Late at night, at last year's New Mexico Brewer's campout in the Pecos, a legendary cider-maker voiced an opinion that I think most people share, deep down: everything is better with bacon.
Would even apple cider benefit from bacon? And if you're going to do that, why not make it a full breakfast drink? That exquisite essence of pancakes, maple, could play a part as well.
Thus was born the Maple Bacon Cider competition.
A year has passed, and last weekend the entrants reunited to submit their entries for judgment. I am pleased to announce that my sweetie and I won in the categories of Best Appearance and Presentation, Best Bacon Expression, and Best Overall. We didn't win the Best Maple Expression or Best Apple Cider, but I think we did fairly well in those aspects too.
Would you like to recreate our winning Maple Bacon Cider? Well, you can't. Even I can't, because I didn't take good notes on the final ratios of everything. But here's how to go about it.
You’ll need a hard cider as your foundation. Cider making is a whole topic on its own, so I'm not going to go into depth on that here. Look around. Apple harvest time is coming up in a few weeks, so now's a good time to think about sources. We used a blend, approximately a third consisting of store-bought Scrumpy's, a little over half being my 2008 cider (which I think isn't all that great, but I sure drain those bottles quickly whenever I open one), and the balance being my 2008 cyser (which is very sweet, suffering from a stuck fermentation at about 1.050 -- dunno what I'm going to do about that, yet) plus the bacon extract (see below). Really, any good cider base will do, although its dryness or sweetness might be influenced by your maple tactic.
For maple, there are a few approaches. I can tell you the one that does not work: putting maple syrup in your cider prior to fermentation. Oh, the sugar will ferment, but for some reason, the maple flavor doesn't really come through. You'll want to add maple syrup after fermentation, which means you're going to be sweetening, so means you might want to have a pretty dry cider to start with. Or save yourself some trouble and just use maple extract. I believe that the Best Maple Expression winner used an extract.
The hard part is the bacon. This is the true challenge and the real reason the competition happened. The president of the Dukes of Ale is going to blackmail me with a video of me drunkenly expounding my team's "two pronged approach" to baconating our cider, but really, it was a three pronged approach.
First, make a bacon extract. Fry up some bacon and eat it. Pour the grease into a jar, and add a distilled spirit. We used vodka, but bourbon is a great choice too. Swirl the grease and vodka together every once in a while for a few days. Then put it into the refrigerator. The fat will congeal, and you can skim most of it off. Pour the vodka through a coffee filter to separate the rest. Your vodka ought to now have some bacon aroma and flavor. Don’t bother trying to extract flavor from the meaty, non-fat part of the bacon. That doesn’t work.
Second, liquid smoke. Part of what we think of as bacon flavor, is really just the curing. If you smell hickory smoke, you can't help but think you smell bacon. (Go easy with the stuff, though. In a half-gallon batch, half a teaspoon is enough, possibly even too much.)
Third, and this is part of why we also won Best Presentation and Appearance, is to fry up some bacon immediately prior to serving. Each taster gets a stick of bacon dropped right into their glass. C'mon, you're looking at a piece of bacon, and it's putting a grease slick on top of your cider. Don't tell me you don't taste bacon, even if it's just psychological.
I was surprised and almost disappointed that all entries were drinkable. None of the submissions were gross. Fortunately, next year’s competition raises the difficulty and is more open to interpretation, so maybe some adventurous soul will go too far: barbecue beer.