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How to make cider and sauerkraut, German style

Ulrike Feistel

Ulrike Feistel

November 11, 2012

Every year in autumn when all the carefully planned and accidental colour schemes fade away and the whole garden turns into a firework of warm autumn colours and when some plants are literally in flames, another event transforms the garden adding more vibrant colours and liveliness to the otherwise rather tranquil spot: the cider making.

Our garden takes on its autumn colours

Bright red apples (”Sternreinette”) together with the autumn coloured leaves of Vitis vinifera

Then the apples from our orchard, which have arrived in small heaps appearing everywhere in the garden where there is space to temporarily keep them, intermingle wonderfully with the yellow, orange, ochre and various brown tones of the garden and the surrounding landscape. In particular the ‘Sternreinette’ adds bright red beauty spots to the glamorous autumn picture.

Bright blue, green, pink little dots appear all over the place as some of the cider making equipment such as numerous plastic buckets, barrels and other vessels go into action. And of course all the friends helping with the work add multiple colours to the picture and keep it changing all the time.

Then in the evening at dusk when all the hard work is coming to an end, lights from lanterns appear everywhere in the garden as if starting a competition with the star lit sky. The big table gets ready for the party, loaded with last year’s cider and plenty of food to restore the lost energy.

The process of cider making is simple but the result as rewarding as an elaborately produced champagne in particular when the cider is the produce of your own work.

The cutting and chatting helpers

Generally we pick the apples rather than using wind falls, although this year we were very late and had to deal with the wind falls which means that after washing the apples we also cut off the parts that have been damaged. This takes some time and the people in charge of the preparation of the apples sit for hours and hours cutting and chatting until they have blisters on their fingers (and tongues).

Once ready, the apples are shredded and then put into a press to extract the raw juice. Some juice is then pasteurised and filled into bottles to be kept in the cellar, where the cider will join them after its separate journey of first fast-and-stormy and then slow fermentation in barrels. Generally we add some yeast to help the fermentation at low temperatures (Kitzinger Kaltgaerhefe) although this is not strictly necessary. Once the main fermentation process has been completed, we take the cider off the sediment and either bottle it, thereby allowing some sparkling as the fermentation and ripening slowly continues until the cider is mature. We now only use Champagne bottles as we had to deal with a number of explosions in the cellar which made the fetching of the desired drink a rather hazardous mission.

When not bottled, the cider will be transferred into a new clean barrel where it can mature without causing mischief.

This year the garden underwent a further transformation as some kind hearted, well meaning neighbour made us a gift of 50 cabbage heads, each one significantly bigger than a football.

The restored cabbage shredder minutes before it went into action after over 80 years of laziness in an attic

They came as a complimentary present to an old centrifugal cabbage shredder which we were given last year and which we had re-furbished and wanted to test with one or two cabbage heads.

So there we were, well equipped to dive into a full scale sauerkraut production line as there was no way of us and our friends eating 50 cabbage heads, no matter how delicious a meal we might make of them. Luckily, years ago we also had inherited a number of clay pots used to keep sauerkraut which have been standing in the attic, full of dust and nearly forgotten. Now, they suddenly had their chance to come back to life.

So one part of the garden had rather big pale green dots added to the autumn colours together with the pink of the vat taking the cabbage from the shredder.

The traditional method of preparing the cabbage

Once shredded, the cabbage was mixed with salt, finely chopped carrots and juniper berries and put onto the old clay pots. There it had to be compacted to extract some juice needed to cover the cabbage during the process of its transformation into sauerkraut. This was easy enough with the small vessels where we just used our fists to smash the cabbage. But there was one very big vessel (of about 100 litres) where it was rather difficult to reach in and to fight the masses of cabbage with your fists. We therefore fell back to the traditional way of using our feet rather than fists to get the desired result and give the cabbage a good start into its transforming life.

Nothing was wasted at this cider and sauerkraut making event – on the contrary: the remains of the pressed and de-juiced shredded apples and the cut-offs of the cabbage heads were given to a friend who has some small pigs, in exchange for an apple-fed pig which we will all share: roasted, with sauerkraut and, of course, some cider.

