The Fermentation Bug

Bushwhacker Ciderhouse, Portland, OregonHang out with homebrewers long enough and, eventually, you find yourself sampling unique beers (some terrific, occasionally some strange), and also libations like cider, mead and barleywine. Homebrewers can be a curious bunch, and fermentation can pique the curiosity of even the science phobes. If yeast causes malted barley and hops to ferment this way, what happens if I mix in some honey or pumpkin chunks or juniper berries? What if I pitch this yeast into apple juice or pear juice? The possibilities are nearly endless. Start thinking like that, and you’re probably catching the fermentation bug.

After a year of homebrewing and reading everything from Zymurgy to How to Brew, I’m think I’m catching it. An August visit to Bushwhacker Ciderhouse—“America’s first cider pub”—in Portland, Oregon sparked the first real symptoms. More specifically, a delicious flight of house ciders that rivaled the color spectrum on any beer flight got me thinking. With eight ciders on tap and some 300 in bottles lining refrigerated shelves behind glass doors, Bushwhacker’s rivals Powell’s City of Books for great browsing in Portland.

Cider Made SimpleIn October, I read the newly released Cider Made Simple, from beer writer Jeff Alworth. It’s a great study of cider history, the European regions where it has flourished and the beverage’s resurgence today in America. The bug was definitely biting.

I mentioned Alworth’s book to a homebrewing friend who, in turn, forwarded information about a November cider-pressing workshop with an exceptional instructor. And that was how, on Sunday, I ended up enthusiastically driving 30 miles in the rain to Hidden Fortress Micro Farm near Watsonville, California.

Amelia Loftus and workshop participant uncover apple boxes

Amelia Loftus and workshop participant uncover apple boxes. Crusher and press in foreground

When class started, the sky was still heavily overcast, but the rain had stopped. Instructor, homebrewer and farm owner Amelia Loftus gathered our group of eight, plus two assistants and gave a short introduction while she pulled waterproof tarps off boxes of apples. “Basically, the best way to learning about pressing is by doing it,” she said, hefting a plastic bin of apples onto a sorting table.

With that, some of us were separating good Pippins, Granny Smiths and Fujis from those with worm holes or other defects that would be cut out. Another group washed and soaked the fruit in sanitizing solution. A third group tossed apples in the funnel end of a crusher that spit pulverized apple out the other end as fast as we could feed the machine. Other people stuffed bucketsful of crushed apples into a cylindrical press. The outer cylinder consisted of a fine metal mesh. Inside, an expandable bladder surrounded a metal rod. With the press filled and the lid screwed on, the connecting hose was turned on to let water into the bladder. As it expanded, the apple bits were forced against the mesh siding to release their juice.

Leslie and participants fill apple press

Leslie and participants fill press

While it was a sticky business, the product was unlike any apple juice I’ve ever tasted. As with a fine beer or wine, I inhaled the delicate aromas before taking the first sip. I swished it around my mouth, enjoying the flavors. Then, I swallowed and waited. What followed was a ten-second display of gustatory fireworks. One flavor after another burst into my mouth. Pure, full, sweet pleasure.

A couple of hours in, with our Sharpie-labeled jugs of fresh juice squirreled away, Amelia took us to the garage where we sampled her hard cider and studied kombuchas at various stages of fermentation. To wrap up, she poured starter samples of her propagated yeast for those of us who wanted to ferment our juice into hard cider.

Sustainable HomebrewingAfter the others left, I spent a little time chatting with Amelia about some of her accomplishments that she didn’t mention directly in the workshop. Tipped off by the friend who recommended the class, I began with, “Tell me about your connection to Seven Bridges.”

“I’m the founder,” she said matter-of-factly about the co-op brewing supply shop in Santa Cruz where she worked for 15 years. As the general manager, she eventually found her days occupied by administrative tasks, which was never what she wanted. By then, she had enough savings to purchase the micro farm where, today, she roasts organic coffee beans and sells her product under the Hidden Fortress name. We talked about her 2014 book, Sustainable Homebrewing: An All-Organic Approach to Crafting Great Beer, put out by Storey Publishing. Of course, I bought a copy and had the author autograph it.

Cider now fermenting at home

Cider now fermenting at home

Back at home, I sanitized a three-gallon carboy, poured in my cider and yeast, and stuck the airlock snuggly into the mouth. It’s been happily bubbling away for the last 36 hours or so. No doubt about it, I’ve caught the fermentation bug.

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