For years I have been cooking down apple cider to bring it up to the sweetness, measured as brix, of the grapes I make wine from. Brix is roughly equivalent to twice the alcohol percentage that you can expect in a dry wine. Lower brix readings, 20 to 24, generally result in dry wines. Higher readings, 25 to 27 are sweeter, not necessarily so, but in most cases all of the natural sugar is not consumed by the yeast and the residual sugar makes wine sweet. I put the original brix reading on the labels of my wines. Maybe because I am a middle-of-the-road libra kind of guy, I shoot for 25 Brix in most cases. Realizing that I need to expand my variety, I am trying to make more dry wines and more sweet wines.
To get my cider from 11 brix to 25 I have started trying to freeze the water out of it. When it freezes, the water molecules in the cider join together to make ice, the resulting liquid contains the sugar, pulp and flavor. I bought a plastic container made of PET, a clear food-grade plastic that does not impart flavor to the liquid. It also does not break, like glass would, when the water expands as ice in the container. In a freezer the ice forms first on the outside of the liquid forcing the sweeter liquid higher but leaving a column of unfrozen liquid in the center. Through experiments I am finding that the most efficient method is to fill the container not quite full with 6 gallons of cider and leave it in the freezer for 24 hours. At that point you can take it out and siphon off about half the liquid at a brix of 19. To take it to the final brix of 25 I went back to boiling it down on the wood stove. Cheryl noticed that it worked faster in smaller quantities, so I have been putting the 3 gallons of post-freezing cider in a 4 gallon stainless steel pot rather than my original 10 gallon vat to cook it down.
I was surprised at how quickley it got up to 25 brix after that. Then I realized that for every quart of water that freezes or boils away, the next quart will have more sugar to leave behind. A chart of this exponential curve now helps me estimate when the next batch will be ready. My original 70 gallons from about 1000 pounds of apples is now down to about 25 gallons of apple wine. Years ago I made a variety of wines from native berries, elderberry, huckleberries, rose hips, choke cherries… by adding a syrup made with corn sugar and water. After I was making wine from my own grapes, I came to the conclusion that sugar is not good for you, for the planet or for wine. So to re-capture those country wine berry flavors of old I have wanted to use apple wine as a base since it has a realatively mild flavor and there are a lot of apples around here that would otherwise go to waste. Besides my regular “Caramel Apple” wine I now have batches with huckleberries and elderberries. In a year or two we will be able to see how that worked out.
Another way to “condense” fermented cider is to distill it. Henry Anderson at Dominion Distillery has been doing that for years and a lot of his feedstock is hard cider for his Apple Moonshine. So he built a super-duty apple press that can press out 35 gallons at a time. Henry and I used it at the beginning of the month in partial trade for a grape crusher/stemmer that I lent him to crush two pickup loads of grapes he got for free in Lincoln County south of here. I’m still waiting for him to distill the must from our 2016 harvest, but he has a huge new still with a custom opening big enough to feed in the left-over skins, seeds and juice (must) to make grappa, a 95 proof grape liquor. I’m hoping for a few more bottles of that by Christmas.