After several months of home brewing, I became obsessed with the idea of making cider. By that I mean fermented apple juice, sometimes called hard cider. My fascination was borne of the romanticism of apples and cider in American History. As apple pie is a traditional and quintessential American dessert, so is cider an historical American beverage.
Cider was the beverage of choice during colonial times, due to unsafe drinking water. Later Johnny Appleseed collected seeds from cider mills and started tree nurseries across the American Frontier (at the time, Ohio). In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan points out that since these apples were started from seed (and thus not true to type) they would not be good for eating. The implication is that Johnny A. was running a cottage industry for cider production.
I also wanted to make cider because it appeared incredibly easy. Virtually all commercially available apple juice is already pasteurized, and cider does not require additions of hops. These factors eliminate the need for boiling large quantities of fluid for hours on end. In principle, cider can be made easily by simply adding yeast to apple juice. From there a fermentation process ensues which is readily handled by even a novice home brewer.
Of course this is the Food Lunatic you’re talking to. I decided to get cute by adding a bit of spice and upping the alcohol content with an addition of honey. The goal was to make an apple pie cider, around 6% ABV. While this sounds cool, I made the mistake of many-a-noob home brewer; too much spice.
My cider was ready after a month or so but the spice notes were overwhelming. I read that cold storage has the ability to tone down overpowering spiciness in brews, so the cider spent the last 2 months in my beer fridge. Last night I tasted it again and the verdict is in: way too spicy. After a few sips though, it occurred to me that this spiced cider might make an excellent apple cider vinegar. Thus one experiment begets another.
I have written a great deal about fermentation, the conversion of sugar to ethanol by yeast. This is a critical first step in the creation of vinegar; having an alcoholic solution puts you at least 50% of the way to vinegar. In fact, a fermented solution wants to become vinegar, it aches for it. A brewer must always guard against oxygen incursion into his beer, lest it becomes vinegar of its own accord.
Vinegar is made through a bio-chemical reaction similar to fermentation. Ethanol is combined with oxygen to make acetic acid by a bacteria mysteriously named Acetobacter. In this process the alcohol is consumed and acid is created. These helpful critters live in the air all around us. They float about waiting to land in a pool of ethanol and work their acidic magic.
Starting with an alcoholic solution, simply create a barrier that allows oxygen (and bacteria) to pass, but blocks nasties like fruit flies. This is most readily achieved with a few layers of cheese cloth and a bit of twine. Then wait. Apparently after 2-3 weeks a gelatinous film will form on the surface. This is called the Mother of Vinegar. According to The Vinegar Institute (there is such a thing) the Mother is cellulose, a bi-product of the acetic acid fermentation.
After 4-8 weeks the process should be finished. By then all the alcohol will have been converted or evaporated away. The vinegar should be about 5% acid (for a 6% ABV starter solution). A taste test can be done, to see if any alcohol remains. Then the Mother is filtered out (again, cheese cloth seems the tool of choice) and the vinegar is ready to be stored and consumed.
The Vinegar Institute advises that homemade vinegar be used for salad dressing and refrigerator pickles. They warn that a vinegar must be at least 4% acid to achieve proper curing for canned pickles. However they do claim that vinegar is self-preserving and lasts indefinitely.
Vinegar can be made in this way from any alcoholic beverage. Beer will produce malt vinegar. White, red, and rice wines will produce their own varieties. Age grape wine vinegars in oak barrels for 12-100 years and you will get something remarkable close to balsamic vinegar. This is my first attempt at making vinegar; I’ll keep you posted on the progress. In the future it may be fun to experiment a bit more.