Of all the fermented beverages that have taken up space in my fridge, counter top, garage, and barn, apple cider must be my favorite. It's a perfect blend of anticipation and fulfillment, effort and enjoyment. The way we do it, it is also a beautiful excuse to spend time with friends and transform the process, from labor into love.
It begins in the fall. Or rather, it begins with the planting of a tree. It begins with the earth and water, and years of attention. But circles being what they are, it can be hard to choose a starting place, so I will just say: it begins in the fall.
In the fall apples hang on the trees in such abundance that even the bugs and the birds and the deer and the worms cannot eat them all. Baskets in hand, we gather in the orchard. Sometimes a single tree can provide enough cider for several gallons, but we are blessed to live in an area that was for a time known as apple country. Many of the old orchards are gone now, replaced with more high-value crops, like berries and lettuce; still some of them remain, gnarled old limbs still bearing ripe fruit, green and yellow and red.
The best way to pick apples is with a glass of last year's cider in your belly. The best way to pick apples is by lifting them gently upwards, rather than yanking down; when they are perfectly ripe, the stem breaks cleanly above the top of the fruit. The best way to pick apples is with friends, and children, and a few orchard ladders, and an old truck or two to carry it all back home.
However you pick them, the apples are best let to sit for a week or two after being picked. Known as 'sweating,' this time off of the tree produces changes in the apples. Their cell walls begin to relax, making the juice easier to press from them. A waxy, or oily coating will begin to bloom on their skin, signaling that they are ready. An apple that has sweated for a week or two will produce perhaps 25% more juice than apples fresh from the tree.
When it comes to pressing your apples into juice to be made into cider, there are a lot of options, and we've tried nearly all of them. Hand mashing, manual presses, electric presses... you can choose whatever method you prefer. The next part of this series dives into some of the experiences we've had with different ways to press your apples for cider, what your options are, and our personal recommendations.
The pressing of the apples is another fabulous excuse to gather friends and willing hands. And to drink some more of last year's cider, if there is any left. The apples are first inspected for rot and damage. Minor blemishes are acceptable, but any soft spots should be considered breeding grounds for acetobacter, and cut out or discarded. (Acetobacter are the bacteria that make vinegar, not desirable in an alcoholic ferment.)
We like to toss the apples into a large tub filled with a weak sanitizer solution. From there, the apples must be crushed before being pressed. We have experimented with several ways to do this.
The wooden press we rent out here at the store has a crusher attached to the press. It is essentially a toothed drum with a hopper above it to feed apples into, one or two at a time, which is powered by a hand-turned crank. There is something deeply satisfying about manually crushing the apples, a visceral pop as they are caught and crushed, that feels both ancient and new. If you've picked the apples, and have a few pairs of willing arms to take turns at that cast-iron crank, this is the way to go.
If, on the other hand, sheer practicality trumps artisanal nostalgia in your book, we also rent out an electric crusher and a bladder press. Gleaming in stainless steel and shiny red paint, the electric crusher looks and operates much like a small yet powerful wood chipper. The cleaned apples are fed down a tube to the sharp blades, powered by a strong motor. A low hum as the apple is diced into hundreds of tiny pieces and deposited into a waiting pot.
Whichever method you fancy, the next step is to press the apples. We like to wrap the crushed apples in cheesecloth or nylon fruit-pressing bags. The less fruit you put in the press at a time, the more juice you will get from the apples. (Too much pulp at one time acts as a kind of shock absorber, protecting the middle of the pulp from the full pressure exerted by the press.)
Being down home low-tech folks, we usually opt for the manual press. A wooden follower sits atop the bundled apple mash. We crank that press screw down until juice starts to flow in a steady trickle. Once a good flow is happening, it's best to wait a while before tightening the screw further.
The juice runs off the edge of the pressing tray and is caught either by a carboy with a funnel on top, or by a non-reactive metal pot that is then emptied into the fermenter. A plastic strainer, or a slip of cheesecloth, is useful to catch any stray apple chunks or yellow jackets that may have found their way into your delicious juice. Once your carboy is full to the shoulder, it is time to consider the next step.
Tip: You may also want to use a hydrometer at this time, to get a baseline reading of alcohol potential.
