2013 Apfelwein

Maybe it' s the cooler October weather but, as I was sitting at work, I suddenly had an involuntary memory of picking apples in an orchard when I was younger.  I typed "apple orchard" into a search engine and, lo and behold, there is an apple-producing community called Oak Glen, located just an hour and a half east of Los Angeles.  I decided to take Jed there for a short weekend getaway.

Oak Glen is a great escape from the city.  It reminds me of autumn in rural New England, which is exactly what I was hoping for.  There are several U-pick apple orchards and one that lets you press your own cider.  We arrived late in the afternoon and most of them were wrapping up business for the day but we managed to procure five gallons of cider from Law's Cider Mill.  We'll have to come back another time and make an entire day of it because there are plenty of restaurants and other little shops to check out.

October 12, 2013

We started by washing and sanitizing a 6-gallon primary, as well as all the equipment that would be used.  We added most of the cider to the primary but reserved about a half gallon, which Jed used to dissolve the dextrose.  The dextrose solution was then stirred into the primary.  The cider itself originally had a specific gravity of 1.070 but the dextrose addition brought it up to 1.080, which should result in a final 10.5% ABV if fermented to dryness.  I crushed 5 Campden tablets and dissolved those into a small amount of water, along with 5 tsp of Fermax yeast nutrient, then stirred that into the primary.  Most of the apfelwein recipes I've read did not use sulfites but I decided to err on the side of caution.  This was, after all, fresh cider and was probably more prone to contamination than commercially-produced cider.
apple cider

I prepared a starter from a sachet of Red Star Montrachet yeast in 1/4 cup of 104°F water.  After 15 minutes, I added a spoonful of cider and a pinch of nutrient.  Before long, the surface was foaming and I could hear the popping of tiny CO2 bubbles.  An hour later, I added some more water and about six more spoonfuls of cider.  I let it sit overnight, covered by a paper towel with an elastic band to keep flies out.

October 13, 2013

The starter appeared to be somewhat less active compared to last night.  I could still hear bubbles popping but they were much quieter and the cap had thinned out.

Montrachet yeast starter

Using a spoon, I carefully poured the starter onto the surface of the cider.

innoculating the cider

cider with yeast added

October 14, 2013

By the next day there was no airlock activity.  I happened to look at the empty jugs and realized the cider contained sodium benzoate (less than 0.1%, which is the FDA limit).  This means the yeast can technically still metabolize sugars but they will be unable to reproduce.  It's a good thing I created the starter solution to increase their numbers first.  I have no idea if these cells will survive long enough to ferment all the cider or if I'll have to add more.  I wish I had read the entire label at the cider mill but I had made the assumption that it was freshly pressed and free of preservatives.  We'll see what happens.

fermenting cider

October 15, 2013

The gravity has only changed by one notch on the hydrometer so far.  This is going to be a very slow fermentation.  The yeast does appear to be overcoming the sodium benzoate, at least.

fermenting cider two days later

October 16, 2013

I awoke to find the airlock bubbling a bit more forcefully this morning--four strong bubbles every 30 or 40 seconds.  The yeast cap has spread out more.  I'll have to pick up some more yeast at the store and try to boost their numbers.  The specific gravity is now 1.076, which equates to about 0.5% ABV.

Later tonight, I checked on the apfelwein again.  The airlock was bubbling at about the same rate.  I measured the gravity at 1.074.  This fermentation is so slow!  Never ferment juices with preservatives.  Fortunately, Jed had prepared another Montrachet starter in the afternoon.  The starter colony's numbers should be really high by tomorrow morning.

October 17, 2013

By morning, the yeast cap was partially submerged.

I gave it a good stir, in case any of the dextrose had fallen from solution.  The apfelwein frothed up vigorously.

fizzing apfelwein

We followed Jack Keller's yeast starter instructions, so Jed's starter should now have at least 64 times the original number of yeast cells.  However, it was silent when I put my ear up to it.  It did have a big, puffy cap on the top, though.

second Montrachet starter

I stirred the starter and carefully poured it over a spoon into the primary, then resealed the lid.  The airlock continues to bubble.

second innoculation

October 18, 2013

The airlock is bubbling at a slightly more rapid rate than yesterday.  It's still not as active as a typical fermentation would be at this stage.

specific gravity: 1.068 (~1.5% ABV)

November 5, 2013

Fermentation has slowed to a crawl and the gravity appears to have stopped at 1.020.  

November 6, 2013

I prepared another Montrachet starter and let it grow overnight.

November 7, 2013

I stirred another teaspoon of Fermax into the primary and pitched the new starter.

November 8, 2013

Since I was beginning to smell a slight vinegar odor, I made a lysozyme solution as a precaution against bacteria (even though acetic acid bacteria are gram-negative and resistant to lysozyme).  I also dissolved some pectic enzyme in the solution, since apples contain large amounts of pectin.  This should help clarify the wine.

