Cyser: Review

Many months, I wrote about the beginnings of our first attempt at fermentation: making cyser.  Cyser is a type of mead.  Mead, of course, is honey wine, one the very earliest fermented beverages made by people.  Think of mead as the parent category, under this umbrella, you have a handful of different makings.  Metheglin is mead made with herbs and spices.  Braggot is mead made with the addition of grains.  Melomel is mead made with the addition of fruit.  Within melomel, you will find pyment, which is mead with grape juice, and cyser, which is mead made with the addition of apple juice.

Cyser is what we made.  With an excess amount of past years’ honey, not quite enough apples to make a cider all of apples, we settled on making cyser.  Neither Melissa, nor myself are much of consumers of alcohol.  We like the occasional glass of wine; I like malbecs and fochs, while Melissa fancies rieslings and ice wines.  I can find a good Spätlese drinkable, but anything sweeter, like a Beerenauslese, is too sweet for me.

Six to eight weeks after we put the mixture of honey, apple juice, yeast, and yeast nutrient into the first fermenter (a six gallon, glass carboy), we transferred the fermented mix into a five gallon glass secondary fermenter.  And, there it sat through the spring, through the summer, and into late fall.

Over the course of the fall, we began to purchase the things we would need to bottle our first experiment. Champagne bottles.  A rough, back of the envelope calculation put our 5 gallons of liquid needing at most twenty-four 750ml bottles.  We picked up two boxes of 12 bottles each.  Given that we would be back sugaring the inbibement to make it sparkle, we would need cork cages, and champagne corks.  Purchased.  Finally, we needed a way to put corks into bottles.  Champagne bottle corks and Belgian beer bottle corks are not your ordinary wine bottle corks.  For starters, they are often wider than regular wine bottle corks.  For the most part, you cannot simple “push” the corks into the bottles as is.  We needed to purchase a “champagne floor corker”.  That is, a device that sits on the floor, has a place to secure a bottle, has a cork-crimper – a series of brass jaws that squash the cork’s diameter to that of less than the bottle’s opening, and a lever to push said squashed cork into the bottle’s opening.  And finally, we needed a “bell capper” to put a finished crimp on the bit of cork that is left exposed out the top of the bottle.

The last thing we needed was dextrose, or corn sugar, for the back sugaring.  Back sugaring is the process of putting a tiny amount of sugar into each bottle, adding fermented goodness into the bottle, and the corking.  The sugar does not add sweetness, instead, the little bit of remaining yeast in the liquid consumes the sugar and produces carbon dioxide.  This, in turn, makes the beverage carbonated or fizzy.

With nearly a month having passed since we back sugared, bottled, corked, caged, and waxed the bottles, I opened one bottle up to give a taste test.   We initially sampled a small bit a few days after bottling the majority of the inbibement; we were left with our 24th bottle being only ¼ full, we drank it as a test.  Cold with no carbonation, it was light and drinkable.  It was very light.  Almost like “dirty water.”  Even with the “dirty water” or “cough drop water,” as one friend described it, it surpassed our initial hopes.  We set the bar low with just hoping we did not end up with five gallons of honey-vomit.  The question in our minds, after the initial taste testing, would the carbonation make a bit of depth to the beverage?

One month after bottling, what is the verdict?

It remains very light tasting.  There is a very nice carbonation; the dextrose produces copious amounts of tiny bubbles.  There is a light honeyed scent, light alcohol smell – from a microbiological scents, there are remaining yeast notes – not quite like bread, though.  Upon taking my first sip, I immediately thought of the drink having a herbaceous and green olive taste.  Not sweet, somewhat sharp – perhaps the carbonation.   It paired well with salty potato chips.  I imagine it would go well with pizza or other salty-savory dish.

We did not have a hygrometer on hand when we were making the must and getting the mix into the first carboy, and such, we do not have a clear sense of what the ABV of it is.  However, having had a couple glasses with a some potato chips, and not much else, I can say the alcohol content, like its flavor, is light.