The old orchard where the apples came from

Many thanks to all our helpers Beate, Bertram, Christian, Grit, Helga, Johanna, Marianne, Marlene, Kerstin, Sophia, Siggi, Sylke and Werner who made the autumnal garden transformation such a pleasant event – despite all the hard work!

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Alison S
Alison S
11 years ago

This is gardening at its most enchanting: a seasonal adventure to share with friends and family. I can almost feel the squish of cabbage, carrot and juniper berries between my toes! Please let us know how your first sauerkraut experiment turns out – and when the time comes to enjoy your feast of pork, cider and sauerkraut, please once again share your enjoyment with your GardenDrum friends.

Julie Thomson
11 years ago

Marvellous post, Ulrike. I just want to dive into that trough of beautiful red apples. In fact, I want to come and live in your gorgeous autumnal place and pick the apples, make the cider, drink the cider and smell the sauerkraut.
What a wonderful old piece of equipment the cabbage shredder is. How does it operate?
Your site is a feast for all the senses. Thank you.

helen mckerral
helen mckerral
11 years ago

Fabulous post, Ulrike! Thank you!
I would LOVE detailed recipes for both the sauerkraut AND the cider, if you’re willing to part with them!

bernhard feistel
bernhard feistel
11 years ago
Reply to  helen mckerral

Dear Helen,

May I answer on behalf of Ulrike who is abroad at the moment:

As with many recipes there are local and personal variations. The purists just use cabbage and salt (ca 15g salt per kilo cabbage), but we have found that the addition of some finely chopped carrots and juniper berries bring a special flavour. So you just finely chop the cabbage (take out the inner core and remove the outer leaves before) and carrots and mingle them together with the salt in a vessel. Then you start transferring it into a jar or pot (ideally a ceramic pot with a rim (in which you could fill water), and a lid. After you have transferred a quarter or so you start smashing/pushing it either with your bare fists (think of nasty weeds) or a piece of wood or, if you have large amounts, in Ulrike’s traditional way till the juice comes up and covers the leaves. This goes surprisingly quickly (depending on your relations to weeds or other enemies). Then you refill and repeat the procedure till all the chopped cabbage is in and covered in its own juice. By the way, I find this juice absolutely tasty, not only because it is supposed to be very healthy. Now you take some of the outer cabbage leaves to cover the whole thing and on top of that you place a suitable clean stone which (through its weight) makes sure that the cabbage mass is and remains under water. Now you fill the rim with water and place the lid into it, if you have such a special jar, which works like an airlock (also to be used for Rumtopf = all the summer fruits as they come, and mixed with rum and sugar to be consumed in winter). But a large jar would do as well as soon as you cover it sufficiently. Now you leave it to brew at a relatively cool and dark place checking now and then that the mass remains under water.

After about 3-5 weeks (dependent on temperature) you should be able to start consuming it, either raw or cooked, yet, always making sure that there is some juice on top of the remaining sauerkraut in the vessel. By the way, the east of France (around the area of Strasbourg) is famous for its Choucroute garnie and you should be able to find lots of recipes.

Cider (or apple wine):

I am sure there are many secret recipes, too, according to regional traditions which would also have a lot to do with the apple varieties used. In my opinion it is important to have at least some parts of apples with high acidity (sour tasting ones or even crab apples) but in recent years (and living in two countries) we have just used the apples (and occasionally pears, without making pure perry) as they came. Normally the fermentation would start without using yeast but perhaps it is safer to use special wine yeast to start the fermentation process. In Germany you can buy them in a variety of shops, either in liquid form or as a powder, but I am sure also normal baking yeast could do, which I use when preparing herbal beers (nettles, chervil…). I personally prefer a yeast which works at low temperatures and for a longer period.

About two to three days before you start with the cider making you mix the yeast (the ratio according to the amount you are planning to press) with about 500 to 1000 ml freshly pressed juice in a glass and cover it with a linen or so. As soon as a kind of froth appears you know it is ready to be inserted into the pressed juice.
Now you harvest/collect your apples, shred them and then insert the shredded mass into a press (a spindle press used for wine making works absolutely fine) and extract the juice. There are several machines for shredding/grating the apples. What we use works on a similar principle as a garden shredder.

