Scrumpy-style hard cider

Scrumpy:  It’s not a new dance.  It’s not your neighbor’s rascally mutt.  It isn’t the way that you feel at the end of a week with no exercise.  It is so much better than all of those things!  Scrumpy is a rustic, unfiltered, hard cider.  At the mention of hard cider, you probably just thought of Woodchucks or some other sweet, mild brew. The hard cider that I’m talking about is more like sparkling wine. It is relatively high in alcohol content (10 - 14 % alcohol), dry, and bubbly. Scrumpy is a great way to preserve extra cider, and a perfect accompaniment to autumn grilling or Thanksgiving dinner!

The base:  Apple cider

You can purchase apple cider to ferment or press your own. If purchasing cider, skip to ‘Equipment to make scrumpy’. If pressing your own apple cider, read on. Once you start looking, you will find a plethora of abandoned apple trees and orchards.  European settlers brought apples across the pond and planted the trees widely thereafter.  Often, the apples you find on abandoned trees aren’t great eating apples – they may be mealy, too tart, small and/or bruised. However, they likely produce tasty hard cider. Gathering apples is a cinch – just spread a blanket under a tree and shake!

Extracting cider is the real challenge.  If you have time and space, you can make a DIY cider press (see internet).  OR, you can juice apples using a juicer.  OR, puree the apples in a food processor, then squeeze the juice from the pulp using an old shirt or cheesecloth.  We used the latter method, and produced 2.5 gallons of juice from 5 gallons of apples.     

Equipment to make scrumpy:

1) A fermentation vessel. Various containers can be used to ferment cider.  We fermented in a glass carboy that we borrowed from our next-door neighbor, and in our sauerkraut crock.  You can ferment in nearly anything - bottles, food-grade plastic buckets – but you must have some sort of airlock.  Airlocks on fermentation vessels allow the carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation process to escape, but keeps out oxygen, debris, etc.  When we were in the Peace Corps, we fermented a medley of juices by boiling the juice, adding baker’s yeast, and letting it do its thing in several old bottles that we fitted with balloons.  The balloons, which functioned as airlocks, would fill with gas that we would release every so often.

2) A hydrometer (optional). Hydrometers are used to test the sugar content of your base. To produce a stronger cider, you must add honey or sugar to your juice. A hydrometer is nice, because it will allow you to estimate the alcohol level that your scrumpy will attain.

3) A bottling system.  If we had thought ahead, we would have saved up old beer and champagne bottles (thicker bottles are necessary if making bubbly cider). We did not think ahead, but instead purchased bomber-style beer bottles and borrowed our neighbor’s bottle capper.  

Note:  Bottles, caps, carboys, bottle cappers, yeast, indeed all things brewing can be purchased online and are relatively inexpensive.

Transforming cider into scrumpy

During the fermentation process, yeasts break down sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol.  Making hard cider can be as simple as leaving unpasteurized cider in a proper fermentation vessel (i.e., with airlock) and allowing wild, naturally occurring yeast to do their thing.  Sandor Katz’s book ‘Wild Fermentation’ has more information on fermenting cider in this way.  This time around, we decided to go a quicker (wild fermentation takes several months), more controlled route that produces scrumpy higher in alcohol content.

The procedure for “accelerated” cider:

1) Disinfect your equipment. Wash with warm soapy water.  Then sanitize equipment (before bottling, sanitize your bottles too). We sanitized with sodium metabisulfite, but next we may try boiling water or hydrogen peroxide.

First glass of scrumpy. 

First glass of scrumpy. 

1) Kill competing yeast strains (optional). In some yeast, oxygen signals a different metabolic pathway causing vinegar to be produced instead of alcohol (one reason for fitting your fermentation vessel with an airlock).  Other yeast ‘prefer’ to produce ethanol (even in the presence of oxygen).  For product consistency, many wine and beer makers kill off naturally occurring yeast, and reintroduce yeast strains optimal for brewing.  You can kill yeast by boiling the cider or by adding sodium metabisulfite. Brewing aficionados claim that boiling destroys the flavor of the brew, and opt to use sodium metabisulfite, though a small proportion of individuals are allergic to sulfites. While we used sodium metabisulfite this time, we plan to leave our cider raw and untreated next ferment.

2) Add yeast food - honey (or sugar).  Most cider isn’t sweet enough to produce scrumpy. You must feed the yeast with either honey or sugar. I vote for honey. To our 2.5 gallons of cider, we added 6 cups of honey to produce a cider 10+% alcohol.  A hydrometer will help you adjust the sugar content of the cider to produce the final results you desire.

3) Add yeast. For stronger brews, choose a strain that can tolerate high levels of alcohol.

4) Let it ferment. Fermentation took 1 – 2 weeks. We decided to “rack off” our cider, by transferring it, mid-brew, to another vessel.  This separates the cider from the lees (dead yeast and other particulate matter), producing a clearer product.

5) Add more honey (to create carbonation) and bottle. Once your cider stops producing gas, it is time to bottle. Add a little more honey, about a cup in our case, and bottle.

6) Wait a few more days for fermentation to produce bubbles & drink!

Our scrumpy tastes pretty darn good. That said, the scrumpy project is a work in progress. We want to attempt several variations (e.g. not killing the natural yeast, adding different more / less honey). However, there is no reason you shouldn’t brew up your own scrumpy and adjust the recipe to your own taste. 

Scrumpy-related facts for your next get together:

1) “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was a saying created by the apple industry as part of an ad campaign.

2) John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, was an out-there, wealthy, itinerant apple tree purveyor, who spread scrumpy consumption across the land.

3) John Adams routinely drank hard cider for breakfast.

***All of these facts come from The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan.  I really enjoyed the movie. Check it out online at PBS.