The drink, on ice, eventually flattens out and has that near-minty taste with a tinge of honeyness at the end; it seems to be best drunk neat, from a heavily chilled bottle.  Overall, I will rank this endeavor a success.  We ended up with a nice quantity of a light drinkable beverage, and that is what we were aiming for – nothing more, nothing less.

Cyser, Mead and Cider

Cyser, Mead and Cider

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Cyser.  It is a form of mead made with the addition of apple juice.  The word, cyser, is possibly a derivative of sicera.  It’s of latin origins and means an intoxicating drink or liquor.  Or so the Internet is telling me.

I have been interested in brewing and fermentation for while.  In the mid-part of the first decade in the 2000s, I picked up a few books on brewing beer or making cider and wine.  I never followed through with the creation of anything fermented and palatable — with the exception of sourdough bread.

At the old house, near Duluth, we grew grapes among many different fruits.  The hope was to some day grow enough grapes to make small amounts of wine.  The Frontenac vines grew and produced small crops, but not enough for wine.

The place we have now in St. Paul has no grapes worth turning into wine.  The grapes on our property tend to be Vitis riparia, or riverbank grapes.  Riverbank grapes are of little use on their own for wine.  High acid and planty-taste make for crappy wine; not to mention, the fruits tend to be in the tree canopy – up in the air, fifty or more feet.  Vitis riparia, is an important component in the burgeoning cold-climate wine industry here in Minnesota.  The Frontenac variety, for example, is a hybrid cross of Vitis riparia and Landot noir.  We will, though, be getting back to having vines that might some day produce a wine.  The first go at it will be with Maréchal Foch this spring.  Wine to follow in a few years.

Apple pulp wrapped in cheesecloth.

We do, however, have a few very old apple and pear trees.  The dogs like the apple trees as the branches tend to bow down far enough for them to pluck apples right off.  The pear trees are enormous and would take planning to harvest fruit.  The apple trees with their low branches pose an easier harvest opportunity.

During the mid-fall of this last year, I picked a 5 gallon bucket of apples from the two trees.  It was late in the apple season, and most of the good apples had fallen to their demise on the ground: quickly into a hound’s stomach after the fall.  This bucket of apples was not destine to be passed through a hound, it would first sit in the freezer in our basement.  Spread out in what could be a stainless steel steamer tray, the apples slumbered in the freezer until late January.

While looking in the freezer for any remaining chickens, I noticed the steamer tray of now slightly wrinkled apples.  I should do something with these, I thought.

Sometime in the spring of last year, we had a honey-related mishap.  Several (many) jars in storage blew their lids.  Nothing violent, these were more likely slow motion eruptions of a sticky mess.  It was brought to our attention when the dogs were licking the floor.  A few grains of wild yeast had remained in the jars, and with the right conditions, some unwanted fermentation occurred.  We filled half-gallon canning jars with the remains of the unfermented honey, and then pasteurized them in the oven.

IMG_2468-1What does one do with thirty pounds of honey that you do not want to sell because it is no longer raw?

You give some away.  A co-worker used a bit in homemade ice cream.  I chose to ferment some.

Friends of ours, Alex and Larissa, helped out.  They are experienced home-brew-beer makers.

We started with a recipe from The Meadery, and then, did not follow it exactly.

Even though Alex and Larissa are experienced beer brewers, making mead, making cider, or making cyser was new to them, as well.

The Recipe (of sorts).

The apples ended up juicing out to about ¾ of gallon. In addition to the juice, we add 2.¼ gallons of water to a large, stainless stock pot.  We heated this until it was about 120° F.  The end goal was to make five gallons, and we stuck with the meadery’s suggestioof using a pound of honey to a gallon of liquid.  Five pounds of honey (a bit over one half-gallon jar) went into the stock pot to be heated.

January 29, 2016 — Primary Fermenter

Transferring the three gallons of juice, water and dissolved honey in a six gallon carboy, we topped the carboy with an addition two gallons of water to bring our total up to five.

IMG_2533The Meadery’s recipe mentioned using champaign yeast, and that is what we did.  Earlier in the week, I had ordered WLP715 Champagne Yeast along with some yeast nutrient.

