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A tale of Two Keeves

We’ve reviewed keeved ciders on Cider Review many times (too many to link here – so please have a search) and it’s a method that has always fascinated me. Personally it seems like some sort of dark magic that, as a cider maker, I am very nervous about ever considering to give a go. In my head I keep thinking sugar is converted to alcohol and that makes bubbles so I would be very scared of putting something in a bottle with so much residual sugar still present. There’s obviously a huge amount of skill, practice and trust in the process, that the viable yeast left after the keeving is complete will only be able to ferment a small amount before dying off, creating the perfect balance of sweetness and carbonation. 

On paper it’s actually a fairly simple process which can be done in the traditional way, or with a bit of a modern helping hand. There is a more to it than this, but put simply, traditionally apples are crushed during a spell of cold weather late in the season and then macerated before pressing. Due to the very slow start of any yeast activity, there is time for the naturally present pectin enzymes to change pectin to pectic acid which then binds together with the calcium in the juice to form a gel which rises slowly to the surface to form the Chapeau Brun (Brown Cap). The clear juice underneath is then racked off at the perfect time, and it has to be spot on; too late and the cap slips back into the juice and the window is gone. This low nutrient and yeast juice will then very slowly ferment. 

The modern helping hand comes in the form of a “keeving kit”, which contains Calcium Chloride and Pectin Methyl Esterase enzyme to get the process kickstarted and guaranteed. If you want to read and learn more then check out Andrew Lea’s presentation here. The question I’m considering today though, is what type of apples taste best after a keeve; cider apples or eating/culinary apples? Obviously this is totally subjective and in no way representative, after all I’ve only got two bottles here, to make a rash, generalised assumption with. Interestingly Andrew Lea has a view on this topic, commenting that “dessert fruit is much less likely to be successful… due to its generally low tannin and high nutrient levels”. Well, we’ll just see about that Andrew…

Interesting to note both of these come from opposite ends of England; Dorset and County Durham, but first up it’s cider apples.

Cranborne Chase Cider – Dorsecco (4.6%)

Made using late season apples from old orchards. Very little (as in zero) information on varieties on the bottle or website.

Colour: hazy gold

On the nose: caramelised apples, new oak barrels, faint lemon zest and a hint of spicy clove and leather.

In the mouth: creamy velvety mousse from those bubbles. Classic keeved structure of very gentle acidity, slight cheek drying astringency and silky natural sweetness. Apple desserts are at the centre of the flavour, think apple donuts or turnovers, there’s a little hit of vanilla that makes me dream of apple strudel and custard. Those elements of wood and spice back up the baked apples like a wood fired apple hot cross bun (I’m tasting this at Easter weekend). Being critical, there is an ever so slight hint of soapiness on the palate, which I think presented as the faint lemon zest on the nose, but it’s very slight. The finish is complex marriage of sweetness and chalky tannins. 

In a nutshell: very close to a traditional Breton keeved cider, well balanced and yummy.

J & R Armitage Ltd – Cider (2019) 5.3%

Made from a blend of late season dessert and cooking apples (no info on varieties again). Wild yeast fermented and no added sulphites. 

Colour: clear gold

On the nose: toffee apples, burnt oranges and molasses, hints of tropical melon and kiwi fruits. Definitely lots of cooked sugar and citrus peel. Plus a note of brandy spirit too. There are slight acetic and acetone notes present to my nose as it warms, but it’s very slight. 

In the mouth: green apples for sure at the start and unsurprisingly acidity is fairly strong, but in this it creeps to the point of making the taste less sweet for a keeved, especially when it’s well chilled. Some of those baked sugar notes aren’t strong on the taste. Citrus fruits are here though, with oranges and grapefruit. As it warms more tropical kiwi notes start to show as does the sweetness. 

It doesn’t have a huge amount of body or texture to it at first taste, so feels a little thin on the mid palate. As it warms the sweetness evolves that somewhat and brings some viscosity. The finish is tart with an ever so small amount of acetic twang. It’s not to the point of being overpowering, but it’s enough for me to pick it up. 

In a nutshell: a light and refreshing keeved cider, which is not something I thought I’d ever write.

Conclusion

Well…. damn you Andrew and you’re knowing it all. I jest of course, there are actually elements of both that I like. Objectively looking over all though, it’s the bittersweet keeve from Cranborne Chase that steels it for me, something about those silky tannins intertwined with the natural sweetness to create a velvety and sumptuous drink really works. It’s no wonder that the method has remained so popular in France. I would wager that many UK drinkers would be easily swayed away from industrial back-sweetened cider in favour of this more complex natural sweetness. The J & R Armitage is a fascinating one, that acidity level really disrupts the sweetness which makes me question why bother with keeving, and the absence of significant tannins leaves little body and structure on the palate. But it’s an interesting cider; I drank the whole bottle exploring the different nuances as it warmed, but those little oxidised elements tainted the experience somewhat for me sadly. Without them it would be a very interesting drink, but not a quintessential keeved cider. 

So what’s the better fruit for keeving? On this rather small sample size, I’m with cider apples but I feel there’s more exploring to do so the hunt for more keeved eating and dessert fruit ciders begins.

2 Comments

  1. I think Andrew’s comment probably related more to the chance of success rather than the quality (I hope, though he clearly isn’t a fan of dessert fruit), as Claude Jolicoeur said something similar, though he also proved it is possible. I’ve done it 1.5 times. The 0.5 was an unplanned partial keeve way back when I started making cider. Honestly, I didn’t know what was happening at the time. 🙂

    The next time, 2017, it was planned, with a keeving kit ordered from America (as I didn’t need kilos of the stuff) and it worked really well! I wish I’d kept some bottles aside! I tried to repeat twice more (including one with quince), but they failed to keeve, even with kits, so I’d say it is more difficult with dessert fruit.

    That difficulty, and having to go to the customs office in Heilbronn to explain what that white powder was that I was getting in the post 😀

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  2. Mike+Shorland says

    Nice piece James! I would add that it’s much easier to keeve with the really late season fruit – when the temperatures have dropped. I was working on the some cold racks for the first time this year, and the earlies were off and fermenting before I even knew it. And I think eaters tend towards early ripening.

    Plus I wonder how nutrient levels differ across different apple varieties. Sure I read an article once where levels had been analysed but no chance of finding it now

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