To many, “apple cider” refers to sweet cider — the unprocessed, fresh-pressed juice straight out of the apples, available primarily in autumn and winter. Sweet cider is different from widely-available apple juice, which usually has been pasteurized and filtered, and possibly sweetened or watered-down. Turning sweet cider into hard cider, a refreshing adult beverage, is crazy-easy, requiring only a few tools and a bit of patience: you take raw juice, protect it from the environment, and wait.
Time for a brief chemistry/food science lesson: microscopic organisms, including yeast and bacteria, are everywhere. Many retail food products, such as juice and milk, undergo pasteurization to knock out these beasties and prevent or delay undesired fermentation, or spoiling. Unpasteurized sweet cider hasn’t had this processing, so the yeast and bacteria are alive and kicking and if you wait long enough, one of them will take over. Yeast will ferment the sugars in the juice to alcohol, while bacteria will ferment to vinegar. Apple cider vinegar is a useful product and makes a cool gift, but if you want to drink the fruits of your labors, you’ll want to make sure that the yeast win. Since yeast are more cold-tolerant than bacteria, keeping your cider in a cool place – like a basement, or an outdoor shed if you’re somewhere temperate – will make sure that the yeast out-compete the bacteria.
So, you’re sold on the idea of making your own booze, and you’ve got a sense for how to keep your yeast happy. What do you need now to get started? Fundamentally, just three things:
1-gallon Jug and 3-gallon carboy to ferment in: anything with a narrow opening that will fit a rubber stopper — we prefer glass over plastic, because it won’t impart any taste.
Airlock with rubber stopper: makes sure that the CO2 created as fermentation by-products can release (no explosions!), but prevents oxygen or ambient beasties in the air from getting in and mucking things up.
Sweet cider: must not have preservatives! Those will prevent fermentation. Pasteurization will have knocked out all inherent beasties, but you can add some new yeast. Sugars are what the yeast feed on and so will all get fermented out; we have found that the most interesting hard cider comes from sweet ciders that are not simply sweet, but have sour-ness and apple-ness and other flavor components.
There are a few more things that may be helpful, depending on how much cider you’re making/what kind of juice you’re working with/how involved you want to be in manipulating your outcomes.
- Siphon and tubing: if you’re transferring juice between different vessels, siphoning is the best way to reduce exposure to air
- Funnel: an acceptable transfer tool, but will increase oxygenation
- 5-gallon bucket
- Sterilization materials: we use an iodine compound found at a homebrew store, but other options are available.
- Hydrometer: looks like an old mercury thermometer and is used to measure the density of your cider for determining the %ABV. Find ’em at a homebrew supplier.
- Supplemental yeast: If you don’t have inherent yeast, or you want to play with how your cider turns out, you can add yeast cultures. We’ve done cider yeasts, champagne yeasts, Scottish ale yeasts, Belgian lambic yeasts… all will give you slightly different, delicious results.
- Sugar, fruit, or other additives: remember, all the sugars will get turned to alcohol; increasing the sugars available will boost the alcohol content. Adding maple syrup, molasses, honey, or fruit will also change the color and flavor of the resulting cider in addition to raising the booze levels. My partner doesn’t add sugars unless going for a particular effect (such as a blackberry cider or a cider-mead hybrid) because he doesn’t care for the way refined sugars change the taste, but that’s personal preference.
Now that you have your carboy, your sweet cider, your airlock, and anything else you’ll be needing, let’s get cidering!
Sterilize anything that needs it. Buckets, tubing, funnel, carboy, airlocks, stoppers. Clean it. Clean it good. You don’t want any residual environmental beasties messing with your booze-making.
Be prepared for a mess. It doesn’t matter how careful you are, things will get sticky (especially the floor). Just expect it.
Take measurements. If you’re taking specific gravity/density readings, do it now.
Fill your carboy(s) up to the shoulders. You need head room in the jug to allow frothing and such as the yeast go to town on all that sugar. Too much fillage = really gross overflow. However, you don’t want to underfill the carboy, because too much air = too much oxygen in contact with your cider, and oxygen cramps the yeast’s style. If you’re putting in fruit or other voluminous additives, leave even more room.
Add your extras. Fruit, extra sugars, supplemental yeasts, etc. Added yeasts will out-compete the wild types, so don’t worry.
Put water in your airlock. The purpose of the airlock is to release CO2 as it’s formed without letting oxygen or contaminants back in. The water forms the barrier between the internal and external environments, but CO2 can still bubble out.
Plug and shake. Make sure your stopper and airlock are in tightly, and give the jug a couple good swirls to mix it all up.
Set it and forget it. Leave your cider somewhere dark and cool-but-not-cold to fester. Come check on it in a few days – it should be somewhat frothy and gross on top, and you should see bubbles in the airlock every few seconds. Once it gets going, LEAVE IT ALONE. For a month, maybe two. Your patience will be rewarded, I promise.
Making hard cider is easy enough; the waiting is really the hardest part. I’ll be back with a “Part 2: What to do when my cider stops bubbling (racking! bottling! more waiting!)” in a couple months. Until then, enjoy the scrumptious smells of sweet cider and the oddly-invigorating feeling of playing mad scientist. Cheers!