One the the biggest challenges with crafting “Traditional” hard cider is finding apples with tannins. I define Traditional as a specific style of cider using only apples and/or pears. Check out my book for more styles and details about making and experiencing hard cider, including hard cider recipes. I mean it has to be worth $7. Amazon almost charges me that much just to deliver it since it has so many pictures and tables!
But seriously, Traditional hard ciders generally need some tannins to give them balance. Modern dessert apples have been cultivated to remove the browning tannins that most people eating or cooking apples didn’t want. If you want some astringency or bitter phenolic elements, you need tannins. You can obtain them through other adjuncts, which is anything you add to hard cider to change it’s color, aroma, or flavor. However, that would mean you’re making an Adjunct style hard cider. If you want a Traditional hard cider with only apples or pears, you need to find some apples with tannins.
If you know the variety, you might find some data about the level of tannins in them. What if you are looking at an old tree in your neighbors backyard? How can you determine if the apples have tannins that might contribute to your hard cider?
Is there a way to accurately measure tannins? Yes. Is it easy? No.
That is the challenge faced by many hard cider makers and not just home cider makers. The equipment needed isn’t something most people would have sitting around or something you can just pick up at the local brew store.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t assess the level of tannins in your apples. There are two relatively easy ways to do this assessment. The first is from observation. Slice an apple and look at how quickly it starts to brown. The browner it gets, the more tannins it has. Check out theses apples and pears that my wife sliced to make dried apples. Notice how some have flesh that is almost bright white while others are a deep brown.
I usually catalog my apples by cutting them in half and taking pictures. This allows me to get a feel for the tannins. However, my wife’s efforts make the assessment more dramatic. While the color of the flesh can naturally vary. The rate it turns brown is driven a lot by the tannins. Noting how quickly the flesh changes, allows you to visually assess the amount of tannins in that apple variety.
However, I found another way that I think it even better: tasting the apple peel.
Why not just taste the apple? Aren’t the tannins in the flesh? They are but so are the sugars and acids. Taking a bite of the flesh can make assessing tannins challenging. You have to distinguish the tannins from the sugar and from the acid.
It’s like trying to taste how sweet an apple is. Take a bite of an Ambrosia Apple and than a Fuji. Which has more sugar? Your palate will say the Ambrosia but the Fuji will actually have more sugar if measured. The acid in the Fuji is much greater, which deadens the perceived sugar amount. Instead, you should taste the peel.
Why the peel? The peel has a concentration of tannins. The peel of your apple actually has the highest concentration of tannins and it won’t have the sugar or acid that might block your perception of the tannins. If your peel is super astringent and bitter, your apple will be as well.
The best way to sample this is to get out your vegetable peeler and remove a portion of the peel, which minimizes the flesh you are removing.
Pop the peel in your mouth and start chewing. If your apple has a lot of tannins, your mouth should start to dry and maybe you will get some bitterness. Have a glass of water handy. It can be that drying.
Try several apples or have a dessert apple like a Red Delicious or Granny Smith on hand to give yourself a reference point.
Keep track of this information in your apple database for future reference. This helps when you are trying to develop a new hard cider recipe.
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