Apple Jack Success!

Apple jack is traditionally freeze distilled apple wine or hard cider.  I had some home-made apple wine made from concentrated apple juice that wasn’t very good, it was already in a plastic Southern Comfort bottle, and last night it was 10 degrees F outside.  As shown on this website, that means that any liquid at 10 F should be about 25% alcohol.  How cold it is directly impacts (and limits) the percentage of alcohol in the final product.  So, I drank a bit out of the bottle to allow for expansion, and set it outside.  Aging had, if anything, made the apple wine taste worse.  Just horrible.  Before bed, after three hours or so,  I was pretty disappointed as I saw no ice forming; however, looking at this picture more closely I think I do see some very small ice crystals throughout the wine.

Come morning it looked like solid slush in the bottle.  I smashed it up a bit with an iced tea spoon, and poured it onto a fine mesh cloth in a strainer over a bowl.  Then, like Julia Roberts taught me how to squeeze water out of spinach, I squeezed out the liquid.  Since the ice crystals aren’t squishy like spinach pulp, it was a much faster process, which was good because it was still 10 degrees out and cold on my bare hands!

I started with 7 cups of apple wine and wound up with 3 cups of apple jack.  The ice was very light colored after it was squeezed.



Assuming the 3 cups of apple jack is 25% alcohol, then the starting liquid was about 11%; however, my highly calibrated ethanol meter (my tongue) measured 3-4% alcohol in the watery leavings.  The chickens may have gotten some 4th day of Christmas joy out of it!

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t only the alcohol that was concentrated by the freeze distillation, but also every unpleasant flavor in the stuff — and any residual sweetness was destroyed.  I’m fairly grim when it comes to consuming culinary mistakes.  Me and Ben:  waste not want not.  But this may have been over the line.  I added 3 tablespoons of sugar (one for each cup) and threw in a cinnamon stick.  After just a few hours it was much improved because cinnamon tastes good.  I’ll leave that stick in there at least a few days longer then, with Ben nodding approvingly, do what must be done.

12/18/15 Update:  The sugar and cinnamon stick did the trick.  The doctored apple jack is wonderful stuff!



Excellent 2016 Cyser Melomel Recipe

Melomel is a fruit-mead combination, and in Cyser the fruit is specifically apples:  an Apple-Honey Fermented Beverage.  I used honey from my own hives and apples from my trees.  The apples had been pressed to make cider, but the left-over pulp seemed to have a lot of apple umph left, so I added water to it and pressed it again.  I used VR21 yeast from an ongoing active cider fermentation process (turning cider into hard cider).  This yeast is supposed to conserve more of a fruit’s flavor, and so far I’ve been happy with the results.  I started this batch of Cyser on 9/11/16, and bottled it on 11/6/16, ending up with 17 bottles.


Apple Part:

  • 8.5 quarts second pressing from cider pulp (added 12 quarts water to 30# of pulp – this was too much)
  • Added 2 cups of active cider ferment (yeast V21)

Honey Part:

  • 1 quart dark honey (not quite right)
  • 4 quarts water
  • 1 rounded teaspoon Irish moss
  • Boiled and skimmed off foam.  Let cool overnight.

Combined Apple Part and Honey Part, 1 quart water, 2 cups lemonade and 1 table spoon Penszy’s apple pie seasoning.

9/26 – bubbling had stopped but the mixture was cloudy.  Added 1 t pectic enzyme and mixed up (pectic enzyme breaks down cell walls, and I hoped it would do that in the floating particulates so they could be eaten by the yeast and then settle, which seemed to happen).

10/23 – Cleared and settled.

Pleasant mild taste (no distinct apple pie or lemon flavor); didn’t seem to have a high alcohol content.  No need to age in spite of the honey which was a wonderful and unexpected result.


2016 Cyser Melomel

Melomel is the fermented result of combining honey, fruit and yeast; Cyser is when that fruit is apple.  I already had apple pomace (the pulp  left over from making cider) and an active cider fermentation using an expensive yeast:  VR 21.  It says it’s $3.95 per packet, but the the time it gets to your door it’s closer to $10, and $10 saved is $10 earned.  Furthermore, I had some old honey that looked a little dark and funky, an extra carboy, the press was still dirty with apple leavings, and the pomace handy.  The recipe is in italics.

dscn0984Poured water on the pomace (there was about 30 pounds of it) until it seemed appropriately wet and sloppy, added a rounded tablespoon of pectic enzyme — in the hopes it would help break down the cell walls and release more juice — and left it to work for an hour.  (I would have preferred two, but it was getting dark outside.)  Put the apple slop back into the press and extracted the liquid.

