How-To Hard Apple Cider
By Kevin Smith
If you have an apple tree, consider yourself lucky. If you have two or more, you are blessed. There is nothing I like better than the sound of a perfectly ripe apple falling on its own from the boughs above, bouncing off a moss covered limb, and landing with a soft thud in the silty-loam of my family orchard. This was a sound I heard often growing up in the countryside of rural northern California. The end of summer has always been bittersweet for me -saying goodbye to long lazy sunny days is hard. However, it helps ease the pain when you can celebrate this change of seasons with an apple harvest party!
As kids we ate apples while climbing trees every day of the season, but the special treats were really when we took the time to bring a small harvest inside. Mom would make absolutely incredible apple pies, German apple pancakes, apple crisp, apple cake, and so much more. Each of these dishes was meticulously prepared from scratch in the old country fashion. As much as my brother and I relished in the incredible flavors of these delectable apple dishes, it was the annual cider pressing that we truly lived for!
Cider is a term that is loosely applied to apple juice, though it can also be used to describe a hot, spiced apple beverage served, or a delicious fermented alcoholic apple drink that my dad refers to as “poor man’s Champagne.” This article explores the adult version of cider making.
What You Will Need
To make fine quality homebrewed hard apple cider contact your local homebrew shop. An apple press is obviously essential. Some towns you can be rent the press through homebrew shops. And a glass Alhambra bottle known as a “carboy” is needed for fermentation. These usually come in 1, 3 and 5 gallon sizes. I suggest making at least 5 gallon batches. You will also need an airlock and cork that must fit snugly into the spot of the carboy to keep out unwanted bacteria during fermentation. Ask your local homebrew shop which yeast they suggest for hard cider, though I have had great luck with simple dry Champagne yeast. After 2-4 weeks, fermentation is complete and you will also need a siphon, a 5 gallon pot, bottles, a bottle capper or grolsch-style bottles, caps, sugar for priming, and very important…iodine! Iodine is essential to sterilize all components used in the homebrewing process. All it takes is a little bacteria in the bottom of an unsterile carboy, siphon, or bottle and you may end up with a whole lot of apple cider vinegar rather than hard cider!
When pressing your apples during the initial stage, experiment with different blends if you have several varieties of apple. Make sure you note on the carboy which apples and ratios of juice were used incase you want to recreate a particularly tasty grog next year. I have had great success with 50% golden delicious and 50% Jonathan apples!
Most presses come equipped with a hopper and grinder to initially pulverize the apples. These grinders may be either electric or hand operated depending on the quantity of apples you are hoping to process and access to power. After rinsing the apples, toss them in the grinder and the slurry will fall through into your basket (that you have first lined with the reusable mesh bags provided with the press). If the grinder gets jammed from adding too many apples too quickly, turn off the grinder BEFORE attempting to dislodge the fruit. I once saw a kid get his hand caught in a grinder and let’s just say he was not very happy about it! Once your basket is full of apple mush, slide it down the shoot from the grinder to below the press. Place the top on the bucket and lower the press making sure it is resting at the center of the bucket cap. Now crank that baby down and watch a stream of the freshest juice on Earth come pouring out and into your favorite cook pot. Transfer the juice from this vessel to your carboy for fermentation. The process is really quite simple and incredibly fun. It is tradition in my family to have a small toast with the firs juice coming off of the cider press. If you desire to take part in this tradition, limit yourself to about ⅓ of a glass. Drinking too much “green” juice will give you an upset stomach. The following day when the juice has had time to rest you can drink however much you want.
Note- It is a good idea to set some yellow jacket traps out in the orchard a week before the pressing. Yellow jackets love half fermented windfall apples and can cause problems for potential harvesters.
After juicing your apples, transfer the juice to the carboy leaving approximately 5 inches of space at the top. Add or “pitch” your yeast on the top of the juice and secure your sterile airlock (making sure not to forget to add the water to the lock so it actually works). Watch the airlock bubbles which will start slow, but after a day will be bubbling several times a minute. After 2-4 weeks, depending on the temperature of the room you are storing your cider in, the bubbling will slow to one bubble every 30-45 seconds. When this occurs you are ready to bottle. Warmer temperatures tend to accelerate fermentation while cooler temperatures slow it as the yeast eats the sugars in your juice and, as an animated homebrewer once told me, “pisses alcohol and farts C02.”
Note- the extra air space at the top of the carboy is very important, for once the yeast gets going, a very thick head will form on top of the juice. If you don’t leave enough room you risk the yeast blowing grog out of the airlock which will then contact the outside air and spoil the whole batch (yes I speak from experience here). If your grog does turn “bad” as a result of some contamination, do not despair, it is the best vinegar you’ve ever tasted and great in salad dressings!
Carefully siphon the cider from the carboy into a sterile pot, making sure to leave the sediments at the bottom of the carboy so they don’t end up in your bottles. It will not hurt you if you do end up with some sediments in the bottles, but syphoning away clean cider from the dregs makes for a much nicer looking end product. For a 5 gallon batch of cider, add approximately 1/2 cup of sugar to the pot and stir until all of the sugar is dissolved. If there is sugar at the bottom of the pot, some bottle may not get enough to wake the yeast up to carbonate you bottles and the last bottle you siphon off the bottom of the pot may have too much sugar which will cause the bottle to explode!
Once you have siphoned your hard cider into sterile bottles and capped them, leave them at room temperature for a week so the yeast will actively consume the priming sugar and charge your bottles with CO2. You now have an incredible batch of carbonated dry hard cider. Congratulations! Now call your friends and have a harvest party…but save a few bottles to age as well, it’s worth it!