A hydrometer is an instrument that measures the density of liquids; a sweetened liquid (or one with as-yet-unfermented sugars) is necessarily more dense than than pure water. This measurement is known as specific gravity.
Pure water at 60 degrees has a specific gravity of 1.000.
Many hydrometers have several scales on the same instrument, which will give you not only the specific gravity, but the alcohol potential as well, which saves you a multiplication step in the math which will follow.
To determine the alcohol potential of your cider, take a reading of the specific gravity of the juice before and after fermentation, and subtract the final gravity from the original.
The difference can then be multiplied by 131.25, which will give you a measure of alcohol by volume.
Tip: If you have a hydrometer with the alcohol potential scale, you can omit the multiplication.
If you have additional questions, please ask us in our FAQs!
Sanitation is of vital importance during all steps of the brewing process.
Even brief contact with the air can result in contamination from dust and wild yeasts. For that reason it is especially important to do all bottling and racking procedures in as clean an environment as possible.
Make sure the area you are working in is clean, and try to limit air flow as much as possible; no open windows nearby and no fan, no sweeping or vacuuming in the same room as your brew during any part of the process.
Sanitize all of your equipment before you need to use it.
For the racking and bottling procedures, this will mean swishing a sanitizing solution, such as Star-San or Iodophor, around inside the carboy, as well as running the same solution through the siphon hose.
Rinse all bottles in sanitizer, and soak the caps in a bowl of sanitizer before applying them - unless you're using swing top bottles of course. Cap each bottle as soon as it is filled.
Remember, always consult a recipe and a trustworthy home brewing book when brewing anything at home, and always make sure to sanitize well and often!
What sort of yeast would you like to use for your ferment? You have several options.
If you plan to use a commercially available yeast, the next step after pressing, or otherwise procuring your juice, is to add sulfites. This will knock back, if not completely destroy, the thriving population of wild yeasts that live on all apples. More on this in just a moment.
It is possible to ferment apple cider completely naturally, with no added sulfites or commercial yeasts. This may yield you a product that is stunningly good...or something that tastes like acrid library paste. It's hard to know exactly what yeasts may be on the fruit at any given time, as yeast populations fluctuate with season, temperature, rainfall, and other variables. This is one reason why, if you are aiming to make the most natural cider possible, it is important to use only clean apples that have never touched the ground; many more undesirable yeasts and bacteria live on the ground than in the trees.
Allow me a brief digression.
Apples are covered in yeast. Everything is, really, but apples are particularly yeasty beings. The original English Ale yeast, still used today, is actually a strain that was sourced straight from an apple. Bread yeast has it's metaphorical roots in the dusky bloom of an apple skin. The weak sanitizer bath that the apples bob in before being crushed does a little to lessen the population. The addition of sulfites, in the form of Campden tablets, will knock it back even further, enough so that an aggressive commercial yeast has literal room to do its work. Campden Tablets are little asprin-shaped tablets that dissolve into liquid; 1 tablet per gallon is the standard application rate. The Campden tablets tend to kill off bacteria rather than yeast, and they also work better against wild yeasts than against strains like Saccharomyces, which are traditional cider yeasts. A few tablets dropped into a 5 gallon carboy will reduce the population of wild yeasts enough so that the 'tame' yeasts can do their work. The sulfites need time to work, so give them at least 8-12 hours before adding yeast. After the sulfites have had their turn, it is time to add yeast, (or to let the remaining wild yeasts work their magic.)
We have found that some of our favorite ciders over the years have come from wild yeasts. However, each one has been different, and some have been delightful at first, only to age badly. If you are only making one batch of cider in a year, you probably want to consider using a commercial yeast. It yields a consistent, known flavor profile. If, however, you are making multiple batches, and have a curious/adventurous streak, you may want to leave a few carboys to ferment under the influence of whatever yeasts are present. It will be a true reflection of terroir, and who knows? - you may even discover the next great yeast.
When it comes to making cider, one of the hardest (and most fun!) decisions you'll make is what kind of yeast to use for your ferment. The two main options are to either use a commercial (tame) yeast, or to ferment naturally from the wild yeasts that naturally exist in apples. We've tried both, with many variations within each category, and it is always a learning process. The next part in this series dives deep into how you can get to know your yeasts to create the perfect flavor profile that you'll love.
