Back-carbonating a homebrew cider
April 3, 2014 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Two weeks ago I put sugar and yeast in a jug of cider, and it's time to rack it. But the online resources I'm using have me confused. Should I rack more than once when back-carbonating, or am I done?

Maybe I misread the instructions the first time around, but I thought that I was going to rack my cider into pressure-proof bottles, add a little sugar, cap it so that carbonation would develop, and just put it in a closet until I'm ready to drink it, preferably many months later.

But now I'm seeing a lot of talk about cold crashing, multiple rackings, and them something about only letting it sit for a month? I'm having a hard time understanding all these "how to" guides. What is the simplest way for me to move forward?
posted by brenton to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The simplest way is to skip all of the racking business and go straight to bottle carbonation as you've outlined, assuming your active fermentation has stopped (you've checked with a hydrometer, right? Otherwise you're setting yourself up for bottle bombs). I've had good luck with this recipe/instructions.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:49 AM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have a hydrometer, but it's been two weeks and it hasn't noticeably bubbled in many days.

I just read this post, which explained the cold crashing and re-racking in a way that made more sense to me:
Once the batches taste right, the next step is to "cold crash" them, which means you transfer the bottles to a fridge and let them hang out for 2-3 days. It halts the fermentation process, and all the yeast sinks to the bottom.

Then you get some siphoning equipment to transfer it to a second container, rinse out the yeast, and move it back to the original container. Now the cider can safely hang out for awhile: it can be bottled if you want to buy the appropriate equipment, or aged for months in the glass jugs.
If I understand this right, the cold crashing happens after the cider is "done." I assume not too much carbonation is lost when transferring out of the bottle with the yeast on the bottom? Or is the idea that it continues fermenting after the cold crash and that's where the carbonation comes from?
posted by brenton at 11:55 AM on April 3, 2014

When we made cider, we racked it once and let it sit a while in the secondary so any sediment we'd disturbed racking it would precipitate to the bottom. Then we bottled it by siphoning it to the bottling bucket, so we left the dregs in the secondary. That was all it needed.

Cider is pretty easy to make drinkable (though hard to make amazing) so start simple and see how you like it.

One tip: rather than bottle -> sugar ->cap, try dissolving your bottling sugar in a half cup of (boiled for sterility) water first, adding that solution to the cider in your bottling bucket, and giving the whole thing a gentle swirl with a spoon. I find that more evenly distributes the bottling sugar.

On Preview: no, there is little-to-no carbonation in your cider before you bottle it; that comes from the residual yeast eating the bottling sugar you added just before bottling it. Racking doesn't, as far as I know, have a real effect on carbonation. That happens in the bottle.
posted by gauche at 11:58 AM on April 3, 2014

But yeah, if you're going to let it sit in the secondary, that's where you can experiment with fun things like adding oak chips or a cinnamon stick or some coriander or whatever to the cider. As a precaution, I always soak these additions in bourbon or rum before adding them to the cider.
posted by gauche at 12:00 PM on April 3, 2014

One of the reasons to use a secondary fermenter is to eliminate contact with the spent yeast and other junk that results from fermentation. I've done cider (and beer) both single and two-stage and I'm not convinced there's much difference. YMMV, of course.

I have a soda keg system now I use for beer and cider so I use the keg as my secondary. Racking into the keg and then letting it sit for a couple of weeks before force carbonating with CO2 has worked great for me. I get some cloudiness when pouring the first couple since I'm not going from secondary to another container but it's really convenient.
posted by tommasz at 12:09 PM on April 3, 2014

I haven't cold-crashed my cider, but I'd be hesitant to do it if you want carbonation. Carbonation in the bottle requires the live yeast to eat sugar you've added into the bottle just before sealing the bottle, and it seems like cold crashing either kills your yeast or, at the very least, stresses it severely if you want it to wake back up and get back to work. Stressed yeast produces off flavors. As gauche pointed out, your cider in the jug, before or after racking, will not be carbonated.

