Monday, September 3, 2007

Cider in the bosom of Penelope

Ten years ago, after a delicious meal capped by a wonderful *smooth* Norman cider, my friend The Best Man and I decided that we would try to make our own cider, the kind that makes you happy but puts your legs to sleep.

It isn't easy, making cider, when you don't know how. I mean, you *know* about sterility and temperature control and sugar control and acidity, but it's all theoretical, out of books. We didn't have the money to buy proper working containers and other assay equipment, and we reused (after careful cleaning and sterilization in boiling water) bottles so we could ferment in the bottle. I remember at the time
thinking that the carbonation in the wonderful Norman cider *had* to be the result of second fermentation, like champagne. And I thought it would be much more clever to control the yeast by using a particular champagne yeast, so we could do the malo-lactic thing. So we pasteurized the cider in a pressure cooker after we pressed it.

The pressing of the apple pulp needs to be described. We didn't take the apple orchard up on their offer to pulp the two bushels of apples that we bought (four different strains, McIntoshs, Jonagolds, Akanes, and this Norman apple that was very astringent), because we didn't have containers to transport the pulped apple in. And anyway, the apples would have started to work during the drive back to The Best Man's kitchen.

Setting: The AXE House, on Wyckoff, the chemistry frat, down on hard times, and taking in retail slave boarders. I remember Sparvero piloting starships past the Pyrex space stations on Garcia's black felt hexmap - located in the dining room of this... confraternity. Now we hauled the 28 dollars worth of two bushels of assorted apples past the moldering remains of ramens gone by, through the double doors through the scullery to la batterie du cuisine.

So we were going to use The Best Man's 1 + 1/2 quart Cuisinart he borrowed from his mother.

Have you ever tried to grind up two bushels of apples in a 1 + 1/2 quart Cuisinart? Ahem. There were oxidation problems - viz. the apples turned brown before we could finish all of them. But I especially liked the number of times we had to run the cuisinart, and the couple of hours we had to let it rest because it was getting too hot.

We pressed the apple pulp in old pillowcases (laundered in chlorox and rinsed *very* well), by putting the pulp in the pillowcases and twisting. Very tiring, but we pressed three gallons of cider.

Okay, sterilized bottles, pasteurized cider, champagne yeast, added sucrose to bring the sugar percentage up to seven percent. Of course, how should we know, lacking any way at all of measuring dissolved solids? I added a five pound bag of sugar. The Best Man looked dubious. Corked, wired, topped with condoms (hey, don't laugh) it was a way to measure the productivity of the yeast - the evolved CO2 would diffuse through and around the cork into the condom, inflating it. If you know the
permeability of the latex, and you know the surface area of the ballooning condom, you know the volume of gas evolved over time, and thus, the amount of sugar digested. It's a way to tell when the fermentation is finished.) Laid down in the basement in the furnace room (steady temperature of ~60 degrees, as opposed to the rest of
the unheated basement) and worked for three months.

Pop! Bang! Shatter! Crash! Crash! Bang! Out of eight 750 ml champagne bottles we filled, six exploded over the course of the primary fermentation. Had a great comment from my friend The Ketubah Witness "You really fill your condoms well." Bang. The sound of the seventh being smashed against the floor after it ejected its cork under considerable pressure and promptly rotted. Not vinegar - putrefactive rot. The sugar content must have been a bit *too* high.

The eighth bottle. The last hope. Thirty hours of labor, about forty dollars worth of apples, yeast, various simple brewing paraphernalia.

I was at my parent's house one weekend, and The Best Man drove down from Penelope's Bosom with the last bottle of cider. We had decided to give up on trying any secondary champagne fermentation to bring the presumed alcohol up to 11% -- this one wasn't in a champagne bottle, and a couple of the ones that exploded *were*. We didn't want to let this sit for malo-lactic fermentation - who knows what would have happened, and anyway, this couldn't possibly be a good way of doing this.

So, we went into my mother's laundry room in the basement, where the big sink was, with this lonely last bottle of cider and a couple of wine glasses. I wanted to taste forty-dollar homemade sparkling cider.

Tape unwrapped, condom removed.

"The cork looks good! It isn't wet and it hasn't moved out of the neck any distance!"

Good sign. Eased the cork out, slowly, slowly, *pop* the sound of rapidly expanding impounded CO2.

"It kept pressure! Yay!"

A little mist rose from the bottle spout as the gas solution de-saturated. I was careful not to joggle the bottle, to keep the gas from bursting out of solution swiftly.

"So, who'll taste first?" asked The Best Man. He looked at me expectantly. The
cider had been *my* idea.

I handed him the bottle and picked up the wineglass. He poured out the cider carefully. The color was good, golden with a hint of red. The consistency looked okay - it looked a *bit* more viscous than water, and the meniscus was more concave, wetting the sides of the glass more easily. The bubbles were larger than I'd thought they'd be, but probably that was gas nucleation on suspended sediments. We hadn't rebottled or filtered it, you see.

"Looks okay."

I swirled it in the glass and sniffed. It smelled like apples, there was the tang of the ethyl alcohol, and something heavy and pungent that I couldn't nail down.

"Smells like apples. Cyanide smells like almonds, too."

The Best Man watched me intently. His glass was on the countertop, empty. Clean.

"Taste it."

Very slowly I raised the glass to my lips and sipped a couple of milliliters.

Carbonation... slight sweetness... Waugh! Acetone! Paint thinner! I could feel my optic nerves tingling. My head swam. I bent over the lip of the laundry sink and spat it out. Poured out the wineglass, started the cold tap, filled it, and took a big mouthful to swish and gargle. The commercial paint-thinner taste was nothing compared to the musty rot aromatic after-taste. I remember thinking - "can fusel oils and methanol kill that quickly?"

"It isn't good?"

I coughed. "Taste it."

"I don't think so."

"Taste it, you son-of-a-bitch. I had to taste it."

"I had to eat part of that duck, too. I'm not tasting it."

"Than don't taste it."

I took the bottle and upended it over the sink. Smelled like apples, as it spun down the drain. The first time I ever tried home-brewing. He'd brought a bottle of the good Norman cider from Penelope's Bosom, though. And we enjoyed it with dinner.

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