Thoughts on Apple Brandy

by Hubert Germain-Robin

 

With over forty years of experience, Master Distiller Hubert Germain-Robin produces exquisite brandies of many types. He has a special affection for Calvados, the apple brandy of his homeland. He has brought his knowledge and passion to California’s Mendocino County where he applies his skills to distillation of several world-renowned apple brandies. As a special favor Hubert has shared some of his knowledge and thoughts on the distillation of apple brandy with Farm Distiller.

“ In the beginning was......the apple”
“ The tree of knowledge” Tolle of Lucas Cranach the Elder

“ The tree of knowledge” Tolle of Lucas Cranach the Elder

 

 In the ancient occidental and middle eastern civilizations, the representation of immortality and the eternal youth are deeply attached to the apple. Offering an apple is always a gesture of Love. An apple cut vertically represents the sex of a woman: An image of Love and fertility.

 
 

Considered lowly by some, the apple, and its brandy, deserves our respect:

·      60millions tons of apples are harvested yearly throughout the world. Apple production is only exceeded by the production of citrus fruits and bananas.

·      The Normandy region of France famed for its apple brandy known as Calvados unknowingly helped spread the apple through the old world.

·      Romans, Francs, Goths, Saxons and Vikings all used apples after their conquest of Normandy

·      The first recorded distillation of cider took place in Normandy on March 28 1553

·      In 1790, after the French Revolution, the appellation “Calvados” was created by the members of the Constituent Assembly

·      By The 19th century cider production was as its height with 2000 recognized apples varieties

·      Today only 800 varieties of apples are left

·      Legislation officially recognizes only 48 varieties for use in Calvados although another 23 are under study.

·      In 1942 the 1st appellation Controlee North of the Calvados region “Calvados du Pays d'Auge”

·      In the Donfrontais area that has a granite, schist soil, Pears should be at least 30% (often more) of the Calvados blend.

Harvest

To ensure a cider of quality, the harvest and the storage of apples are crucial.  Make sure the fruits are not left on the ground for a long time or in the rain or stacked in big piles. Good conservation practices favor a grid system of storage that allows good aeration, and an even maturation that will decrease loss and improve cider quality.

Apples mature, depending on the varieties and climatic conditions, from mid-September to the beginning of January. Pressing them by varieties, or by mixing the ones that ripen at the same time, then blending the ciders to your ideal proportion will give you the best organoleptic quality.

Personally, for better blending control, I distill and age the different ciders separately, then blend the brandies to achieve a balance of flavors that have length on the palate and a complex depth.

One disastrous prejudice in the making of cider—which fortunately is disappearing—was to have a proportion of rotten apples in the mix. In fact, rotten apples have already lost most of their sugar through fermentation. They make the cider flat, give a bad taste and speed up the acetification (acetic acid) of the cider.

Yield

Depending of climate, location, soil, varieties, growing conditions...etc..

45 pounds (20kgs) of sound apples should yield about 4 gals (14 liters) of cider resulting in at least in ¼ gals (1 liter) of apple brandy.

Climate Change

Due to higher temperatures and changes in rainfall levels, apples trees are blooming and harvested earlier. According to researchers from the Bureau National des Calvados et Eaux de vie de Cidre (B.N.I.C.E), and from the Japanese National Agricole and Food Research Organization over the last decades the fruit is less acidic, sweeter, less sourand the texture is softer which reduces the shelflife of the fruit and affects the taste.

Press

A careful sanitizing of all the equipment and minimum air contact before pressing will avoid contamination. The apples should be sorted and washed before being pressed. Nowadays the hydraulic press allows a yield of 60t o 80%f pure juice.

The distinctive aromas of apples are more concentrated in the skin with more additional odors in the pulp as they develop completely as the fruit becomes fully ripe.

Fermentation

A slow fermentation of about 1 month is preferable. The cider should not contain any residual sugar. An addition of super food is sometime recommended to avoid stuck fermentation. Some producers age their ciders up to 10/11months in vats or stainless steel tanks prior distillation.

A systematic clarification of the must called “defecation” or ”brown hat” should be done 4 to 6 days after the start of the fermentation. This is a deposit from the lees formed by the attack of the pectin by the enzymes in association with the calcium that is pushed up under the pressure of CO2. It does not benefit the cider especially with the bitter apples and I strongly recommended that it is racked off right away.

Apples ciders are usually between 5 to 7% vol.

Slow Distillation

The distillation should be done before the start of the detrimental ”acetic” fermentation when the aromas are the most expressive.

A slow distillation in a well designed, copper alembic pot still will produce the best quality.

1st distillation = A small portion of heads, but tails should be more important in order to have a low wine (brouillis) between 27 to 30%vol.

2nd distillation= Separate the heads (~1,5 % of the volume in the pot) and the tails to keep the heart of apple—the Eau de Vie—which should be above 70% vol.

Note: Heads and tails of both distillations are recycled in the next batch of cider.

Distillation

In a column still with 15 plates is more efficient in term of timing and cost but it does not produce an Eau de Vie of the same complexity, volume and body compared with the slow double distillation.

Maturation

Slow aging—for best results apple brandies should be aged in oak barrels and seasoned for three years to avoid bitterness resulting in a longer period of aging for the tannins to be digested.

During the extraction period in new oak, the brandy picks up tannins, color, and notes of vanilla, caramel, toffee, and spices. Overtime, the apple brandy's flavors become concentrated, gaining more depth and complexity with aromas of honey and nuts.

The influence of the oak should be nuanced and part of the structure of the brandy but not dominate the bouquet. If using American Oak, a long deep toast-age is recommended to avoid the taste of green olives and or pickles.

An evaporation called Angel's share or devil's share, of 3 to 6 % a year occurred, depending on alcohol's level, aging conditions such as temperatures and humidity, sizes and storage level of the barrels in the cellar.

As slow maturation and a gentle reduction of the alcohol, step by step, allowed a better “marriage” of the components resulting in a softer, silkier and appealing apple brandy.

Apple Characteristics

Apples are divided in 4 different families:

Sweet—with their higher sugar content, sweet apples give alcohol and balance bitterness

Bitter—these apples are rich in tannins. They give color, body and length on the palate. They also help the clarification of the cider and its preservation. Can be 20 to 30% of blends.

Bitter/Sweet—in different proportion they have the characteristics of the 2 previous ones with more balance.

Acidic--bring freshness on the palate due to the high level of malic acid that elevates the aromas. They also reduce the risk of bacteriological attacks on the cider. Usually acdic apples are about 10% of the blend depending on the proportion of the sweet and the bittersweet.

Varieties

Two varieties if available, should be part of your blends:

1.  Orange –Pippin: a very hard and crisp, juicy strongly aromatic flavor. Sweet and sharp. Harvest: very late in the season. Climate: temperate climates but tolerates cold winter.

2.  Crab Apple: true wild native from America (with few exceptions). Hardy, highacid and tannins ,bring structure and length. Blossom late avoiding spring frost damage. Produce heavy crops of tiny fruits.

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