Easy to make hard (cider)?
August 22, 2005 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Making hard cider - simple or complicated?

I've done a little research on this, and it looks as though there are two schools of thought:
1. Let the wild yeast ferment, just lay a rag over the top of the (jug, barrel, whatever), and bottle after it's "done."
2. Get all the equipment, buy yeast, fining chemicals, do secondary fermentation, etc. etc.
Which works? Is it worth the bother to do # 2?
We have a small home orchard (it came with our house) and have a variety of apples to use for this. We've crushed it into juice (which is fabulous!), but we both like hard cider and would like to give it a try.
Bonus points for a good (non-repetitive stressing) way to crush the apples.
posted by dbmcd to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think you'll do fine with the wild yeast method. I've had nonpasteurized cider go hard without even trying. And it's good!
posted by Miko at 5:36 PM on August 22, 2005

Go to your local homebrew shop and talk to the proprietor(s) about what you want to do. They'll help you out.

Chances are, they'll tell you to put it in a nice big bucket with an airlock and some Champagne yeast.
posted by plinth at 5:37 PM on August 22, 2005

I love hard cider, and it's a snap to make. You are lucky to have a good source of unpasteurized juice (I've had trouble finding it in the past). A bucket with an airlock will work. I've used the cheapo "Mr. Beers" to accomplish the same thing. Along with the juice and yeast, you can also try throwing in something to boost the sugar content. I've used raisins and natural maple syrup. The end result is uncarbonated and very, very dry ("farmhouse" style), but I like it that way. If you prefer carbonation, you could do a secondary fermentation.
posted by Otis at 6:10 PM on August 22, 2005

When I lived in Michigan, we used to get fresh cider from cider mills and it happened on its own in a matter of a few weeks.
posted by Doohickie at 6:18 PM on August 22, 2005

As a home beer brewer, I'm more than a little skeptical about not cooking the juice above 140 F for at least 20 minutes to kill off any bacteria which could turn your cider to vinegar. After it cooled I'd use champagne or any other yeast available, and I'd definitely use an airlock. You could probably skip the secondary fermentation.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:25 PM on August 22, 2005

Having it go to vinegar isn't a bad thing, either. hell, imagine the surprise to friends and families when you gift them jugs of that!
posted by five fresh fish at 6:47 PM on August 22, 2005

My one experience in the world of wine:

Used unfiltered, unpasteurized cider from a local orchard. Poured it into a plastic bucket and pitched a little champagne yeast (right out of the packet), thinking that relying entirely on wild yeast might result in a fermentation that was slow to get going, leaving time for bacteria to take over.

After about a week at room temperature, racked to a glass secondary and added a couple cans of 100% apple juice concentrate and some table sugar.

After all fermentation stopped, primed with sterile sugar solution and put in big brown bottles.

A month later, my first impression was that there might have been some bacterial contamination- it seemed tart and harsh, and the high alcohol level was harsh. It was like a bad glass of wine that'd sat out for a couple days.

Over time, however, it's gone from harsh to superbly subtle and delicious. The fermenation was easy; the key ingredient seems to have been time. After 3 years, the cider is better than any sparkling wine I've ever had.

Key lesson: "option #2" isn't all that difficult, and it only takes a few hours all together. Make a big batch and put it in lots of bottles and set some of them aside to age. In a few years, you won't even remember the little bit of work that went into making a quality cider.
posted by rxrfrx at 7:12 PM on August 22, 2005

In college, I had a big mug of dining hall Minute Maid apple juice that I forgot about for several days. I picked it up one day and it fizzed. I was very puzzled. After tasting it, I determined that it was fizzy and alcoholic! It had a beige sludge at the bottom. After posting to USENET and determining that it wasn't going to make me blind, I drank it all and caught a buzz ... which, back in those days, fascinated me to no end.

