Working with treated apple cider and the problems with sodium benzoate

Note: Keep in mind that this article was supposed to be posted in November 2009, I guess better late then never. For a current update on the ciders status, see this posting.

So get a load of this. It’s been about a month since I started fermenting this year’s batch of hard cider. And about two weeks ago, I finally bothered to take an FG reading to see how the fermentation was coming along. And what was the FG on the hydrometer…..it was the same as the OG….1.050. Then I started thinking to myself “What the hell just happened?”

So the first thing that I did was go down into the basement, since I had saved a couple of the apple cider jugs, and my worst fears were confirmed on the label. The apple cider had been treated with 0.1 % of sodium benzoate (an FDA approved food preservative.) So basically as soon as I pitched the dry yeast into the cider, the sodium benzoate killed every last bit of the yeast.

Well now it was time for some heavy research into sodium benzoate, and at first the news wasn’t good. More or less since the cider had been treated with sodium benzoate (a food preservative), no yeast or bacteria would grow in the cider. So this in turn lead me to some more digging online, until I finally found a thread somewhere (might have been on The Brewing Network Forum), where a guy stated that he was able to get cider treated with sodium benzoate to ferment by using a large and active starter of yeast.

This is turn made me think of the process when you use campden tablets (potassium metabisulphite or sodium metabisulphite) to treat cider and kill anything wild that may be still lurking in the cider. I knew that when you use cider treated with campden, that you have to wait until the cider completely “gasses off”, which happens when the sodium metabisulphite is converted to sulfer gas. Which made me theorize if the same “gassing off” process would happen for sodium benzoate.

I stopped by my LHBS, to get the guys opinion if I was “effed” with all my cider. And they were basically in the same boat as JRR, in that I was “effed” and to cut my losses. But at this point I’ve already got the cider just sitting there doing nothing “literally”. So I might as well test out this whole “active starter” theory, in that you basically try to overwhelm the preservative effects of the sodium benzoate with an active starter of yeast. I bought another three packets of wine yeast ($0.59 per yeast packet), and went full blast into this chemistry experiment.

The results after pitching this active starter into the cider have been mixed. Was I able to get the cider to ferment, yes and no? I checked the FG after a couple of weeks and it had dropped to 1.040 from 1.050, which is an OK start, but that only gives me ~1.31% ABV, which is nothing to write home about. Now I’m basically stuck in a dilemma, if I should rack the cider to a secondary and try to pitch another starter batch of yeast and try to get the FG down even more. Because right now, I’d be happy if I could get the FG to around 1.030 to 1.025, this would put the ABV around 3%. Or if I should take my ~1% ABV and call it quits, and bottle my “lite” hard cider. (Update 1-21-10: Of those two options I went more with the first option, in that I just let the cider slowly ferment out, and after 3-4 months its finally at 0.996 to 1.004.)

Side Notes:

  • When I noticed gas activity in the airlock after a couple of hours in the fermentor, the gas was not CO2 from the occurrence of fermentation, in that the gravity had not changed in the cider. So in going with my theory, it could only have been the sodium benzoate “gassing off”, kind of like a campden tablet would. It would also seem that once refrigeration was no longer applied to the cider, it helped the “gassing off” process. Since the label on the cider stated that it was treated with sodium benzoate, but that the product still needed to refrigerated.
  • A starter is a must when dealing with treated cider, since you are dealing with a product that has been treated specifically to not ferment/spoil.
  • Time is off the essence. You need to see what the cider is doing and adjust your actions accordingly.

7 comments on “Working with treated apple cider and the problems with sodium benzoate

  • college scholarship says:

    Great site. A lot of useful information here. I’m sending it to some friends!

  • Well I still have about a case of cider left from the original batch all those years ago. So I could always bring some of the old and some of the new for the cider party. And instead of drinking Basque style, we could always just try drinking copious amounts of cider from a porron.

  • I can’t remember if I hit all the batches with a 3rd round of yeast a couple of months back. But when I checked them this past weekend they were basically all fermented out to between 6.5% to 7.0% ABV.

  • We’ll have a cider taste of this year, we can do it Basque style: still cider, skinny cups, high pours, and roast chicken. Get your tickets now!

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