Apple juice and apple cider are incredibly popular drinks, especially during the fall harvest season. But despite the fact that the fruit is practically synonymous with fall, apples are largely underrepresented in our alcoholic beverages. Hard apple cider, once the drink of choice for colonial Americans, is experiencing a revival in popularity, but still lags behind mainstream go-tos like beer and wine. In fact, both beer and wine can be made or accentuated with apples, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an apple-based bottle at the grocery store.
The reason fermented apple drinks aren’t more widely consumed is because Americans have rarely enjoyed, or even heard of, the best (and, likely, the oldest) type of alcoholic apple drink in existence: cyser, or apple mead. Mead is a type of wine that uses honey as the dominant source of sugar, while cyser is a particular type of mead made from apples.
Mead is a drink with a long history. Vikings, Gaels, and Celts wrote and told of their love for the drink, attributing magical powers and healing properties to the brew. Mead in some form has been brewed on every continent for at least 2,000 years. In fact, there is a distinct possibility that mead is the oldest fermented, alcoholic beverage in history, outdating even beer. Wherever bees make honey, from Africa to Asia, people have collected it, prized it, and put it into food and drinks of various forms. And since wild yeasts capable of making alcohol are found everywhere in the wild, and honey is an excellent source of fermentable sugars, mead could easily have been made by accident. The first person to dissolve raw honey into water, perhaps to sweeten it or soothe a throat, may have discovered that their honey-water became pleasantly alcoholic in just a few days.
Since that ancient time, mankind has made and treasured mead. Peoples from all over the world make mead using seasonal fruits and herbs for flavoring, using the drink for celebrations and harvests, as well as for medicine.
Historically, honey foodstuffs like pastries and mead were given to newlywed couples in European farming communities. Honey was considered very healthy, even before modern science confirmed its many benefits, and as such was the perfect gift for a young couple. Being healthy and well fed with sweet, high caloric foodstuffs, including mead, was thought to encourage fertility. In fact, consuming the gifted honey foodstuffs over the first month of marriage, or by the lunar cycle an entire “moon,” was likely the origin of the term honeymoon!
Isn’t that cool? Don’t you want to make mead? Then do it — it’s easy! And while you’re at it, make it with apples! All you need are some very simple tips and techniques.
First, here’s a recipe for mead, using only honey, water, and yeast:
2-3 lbs of honey
1 Gal of water. Mix the honey and water completely. Consider heating the water. Pour mixture into a clean, sanitary gallon jug.
Pitch yeast into jug, fit an airlock on top. Yeast nutrient may be used as well.
Using 2-3 pounds of honey, fully dissolved into a gallon of water, pour honey-water into a clean, sanitary gallon jug. Pitch in yeast of choice (Champagne is popular, easy and cheap) into the jug of sugary honey-water, at room temperature. Consider adding yeast nutrient and/or energizer ($1.99 for 2 oz, which will make many batches) to guarantee smooth fermentation. Fit an airlock (fig. 2) on the top of the jug ($.99) and within a couple days bubbles of CO2, a byproduct of fermentation, will begin to exit out of the top through the airlock. This will continue for weeks, maybe even more than a month, until the yeast develops into a layer on the bottom, completes fermentation, and the bubbles cease.
Want to make mead using apples? Here’s what you need to do to make a delicious cyser:
Then cut or press the equivalent of 3-6 sanitized, cleaned apples per gallon and/or add 1/4 to 1/2 gallon of your favorite cider or juice per gallon of expected volume. That means less water volume to dissolve the honey, so be mindful. Feel free to experiment with more cider or juice and less honey in the ratio of honey-water to cider/juice.
- Use as fresh and unprocessed ingredients as possible. Pure honey and unpasteurized juice/cider make the best cyser.
- When fermentation stops, feel free to simply cap the jug and put it in the fridge. A yeast cake will be present, so to serve out of the original container decant carefully to prevent the yeast on the bottom from getting stirred up.
- Try racking or bottling your cyser. Racking is a term used in winemaking for simply transferring your brew from the original fermenting container to another while leaving the yeast behind on the bottom of the original container. Usually a siphon is used for sanitary purposes to gently draw the liquid out of one container into a clean, sanitary and sealable bottle. You may need corks or caps if the jug, growler, gallon bottle, or swing top style bottles aren’t what you had in mind.
Add more stuff!
- Add fresh, cleaned apples to the new bottle you just “racked.” Your cyser can sit, removed from the yeast of the original fermenting bottle, on newly-added apples for even more flavor!
- Looking for more body? Try adding white raisens to create an apple “flesh” taste that’s thicker in mouthfeel.
- Add some cinnamon sticks (lightly) in the beginning of the mead-making process, or rack/transfer into a secondary container with 1-2 cinnamon sticks. Note – a little goes a long way with cinnamon.