If you're planning on capping to carbonate and don't have a hydrometer, wait at least another week. Waiting another week, with or without racking, likely won't hurt anything, at least if you're using store-bought cider and brewing or wine yeast. You don't want to leave your cider on the yeast for months and months, but another week won't hurt anything. And make sure you measure the sugar you carbonate with accurately; if you have too much sugar, either from an incomplete primary fermentation or from adding too much to carbonate, your glass bottles will literally explode. Ask me how I know.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:10 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

You rack for two reasons:

1. To get your brew/cider off of the pile of dead yeast/hops (known as "trub") which can add sour/tannic/funky tastes.

2. To give your yeast a chance to finish off every last bit of sugar. Which gives you a slightly higher alcohol content and avoids bottle bombs.

It also has the nice side effect of gravity filtering your brew a bit more and giving you a chance to age things more.

Reading your update:
That post seems to be describing a still hard cider? The only way you get carbonation is with a keg and tank of Co2, or by added sugar and a bottle cap. Your brew vessel/bucket and racking carboy all have a bubbler valve on them, so all the carbonation escapes. Once you cap it, carbonation starts. If you cap too soon—kaboom. These guys say they're novice brewers, so maybe they're mixing up terms.

I would go ahead and do a traditional racking. Give yourself a few weeks, then bottle with added sugar. Go ahead and taste it at each stage, and every few weeks in the bottle. You'll get a feeling for when you'll want to put it all in cold storage to hold it at that flavor, or let some go for longer.

Before you drink, you'll want to put the bottle in the fridge for a few hours, and pour into a glass, holding back the last tablespoon which will mostly be yeast. Rinse the bottle in hot water, and let drain upside down in a bottle rack, or box, and re-use next time!
posted by fontophilic at 12:10 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I thought that I was going to rack my cider into pressure-proof bottles, add a little sugar, cap it so that carbonation would develop, and just put it in a closet until I'm ready to drink it, preferably many months later.

You should do this, BUT you should wait another week or three to make sure that fermentation is complete so that you don't get bottle bombs. The sugars in cider are very fermentable and the yeast is going to eat up every little bit of it. If you bottle too soon it will continue eating and releasing CO2 and your bottles will explode and send glass shards all over the place.

Cold-crashing / using a secondary will help drop yeast out of suspension and give you a more clear beverage but unless you particularly care about this it isn't worth the trouble. There's also a common misconception that you should rack things into secondary if they're going to sit in the jug for any length of time. Maybe in the past you could get off flavors from this but modern yeasts are much better bred and you can safely leave something on the yeast cake for 6+ months.
posted by ghharr at 12:12 PM on April 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

> I would go ahead and do a traditional racking. Give yourself a few weeks, then bottle with added sugar. Go ahead and taste it at each stage, and every few weeks in the bottle. You'll get a feeling for when you'll want to put it all in cold storage to hold it at that flavor, or let some go for longer.

Just to clarify, a "traditional racking" means racking once, right? Then I throw them in the fridge when I think they taste good?
posted by brenton at 12:33 PM on April 3, 2014

Cold crashing will make some more of the yeast in suspension drop to the bottom, so the end result is a little less yeast sediment in your bottled cider. It's not necessary, but since you're making a small batch, leaving it in your fridge a couple days isn't much of a hassle.

I would probably leave it for about a month total, but you don't have to. Yeast actually do nice things for conditioning. Keep in mind that bubbling isn't necessarily a sign of fermentation happening, and lack of bubbling isn't necessarily a sign of it not happening.

For carbonation, I would recommend against adding sugar directly to your bottles. At best you'll end up with inconsistent carbonation, and at worst, you might have a few bottle bombs on your hand. It'd be a good idea to calculate the amount you need for the whole batch and just add a solution with that amount to it in bulk mix it, then bottle. With larger batches of beer etc. one will typically rack everything onto the priming solution in a bottling bucket with a spigot on it, but with a small batch of cider you could just add it straight to your fermenter, swirl until it's evenly mixed (trying to avoid splashing, bubbling if possible) and then bottle. You could also add the priming solution to what would be your secondary vessel, rack the cider on top of it and immediately bottle it from there just to ensure even mixing.