I was never successful again. Awwww

Good luck, and don't throw things at people when you get drunk ;)
posted by redteam at 7:43 PM on August 22, 2005

How many apples do you think you'd need to make a go of this?
The apple tree in our backyard keeps dropping apples all over the place, and it seems a shame to waste them.
I suppose I'd need some way to store them until I collect enough to juice?
Do they need to be ripe?
posted by madajb at 8:05 PM on August 22, 2005

To crush your apples, you could build an apple grinder and an apple press
posted by jazon at 8:42 PM on August 22, 2005

Hah. My dad used a juicer, he just removed the cores and the stalks. The solids settle out with the dead yeast.

Proper cider apples are allegedly quite different from eating apples. I imagine that you'll get good results from a mixture of varieties and including some cooking apples, like Granny Smith or Sturmer.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:27 PM on August 22, 2005

Mostly with rxrfrx on this one, but if you want to make a lighter, beer-strength cider instead of an apple wine, just do these steps:

Make the unpasteurized juice the way you normally would, "optionally" cook for a half hour as ZenMaster suggests. (I say optional because it's likely to work out fine regardless, especially if your juicing process is consistently clean. But the chances of going astray are way lower if you cook it!) Pitch with some champagne yeast, leave at room temp in your primary fermenter until it stops bubbling (well, bubbles about once a minute or less) - about a week. Then, rack to secondary to let it secondarily ferment for a week. It should end up between 3-8% alcoholic another week, quite dry, and not fizzy.

If you want carbonation, make a bit of priming solution (syrupy sugar water) - maybe .5L per 20L of apple-bear - and divide it equally between your final bottles. Gallon jugs, 12oz bottles, whatever. Pour the beer on top, seal the bottle(s), and keep at room temp for 2 more weeks before chilling. (Just a bit more detail added to rxrfrx's point on priming, I guess.)

Hm... just noticed that the only step I'm skipping is the addition of a bunch of sugar before the secondary ferment, so maybe I'm wrong to assume that the process I just suggested would be ready any sooner. Doesn't seem like it should take 3 years, though.
posted by rkent at 10:45 PM on August 22, 2005

Well, this would probably do the job of grinding them up.
I imagine they make a strainer somewhere.
posted by madajb at 12:50 AM on August 23, 2005

I bet that just letting some raw cider ferment would work. But I wouldn't do it. Here's why:

1) there are lots of local strains of bacteria and yeast that ferment various things. They vary from place to place; San Francisco's native yeast population, for example, is famed for sourdough. That does not mean that the basic type of yeast that is living on your local apple skins is going to be the best type of yeast. You already know cider and it may taste wildly different from what you expect. Don't waste the effort on a gamble.

2) Actually taking some time and thought is a really rewarding exercise. And may lead you into a fun activity that you will like in the future.

3) For me, I already have all the equipment, so why not?

So, in the interest of making this useful, I'll tell what happened the first time I did this. My brother in law has an apple tree, and about every three years it goes completely crazy and has a monster harvest. He knew that I brewed beer, so he suggested we go ahead and try to make a batch. He volunteered his juicer. This was the first mistake.

A regular juicer works very well, but is just not designed to handle multiple bushels of apples. The peels build up on the blade, requiring that you clean it every so often, and they even dull the blade out, which accelerates the clogging effect. We worked on the juicing part for hours and hours, and eventually came up with about two gallons of concentrated apple juice. I realized at that point that it would have been far easier to just buy a couple of gallons of juice from one of the dozens of local orchards around where I live (Minnesota, a surprisingly huge apple state).

My next mistake was that in using the apples behind the house, I did not regulate the recipe for the sugar content of the apples. The recipe that I was using had me add a few pounds of honey to the recipe to increase the fermentable sugars, but in retrospect I realized that the apples we used were a bit more sweet than what the recipe called for. I could have figured this out by use of my balling meter (a simple instrument used to check out the specific gravity of the wort or other pre-fermented liquid) but I didn't take my first check until I had already added the honey, and then it was a bit late for that.

The net effect of this mistake was that the starting gravity of the cider was well over 1.100, which is pretty darn strong (to sum up, I used 2 gallons of raw cider, diluted this with a little more than 2 gallons of regular water, and then the honey, which brought the total content to around 5 gallons). If I were to do it again, I'd buy cider, check the gravity, then add water and sugars to bring it to a total balling sugar amount of 1.080 or so. As ZenMaster noted, bringing the mixture to a temperature of 140 or so (less for yeast, which has a mortality of ~110 degrees and more for bacteria, which have variable mortality temperatures, mostly below 140) is a good way to make sure that the only fermenting organism is what you add in. So I had done that and then added champagne yeast, which is what the recipe recommended.

