Right around this time of year, kitchens seem to get a little busier. Parents and grandparents pass family recipe secrets down to the next generation. Batches of gingerbread cookies are slathered in spiced icing, with tiny red sprinkles carefully arranged to make smiling faces. This year, why not start a new tradition with a delicious payoff? Grab a loved one—or take some much needed alone time—and make your own hard cider.
We know you’re probably thinking, “That sounds like a lot of work.” Well, it surprisingly isn’t. Plus you’ll have something unique and special to enjoy throughout the winter with guests. So now that you’re willing to give it a shot, it’s time to get your supplies ready.
Though making cider doesn’t require nearly as much equipment as brewing beer, you’ll probably still have to take a trip to your local homebrew shop. We typically make cider in five-gallon batches, but you can easily scale down and start with one gallon to get a feel for the experience.
So, most obviously, you’ll need apple juice or cider to start with. We prefer to use fresh cider from Richter’s Orchards in Northport, but store bought juice will also work—just make sure it doesn’t have any sorbate, sorbitol or preservatives. Almost as important as the base cider or juice is a sanitizer (Star San) and cleanser (One Step). You will also need a vessel to ferment the cider in as well as one to transfer it to for secondary fermentation. We go with five-gallon fermentation buckets, but one-gallon glass carboys can be used for smaller batches. You’ll also need a bung and airlock (don’t worry, we’ll explain more later) to seal your vessels. Next, a racking cane is needed to transfer the cider between the two. Lastly, you will need yeast, nutrients and bottles or a keg to store your finished cider in. Not too bad so far, right?
Once supplies are gathered, it’s time to make the cider. As we alluded to already, sanitation is crucial when it comes to making both cider and beer. You can have the best ingredients, follow a proven recipe to a tee and still wind up with an undrinkable product if any of the equipment used isn’t properly sanitized. So first thing’s first, thoroughly cleanse and sanitize your fermentation vessel. Actually, so we don’t keep repeating ourselves, go ahead and make sure you always clean all your equipment before using.
Next, pour in your juice or cider and add the yeast and nutrients. The yeast is what will eventually eat away at any sugar in the apple juice and turn it into CO2 and alcohol. For cider, a Champagne or beer yeast can be used. We have had good results with Saison yeast, but feel free to experiment until you find one you prefer. Yeast nutrient is added to simply ensure that there is a healthy environment for the yeast to multiply.
Now it’s time to seal that baby up. Be sure to fill the airlock to its fill line with sanitizer solution. The purpose of the airlock is to let CO2 exit the vessel while fermenting. Depending on which yeast you selected, the cider will have to ferment at a certain temperature. Try to place the vessel someplace in your house that is closest to that temperature and let it ferment for anywhere from five days to two weeks. Again, this will be largely based on your yeast. You will know it has started to ferment when you see bubbles in the airlock. Once the bubbling has stopped, your primary fermentation is over.
At this point you can drink the cider, but for a better finished product we recommend a secondary fermentation. Basically all you have to do now is transfer the cider. The point of this is to get your cider off any yeast that has settled to the bottom, so it’s important to try not to disturb the yeast at all. It’s easy to do, just make sure the bottom of your racking cane is about an inch away from the bottom of your cider. Feel free to sneak a sample so you can see how the cider is turning out.
Secondary fermentation is where you can really start to experiment with flavors. If you want to add spices or other fruit—now is the time to do it. We have used everything from mulling spices to grapefruit and salt to flavor our ciders, so throw in anything you think would pair well with tart apple flavor. Or you can always keep it simple and not add anything at this point. Seal up your vessel, repeat your airlock prep and put it aside for anywhere from five days to a couple months.
And now all that’s left to do is package your cider. Whether you are using bottles or a keg, you’ll need to carbonate the finished product. In order to do this, make a simple syrup using anything from table sugar to honey. A priming sugar calculator will tell you exactly how much sugar to use based on your yeast and fermentation temperature. Too much sugar and the bottles may explode, too little and you’ll be left with flat cider, so be sure to measure carefully. Add the syrup to your cider and pull out your racking cane to transfer the cider into its final home. Store your bottles or keg at around the same temperature you fermented at and let them sit for at least one more week.
Finally, the moment you have been waiting for. Pop a bottle open and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Since this is a basic way to produce cider, your end product will not be as sweet as most commercial hard ciders. This is because they are typically back sweetened—a sweet substance is added back into the cider after your yeast has stopped working. Personally, we have never gotten into this method because we prefer the tart, dry cider that this simple technique produces.
At our wedding, instead of toasting with Champagne, our guests enjoyed a glass of bubbly cherry cider that we brewed together. We hope this process leads to some memorable moments for you, too.
Illustrations by Kevin Breslawki