Your cider already has some carbonation as a product of fermentation, so it's a good idea to use a calculator that takes that into account. This is a good calculator. Shoot for around 2.5 volumes. It's ideal to measure your priming sugar in weight. The temperature should be the highest temperature your cider has reached after the completion of fermentation, since gases are less soluble in higher temperatures (so after fermentation you can lose CO2 to lower solubility, but you can't get it back by dropping the temperature).

For what it's worth, wisdom among homebrewers right now is that a secondary is largely unnecessary unless you're bulk aging for a very long time (months) or maybe adding fruit. I'm not 100% that it's the case with cider, but I think most of the same principles apply, plus I made apfelwein without a secondary and it turned out fine. Here's an excerpt of John Palmer and Jamil Zainasheff talking on Brew Strong about it:

John: And unfortunately I'm an perpetuator of the myth at The 1st edition talks about the benefits of transferring the beer off the yeast.

Jamil: Well that was the popular way of doing things. But that was what, the 1st edition? Stop getting the thing off the internet. Buy yourself the 3rd edition copy and get the updated information.

John: As we've gotten more educated on how much good healthy yeast you need for optimum fermentation the advice that we used to give 20 years ago has changed. 10 years ago, 20 years ago, homebrewers were using with a single packet of dry yeast that was taped to the top of the can. There weren't as many liquid yeast cultures available.

Jamil: People didn't make starters either.

John: Right. So the whole health and vitality of yeast was different back then compared to now. Back then it made sense. You had weaker yeast that had finished fermentation that were more susceptible to autolysis and breaking down. Now that is not the case. The bar of homebrewing has risen to where we are able to make beer that has the same robustness as professional beer. We've gotten our techniques and understanding of what makes a good fermentation up to that level, so you don't need to transfer the beer off the yeast to avoid autolysis like we used to recommend.

Jamil: Unless you are going to do long term at warm temperatures, but even then we are talking over a month. I thought about this as well and I think one of the reasons autolysis....and the fact that people were using weak yeast in inappropriate amounts and the transfer would add some oxygen to it which would help attenuate a few more points. I think that was part of the deal why transferring was considered appropriate years ago.

John: But these days we don't recommend secondary transfer. Leave it in the primary, you know, a month. Today's fermentations are typically healthy enough that you are not going to get autolysis flavors or off-flavors from leaving the beer on the yeast for an extended period of time.

Jamil: And if you are using healthy yeast and the appropriate amount and the thing is... homebrew style fermentors..if you are using a carboy or plastic bucket which have that broad base when the yeast flocculate out they lay in a nice thin layer. When you're dealing with large, of the things you know people go "Well the commercial brewers they remove the yeast because it is gonna break down, die, and make the beer bad. We should be doing the same thing." That's where alot of this comes from. But the commerical brewers are working with 100 bbl fermenters that are very tall and put a lot of pressure on the yeast. The yeast are jammed into this little cone in the bottom and they are stacked very deep and there is a lot of heat buildup. The core of that yeast mass can be several degrees C higher than the rest of that yeast mass and it can actually cook the yeast and cause them to die faster and cause those problems with flavor and within a couple of days the viability of that yeast which the commercial brewers are going to reuse is going to drop 25%, 50% over a couple of days so they need to get that yeast out of there. You don't have that restriction as a homebrewer. You've got these broad fermenter bases that allow the yeast to be distributed evenly. It's an advantage for cleaning up the beer. You have the advantage that the yeast don't break down as fast. You don't have as high a head pressure. There are a lot of advantages.

Also, although they talk about dry yeast badly, a packet of dry yeast is perfectly sufficient for most purposes as long as it's in good condition.

Good luck!
posted by Gymnopedist at 12:43 PM on April 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have been using the recipe that craven_morhead posted for years now. Dead simple, no racking, just straight to the bottles from the carboy. I use bale-top bottles. Works every time and makes fantastic stuff. If you want it carbonated, just add a bit of sugar to the bottles. Also, you can use a decent champagne yeast if you can't find monteracht.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:18 AM on April 4, 2014

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