The most commonly used yeast is a champagne yeast. Being a very aggressive yeast, it ferments quickly to a very clean, dry flavor that suits the apple character very well. This yeast is cheap, easy to use, and makes a delicious, consistent beverage. We always make sure to do a few carboys with the champagne yeast, so we know that no matter what else happens, we will have it as our benchmark to compare all other ciders against.
In recent years, as cider has exploded in popularity, there have been great advances in the yeasts available to the home cider-maker. We stock several cider-specific yeasts; Safcider by Fermentis and Mangrove Jack's Cider Yeast are favorites. We are also enamored with the cider produced by the delicate CY-17 yeast; although it is slower and less vigorous than other cider yeasts, it leaves a lovely aroma and fruity taste in a cider that ferments under optimal conditions. Another excellent yeast to use is the SN-9 wine yeast from Vintner's Harvest. Although still dry, as indeed any home-fermented cider will be, it has a flavor that is a little sweeter and softer than the champagne yeast, and it is especially lovely when honey is used as the bottling sugar. There are others; Clos De Bois, for an aromatic sip, or CL-23, for a clean, crisp cider.
Any beer yeast will also create apple cider, however, some are much better than others. One of our favorites is the Safale US-05, which is a yeast commonly used to make pale ales and IPAs. It has a crisp, clean flavor. One of the best ciders I've ever tasted was made with a Belgian ale yeast; the typically fruity character of that yeast suited the apple perfectly, and left some sugars unfermented at the end, for a slightly sweeter cider. It is with beer yeasts though that we have also had some of our least successful adventures. One year, in an effort to leave some sugars unfermented, we made something like 20 gallons of cider with S-04, an English ale yeast that does produce delicious beer. An English ale is typically a little sweeter, we reasoned, so perhaps this would lead to a sweeter cider? Alas, no. It led to 20 gallons of dry cider, that had a beery, English ale aftertaste. Lesson learned. All in search of the perfect cider.
No matter what yeast you choose, the next steps are just the same. It is possible to sprinkle the dry yeast directly on the surface of the juice, although the shock of going from hibernation straight to a sugar solution may kill some of the yeast, leading to a slower start to your ferment.
A kinder, gentler way to coax the yeasts awake is to sprinkle them on the surface of water which has been boiled and then cooled, and then, after they have rehydrated and woken up, the water containing the yeast can be poured into the fermenter along with the apple juice.
I'll tell you the truth. Left to my own, I rarely bother with this step. Yeast sprinkled directly on the surface of the pure juice may have a bit of a shock, but it recovers fast.
We raced carboys one year, to see how much of a difference this made, and the yeast which had been treated to a water bath first started bubbling half a day earlier. Not a significant difference, in my book, but I mention it here so that you can make informed decisions about the yeasts in your care.
The first few days of a ferment are typically the most vigorous; a wild ferment is sometimes slower to start than a cultivated yeast ferment.
Regardless of the yeasts at work, within a week the cider should be bubbling along. You can see the bubbles passing through the airlock, and smell the alcohol forming. Most of the alcohol is formed in the first week of fermentation; the remainder of the time improves flavor and reduces sugar as the yeast digest the sugar.
Depending on the temperature, the entire fermentation process may take from 1-3 months. There's not much harm in letting the cider sit for even longer than that, as long as it's cool and out of direct sunlight. You'll know it's time to bottle, when you watch the airlock for 5 minutes-time it!-without seeing an air bubble pass through the airlock.
When the time comes to bottle, you have some more choices to make. You may also want to test the alcohol potential of your cider at this time (see above about Using a Hydrometer to learn how to test alcohol potential).
Note: Sanitation is of vital importance during the bottling process.
For still cider, you can siphon the cider straight into bottles and cap it for storage. (This method may, or may not, result in a slight amount of carbonation; sometimes the added oxygen will reinvigorate the yeast enough to cause slight additional fermentation. If it is especially important to have absolutely no sparkle, you may add another Campden tablet at this time to kill off any remaining yeast. However, the amount of carbonation produced without adding additional sugar will be nominal, if at all.)
