A bit smaller then the mesh-lined pot is a circular plunger which I cut from a work top off-cut with a jigsaw. If it catches the mesh, it's not a problem as the mesh is very flexible. The squashing is done with a small bottle jack (2 tonne, about a tenner) with various blocks of timber as shown (this bit needs to be refined if I ever get round to it). The important point is to try and keep the jack and timber vertical otherwise the jack can pop out at you! The top of the jack pushes on a timber block bolted into the top of the frame. At some point, I'm attaching a thick steel plate as the jack does rather embed itself!
Operating the set up is pretty easy. Juice from the smashed apples flows easily and when I build the scratter, I should be able to get a little more juice out. I couldn't tell you the yield as some apples are drier than others, but I aim to make about 15 to 20 litres in the season (time is the issue normally). Fruit picking time varies with apple type. The fruit will store a while until you have enough to use, but take out anything too damaged as it can set the lot going bad.
The spent apple pulp should be dry and I throw it in the compost (although the fruit flies love it). You get a feel for the effort versus juice - I have taken out spent pulp and given it another quick smash to really get the last drop of juice out, but this is greater effort for less reward.
It;s a good idea to strain the juice to get any bits of apple out whereby you then put it in a demijohn with an airlock (or bubbler); you can get them from a variety of place although I recommend Dorset Homebrew for brewing stuff, I've found them good in recent years.
The juice will take several days for the fermentation to start (with the natural yeast on the apple skins) and although it is tempting to chuck some yeast in, let nature do its job. A warm room is a good place to get things started. Some people transfer the fermenting juice to clean demijohns a couple of times to reduce the amount of sediment to play with, although tend not to bother as I am pretty good with a syphon. You need to leave things for about 4 to 6 months. The cider starts really cloudy, but settles out to a clear, golden colour.
Bottling is best done into either fizzy pop bottles or Grolsch type bottles (called swing top) as they can take pressure if the juice carries on fermenting. Timing is the issue and if you know how to measure the sugar content of the juice, you can track fermentation to the point where you can bottle and let fermentation continue to give a little fizz (and you can measure alcohol content). I tend to do it when it feels right which can go either way (tip: open bottles outside in case the fizz is a bit much!). I do sometimes recap beer bottles (you need a crown capper), but this will be on the basis that the cider will be opened to drink within a week or two and be kept in the fridge to make sure the fermentation slows right down. If you bottle too early, you are at some risk of having exploding bottles which has happened to me before (not with cider, but the risk is there).
The cider once bottled keeps for ages because it's alcohol content is high enough (perhaps 8 to 10%, but it can vary a lot); I have some a couple of years old which is pretty dry, but with a little fizz. It is also very strong! So there you have it, with a bit DIY skill and messing about, you can have free booze. If you think small scale is interesting, you should check out London Glider who do this on a much larger suburban scale! Cheers!
* Yes pear cider is Perry, but it is all booze to me!