Different yeasts can tolerate different alcohol contents before the alcohol in the fermenting beverage kills the yeast itself. So most beer yeasts self regulate at between 5 and 8 percent alcohol; wine yeasts can handle up to 15 percent alcohol, and the most robust champagne yeasts can get upwards of 17 percent alcohol. The more sugar is in the liquid, the more alcohol can be performed. You can probably see where my mistakes above went; by the time the 'cider' was finished it was well over 12% alcohol, more like 14 or 15. And I waited too long to bottle it too. By the time I had bottled it the cider was pretty much done fermenting, which means that bottle conditioning didn't work, and it never carbonated.

This isn't to say it wasn't good. In fact, the apple wine that was produced was outstanding. But it was incredibly strong stuff, as in one 22 ounce bottle got people smashed. If I was to do it again, I would dial down the sugars (and therefore the alcohol) and bottle it after two rackings (once from primary and then another out of secondary) to decrease the cloudiness and the solids in the bottle. In fact, now that I have a home kegging system, I'd probably just keg the whole batch and force carbonate it with CO2 so I could micromanage how much carbonation it had.

Cider is really fun, as is all brewing, but there are any number of ways to screw it up. To sum them up:
  • heat the mix to avoid contamination with any other yeast
  • figure out the sugar content and adjust the recipe so that it isn't too high or low
  • if you bottle it, use some priming sugar to give it a bottling kick or bottle it before it's completely done fermenting, although this can lead to the opposite problem that I had, making the cider over-carbonated
  • keg it if you have the equipment
  • don't use a juicer if you can help it
  • pay attention to what kind of apples you have and consider using a more ideal type of apple
  • test the finished product before unleashing it on your unsuspecting friends, lest they get too smashed and then blame you for it
  • be a stickler for cleanliness. buy some oxygenating sanitizer and use it any time you handle the stuff, for anything. kegging, bottling, racking, the tubes, everything. you don't want to let any outside nastiness into your hard-earned beverage.
have fun with it.
posted by norm at 8:38 AM on August 23, 2005

According to this page (google cache, terms highlighted), the very sweetest cider usually tops out at a specific gravity of about 1.030. Assuming your yeast eats all of the sugar, you can expect that amount to get up to 4.5% ABV or so. This site details the measuring process, explaining that you must compare initial and final specific gravities to be really precise about it.

Not sure if this is even addressing your question anymore, but I was curious after reading norm's comment so I checked this out and thought I would post it.
posted by rkent at 10:44 AM on August 23, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for your input!
Just to clarify - we have a cider press, we just don't have an efficient way to crush bushels of apples (thanks to jazon and madajb for your suggestions - I think my husband could make something as shown in jazon's link).
We also have a variety of tart/sweet apples, so we should be able to come up with a good mix for the cider. I've learned that there is a "lot" of wild yeast present on apple skins, so we may rely on that for our first (small) batch. We just acquired (free!) a carboy with 'breather,' so we may just go ahead and let the wild stuff do it's thang!
I'll post to AskMe when we're done and let you know how it goes - although it may be tough for me to remember to post in three years (if we can keep our hands off it that long!).
posted by dbmcd at 11:33 AM on August 23, 2005

the very sweetest cider usually tops out at a specific gravity of about 1.030.

The page you linked is referring to the final gravity. My figure (+1.100) was a starting gravity. I would consider 1.030 as too sweet for my tastes as an FG.

My recommendation for a beginner making hard cider is 1.060 or so; I will be doing mine a little higher because I like a big kick to my cider. That being said, no way am I letting it go as high as before.
posted by norm at 12:24 PM on August 23, 2005

Good point norm; should've read more closely about starting/final specific gravities.
posted by rkent at 2:13 PM on August 23, 2005

« Older let's ge this (bachelorette) party started   |   Effect of repainting my restaurant Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.