Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Barrel Aged Brett Cyser (Cider + Mead) - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Fact: Americans mostly have pretty awful taste in cider.

Americans tend to like things that are overly, grossly sweet.

This is bad and we should feel bad.

Few things have fallen to such homogeneous victimization of our terrible enthusiasm for crazy sugary shit than cider. Up until very recently, cider was viewed as little more than a gluten-free substitute for beer, or a fruity option that wouldn't get you drunk as fast as wine. Complexity and innovation came later, but fortunately, it is coming. Cider is the fastest growing segment in the drinks business right now, probably because it's a business that grew from virtually nothing, and was able to tap into the same consumers that have already made 'craft' beer a huge phenomenon. For example, if you are like me, and like experimenting with new combinations of flavors, you will probably also be inclined to dabble in cider and mead as extensions to your playground, if not simply additional ingredients for some beer. For others, cider may not be looked at as a possible avenue for weirdness, but as just another interesting and quaff-able beverage that's maybe sometimes barrel-aged or dry-hopped or spiced.

Makers and drinkers are recognizing it as a familiar yet distinct playground. And with this shift, it was only a matter of time until American cider got better.

While most large cider makers tend to produce stuff that tastes like the thin sugary filtered apple juice that I remember my younger sister drinking (and drinking nothing else) for her entire childhood, (despite big cider makers' hilarious attempts to market their juice as if it's some kind of brutal Viking fuel), there are some good American ciders. Places experimenting. And a few making ciders that aren't grossly sweet. The cider market is growing in leaps and bounds, and as it's a much younger movement than 'craft' beer, most folks making good cider are just getting started.

My main gripe, at this point, is the lack of anything with real wildness. Where's the funk?

For all the American cider makers I do enjoy, hardly any of them makes weird, funky cider. This is disappointing. Even our driest ciders are generally clean and relatively tame. Where are the funky Spanish and Basque style ciders, made in America? Apples host yeast in abundance, and many funky European ciders take advantage of this with their native fermentations, their Brett-embracing, over-carbed feral character. Either our apples are just arbitrarily host to cleaner yeast strains here in America (an explanation that may not be as ridiculous as it sounds, actually, as I do know of some cider makers producing native-yeast fermented cider that turns out incredibly clean), or else the widespread embrace of funky beers just hasn't lapsed over to cider yet.

As my grandma always told me, if you want a weird funky cider with Brettanomyces that clocks in above 14% ABV and is aged in an oak barrel for a summer until it ferments to dryness, sometimes you just have do it yourself.

Cyser is a combination of apple cider and honey — a blend of hard cider and mead, depending how you want to view it. The main reason I went this route was simply to build a stronger beverage that would survive for years to come, and boosting the ABV with simple sugars is easy enough. Rather than cheap table sugar or corn sugar, might as well throw in some local honey and make it real Viking fuel. Maybe even let some local microbes hop on board from the diluted honey. Cider and mead are simply two complimentary flavors: cyser is a no-brainer, if you ask me.

So I started with 5 gallons of cider from a local orchard, Fishkill Farms. Fermented that out with champagne yeast, in a carboy. Transferred into a barrel that the gentlemen of the Brewery at Bacchus were kind enough to donate to me. The barrel had gone through a few previous lifetimes, so I didn't expect to get a ton of oak character out of it, which proved to be true. What little I did get just added some nice balance to this hefty beverage and made a home for the Brettanomyces. Fishkill Farms does UV pasteurize their cider, but UV pasteurization is only a stopgap measure against fermentation, in my experience. Most UV treated cider that I've picked up will eventually start to ferment on its own — amazingly, even if you keep it in the fridge. I've set aside many a cider for two weeks only to find the container bulging and ready to erupt. (Side note: I've always wondered what yeast could be native to these apples that is capable of fermenting at chilly fridge temps. Are apples naturally host to lager yeast? Are other Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains able to ferment this cold, and just haven't made their way into brewer's toolboxes?) So, while the champagne yeast that I pitched was probably able to out-compete most of the native stuff, it's likely / possible something already in the cider was left to make its own impression.