November 9, 2013

The specific gravity is still 1.020.  I racked the wine into a three gallon carboy and two one gallon jugs.  This way, I can experiment with French oak in one jug and American oak in the other, while leaving the bulk of the apfelwein unadultered.  I'm still not sure what to do about the stuck fermentation.  It can't be bottled in this state because the bottles will eventually explode.  The options are to be patient and hope fermentation completes or crash it with a combination of cold temperature, sulfite, and stabilizer with no guarantee of success.

November 10, 2013

The three gallon carboy and one of the jugs have formed a thick Kräusen in the neck.  There are bubbles at the top of the other jug, but not as thick.

November 14, 2013

The airlock in the big carboy has begun bubbling again.  I can see tiny bubbles rising through the apfelwein.  This makes sense because, in the absence of oxygen, yeast metabolize sugars differently and produce ethanol and carbon dioxide.  This is probably why wines are transferred to a secondary after vigorous fermentation has slowed.

November 16, 2013

I've been spinning the carboys several times today to stir up the lees.  Each time I do that, a rush of tiny bubbles rises to the surface.  The specific gravity is now 1.018.  Man, this is taking forever.

November 21, 2013

The specific gravity is still 1.018.  The airlock continues to slowly bubble, although this could simply be the release of dissolved CO2.  I tried twice to grow an EC-1118 starter overnight but both seemed to be inactive by the next morning.  I received a package of distiller's yeast the other day, so I will try that.

November 22, 2013

I hydrated 10g of distiller's yeast in 1/2 cup of distilled water and let it soak for 15 minutes.  Then I stirred in 1/2 tsp of sugar.  The yeast went nuts!  It didn't smell as good as other strains but it looks stronger than all the others.  I let it grow for another half hour and then added it to the carboys.  They've all got lots of tiny bubbles rising into the neck now.

November 25, 2013

The distiller's yeast slowed down to a crawl before long. However...

Yesterday I decided to move one of the jugs up off the floor and next to the wall heater. I measured the specific gravity this morning and it was 1.014! Progress! I moved the other jug and carboy into the same area and dumped in about a teaspoon of dry distiller's yeast. It went nuts and by the evening, the neck of each container was still fizzing like a freshly uncapped soda bottle. It must have been too cold on the floor.

I also added some French and American oak into the two jugs, respectively, leaving the 3 gallon carboy as is. For each one, I measured 2 grams of oak chips into an empty teabag, boiled it in some water for a few minutes to sterilize it, then tied a piece of sanitized, unflavored dental floss to it. I fed the other end of the floss through the bung and airlock and tied it to the floating cap inside the airlock (the 3-piece kind). Now I can easily remove the chips once the apfelwein reaches the desired level of oak. I'll be tasting it frequently to assess it (and consulting with Jed, who has a better sense of taste and smell then I).

December 1, 2013

I added 5 tsp of Fermax a few days ago, followed by a few spoonfuls of distiller's yeast. There was visible fermentation for about a day but then it slowed down almost to a stop. I checked it with a hydrometer today and the gravity is still the same as the last time. If I give the carboy a quick spin, it releases some large bubbles from the lees but then they stop. I guess the sodium benzoate is too much for the yeast. Maybe I should focus on stopping the fermentation, rather than restarting it. I do have a Mini Jet filter that I could use to sterile filter the apfelwein. That would also give it a nice sparkling clear finish.

December 7, 2013

December 26, 2013

I ran the apfelwein through all three Mini Jet pads.  The sterile filter was a necessity, since I've been adding all that distiller's yeast and there's no telling whether it will wake up at some point.

filtering apfelwein

The finished product looks amazing!  Compare that to the brown mud we started with!

filtered apfelwein

We ended up kegging the 3 gallon carboy, force carbonating it, and bottling it into 12 oz. bottles since I didn't have a dedicated beer fridge.  I steeped French oak and American oak in the two jugs in order to compare the difference in flavor.  We preferred the French oak in this case because it was more subtle and had notes of vanilla.  The jugs were left under the dining room table and forgotten about, during which time the stoppers popped out on their own and invited god knows what into the jugs.  The one with French oak developed an algae-like layer of mold and so its remains were committed to the depths of the kitchen sink.  The jug with American oak also developed its own scum, though less prominent.  It smelled normal, so I plugged it up and decided to give it another chance.  After several months, the contamination sank to the bottom and I braved a taste test.  It still tasted mostly like apfelwein but some of it had been converted to acetic acid and I lost interest after the first pint.

The bottled apfelwein was delicious, having been protected by CO2 and proper sanitization.  At about 9.5% ABV, it goes down like dry, sparkling apple cider but will knock you on your ass after a couple of bottles.