How To Make Hard Cider
You can make hard apple cider the difficult way, or the quick and easy way. I prefer the easy quick way. I’ve made a lot of beer and wine, including apple wine and a sparkling apple wine. The hard part was getting a cider taste rather than an apple wine flavor. And to be honest I wanted authentic taste but I didn’t think I had to work hard at it; our ancestors didn’t. This is not to knock those who spend months making an exquisite hard cider. This is a quick and refreshing drink for those with no patience.
When I was a kid my family would go to a local commercial orchard and buy bushels of bruised apples for our horses. We always got a couple of gallons of regular cider at the time. But then my father would ask for some cider from a particular barrel. That was the illegal hard cider barrel — illegal in that it wasn’t taxed. I remember the flavor of that hard cider well and when I made hard cider I wanted something close to that authentic taste. It wasn’t aged much, it wasn’t wine, and it wasn’t bubbly apple juice: It was hard cider with a crackle. And I also know they didn’t work hard at making it. It wasn’t involved, fancy or difficult. Here’s how I make my hard cider:
On Sunday I buy a gallon of apple cider at the health food store. It doesn’t have to be organic but the important part is that it contain no preservative, such as nitrates or sulfides. Ascorbic acid added is okay, and it can be pasteurized. I pour off a half a cup of juice and add a half a cup of starter (explained later.) I put on a fermentation lock and put it in a warm place. By Monday it’s fermenting vigorously. Friday I bottle it and put it back in the warm place. Saturday night I put it in the fridge. By Sunday, it’s cool and ready for drinking. If you let it age a week or two it’s even better. In one week you can be enjoying your own home-made hard apple cider with that great authentic old-fashion flavor.
Tastes vary. I like my hard cider a little on the sweet side, so I let it ferment for only five days, no longer. This, of course, may vary brand to brand. Some cider or juice may need to be fermented more or less depending on your personal tastes and the sugar content of the juice. When I bottle I pour it into empty 16 oz plastic seltzer water bottles, and put the caps back on. I let those set in a warm place until they are as hard as the bottles were when they had seltzer water in them. As I said, that usually only takes a day here. Then it all goes in the fridge. It can be drank immediately or over the next week or three. Keep an eye on the carbonation and make sure it doesn’t build up too much and break the plastic bottle. The dryer you like the cider, the longer you let it ferment before you bottle it and cap it.
Let me back up and provide some details. You can use beer yeast and a store-bought fermentation lock, or you can use wild yeast and a homemade fermentation lock. I use wild yeast and a store fermentation lock, basically because that is what I have on hand. Let me explain them both.
Using wild apple yeast is taking a chance that the yeast will throw a bad flavor, and opens the possibility of mold taking over before the yeast does. On the other hand, using a beer yeast increases your chances of success. I opted for wild apple yeast because I wanted my own yeast that no one else had. When I first bought a gallon of organic cider at the same time I bought an organic granny smith apple. It could have been any organic apple, but the key is it was an organic apple that should have wild apple yeast on it. I did not wash it. I took my apple cider and apple home. I peeled the apple and put the peeling into the apple juice and put it in a warm, dark place. It took almost two weeks for the yeast on the peeling to multiply to the point I could see bubbles rising in the cider. But by three weeks I was on my way. If you use beer yeast you will be in action overnight, greatly diminishing the chances of mold spoiling the party.
When I bottled that first batch of cider I kept the dregs, which were apple sediment, some juice, and a lot of yeast. I put that in a two quart soda bottle, added a couple of tablespoons of sugar, and kept it in a warm place, letting off the gas build-up every few days. One can also store it in the fridge long term. Now when I buy a gallon of cider, all I have to do is pour off a half a cup of juice, add a half a cup of starter, and then put that half cup of juice into the starter bottle with a little sugar. That wild yeast has produced very well for me for over two years. A bought yeast should perform even longer, but, at some point both will genetically drift and start to throw flavors you don’t want and you have to start again. Incidentally, you can use that wild yeast to raise bread slightly. Bread yeast will work to make cider but the alcohol content will be lower and the carbonation higher.
