Excerpt from Chapter 8: Reaping the Harvest
Cider vinegar is the end result of hard cider left to sit in the open air. The alcohol converts to an acetic acid in the presence of vinegar bacteria, classified en masse as acetobacter. My first attempt at making vinegar was simply setting aside a few jugs of sweet cider that had gone fizzy to “do its thing,” in the hope of producing a few interesting gifts for friends. Many months later one jug was a refreshing acidic vinegar, but the other two remained cloudy and off-tasting. There are numerous strains of bacteria that made foul play of the sugars in these latter jugs of partially fermented cider. I was lucky in the one. The surest way to make good vinegar every time is to make hard cider first and then rely on “mother” to finish the job.
A vinegar mother is the gelatinous mass of aceto- bacter to be found floating on the top of a finished barrel of vinegar. Good mother is akin to the sour- dough starter passed down in a baking family. Vinegar is made in a partially filled barrel where a large sur- face of the hard cider can be exposed to air. The vinegar mother is added as a leavening to further ace- tobacter growth. Cover the bunghole with several layers of cheesecloth to keep out dust and fruit flies. Raw vinegar should be made in a warm, dark place, and expect this process to take a year or more (in addition to the time needed to ferment the cider). Time preserves the delicacy of flavor found in a nat- ural cider vinegar that is lost in the forty-eight-hour acetator process of industrial vinegar-making. You can expect an acid strength equal to the alcohol con- tent of your hard cider, usually on the order of 5 to 6 percent. Vinegar that is aged for three or more years reaches the higher end of acidity (the mother simply stops working in an increasingly acidic medium), and though admittedly sharper, it becomes as clear and refined as any good wine.
Organic cider vinegar can be marketed to anyone who understands well-being. This is the tonic of the ages, the therapeutic buffer of the human circulatory system. Promote the presence of your mother (strands will appear eventually even in aged vinegar once bot- tled) as proof positive that living vinegar comes unpasteurized. No health claims need be made for real vinegar (you’d be thwarted by the FDA anyway); people have held on to the notion of vinegar’s worth.
That said, people need to understand that many of the health benefits long claimed for vinegar are not to be found in the modern industrial product on the supermarket shelf, nor even necessarily in the raw natural brands at the health food store. Aging vinegar in the presence of wood develops the enzymes that make real vinegar such a cure-all. This can be done in a traditional oaken barrel or by adding hardwood shavings to batches aged in stainless-steel or even plastic drums. Real vinegar also has a proven ability to draw out calcium and other minerals from nutrient-rich herbs. Thus we tincture plants such as borage, milky oats, horsetail, nettles, and raspberry.
Anyone entertaining commercial notions of an alcoholic cider label should read Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols’s Cider book for the finer points of the art. Ben Watson rounds out the story in Cider, Hard and Sweet. In the meanwhile, here are some brewing basics to get a carboy started.
The carboy, rubber stopper, and plastic air lock should first be sterilized with Campden tablets (16 tablets per quart of water makes a 1 percent metabisulfite solution) to kill any unwanted bac- teria. A sloshing rinse does the trick. Fill the carboy to the top with freshly pressed cider if making a natural cider—utilizing the natural yeasts and sugars already in the juice—or leave room to add sugar and champagne yeast before topping off. The potential alcohol of your hard cider is determined by the sugar content of this unfermented must. Apple sugars alone generally provide 5 to 7 percent alcohol content, depending on the varieties used and the influence of weather and soil. Adding 1/2 cup of sugar per gallon of cider pushes this up as high as 9 percent, provided the fermentation goes completely to the dry side. A couple of handfuls of organic raisins are an old- time alternative to sugar. A sweeter cider results if the yeast stops working before all the sugar is con- sumed, which is more likely in a cool room or when too much sugar is added. Using a hydrom- eter to determine the specific gravity of the must takes the guesswork out of targeting sugar content.
Keep your full carboy at room temperature for the primary fermentation. When this boiling- over stage is complete in a few days, wipe down the sides of the carboy and thoroughly rinse the air lock. Utilize some of the Campden tablet solution for the water seal in the now clean air lock. This prevents vinegar bacteria from get- ting into the cider, while at the same time allowing carbon dioxide gas to escape during the secondary fermentation. A regular bubbling will continue for six months or more, depending on holding temperature and the vigor of the yeast. A smoother cider results from a slower fermentation at cooler temperatures in the 40° to 50°F range. When the bubbling subsides and the amber liquid clarifies, the cider is ready to be tasted and siphoned into sterilized bottles. A hard cider with a minimum alcohol content of 5.7 percent will keep for several years and get mellower with age.