This weekend we began the time consuming process of racking the cider off the lees (the old yeast and apple deposits). Quite a dull job really, but enlivened by the chance of a little taster from each of the different batches of cider.
Racking off is the means by which we remove the young cider from the lees which, now fermentation has slowed right down, will have settles on the the bottom of the fermenter, leaving the clear-ish cider above. Some cidermakers never rack their cider, they presumably feel there is no need for this additional, perhaps risky process, but leaving a cider on the old yeast deposit has it's own risks, and may adversely affect the flavour of the cider if left for too long. We feel it's a job worth doing if only for our peace of mind, and it's actually quite a satisfying thing to do, with the feeling that you are somehow 'cleansing' your cider.
For racking we have a very low-tech piece of equipment, The Big Wooden Spoon. Ridiculously large, totally impractical as a culinary tool, but a few coats of varnish and a length of food-grade tubing turns this into the ideal racking-off tool. It's a job which can't be rushed, if the flow is too fast not only will sediment be sucked up, but you also run the risk of agitating the cider and driving off any dissolved CO2, essential to help protect the cider from oxidisation and other potential problems. During the transfer a small sample of the cider is taken to check that all is well, and this is the opportunity to taste it's cidery potential.
We managed to rack almost half our ciders before the pub beckoned, and it was very interesting tasting the different batches. We aim to blend the different apple varieties during pressing, so that each individual fermenter has more or less the same flavour profile. Even so, we found that each container we racked off was subtly different. One was a fair bit more tannic than the others, perhaps more Bulmers Norman went into this one. Others were slightly sharper, and there was one in particular which was a little sweeter and fruitier than the rest. I'm very pleased with the flavour and condition at this stage, all the ciders have a light 'prickle' of CO2 which will help to keep them fresh into the Summer, and they all seem to have enough 'bittersweet' character to mature nicely over the next few months.