As for a home made fermentation lock: Since you will be fermenting it only one to three weeks at the most — depending upon what taste you like with your local brand — you can make a lock out of two things: a large balloon with a pin hole in it, or a piece of thin sandwich wrap with a pin hole in it held snug on the jug by an elastic band. Once the cider starts working there will be an outflow of pressure and that will keep any bad stuff out while the pin hole let’s the gas escape. Balloons are good if they are large enough to securely grab the jug’s mouth. Otherwise they can fill with gas and pop off even if you have a pin hole in it. Sometimes I use store locks and sometimes I use a piece of plastic. Balloons are really quite good but they have to be big balloons and they tend to be hard to find. Plain condoms held on with a rubber band will work well, too. Just don’t forget to put a pin hole in them and don’t forget you put a pin hole in them.
There is a certain amount of personal taste involved with how long you let the cider ferment. It depends on how sweet and how alcoholic you want it. The longer it ferments the more alcohol it will have and the less sweet it will be. If you let it ferment for more than a month or so it will start to lose its cider characteristic and start to be more like a semi-bubbly wine. It will also take on a harsh flavor that takes a couple of years of proper storage to moderate.
While purist have a good point when they say only certain apples and certain solids in the juice make a true cider, it is a continuum. Apple cider will become apple wine at some point. My hard cider is quick, lightly alcoholic, murky, and not harsh. You can easily drink it in a week. Apple wine is clear, more potent, and takes years to make not days.
The best thing is to do first time out is follow the schedule. Whether you use an apple peel that takes three weeks to get going or a teaspoon of beer yeast, count your five days after you can see a steady stream of bubbles to the top. (See my video to see what vigorous bubbles look like. It’s my most popular video.) Once you have a starter it works just as fast as commercial yeast.
If you like the sugar/alcohol levels of your test batch, then stay at five-day fermentation level. If you want it less sweet, let it ferment seven days or then 10 or 14. You may have to add a little sugar for carbonation if you let it ferment for more than three weeks. With my rich starter, my cider starts working within 24 hours and at the end there will always be a little sediment at the bottom of your jug and bottles. It is harmless. You can drink it or add it to your starter.
And what of the cider made this way? It’s very good. It is not rank. It is not on par with an English pub cider, but it’s quick, easy and you can get consistently good results. You could just as easily do five gallons as long as you had the bottles to put them in. If you don’t want to use plastic bottles you can also collect champagne bottles that will take a bottle cap. The best way to get those is raid weddings. I used to go to hotels on weekend and rescue cases of empty champagne bottles from wedding receptions. Unless you plan on corking them, only take the kind that take a bottle cap. Bottle cappers are inexpensive and caps are cheap.
I have found this to be the quickest, easiest way to make good cider with minimal equipment and hassles. If you have any questions, email me and I will do my best to answer them. While this focus has been on apple juice, it can be use with any sweet juice with sugar. It would even work with plain sugar and water, though there wouldn’t be much flavor.
As far as brands….my best flavor came from some organic apple cider (Knudson) at the health food store. But the price jumped recently to $12 a gallon, which translates into about 85 cents a cup. Whitehouse apple juice locally is selling for $5 a gallon, the final flavor is good and the price under fifty cents a cup final product. Supermarket brands tend to be low in sugar and produce dry or sour cider. No doubt there are some frozen apple juices that will work just as well. Once one has a good starter yeast one can experiment around.
And as safety measure: Never put a juice into your starter until after that juice has proven it is safe for the yeast by beginning to ferment first. Even a teaspoon of juice with preservatives will kill off your starter yeast. I also have two starters that I keep going at the same time just in case something does happen to one I still have the other.
By the way, don’t put your hard cider into a freezer. Much of the water will turn to ice and the very drinkable liquid you have left over is much stronger and is called home-made Apple Jack, which is illegal in most states because it hasn’t been taxed. Freezing it will accidentally make a 40% proof brew. Accidentally freezing a second time after removing the ice will make higher in proof.
Lastly, if you are using something like concord grape juice you might want to shorten the vigorous fermentation time to three days instead of six to retain sweetness. Because of its intense muscadine flavor concord grape juice can taste sour even with some residual sugar so I only work it three days, comes out great. In fact, if I do Welches regular concord grape juice three days with my starter, charge for a day, then refrigerate it tastes very close to a red lambrusco. I also do orange juice and the like for shorter times than cider depending upon the sugar content. If one gets a sour batch, one can always add sugar and still bottle.
Oh, a little fact: John Adams, first vice president of the United States and second president, liked to start every day with a tall glass of hard cider. He lived well past 90.