Once the fermented-out cider was nestled in its barrel, I kept a steady fermentation going by slowly adding wildflower honey, as well as a few Brettanomyces strains. An alternate method would be to simply ferment the mead and the cider separately, then blend, and that could work fine too. But here was my theory: by fermenting the cider first, I had a nice healthy yeast culture ready for a boost in alcohol. By slowly adding the honey pound by pound, I kept the feast going, creeping up to the high ABV levels without shocking anyone with a big ol' surge of sugar. If you simply blended mead and cider, one of them would have to be high in alcohol on its own to reach a high ABV blended beverage. Here, the creep from 8% to 14% could go slow.

Apparently, this strategy worked incredibly well. Some very experienced drinkers have tried this concoction, and when I ask them to guess the ABV, no one has thought that this would be over 8% ABV. So that's something. The slow trickle of sugar surely helped with that. Honey doesn't ferment out quite as quickly as other simple sugars, either, giving the Brett the opportunity to work on it slowly. And to bring the funk. As dry as this finished, down to essentially zero residual sugar, the Brett still had the opportunity to work up some weirdness.

What this particular weirdness tastes like is pretty hard to describe. There's a big punch of weird funk in the aroma, while the taste is a bit cleaner, and more fruit-forward. As it warms, it shuffles a bit closer to the direction of a clean mead and cider hybrid, with the crisp flavors of both present, complimentary, and actually nicely refreshing for something so big. I think part of the reason the ABV is so well hidden here is the balance. The oak helps, and likely adds some backing to the weirdness, giving it a rich quality despite the dry base. The crisp character helps cut through the weirdness, at the same time; cider and mead are obviously both very tasty when not clouded by distracting excess sugar. And the weirdness does what it does, being weird, because it's just weird, and whatever That Flavor or That Aroma is, it's another layer you don't typically find in American ciders. I enjoy it. I wonder how many Normal cider drinkers would, though.

Weird, or whatever, the character here isn't exactly like that I've gotten from other funky ciders, and fairly unlike the character most commonplace in aged Brett beer. I used mostly the same strains that I've used in beers, so I wonder if that's a result of something lurking in the cider itself, something that took residence in the barrel, or merely a combination of all these things together resulting in something new and odd.

Maybe just the latter. That's why we experiment: you never know when new weirdness will result from recombining old elements.

"Brewed" on 2/22/14
Bottled 7/15/14
0 Plato | 14% ABV

5 gallons cider
Champagne Yeast
Brettanomyces - BKY C2 + BKY C3
Add raw honey until desired ABV is reached (5 lbs-ish)


  1. Awesome write up. Is the recipe really that simple? You didn't add any nutrient additions?

    1. Thanks! It is a pretty basic recipe, more monitoring and feeling out where the cyser is at than "recipe." I did add yeast nutrient I believe at two points when adding more honey. The Brett also should help, as it's probably less prone to crap out than Sacch.

  2. Whatever was fermenting the post-UV juice wasn't necessarily yeast; it could have been mold or bacteria. Given that it survived the low pH and the killer champagne yeast, I would bet against it being Sacch. Although really almost anything is possible, and some sort of microbial medley is near-certain. I wonder if the Brett would be more assertive with a tiny addition of malt (or maltodextrin) and an ale yeast as the primary strain. Now I know the next thing to add to my ever-growing list of future experiments.

    1. Yeah, I'm sure there's a mix of stuff in there. To be clear, I've seen this ferment on its own on separate occasions, without pitching any yeast. So whatever was fermenting the cider in the fridge could be yeast or bacteria or whatever, though there was a definite "yeasty" flavor to it.

      So many future experiments, so little time!

  3. Am I dreaming, or did this post use buckwheat honey yesterday? I started to figure out a recipe based on this, and I have buckwheat honey listed.

    1. You weren't dreaming Roger, it did originally say buckwheat honey. I had originally intended to use buckwheat, and wrote that here, but when I looked at my notes again I realized I had gone with wildflower. Wildflower isn't quite as dark as buckwheat, but both would be good choices. I would go with buckwheat if I did this again and wanted to switch things up.

  4. If you're looking for funky ciders. I highly recommend finding some Millstone Cellars products. Their output has been fantastic. Super dry and nicely funky.

    1. Nice, thanks for the rec! I've never seen their stuff before, I'll have to be on the lookout for it.

  5. Tasting like sweet apple juice has always been my biggest gripe with cider. The only cider that I've ever enjoyed was by Argus Cider. They are right down the road from Jester King and use Jester King's yeast and bug blend to ferment their ciders. Their cider tasted like a funky saison with a tart apple base.


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