Fall means many things in Vermont; from the amazingly beautiful foliage, to Harvest and Hunter moons lighting up the night, to farm stands stacked with pumpkins and winter squash, to crisp evenings around the fire pit. One of my favorite parts of Fall in Vermont is Apple Season, because along with Apple Season comes the cider pressing. There is nothing quite like freshly pressed apple cider. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where fresh-pressed cider is available, seriously think about making hard cider. But even if you don’t have orchards nearby, there are options to brew your own hard cider.
Hard cider is a fermented beverage made from apple cider and yeast. The process is similar to brewing beer – but not quite the same. There are more steps to brewing beer, but cider takes longer. I have never been a beer drinker, but I love hard cider. The best part of brewing your own cider, you can experiment and customize the recipe to your tastes.
Before you start…
Okay, before you get started, here are a couple things to know. First, you are going to need some special equipment:
- Primary container – this is where you’re going to start the process. Usually, a large food-grade plastic bucket with a lid. “Large” means 6 or more gallons.
- Secondary container – usually a 5 gallon glass carboy. Note – life is much easier if your secondary container is clear.
- Stopper and Airlock – the stoppers are made to fit the carboy very tightly and they’re drilled for an airlock. Airlocks allow the gases produced by fermentation to escape without allowing outside air (with its dust, bacteria and spores) in.
- Thermometer – temperature is extremely important during brewing. Technically, any thermometer will work, but a dedicated brewing thermometer is worth the investment.
- Hydrometer and Hydrometer Test Jar – this tool measures the amount of alcohol in your cider.
- Spoons/Spatula – you need something to stir your concoction. Long handles made of metal or plastic are best, as they can be sanitized.
- Sanitizer –all of your equipment must be sanitized to ensure you make cider instead of vinegar. Sanitizer can be as simple as diluted bleach (1 tbsp to 1 gallon of water). If you use bleach, be sure that you rinse it completely. I prefer to use Star-San, which can be mixed directly in your primary container, then moved to your carboy. Technically, Star-San is a rinse-free sanitizer, however, I rinse as much as I can.
- Funnel or siphon – This is necessary to transfer the cider from primary to secondary and secondary to bottles/keg.
- Large stock pot or Campden tablets – If you’re brewing a smaller batch of cider, you can heat the cider to pasteurize it and kill the wild yeast. Or, for larger batches, use Campden tablets that will sanitize your cider and kill the wild yeast. I use Campden tablets since I make 5 gallon batches.
- Bottles with caps or keg – Bottles are cheap and plentiful. You can reuse bottles of commercial beer. You can use regular type caps or swing top bottles which are kind of fun and come in different shapes, sizes and colors. Regular bottles and caps will require a capping tool. Kegs are easier but are quite expensive to start with. Kegs also require a tap. Taps are not terribly expensive. Of course, if you have a keg, you can get a Kegerator.
- Kits – Of course, one could always just get a kit like this and have almost everything you need. This is technically for brewing beer, but the equipment is the same. The only thing I’d add to this is a brewing thermometer.
- Brewing Journal – this sounds weird, but get a notebook or journal to record the details of each batch. You’re going to learn things that impact your brewing. Record the details of the cider, yeast, whether you used yeast nutrient, campden/heat sanitizing, dates, etc.
- Bottling bucket and Bottling Tube – not necessary, especially if you’re kegging, but makes things easier for bottles.
Now for the hard cider ingredients…
- Cider – be sure to use apple cider, not apple juice. Technically, you can use apple juice, but it wouldn’t taste nearly as good. “Really?” you ask, “What’s the difference?” Apple juice is filtered apple cider and the filtering takes out the lovely tiny bits of apple that give it a richer, more complex flavor. Basically, apple juice is the plain, dowdy cousin of the rich, full-bodied apple cider. Now, there are several ways to get the cider. If you’re really ambitious, you can juice the apples yourself by using a home juicer. If you’re lucky, you can get cider pressed at a local orchard. Cider this fresh is to store-bought cider as Log Cabin syrup is to real maple syrup from the sugarhouse. But even those of us who are cider snobs, understand the limitations of geography. So, get the best cider available to you.
- Yeast – there are so many yeasts out there. I usually use Red Star Pasteur Red. This is a good, generic yeast. I’ve also used liquid cider yeast from Wyeast. Personally, I prefer the Red Star because I feel that dry yeast is easier to work with.
- Yeast Nutrient – this is an optional ingredient and used to ensure that the yeast has enough food to complete fermentation.
The actual brewing is quite simple; however, preparing your equipment takes some time and planning. Everything that touches your cider needs to be sanitized – all containers, utensils and tools. I’ve found that the easiest way to do this is to mix up a batch of sanitizer in my large primary container then dump all of the tools and utensils including the bucket lid, airlock, spoons, etc. If you are using a liquid yeast you need to sanitize the scissors and package.
When your primary container is sanitized and rinsed, pour your cider and your campden tables. Let this mixture sit for 24-48 hours to ensure all native bacteria and wild yeast have been killed. If you’re brewing a smaller batch or have a large stock pot that can hold all of your cider then heat to 160F and hold at that temp for 10-15 min.
After you’ve sanitized/pasteurized your cider, you add – pitch – your yeast. Follow the direction on the package. Liquid yeast usually has a capsule in the package that needs to be burst to activate the yeast. Dry yeast needs to be rehydrated in warm water – the temperature will be listed on the back of the package. Before you add the yeast to the cider, ensure that the cider is at the correct temperature – this will also be listed on the back of the package. Mix thoroughly without sloshing.
Now, to measure the potential alcohol; using a sanitized ladle, fill the hydrometer test jar about 2/3 full or enough to float the hydrometer. Record the potential alcohol. Put the lid on your primary container and ensure that it’s sealed completely. Add your airlock and place your container in a cool, dark area where it will not be disturbed.
…for about 2 weeks. In this time, you’re waiting for all of the sugar to ferment into alcohol. At this time, carefully open your container and check the potential alcohol again using a sanitized ladle. If the potential alcohol is not at zero, seal the lid and wait a few more days, then recheck. When the potential alcohol is at zero, it’s time to move your cider to the secondary container. Again, sanitize your container and all of your tools and utensils. There are a couple ways to transfer the cider. If your batch is small enough, you can pour it from the primary to the secondary using a funnel. If you’ve made a larger batch, a siphon makes this really easy. A siphon also allows you to leave most of the sediment in the primary. Now, stopper the secondary, add the airlock and wait some more.
Your cider will stay in the secondary for several months – like 4-6. During this time, your cider will clear and the flavor will become more complex. If you’re using a 3-piece airlock, be sure to check the water level from time to time and add more as necessary.
When you can see your hand through the container, it’s ready!
Again, sanitize everything – bottles or keg, bottling bucket, bottling tool, caps, siphon, etc. If you want sparkling cider, you can charge it by adding ½ to 1 cup of cane sugar to your cider just before you bottle it. If you’re kegging your cider, you can force carbonate using the tap. If you charge your bottled cider, you need to put your bottles up in a cool, dark place and wait a bit longer to let it carbonate – about 2 weeks.
This may seem like a lot of work, but it is so worth it. Chill your cider and enjoy on the deck.