Cider is not like beer. In so many ways. I was a bit cavalier when I dove into cider making, reasoning that knowledge of one fermented beverage gives you a leg up on another. Consider me chastened.
One of the most interesting discoveries in my cider-is-not-like-beer files is fermentation--obstensibly the one element that should be similar. The first thing to know is that, while cider is made up of easily digestible simple sugars, it lacks nutrients that beer has in abundance. That turns out to be a good thing, because it means cider makers can inhibit yeast, drawing out fermentation times. That in turn means cider that has retained subtle fermentation flavors and aromas. Fermentation can take weeks or months given the right circumstances.
One of those circumstances is cold. Yesterday afternoon I was standing in a gorgeous old warehouse for Cyril Zangs' cider. Here in Normandy so many of the old half-timbered buildings survived the 17th and 18th centuries that you can find them empty and available to rent--to, say, house your fermentation vessels. The weather in here (and the cider country in England for that matter) is very much like Portland's: near freezing at night, highs around 40-45 F. That means cider ferments throughout the winter at these temperatures. Traditional cider makers prefer to use ambient temperatures to chill fermentation--so far I haven't encountered anyone yet with chilled tanks (though they all expressed a wish to get them sometime).
And here's what's amazing to the beer guy: the yeasts stay active. Part of it is the volume; even at winter temperatures, a vat of cider will probably stay above 40 degrees. And if the temperatures do drop low enough, the yeast just go dormant. Fermentation begins again once the cold snap ends. The cold is perhaps the biggest aid to a cider maker--it inhibits the really nasty characters and allows the cider to develop to its full potential.
I have so far visited five traditional cideries and whether Norman or English, they have the same attitude--the less they interfere, the better the cider is for it. I wonder if American cider makers could trust the process enough to just press the fruit and wait? An uninsulated barn or warehouse anywhere in Oregon or Washington would do. But not-doing can sometimes be harder than doing.