The juice is then transferred into a suitable vessel, say a demijohn, which should only be filled to three quarters and left at a warm place. It is always better to have several vessels and ideally of different sizes, since at the beginning it is as important not to fill them completely as it is important to fill them completely at a later stage. Now you insert your ready yeast mixture, cover the demijohn(s) with linen and in due course the “stormy fermentation” starts. The remaining quarter of the demijohn will soon be covered in froth, which sometimes wants to spill over. In that case it might be useful to put a funnel into the opening. This process lasts (depending on the temperature) for about a week after which the froth reclines. Now you fill the vessel(s) till it is (they are) full and close it with an airlock. At that point we transfer the vessels into our cellar. The fermentation will then continue at a lesser speed (and you should check the progress in the airlock) for some weeks, the speed of which depending on the temperature. After it has visibly slowed down, which you realise with the much slower moving airlock and the developing sediment at the bottom of the barrel/vessel it is time to clear the sediment. We now open the airlock, insert a hose till it almost reaches the sediment level and transfer the liquid above it (just by sucking) into another empty demijohn positioned a level below and leave it there or transfer it back after we have cleaned the original one and put on the airlock again. At this point you will realise the importance of having vessels of different sizes since you can now fill up the gap left by the dregs using the contents in the smaller demijohns. It is really important that the vessels are as full as possible after the stormy fermentation is over! The fermentation continues in due course, yet slower, whilst there will be less and less sediment at the bottom of the vessel. As soon as you feel the fermentation is over ( a very slow moving airlock) you can fill your bottles, yet, if you want to have your cider a little fizzy, you fill them before this point, but please make sure that you use strong glass bottles or plastic ones. Of course, there is equipment to measure the sugar and alcohol content, after which you would be able to estimate how much further fermentation is to be expected.

In our experience the stormy fermentation lasts about 1 week, the 2nd step (i.e. to the point where you clear the dregs) about 4 to 6 weeks and then another 4 to 6 weeks till you can fill your bottles. In our experience the quality of the cider improves a lot when stored for a while and not drunk immediately, and when the contact with air during the refilling procedure is being kept to a minimum.

And may I finish with another point. The renowned English gardener Bob Flowerdew recommended storing your brewing and fermenting vessels in the conservatory, since the plants thrive on what comes out of the airlock. I will try that out one day.

Gosh! I still have to acquire the art of (not only) conveying recipes in a much shorter way. Let’s hope our editor turns a blind eye…

PS Julie: The cabbage shredder is quite a dangerous machine and hence Health and Safety inspectors were not allowed. At the bottom of it you have a disk in which are inserted several blades. By turning the handle the disk is turning as well and so you turn the handle with one hand and push the (quarter of) the cabbage on to the moving disk. The chopped cabbage darts now via the centrifugal power through a gap in the casting into a vessel. With the declining cabbage you need to decide when to stop pushing. Yet one of our clever friends had the idea to press one cabbage quarter on top of the declining one, so the fingers were always some distance from the blades.

Catherine Stewart
11 years ago

I have turned a blind eye as you say! But I think with the addition of some photographs one day this would make for a wonderful blog post in its own right.
I also wonder, though, about storing bottles of fermenting cider in a conservatory? Something about exploding bottles and glasshouses……

bernhard feistel
bernhard feistel
11 years ago

As long as there is an airlock on top of the fermentation vessel for the CO2 to get properly out all should be fine. But I wouldn’t recommend storing corked vessels or bottles in a glasshouse when you still expect some fermentation going on.

helen mckerral
helen mckerral
11 years ago

Wow, Bernhard, that’s fantastic, I’ll defintely give both a go next season! When I was growing up, my best friend was German and her Oma made the yummiest sauerkraut out of red cabbages that my friend’s father grew in their garden. My (Dutch) Oma also preserved cabbage but it was nowhere near as nice.
Thank you for that detailed info, it gives me enough to go on that I should be able to adapt to Aussie conditions and containers!