If you would like your cider to sparkle, you'll have another few steps to do.
For sparkling cider, clean and sanitize another carboy, the same size as the one you are using. This step is called racking; a racking cane, attached to a length of rubber or silicone tubing, is used to siphon the finished cider off of the lees, or spent yeast waste, and into the second carboy. At this stage, additional sugar is added, to reinvigorate the yeast and get them working again. (The reason you rack the cider into another container is to blend the bottling sugar into the cider without stirring all the muddy yeast waste from the bottom into the otherwise clear cider.)
Many recipes call for corn sugar; this is a sweet but essentially flavorless sugar, perfect for brewing beer, as it imparts no flavor of its' own to the beverage. Refined sugar from the store can sometimes impart a "cidery" taste to beer and wine; obviously, this is less of a problem when making cider. We like to use about 1/2 cup of either type of sugar for a 5 gallon batch of cider.
Note: The photo below shows racking cider straight into swingtop bottles; however, if you wanted to add sugar as described above, you'd want to first rack your fermented cider into another carboy, then add the sugar and mix well, and then rack it again into your bottles.
Honey can also be a lovely way to sweeten cider, though it's somewhat harder to be exact with amounts; some honeys are sweeter than others, and all of them exert a kind of "wild card" element on the brew, as honey is microbially active as well as being difficult to calculate exact sugar content. For these reasons, we usually use no more than 1/3 cup of honey for a 5 gallon batch of cider. The character of the honey will be another flavor element in the finished cider.
It is also possible to use pure, pasteurized apple juice to sweeten the cider. Raw apple juice contains too many yeasts in it to add to the cider at this point without danger of exploding bottles. This is another method that can be difficult to quantify the exact amount of sugar going into the brew. No more than a cup should be used for a 5 gallon batch.
Better a gently sparkling cider than an explosive one!
Tip: If you are making a smaller batch of cider, you may find recipes calling for teaspoons of sugar per bottle at this stage. We recommend adding all of the sweetener to the full carboy of racked cider, and then filling the individual bottles. Adding 1/4 teaspoons of sugar to each bottle is messy, and has a larger margin of error for each bottle.
Blend the sweetener thoroughly into cider that has been racked off the lees. Then insert the sanitized racking cane into the cider, and fit a sanitized bottling tip onto the other end of the sanitized tubing. The bottling tip, when depressed, allows cider to flow out at a steady rate, and when it is lifted, it shuts the valve, preserving the siphon and allowing greater control over the bottling.
Tip: Make sure the line is full of water, or cider, so that your siphon still works. If you fill the line with water before siphoning, press the tip into a jar until the water has flowed out and cider has reached the tip.
Perhaps we should have mentioned this sooner, but if you are relying on fermentation to get your carbonation, you are making a dry cider. Many of the commercially available ciders are quite sweet, sometimes too sweet. This effect is achieved by heating the cider to kill the active yeasts in it, or adding more sulfur at this stage to kill off the yeast.
Then, carbonation is injected mechanically into each bottle as it is filled on the assembly line. Few home cider-makers have access to this kind of equipment, however, so we must rely on fermentation to provide our carbonation.
What this means is that, even though we have added more sugar, it will all be digested by the yeast, in the same process as took place before, in the carboy. However, the difference is that when bottled up under pressure, the cO2 that is the byproduct of fermentation cannot escape through the airlock as it did previously; instead, it goes into solution in the pressurized bottle. Only when the cap is removed from the bottle does the cO2 come out of solution again, in a rush of bubbles known as carbonation.
Once your bottles are filled and capped, allow them to age in a cool, dark place for at least a week for full carbonation, and a month to develop the full range of flavor characteristic of a finished cider.
Phew! We sure hope you enjoyed these hard apple cider tips. It's a lot to absorb, all at once but the best way to make sense of the process is to dive in, once you've done your research, and find the methods and ingredients that suit you best.
Not quite ready for these intermediate cider making tips yet? See our beginning cider making post for easily making cider at home with a 1 gallon kit. You'll be hooked after the first sip!
It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you make delicious, sustainable, homemade food more often. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.
Keeping a great journal leads to delicious results! Get inspired by new recipes, expert articles and homemade food adventures in our Monthly Journal.