While beer is the focus here at DRAFT, we do occasionally cheat on our favorite beverage with some sips of whiskey, mead and cider. It was while tasting some of the latter that we came across a label inscribed with this unfamiliar description: “French-style keeved cider.”
It was a word we’d never encountered before, and the cider it described—2 Towns Ciderhouse’s Cidre Bouche—was unlike most we had ever tasted. For starters, it had a cloudy peach-pulp appearance closer to those Northeast IPAs we’ve been enjoying lately than to a clean, sparkly cider. The flavor, too, had the requisite bright fruitiness of crisp fuji apples (plus some lovely mandarin orange and pineapple), but there was also something funky underneath: a mild, rotting-fruit-and-earth flavor. The cider was big-bodied and quite sweet, but dried out just enough at the finish to avoid becoming cloying.
To find out what made Cidre Bouché so different—and just what in the hell keeving is—we called up its creator, 2 Towns co-founder and head cider maker Dave Takush.
“Keeving is a very strange method of fermentation,” Takush says. “It’s mainly done by cider makers in France, and the point is to get a stuck fermentation, which means the yeast poops out before it can complete the entirety of the fermentation.”
In brewing, a stuck fermentation often occurs when there aren’t enough nutrients—nitrogen, primarily—for the yeast to absorb and use as fuel for their digestion of malt sugars. Apple juice is generally nitrogen-deficient, so most American cider makers make up for it by adding some to ensure their yeast can complete fermentation happy and healthy. But with keeving, Takush says, you’re actually trying to limit the nutrients in the cider so fermentation sticks, making the resulting beverage naturally sweet.
So how is a keeved cider made? It starts with the apples. Keeving requires bittersweet apples; the culinary or dessert apples often used to produce the bright, sparkling hard ciders most commonly found on shelves today won’t work because they’re too low in tannins and too high in nutrients. “It would be like trying to make syrah out of pinot noir grapes,” Takush says.
The actual production of the cider differs as well. When making a modern cider, you’d normally crush your apples and immediately press them to extract their juices. Keeving, however, requires that the crushed apples just sit there for up to 24 hours. Two things happen while the fruit rests: it browns (which is why keeved ciders tend to be a little darker than your average cider) and a substance called pectin leaks out of the cell membranes.
Pectin is a polysaccharide—a gel-like substance often used as a thickening agent in jellies and jams—and when there’s a lot of it in a fermenting cider, it’s pretty obvious.
“What happens is that pectin-heavy juice conglomerates and actually sets like jelly,” Takush says. “You get this network forming in your juice, and the pectin rises to the top of your fermenter, looking like this layer of clear jelly, four or five inches thick.”
This is when the most significant step in keeving occurs. As the pectic coagulates, it floats to the top of the holding tank, scraping a fair amount of sediment and yeast along with it. Heavier particles that aren’t grabbed by the jelly drop to the bottom of the tank, and between them you have clear, nutrient-deficient juice. That, Takush says, is the stuff you rack off to ferment and become cider.
It’s not an efficient process, Takush says. Most of the standard ciders he makes at 2 Towns take three or four weeks to fully ferment because they’re held at low temperatures; some large production cideries can turn around a cider in under a week. A keeved cider, however, may take three to six months before it’s ready to drink. But the result, he says, is worth the extra effort.
“The fun thing about these keeved ciders is that they tend to have some astringency and tannic bite to them. They’re almost winelike, and you get a full, thick body with lots of structure behind it. It’s big and voluptuous. And as far as flavor, in general terms, when you have a more common hard cider, they tend to be in this category of bright, floral, fruity, high acid, medium to low body. Whereas keeved ciders are more in the earthy, medicinal, overripe apple category. They tend to be softer, more lush, and I think much more complex. They all have this inherent character—it’s called the bittersweet character. Decomposing leaves, like if you walked through an orchard in the fall and a bunch of apples had fallen on the ground. It’s just really wonderful.”
So is the keeved stuff better than a cider produced by more modern means?
“Is a Belgian sour ale any better than a pilsner?” Takush asks. “They’re not necessarily better; just made for different situations. If you’re rafting down a river, and it’s hot and you want something refreshing and snappy, a standard cider is just about the best thing ever. But on a rainy fall evening sitting around a fire, you want the keeved stuff.”