Hard Cider Tip #11: Testing Yeast

As I’ve previously noted in other posts, yeast are part of the fungus family. They are a single cell microorganism. Micro meaning microns in size. They are also what convert sugars into alcohol and CO2. The world is full of yeast and you can cultivate these to ferment your hard cider, which is known as a wild ferment. These can produce complex flavor profiles that are sometimes exceptional and other times, not. This is why many people forgo the wild yeast route and use cultured yeast. These were once wild yeasts, but were collected and isolated in order to maintain a consistent flavor profile and performance.

Besides the apples used to create a hard cider, the other element that has a huge impact on any hard cider recipe is the yeast. When I first started making hard cider, I used EC-1118 because that’s what every book and website said I should use. I also used yeast nutrient. I enjoyed my cider but I didn’t love it, especially the aromas. The fermentation would explode and go crazy as well as produce a lot of sulfur smell. I needed something different. My research suggested a new yeast, Nottingham Ale. It got rid of the sulfur smell, but I still didn’t really like it. It didn’t clear as well and I still wasn’t taken with the flavors. I knew I needed to dig more into yeast. I also started to realize the yeast has been made for wine and beer but there weren’t really hard cider yeasts. Most dried yeasts labeled for hard cider appear to be repackaged wine yeast with high attenuation and alcohol tolerance.

Apple juice contains mostly fructose, glucose, and sucrose but it also contains sorbitol. What else might it contain? Hard ciders don’t need a lot of sugar to be good. They often just need a touch to balance the acid and tannins and bring out some of the flavors. When I say a touch, I mean 2-4 grams of sugar per 12 ounce bottle. That’s around 3-5 points if we are talking specific gravity. Beer yeast talk about attenuation, which represents how much of the sugars in beer will be converted. Beer yeast also tends to have lower alcohol tolerances and attenuation for beer is about how much the yeast will assimilate the malt sugars. I started asking myself more questions.

  • I only need a little residual sugar so are there yeast that won’t attenuate all the sugars in an apple?
  • If apples don’t have the high sugars levels that grapes have, why should I use wine yeast?
  • Are there beer yeast that have lower alcohol tolerance that would allow me to have some natural residual sugars?
  • Is there yeast that will have a lower attenuation for the sugars in an apple?

I don’t think we know. White Labs advertised a special Scottish hard cider yeast that uses two beer and one wine yeast with an attenuation of 80%. Some people say that’s impossible! I say, I want to try it. I also say it doesn’t surprise me. I think yeast for hard cider is an untapped area of research that makes me unwilling to just accept anyone’s general statements about how a yeast will perform in hard cider. I think the only definite thing we can say is “maybe”.

This whole premise is what got me doing yeast trials. For this trial, I searched for yeast that would ferment well at a temperature of 72F or higher and started buying them to try. My plan was to pitch the same juice base with different yeasts and do a tasting with my friends to pick the best one. Why 72F? I knew the closet where I ferment is around 70F and could get as high as 72F so I wanted yeast that would work well at this temperature range. I also wanted beer yeast because I wanted something with a lower alcohol tolerance. I felt wine yeast were too aggressive for cider and would always ferment dry. If my theory that we don’t really know how a yeast will ferment apple juice into hard cider is correct, I wanted to explore yeast that might leave a natural residual sweetness. This meant I should start with beer yeasts and specifically, ale yeast because of the temperature. For this experiment, I chose the following.

  • SafAle S-04
  • SafAle BE-256
  • Lallemand Belle Saison
  • Mangrove M41 Belgium Ale
  • Mangrove M21 Belgium Wit
Yeasts used in hard cider test
Yeasts used in hard cider test

At the time, all the yeast but the SafAle BE-256 were advertised to work at or above 72F. For some reason, SafAle has changed the temperature range for the S-04 to 68F on recent packages. Others, like the Belle Saison, go as high as 95F. I also paid attention to the attenuation and flavor profile. I categorized the two SafeAle yeast, S-04 and BE-256, as having an ester profile. I put the Belle Saison and Mangrove M41 yeast in the phenolic category. The Wit yeast is a combination of both esters and phenols. Some might ask why track attenuation. That represents how effective a yeast is at fermenting malt sugars, which aren’t in hard cider. Call me a “Doubting Thomas”. Based on what I’ve read and my experience with recommended yeast, I wasn’t feeling confident in anything I didn’t experience myself. Also, the question is about those last few points of sugar that aren’t fructose, glucose, and sucrose but nobody talks about. If a beer yeast has low attenuation for malt sugars, maybe it also does for other sugars.

For this experiment, I used my “520” hard cider base. This is basically apple, pear, and pomegranate juice. This hard cider base reflects Arizona, which has a fair amount of dessert apples and pears but no real cider apples. To get the tannins, I looked local and pomegranate was the best option I could find that would give me the tannins and a slight amber hue. For reference, 520 is the area code for southern Arizona. Using this base, I pitch a gallon carboy with each yeast type.

Testing Yeast: Comparing Yeast Performance in Hard Cider
Testing Yeast: Comparing Yeast Performance in Hard Cider

I racked and aged them equally and made sure I got a couple months of aging. That helped to clarify each, which was part of my experiment. If you haven’t read my book, you may not know that we try to host a party featuring cider and homemade food every month. We paired this experiment with homemade fettuccine. When I say homemade, I mean from scratch. People ask us if we milk the cow. We go to that level. We like cooking and cider making. If you are truly interested in reproducing this experiment, here’s the menu from our party. Yes, we make menus.

  • Food Menu: Yeast Trials
  • Cider Menu: Yeast Trials

I made our friends work for this meal. Well, work is relative. We’ve never had a meal where everyone was so quiet. Everyone had to fill out a score sheet for each cider rating their perceptions and preferences. They had to score the look, aroma, taste, and overall preference. It was interesting and highlighted for me the uniqueness of everyone’s palate. Almost every hard cider had someone who liked it best. But, when I added up all the scores, we did have a clear winner: Belle Saison. This was followed closely by the SafAle S-04. The Belle Saison was slightly more phenolic and the S-04 was fruitier. I think Belle Saison beat out S-04 because we had more people who enjoy phenols over esters that night.

Overall, it was a great way to get feedback on the flavor as well as the clarity and visual appeal of the ciders. I also compared the way each fermented. For me, the SafAle S-04 and Belle Saison were also the best fermenting. They fermented well and cleared quickly, though the S-04 was faster to clear. These two yeasts have become my standards and I like them much better than EC-1118 or Nottingham Ale. I’ve continued to try different yeasts and have found some others that I find interesting including a Mangrove French Saison (M29) and Abbaye. This year, I am going to explore more yeast strains, including some liquid yeasts from White Labs and Omega. I also have a crazy idea I’m going to try with lager yeast so expect more articles on yeasts in the coming months. Also, if you find some of White Lab’s Scottish cider yeast (WLP773), you are now officially obligated to message me! I’m not joking!

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2 thoughts on “Hard Cider Tip #11: Testing Yeast

  1. We need a lot more experimentation with yeasts for cider – nice work and great write-up.
    I like to try a couple of new yeasts every year, alongside the tried and true. We’ve had good results with Bioferm Cool in terms of flavor; but it will ferment dry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Couldn’t agree more! Would love to hear what yeasts you like best to see if I get them and test here as well. I will explore Bioferm Cool. Look for more experiments and updates to come.


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