I put added 12 quarts of water to the pomace, and obtained 8.5 quarts of diluted sweet apple cider out, likely because:

  • I was impatient.  It had been a long day with the apples (if the apple trees produce next year I will certainly buy a fruit grinder!), and it was getting dark.  To extract the sweet cider from the apples I had filled the press halfway, squished out what I could, and the finished filling it for the second pressing.  This time I just chucked it all in there.
  • I put in too much water; a lot of liquid was coming out of the top of the press.

The resulting solution tasted more strongly of apples than I expected, almost like regular apple juice.

Put apple solution into a carboy, and added 2 cups of the cider ferment with the very actively growing yeast.  In this way this second batch was made with free yeast.  Within a few hours the water-lock was showing increasing pressure inside the carboy, and so the yeasts were happy in their new home.

So, a couple of things about mead and honey.  All mead recipes call for using pristine honey, but I don’t do that and I don’t think Medieval mead makers did, either.  The Langstroth Hive was patented in 1852, with the familiar boxes filled with frames.  Prior to this skeps (woven baskets) and gums (hollow logs) were used to keep bees.

langstrath-hive   bee-skep-image-full-size   skep-2   Page, T. C. 1972. Voices of Moccasin Creek. School of the Ozarks Press, Point Lookout, Missouri. 446 pages.   gum-2

As you can see, one huge difference is the orderliness of the honey comb.  In the Langstroth hive the vast majority of bee keepers use queen excluders to keep the egg laying operations distinctly separate from honey storage.  I don’t, because I like to let the bees be free to manage their own affairs as much as possible, as I think this lead to healthier hives.  The result is that sometimes these two activities — rearing young and honey production — have a bit of overlap.  Meaning that small, microscopic bits of insect can be in the honey.  This honey will have an off smell, and look dark.  (Dark honey, such as buckwheat honey, created with a queen excluder in place is perfectly fine, so don’t worry about buying dark honey.)

“Throw it out!” you may say.  Well, but, this is where Medieval mead makers and Irish moss come into play.  Skeps and bee gums don’t have queen excluders, now do they?

Before the Langstroth hive, bees were encouraged to swarm and catching the swarms was a very big deal because the way value was obtained from bees was to totally kill off some of the hives.  The wax, typically sold to churches, was where most of the profit was obtained.  That left dead bees, brood, pollen, clear honey and funky honey.  I suspect the first two were used to feed chickens or hogs.  It’s my theory that the funky honey went into mead, and here’s why.  Irish moss sounds cool, doesn’t it?  Well, it’s seaweed, and it makes a fairly stable foam as it reacts with protein, and that would be those microscopic bee bits.  When someone selling mead brags about the use of Irish moss, they are either using honey that needs to have proteins removed, or they are simply using the words because they sound cool.  Irish moss used on clean honey, or on fruit juices, doesn’t do anything.

Once, when driving with the kids to Ocean City, eager for beach and water, we pulled off along the shore in Delaware, just south from the Delaware bay, which is evidently the dumping ground for nastiness from Philadelphia and New Jersey.  The tide was going out.  Foam was in solid lines, parallel to the waves, starting higher on the beach and extending all the way down to the water.  The foam higher up was brown, shrunken and quite firm, while that closer to the receding waves was tan and about 4 inches tall.  Plus, it smelled rotten.  We did not go into that disgusting water.  Luckily the gulf stream took that mess northward before it hit Ocean City, where the foam sparkled briefly and vanished as all good sea-foam should.  The seaweed in the Delaware ocean waters is probably showing the same properties as Irish moss, but Delaware seaweed doesn’t have the same cachet.

Mixed a quart of dark suspect honey and 4 quarts of water with one rounded teaspoon of Irish moss and brought it to a boil.  There was some foam, but nothing like the Delaware beach foam.  I strained this out and let the mixture cool over night.  Added 1 quart of water.

You may think that honey made from funky honey will naturally taste bad.  The unfortunate fact is, mead tastes weird, and not in a good way, no matter what honey is used.  Mixing it with fruit helps, and letting it age at least two years is critical, but I have not noticed any difference between using clean honey or funky honey treated with Irish moss.  The Irish moss works; that’s why it’s kind of famous.

Mead is made from honey mixed with water, typically in a 1:7 or 1:8 ratio.  Because the apple juice was diluted with water, I used a 1:6 ratio.  I will use my calibrated taste buds 😉 to see if adjustments are needed near the end of the fermentation.  If it’s too dry, I can add honey (or if I’m feeling lazy, sugar).  If it’s too heavy and sweet, this means the yeast is likely dying-off from alcohol poisoning — if caught in time, adding water will reduce the alcohol content and reinvigorate the yeast.

Mixed in one tablespoon of Penzeys apple pie seasoning, and two cups of lemonade into the honey solution, and then strained it and poured it into the apple solution with the happy yeast. 

