In the deep history that is cider & cider making, there have been different apples picked, regions forged, and techniques utilized. Speaking of cidermaking techniques in particular, we have a fondness for keeving. Keeving? What the f*** is that? Simply put, this is a long-tail style, 3-6 months, of fermentation that produces a naturally sparkling, tannic cider. As history has shown, these long processes become extinct in an ever more commercialized and modernized world. No one likes to wait, I guess. But, hope still exists! There are still cidermakers using this fascinating technique and, as the Robin Hoods of cider, delivering the sweet truths that have been lost. We will delve into the keeving process as simple as we can (no chemistry lesson here) and speak to the cideries that are still using it today.
The process starts with a blend of fully ripened bittersweet or dessert apples, ensuring high tannins and a low amount of nutrients in the apples. The cidermaker then waits until there is a week where the weather is consistently 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The apples are washed and ground up & the mashed apples are put into sulphited barrels for roughly 24 hours. This process is called maceration and it is a key step to the start of keeving. The barreling slows down oxidation and allows pectin to come out of the apples and into the juice. The juice is then pressed as it would normally be, but the mixture is a thicker variety than what one gets from the regular pressing process. This juice is put into a second fresh barrel (multi-barrel action like a shotgun).
While the juice is being barreled, the pectin in the juice slowly changes to pectic acid and forms a gelatin layer at the surface. Some of this pectin will also link up with some proteins and tannins and fall in love, sinking to the bottom of the juice. Isn’t it romantic? Of course, not everyone was struck by cupid. Someone wasn’t really invited to the festivities to fall in love. This sad creature is yeast. There is not a lot for the yeast and it limits the fermentation, mostly due to the low temperature and lack of nutrients. The only yeast in the process is wild yeast, and it is generally held in check during keeving.
From this point, though, there are two things that can really happen:
1) Even without the proper setting, wild fermentation can become aggressive & there will be collected yeast growth. This means that keeving has failed and you can finish the cider in a normal fashion.
2) Congrats, your keeving was successful. You can now use the juice between the pectin layer & the fallen sediment on the bottom, pump it into a fermentation vat, and finish the process.
Since there is a lack of nutrients in the process, and reduced levels of pectin, nitrogen, and yeast cells due to the pectin layer created, cidermakers are ensured a very slow fermentation and a natural stop fermentation. What does this spell for an end product? It means you are getting a very natural and sweet cider that is complex and tannic in flavor. And this is the reason people can still find ways to enjoy this process: you are drawing more of the earthy, funky flavors that are, in ways, purest to the apple.
Due to the time frame this requires, keeving is a dying breed, but, as there is always someone keeping tradition alive, a few companies are sticking to the drawn-out process. Below are some examples of North American champions of keeping keeving alive. Quite a tongue twister, I know!