Champagne Cider

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
A glass or two of sparkling champagne cider from your own homemade stock can be just the right accent when celebrating special occasions.

In just a month or two, apple season will arrive. If you live in or plan to visit an area that’s
anywhere near a producing orchard, you’ll soon have access
to the incomparable taste of freshly pressed apple cider.
Unfortunately, the pure flavor that most folks associate
with unpasteurized juice doesn’t linger long unless the
drink is preserved in some way. However, if you can get
your hands on a few gallons of fresh cider this fall, you
could end up with a cellarful of delicious, sparkling
“apple wine” to enjoy all through the coming year.

The process of preparing homebrewed champagne cider is
really quite simple. You’ll need only a few pieces
of bottling equipment in addition to the “raw material.”
Once you’ve located a nearby source of unpasteurized cider,
gather several gallon wine jugs, a plastic fermentation
lock for each one, a case or two of empty champagne
bottles, about 1 1/2 yards of 1/4″ or 1/2″ plastic tubing
(or a siphon), a large wooden mallet, and some plastic
champagne corks with wires.

It’s Easy to Brew …

When you purchase cider for “bubbly,” try to find some
that’s been made from a variety of apples, including tart
crab apples and mellow Delicious. I’ve found that a blend
of flavors produces an especially full-bodied champagne. I
also think that it’s worth waiting for late-season
pressings, because mature apples tend to yield a stronger
beverage.

In preparation for your first batch of the sparkling
nectar, it’s best to buy only a small amount of juice —
say, three gallons. That way, you can reserve one jug for
drinking right away–as sweet, unfermented
cider–and experiment with the other two. Transfer the
fresh juice into clean gallon wine bottles and fit an
airlock cork (see the manufacturer’s instructions) snugly
into the neck of each container. This arrangement will
permit the gases produced during fermentation to escape
without allowing outside air to enter, assuring
that the natural sugars in the juice will turn into alcohol
and not into vinegar!

Place the jugs on a level surface, and let them stand at
room temperature–anywhere from 60 to 70
°F–for about a week and a half. After the first
couple of days, you should notice a lot of bubbling action
as CO2 is released by the fermenting cider. When
that activity slows to about a bubble a minute, the process
is finished. Remove the airlocks and close each jug with a
solid cork until you’re ready to bottle the newly brewed
potable.

… and Bottle …

To “put up” the champagne, first collect the plastic
tubing, champagne bottles, wires, corks, and mallet …
and a few good friends, since half the fun of bottling your
own bubbly is tasting and judging as you go.

Now, with the top of a bottle positioned at a lower level
than is the bottom of the gallon jug, insert one end of the
plastic tubing all the way down in the large container, suck a bit of cider through the tube, and quickly
place the open end in the champagne bottle. Watch the
process carefully. When the liquid reaches a level
about four inches from the top, move the tubing to another
champagne bottle, and then another, and so on until you’ve transferred
almost all the cider out of the jug. A gallon of cider
fills four or five champagne bottles. (You may want to save
the last half-inch or so of murky liquid in the bottom of
the jug for use in baking.)

Once all the bottles have been filled, the next
step–which should be accomplished as soon as
possible–is to fasten the plastic stoppers in place.
You’ll need a sturdy wooden mallet to hammer the corks down. Don’t be afraid to tap them firmly into the neck
of the bottle. Put a wire over each stopper and tighten it
by rotating a pencil through the ends until the cork is
securely bound.

… and Enjoy!

Like any fine champagne, your sparkling cider should be
stored in a cool, dark cellar. I like to use regular wine
racks, or crates with inner separations, to prevent the
bottles from breaking. If it’s kept long enough, the apple
drink will sometimes undergo a second fermentation,
becoming drier and even more effervescent. No matter how
eager you are, though, wait at least a few weeks before
sampling your brew in order to be sure that it’s
fully seasoned.

When you can’t wait any longer to open a bottle, pry off
its wire, put the container between your knees, and hold
the palm of your hand firmly over the cork while easing it
out with your other hand. Sometimes it may be necessary to
use pliers to remove the stoppers, and you’ll probably want
to keep a large bowl handy during the “cork-popping”
operation in case the cider should effervesce a
little too enthusiastically.

If you’re satisfied with your taste test, the next time you
feel like celebrating you can break out a bottle of your
own champagne cider and drink to your guests with a glass
of refreshing, natural “bubbly.” I think you’ll agree that
a person doesn’t have to be sipping an expensive French
wine to make the familiar toast, a votre sante!