Homemade hard cider: juice + time = booze

Guest post by katie

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!

Comments on Homemade hard cider: juice + time = booze

  1. Woo misplaced midwest girls with physicist partners (though mine is astro)!

    We’ve been talking about making our own cider since we go through it like nothing and we love making things together. So far have just poked our noses in books and the supplies at local stores, and decided to hold off til spring since we don’t keep the house heated while we’re at work/school. Wicked excited to see this pop up, and I’m definitely bookmarking it for a few months time.

    • Not heating would actually work in your favor, since you’ll need to maintain a cooler temperature to keep the yeast happy and the bacteria not. =) Have fun with it!

      • Even with it yo-yoing between 40F-70F-ish? I’ve been concerned the heat swings between us being out and home would mess with the process. Our other options are clearing out the creepy space below the floor boards, if we get a small enough jug and get beefy enough to haul stuff out of there without sloshing, or the shed in the back garden, which is freezing on occasion currently (and I think the boy’s preference is the shed since our space is limited).

        • i wouldn’t worry about the temperature swing too much. the yeast will go to sleep at 40 and wake back up when the temperature rises. your cider may not be precisely reproducible, but this is a hobby, not Science.

          freezing temperatures are not necessarily a bad thing. traditional applejack is made by frost distillation. i.e. leaving hard cider on the back porch over night an pitching the ice floating on top. what is left will have higher ABV.

          • The boy’s face dropped a little at ‘it’s not science’, but it looks like cider has moved up on our schedule to post holidays, cheers!

          • Nightwine — I think what Matt (the Doctor in Doctors Terry and the brains behind our operations) meant is that it doesn’t *have* to be rigidly controlled and reproducible a la lab experiments in order to be fun and successful. However, it can still be a science — even if you can’t control your environment, subject multiple batches to the same environment and see how changing other variables influence your end result. Plus, there’s something aesthetically right about having the jugs of hooch fermenting back in the shed… =)

  2. I also aspire to be a physicist home brewer 🙂 I think I will wait until next fall though, when all the local orchards are full of fresh apples and selling their cider.

  3. I’m thinking the “supplemental” yeast should be changed to “required” yeast. The yeasts that are inherent in the cider most likely aren’t strong enough to fight off the inherent bacteria right away. This will allow the bacteria to colonize your precious beverage much faster than it should be allowed and it will create a potentially unsafe hard cider. At the very least the flavor will be affected. I would recommend adding a yeast starter as soon as the cider is down to fermenting temperature for that particular strain of yeast.

    • Assuming your ambient temperature is cool enough, it shouldn’t be an issue. We’ve been doing this for years and the wild yeast ciders are always the best of the batches — they ferment a little slower at the start and take longer to ferment to completion as well as to age, but their flavors are the most interesting, nuanced and evolving. I don’t know how many (hundreds of!) gallons we’ve done, but absolutely nothing has been bacteria-dominant, vinegar, or unsafe. =)

      • Thanks for the reply! What temperatures have you found to be the best for the wild yeast hard ciders?

        Also, what is the typical ABV for your favorite brand cider with no added fermentables and wild yeast only?

        • I’d guess our temperatures are usually in the 50s F, maybe up to low 60s? We just let it happen, it doesn’t need close monitoring the way beer-making might. The fermenting has happened in the winter a Wisconsin basement (so, insulated, underground, but cool and not heated) and a drafty northern California shed (not insulated, cool and rainy, avg temps in the 50s).

          Per your other question, I don’t have a favorite commercially-available cider brand, but our homemade stuff with no added sugars is usually in the 6-9% range. Cyster (cider-mead) comes out about 12%.

  4. We make what we call “quick cider”. We buy a gallon of unfiltered apple cider (but usually it has been pasteurized, it works fine for us), pour out (and drink) about 2inches worth, pitch yeast (we usually use Lalvin D-47 because it’s cheap), pop an airlock on, and cover so the fluorescent lights don’t make it funky. A black shirt works well to cover it. The 2-4 days later (depending on temperature), we bring it to share at a party (or if the party is in a day or two, fridge it til then). It doesn’t last long, but it is lightly fermented and carbonated and delicious and easy as can be.
    (We also do beer and mead as longer more controlled ferments but cider is our fast and dirty wing it drink.)

    • Do you find the flavor better with a short ferment like this or with a longer ferment? I’m asking because with a shorter ferment time the yeast is still active and floating around in there. With a longer ferment, the yeast will stop being active and usually sink to the bottom where you can pour off the final product and get rid of the yeast. I wouldn’t think the yeast taste very good, but I haven’t tried “green” hard cider before.

      • I’ve never done a long ferment cider. The first ferment was “We bought a gallon of apple juice for the container to make mead, we have all this apple juice and don’t drink it, gee, why don’t we put it in a jar we had sitting around, pitch a bit of the mead yeast starter and see what happens”. Since it is delicious, we’ve stuck with it.
        We both have been drinking homebrew for a while, so are used to a little bit of yeast in our alcoholic beverages (there will always be some in bottle conditioned beer) but I’ve never noticed it being yeasty, either in flavor or in causing folks who aren’t used to drinking yeast to be sick. The yeast is definitely still floating around when we bottle it, there is usually not much of a cake of yeast on the bottom. I don’t know, it just works, we do really small containers ( 32 oz to a gallon) which I think contributes to it going fast. We usually ferment in a leftover glass grapejuice container, although we’ve done it in both the plastic and glass bottles the apple juice came in.)

  5. When I was about seven my mother didn’t realize how long the fabulous cider from the local orchard had been in the fridge and sent it to school in my thermos. I had one big mouthful, spit it out, and have never developed a taste for hard cider!

    • when I was about the same age, I was home sick from school. my mom set me up with a movie & apple juice (that she didn’t know had fermented). I told her it tasted funny and was a little fizzy — she told me I was just sick & my tastebuds were fooling me. She had a buzzed 7 year old on her hands an hour later and felt REALLY bad. It apparently hasn’t affected current-me now, though, I really enjoy hard cider every now and then! 🙂

  6. I totally have a bucket of cider fermenting right now! 🙂

    A couple of things:

    – Another santizing option: 1 tsp household bleach (unscented!) per gallon of water. Rinse anything sanitized in this very, very well.

    – Airlock: Water is ok, but vodka is better because pretty much nothing can grow in it, ever.

    – Yeast: I’m using a cider-specific yeast. White Labs noted that it gives off some sulfurous compounds while it ferments. And boy howdy, does it ever. I’m going to break my no-scented-candles rule tomorrow. It’s not… rotten, but I have never experienced this with any of the beers or mead I’ve made.

    Finally, I’ve found that our local homebrew place is AWESOME about knowing, like, everything about fermenting whatever. But if they don’t know, this is an incredible resource: http://www.homebrewtalk.com/ The forum is great for questions. People are trying pretty much everything on it, and answers seem to be straightforward and helpful. And by “trying pretty much everything,” I mean someone is trying to make a durian wit beer… I am following that thread with fascination.

  7. I love this post and when we have a space to keep it cool I would love to try this!

    Also, a note to other readers/editors for submission ideas, I would love one of these on how to make mead! I have been wanting to start making my own mead and just need some guidance on how. The stuff I have googled so far hasn’t been entirely helpful.

  8. I don’t think you have a choice for “Supplemental yeast”. Cider is too expensive to waste if something goes wrong. You need to at least use dried yeast (liquid cider yeast will give you the best results)

    • If you’re more comfortable pitching a yeast, go for it. In the years we’ve been doing this, we’ve never had any issues with our wild yeasts picking up well without contamination.

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