by Courtney Llewellyn

Diversification in the name of the game across agriculture these days, and those growing apples and making cider continue to jump on board. The topic of co-fermentation in natural cider – using other fruits in addition to apples – was the topic of a discussion at the recent virtual CiderCon.

On hand were Nick Gunn of BenchGraft, Krista Scruggs of ZAFA Wines and Ciders, Kether Smith of Botanist & Barrel Cidery & Winery and Sean Kelly of WildCraft Cider Works. Gunn said, “When you’re able to co-ferment, you create a more enjoyable, more natural cider.” Scruggs agreed, mentioning ZAFA’s collaborative efforts.

“In our Co-Cellars project, I worked with fruits I’ve never worked with before – cranberry and watermelon,” she said. “It’s fun and challenging working with fruits we’ve never worked with before. We had to figure out a way to press watermelons” (they did so successfully) “but the difficulty was not knowing what would happen. In the end, we were happy with the product that came out. The hardest part is being curious and wanting to have some fun.”

At ZAFA, for example, they utilize maple syrup to kick off secondary fermentation. It’s something Scruggs is still learning about but something she’ll continue to utilize. She noted the bubble structure is different and that the amount of maple syrup to be added varies, based on the fruit used. “It’s a broad scale you can play with – there are no set numbers on percentages,” she said.

At Botanist & Barrel, everything they make is unpasteurized and unfiltered. Smith said it’s the South’s only natural cidery. They start with apple juice and either allow that to start fermentation by itself, then add fruit, or add other fermented fruit. They use “ugly fruits” – produce that doesn’t find an avenue in normal markets but can still be put to good use. Smith explained that after two weeks of primary fermentation, they take fruit off the top and, if possible, press it for further extraction. Then they start tasting and “allow the cider to guide where it goes.” When it’s ready, it’s aged in either barrels or stainless steel tanks. “We let the juice guide us into what we think is going to bring out the best from that fermentation,” Smith said.

He did note co-fermenting takes a lot of patience. “It’s a lot more time-consuming than just making apple cider or just adding fruit at the end,” he said. “And there’s a little bit of risk.” For example, in North Carolina, they have access to muscadine grapes – which are sometimes regarded in not the best light, he explained. They are very sweet and syrupy, but if you co-ferment with them, apple can tone down their floral, juicy notes. “It turns something kind of negative into an asset.”

Other fruits can be harder to work with. Scruggs mentioned not having good luck with peaches; Smith said figs and persimmons have been a challenge. But he added that introducing lesser known fruits can be interesting and definitely worth pursuing.

Kelly said his co-fermenting is a community-based project. He explained that Eugene, OR, is an area with a history of permaculture and that there are a lot of abandoned orchards on the West Coast. “Over the last six years it’s what this land provides that guides each vintage and fermentation,” he said. “We’re not looking to acquire or purchase specific fruit – it’s all directly related to the land. I believe this helps guide co-fermentation. There’s no lab, no testing, just an intuitive approach. We let the seasonality of the harvest guide our process.”

He said everything WildCraft does is based on senses. They let the fruits run their natural processes. “Some of those initial qualities you get nervous about, but with aging and allowing natural fermentation to run longer, a lot of problems will solve themselves,” he said.

Experimenting is key. “Each year, you discover something new,” Kelly said. “Taste your fruit. Know your fruit. Love your fruit. Your balancing act will be more successful.” (And it’s not just fruit he’s playing with either; they’re currently working on a beet cider, which he described as “rich, almost like a sherry.”)

And “if something goes really sour, really south, just distill it,” Smith added. “Find another way to use it.”