Hard Cider Science
How do crisp fall apples get transformed into boozy hard cider? Science Friday web producer Chau Tu visited Nine Pin Ciderworks in upstate New York to learn how cidermakers balance sugar, acid, and tannins to create the bubbly beverage. Read our related article to learn more about cider science, and take a tour of the cidery in the video below.
Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of the holidays, one of the staples of the fall holiday season is cider, apple cider. Perhaps it’s going to be served at your Thanksgiving meal. We’re going to talk about cider science, but not the hot drink with that little cinnamon stick floating in it. Nah, we’re going to talk about the good stuff, hard cider. Sci-Fri’s web producer, Chau Tu, visited a facility in upstate New York, a place where cider house rules, and she’s here to share her experience. Welcome, Chau.
CHAU TU: Hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us about– you went to visit the Nine Pin cidery, up there, what, near Albany.
CHAU TU: Yep, in Albany.
IRA FLATOW: What’s it like inside?
CHAU TU: It’s a huge warehouse, so Luke Groskin, who’s our video producer and I went up there. And so we walked inside, and then we were just overwhelmed by the smell of sweet apples and alcohol. [CHUCKLES] And so inside, there were these three big vats. And inside, the cider was fermenting, and so we can smell it. We can hear it. You can hear the carbon dioxide escaping as it was fermenting.
IRA FLATOW: And we all know that beer and wine are fermented. How is cider fermented differently?
CHAU TU: So cidermaking is very similar to winemaking. They both come from fruits, start from fruits. And in the case of cider, it’s apples. And then you add yeast, and that’s how you start fermentation. And after that, you let it sit for 7 to 10 days, and then you let it age anywhere from 3 months to a year. So it’s very much similar like that beer. On the other hand, it’s brewed with marley and hops, and so that’s different.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re talking about cider with Chau Tu on “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International. And so it’s really simple, though.
CHAU TU: It’s really simple, right.
IRA FLATOW: You can make this at home?
CHAU TU: You can make it at home, yeah. You can make it with any kind of apples. At Nine Pin Ciderworks, they like to use McIntosh apples in their new blends. But it’s really up to the cidermaker.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I am going to have to test the fruits of your labors.
CHAU TU: [CHUCKLES]
IRA FLATOW: You brought back some Nine Pin. This is Ciderwork’s Hard Cider. [POPS CAP] Oh.
CHAU TU: Yeah, fresh.
IRA FLATOW: I wish I had enough for everybody. [CHUCKLES] Fresh, got ooh–
CHAU TU: So it’s got that little fizz, kind of like Prosecco.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I have to taste it.
CHAU TU: You have to taste it.
IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE]. Mm.
CHAU TU: [CHUCKLES] What do you think?
IRA FLATOW: [SMACKS LIPS] I need another test. Wait, I need another one. Mm.
CHAU TU: So what does it taste like? Does it taste very crisp, or does it taste–
IRA FLATOW: If you think about beer, it doesn’t have that hoppy taste, like you say. It’s very smooth. I could see this–
CHAU TU: There’s a little bit of sourness to it.
IRA FLATOW: A little bit of sourness to it. And they can control whether it’s sour or sweet–
CHAU TU: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: –in the process?
CHAU TU: So that depends on the fermentation and how long they age it. Whenever they’re aging it, they want to make sure that it keeps its flavor and aroma. And so they add things like sulfides, sulfur dioxide. And that keeps everything fresh, and it keeps the flavor intact.
IRA FLATOW: I have another hour to go. This is not a good idea.
CHAU TU: [CHUCKLES] Careful.
IRA FLATOW: Did they add stuff to it? Like you see all these craft things, like they add oranges, or stuff to it.
CHAU TU: Yes, they do. So that again depends on the cidermaker. At Ninepin, they do stuff with blueberries, for example. So what they’ll do is they’ll add blueberries during the fermentation stage. And what happens is the yeast actually consumes the sugar from the blueberry, and the taste is the byproduct of that. So it’s not overly sweet. It’s actually pretty subtle, and it’s really good.
IRA FLATOW: And it will take you a whole year to make it, right? You can’t go out now where all the apple picking is.
CHAU TU: No, yeah. So the apple season basically just ended. Apple picking season is over. But those apples will last for a long time, and you’ll have to age cider. So it’ll take up to around a year or so.
IRA FLATOW: Is this having a comeback? I’ve seen commercials now on TV for hard cider. You never saw them before.
CHAU TU: Yeah. So I mean, cidermaking has been around for a while, especially in Europe. But it’s getting a resurgence right now. It’s partly because of the gluten free kind of movement. Because cider’s gluten free because of the apples. But it’s also because of the craft beer being really popular now. And so that’s trained people to look for new kinds of drinks. And cider is definitely one of them.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You could also make apple vinegar from apple juice, right?
CHAU TU: You could. And that’s kind of like the process of aging that you want to prevent it from becoming an apple vinegar.
IRA FLATOW: You don’t want it to turn–
CHAU TU: You don’t want it to be. You want it to be nice and crisp cider. So you’ll add in sulfur dioxide and sulfides, and that will help prevent it from becoming apple vinegar.
IRA FLATOW: So what was the most wonderful thing about your visit to the cidery?
CHAU TU: Seeing just like the scale at which they work. So Nine Pins say they process 70,000 pounds of apples each week.
IRA FLATOW: Each week?
CHAU TU: Yes, each week, during the big push. And that’s about 5,000 gallons of cider. They’re going to make around 100,000 gallons of cider this year. So the scale at which this is happening is great.
IRA FLATOW: So they have to keep the apples because if they’re going to do it all year, they have to keep them around. How do they store them? They keep them fresh?
CHAU TU: We also visited an orchard nearby, Samascott Orchards. And they are the ones that keep all these apples. I mean, it’s a huge warehouse, as well, and it’s sky-high boxes of apples. And so they keep them there. And over time, they’ll come back over to Nine Pin, and they’ll press the juice. And yeah, they’ll make cider with it.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. OK, I’m going to finish my cider. Thank you, Chau.
CHAU TU: Yeah, thank you.
IRA FLATOW: You can read Chau’s article and watch a video of a tour. If you want to see the inside of Nine Pin’s cidery, it’s on our website at sciencefriday.com/cider.