Ireland: Move Over, Guinness – When It’s Hot, Hard Cider Hits the Spot
When I was in Ireland last summer for our Cycling the Emerald Isle tour, I noticed an interesting thing: as it got hotter, people were drinking less Guinness and more hard cider. No disrespect to the legendary Irish stout, which is one of my favorite beers, but as a cider fan myself I can understand why. Cider has a lighter, more refreshing character than stout that makes it better suited to a summertime thirst.
Having brewed a few batches of beer at home, I’ve been eager to find a recipe I could make myself that would produce a similar drink. Many brewing supply stores I spoke with indicated that, since cider is basically a wine made from apples rather than grapes, I should use storebought juice and champagne yeast and "wing it." But I’m a relative novice and was hoping for a little more guidance with my first batch of cider, so I was happy when I came across a handful of cider recipes at MrBeer.com. Eric, one of their brewmasters, was kind enough to let us use one of their recipes, and even sent along a kit complete with ingredients, equipment and instructions for making what they call "Aunt Emma’s Autumn Elixir." Here’s the recipe and a little about my experience brewing it.
Aunt Emma’s Autumn Elixir (Apple Beer)
(makes 2 gallons)
The Brewing Process:
You’ll want to allow the cider to ferment for a week or more before bottling; you can tell when it’s ready when the wort is clear, with little or no foam on top and a heavy sediment at the bottom. Bottling too early carries a risk of bursting bottles, so it’s best to err on the side of caution here.
The Bottling Process:
Does it end up tasting similar to the ciders I’ve enjoyed in Ireland and the USA? We’ll have to see; as of this writing, the cider is bottle conditioning in the fridge and won’t be truly finished until mid-April. We’ll post a followup with our impressions.
Sanitation is critically important in brewing, because you want your specially bred yeast to have the fermenter to itself. Competition from wild yeasts that might be floating around your kitchen can result in strong off-flavors or outright spoilage. For this reason, the most important aspect of homebrewing is sterilizing your equipment.
On the whole, the Mr. Beer kit is a great introduction to brewing. The two-gallon translucent brown plastic fermenter makes it easy to see what’s going on inside, and the plastic bottles allowed me to gauge the internal pressure during the carbonation stage with a simple squeeze test. The whole brewing process took only about 90 minutes, about half the time it takes me to brew five gallons of beer with my own equipment. Small batches are also a plus for mistake-prone novices because it means there’s less wasted when a batch turns out badly. Experienced home-brewers trying cider for the first time might choose to stick with their favorite fermenting container and just get the ingredients from Mr. Beer, scaling the recipe up appropriately.
Finally, ciders of various kinds are traditional wherever apples are grown, and it’s easy to get drawn into an argument about what constitutes "real" hard cider. Further complicating matters are the regulations about what we call alcoholic beverages in the USA – technically, apple/malt hybrids are "malt beverages" rather than true ciders. Bulmer’s, the brand I found most often at pubs in Ireland, is an all-apple recipe, with a moderate alcohol content and a sweet finish. This recipe, on the other hand, uses apple juice, malt syrup and honey as sources of fermentable sugars. The use of malt and especially of hops (the bittering agent in beers and not often used in ciders) makes it an "apple beer" according to Mr. Beer. Providing so much sugar (and the characteristics of the yeast provided with the recipe) means that it will have a fairly sweet taste, yet contain about 7% alcohol. This is stronger than most beers but weaker than most wines.