Now the yeast is ecstatic, and the carboy is bubbling along in a cheery state.  The carboy in back is the cider; the one in front is the cyser.  The one in the far back is a malt-dark cherry wine that is pretty darned good and ready to bottle.


1st Attempt to Make Hard Cider from Apples

I’ve tried to extract apple juice from apples with a blender and some water, but it was watery.  To get quality, raw apple juice from apples requires a fruit press.  I broke down and bought a small one from Amazon last week:  Weston Fruit and Wine Press

dscn0971-2This press holds two five gallon buckets of apples that have been ground up.  To process the apples I put them in the freezer until frozen solid, and then brought them out to thaw in the hopes the freezing action would reduce the apples to mush — the concept being that the expansion of the water as it turned to ice would rupture the apple’s cell walls.  This did work to a certain extent, as shown by the picture to the left where the juice is puddling on top of the frozen and then thawed apple.

20 Gallons of Apples
20 Gallons of Apples

Unfortunately, the disruption caused by freezing was not sufficient:  the apples were still very structurally sound.  As in when I tried to smash them using a canoe paddle mostly the paddle was deflected and the apples remained intact.  Weston also sells a fruit grinder, but since I’m only going to process 20 gallons of fruit, the added expense didn’t seem worth it.  Instead I cut each apple into quarters, and five apples at a time, ran them through the food processor.

Then the apple mash went into the fruit press.  It was easy to figure out how to work it, and the juice pressed out fairly easily.  Several times I rotated the screw until it was hard to push down, and let the juice flow and waited until the pressure was off of the screw — until the last time there was almost no juice produced.  Netting over the whole apparatus between turning-the-screw episodes kept flies and yellow jackets out of the juice.  (That’s the Golden Grimes apple tree in the background.)

dscn0976 dscn0979

I have used Champagne yeast to make mead, melomel, apple wine from store-bought juice, etc. and it is indeed a robust yeast.  But this time I researched on what kind of yeast would be best to make cider and settled on the VR21 strain.  It’s supposed to preserve more of the fruit flavor than Champagne yeast, and is also supposed to be vigorous:  we shall see.  The choice of yeast strain is a science unto itself, and I am new to it, but the Google Machine is a wonderful resource.

Making fermented beverages is very easy.

  1. Put a sugar containing liquid into a carboy.
  2. Add yeast.
  3. Plug with a water-lock.
  4. Wait a few weeks, until the bubbling stops.

All of the needed equipment can be found at Amazon, Midwest Supplies or E. C. Kraus.  I bought the yeast from E. C. Kraus as it cost less than Amazon, including postage.  Yeast will keep for months in the refrigerator, and I held about a quarter of it back in case I need to add some more later.

The process can, of course, be more complex.  It’s a good idea to whisk some air into the mixture when the yeast is first added (the initial yeast growth needs oxygen), but I didn’t bother this time since the carboy, shown below, had a lot of airspace.  Some types of yeast need precise temperatures.  There are some beers that must be fermented at very cool temperatures — well below room temperature — probably because they were first pressed into beer-making service in cool German cellars.    Serious vintners will measure various liquid and gaseous chemicals over time, add ingredients or stir according to precise recipes, etc.

I pretty much used 1., 2. and 3., except that the carboy below shows the results of pressing and fermenting 10 gallons of apples.  Tomorrow I will press the next 10 gallon batch of apples and add to the bubbling brew.  Note that the mixture is cloudy:  that’s mostly from the yeast.  The yeast will die off in one of two ways:  starvation from a lack of sugar, or alcohol poisoning.  Since the VR21 yeast can tolerate up to 15 percent alcohol, and the sugar in apples usually produces hard cider at about six percent alcohol, starvation is what will kill the yeast.  The cider will clear and the dead yeast will fall to the bottom.


The front carboy shows the yeast action after 24 hours.  It’s about 2.5 gallons of juice from 10 gallons of apples, which may not seem like much, but the sack in front is the leftover pulp.  Foreshortening makes the pulp look larger than the juice, but actually it’s smaller.  There’s a lot of air space between the apples in the 10 gallon measurement!

Yeast prefers a low oxygen environment, and this is the purpose of the water-lock:  as long as the pressure is higher inside than outside, no oxygen gets in.  As yeast converts sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide is given off.  This increases the pressure inside the carboy.  The link below shows the action of the water-lock as it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while keeping oxygen out.