We had to wait for the carboy of liquid to cool.  It took a while, but when it was below 85° F, we pitched the yeast along with the nutrient.  With a clean air-lock in place, we set the carboy next to a heat register in the kitchen.  And, we waited.

The air lock bubbled for days as the yeast did its yeasty thing.  By day ten or so, the bubbling was noticeably less frequent.

February 13, 2016 — Secondary Fermenter

Alex and Larissa swung by on a Saturday to transfer the goodness from the six gallon primary fermentation carboy into a five gallon secondary fermentation carboy.  There may have been telltale signs of a slight infection on the top of the liquid.  Even though we did heat much of the liquid enough to dissolve the honey, it was not high enough to kill bacteria or wild yeasts that might have been tagging along with the apples.

This went quickly, and soon we had slightly smaller carboy filled with much less opaque liquid then what we started with a over two weeks prior.

And now, we wait, more.  Around the time taxes are due, we will likely be bottling the cyser.  At which point, we wait more.  Mid-October is about the soonest we will get to find if the running joke of making five gallons of diarrhea is true, or if we have actually made something slightly more drinkable.  We sampled a shot-glass-worth of the yeasty smelling liquid: it was not terrible, but very rare tasting.  We plan to back-sugar just prior to bottling.  We should end up with sparking something.

This Season’s Honey

We finally got the winter “porches” on the bee hives here in St. Paul. These are pretty simple things that block direct wind from blowing into the top entrance.  I had neglected to put these handy little things in place when I had wrapped the hives with tar paper in early November.  At the time, the bees were angry – they were pulling out all the stops and were emitting their alarm pheromone and I had been stung six or seven times on my right hand (remember, I do not wear gloves).

While stapling the folded tar paper porches onto the hives, even with the air temperature in the mid-teens (Fahrenheit) today, several bees flew out and looped about the entrances to check out what the racket was about.

The hives down south – in Racine, MN – have been buttoned up, complete with winter porches, since mid-October.  The bees there were happy and could have cared less that I was busy stapling tar paper to their homes.

We won’t be checking hives, again, until mid-winter.  In the mean time, we have honey.  We have quite a bit of honey, actually.  The four hives in St. Paul, MN, produced ≈125 pounds (56.7 kg) of honey, while the four hives in Racine, MN produced slightly less with ≈100 pounds (45.4 kg).

This is the first year that we have had hives at two significantly different locations.  Prior to moving to the St. Paul, we did have hives in Proctor as well as north of Duluth, but there was only 26 miles in between those locations.  There’s 93 miles between St. Paul and Racine.  St. Paul has its urban forests, residential yards with plenty of dandelions in the spring as well as backyard vegetable gardens and thousands of other places for different flowers to grow.  Racine is decidedly rural.  It’s rural and located in farm country.  Even though Racine has vegetable gardens, apple trees, and dandelions, much of the surrounding landscape is covered with alfalfa, clover, oats, corn and soybeans during the growing season.

With the difference in terroir (to borrow term from viticulture), we decided to keep the two varietals separate.

Racine is light with sweet and smoother flowery notes (the jar of honey in the photo, above, that is very light in color, is Racine).

St. Paul is more complex, with a slightly sharper, earthier tones (the jars, above, that are darker are St. Paul).

And now, a bit of shameless self-promotion: if you are interested in participating in getting your mitts on a jar or four, tweet at me or, preferably, drop us an email.  A couple caveats: I am unlikely to want to ship honey via the postal service or other big-name courier – honey is heavy and the jars are fragile.  But, if you are willing to pay for shipping, then please say so – it will likely double the cost per jar.

Caveat two, if you know that I will be in visiting your particular region, I would be more than happy to bring with me a modest number of jars.  In this situation, I am highly unlikely to charge shipping.

Otherwise, if you are in or are going to be in the Twin Cities metro area, or even the Rochester, MN, area, delivery or pick-up can easily be arranged.

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Special thanks to Paul Shively for designing this year’s honey jar label.