When the cider clears, open it up and taste it.  If you like it, that’s fine, but it may be very dry with no hint of sweetness.  Once the process gets this far, if I don’t like it, there are two avenues available:

  1. Add sugar, which should lead to vigorous yeast growth, and keep adding sugar until alcohol kills the yeast, then add more sugar to give the fermented product a touch of sweetness.  This is the approach I’ve used in the past, but I want to do this batch only with the apples.
  2. Kill the yeast off with crushed Campden Tablets (potassium metabisulfite), then add a little sugar.  I don’t like using Campden Tables so will probably not do that.

A third alternative would be to add a little honey or sugar to each glass when it is poured.

To get a sparkling cider, add a little sugar to each bottle before corking, but I will definitely not do that as I’m fearful of explosions and cider all over.

What to do with the apple pulp?  At first I was going to freeze it and feed it to the chickens in the winter, but I think it has one more job to do first.  That experiment will be the next post.

Final Apple Harvest and Experimental Processing

DSCN0958     DSCN0960     20160827_191507     DSCN0940

My single semi-dwarf Golden Grimes apple tree provided me with six 5-gallon buckets of apples, after 18 previous years of almost none — all due to brutal pruning as per the advice of a friend.  So, what to do with all of these apples!  One can make only so many apple crisps.

EXPERIMENT 1:  Partially cooked two buckets of apples and put them in the freezer.  The reason apples are crisp is that each cell in the apple has a rigid cell wall, as is also true for crisp fresh vegetables.  If these crisp fruits or vegetables were frozen raw, the cell walls would all burst due to the expanding water inside them — as if a glass jug full of milk were to be put in the freezer.  By cooking the apples, I hoped to weaken the cell walls so that they could flex as the water in the each cell in the apple is frozen and expands.  This is why frozen vegetables are partially cooked, so there’s precedent for this approach.

DSCN0938     DSCN0939

How to most easily cook two buckets of apples?  It turns out 10 gallons of apples fit into my dishwasher:  five on the top and five on the bottom.  I dish-washed them, but while the skin was darker, the insides were still crisp.  So I washed them again on high heat.  Bingo!  Slightly cooked and all clean of bugs & etc.  None of the skins broke; no exploded apples.  The amount of cooking felt perfect to me, but time will tell.  I expect they will be browned a bit when I make apple crisp or applesauce in the future, but if the taste is the same (and I think it will be), I don’t care.  I put them in plastic grocery store bags — each bag holds 2.5 gallons of apples — and put them in the freezer.

EXPERIMENT 2:  Put four buckets of raw apples into the freezer.  Enamored with the previous dishwasher success, I used it to rinse the raw apples, but am not sure it saved any time over just rinsing them in the sink.  So, won’t freezing raw apple result in mushy apples when thawed?  I certainly hope so!  Not needing any more apples for apple crisp or applesauce, I was going to leave the apples on the tree, but I couldn’t stand it.  So, I bought a small apple press to make cider.

Weston Fruit and Wine Press

Yes, I have done the math and realize this will be the most expensive apple cider in the history of the world, but I have high hopes this tree will continue to produce, and that another tree (that did much better this year but not stellar) will also start producing in serious quantities.  Another reason to buy the press:  the cider in grocery stores has preservatives in it so it can’t be fermented, and hard cider is what I plan to make from these apples.

An apple and fruit crusher, costing an additional $165, is supposed to be part of the process.  I hope the freezing process mashes them to pulp on the microscopic level instead.  We shall see in the next week or so because the press is in it’s box on the back stoop right now 🙂


In an earlier post I mentioned two types of apple trees, but I actually have four.  I don’t honestly remember why I picked the apple varieties that I did, but evidently I was going for older versions.

Golden Grimes:  Great historical interest as the probable parent of Golden Delicious, with similar sweet flavour and good keeping qualities, and widely planted during early 20th century.  Introduced 1830s. Produced like crazy this year, I thought better for cooking than eating but that’s probably because I’ve become accustomed to the sweetness of Gala apples.  The sad truth is, I don’t eat many raw apples anyway.  With hard pruning this tree produced a lot of apples.

Cox’s Orange Pippin: This is the benchmark for flavor in apples – from a good tree in a good year it can achieve exceptional flavor.  Introduced 1825.  Not many apples; great flavor.  Hard pruning improved number of apples.  Will continue with the pruning, and need to take measures to keep the deer away from them.

Empire: One of the best McIntosh-style apples, with a good sweet vinous flavor, and easy to grow.  Introduced 1945.  This tree had a lot more apples than years past, but I didn’t get to them soon enough.  Not nearly as many, though, as the Golden Grimes, but this may improve with continued hard pruning.

Lady:  Lady, or Api, is an old French apple variety with a good aromatic flavor, and many decorative uses.  Introduced 1628.  This tree always produces a lot of apples that start out extremely sour and then turn flavorless.   I wish I had not planted this tree.  Maybe I’ll try to make vinegar out of them.