By Ted Hogeweide
As plants start waking up from winter and the trees start to put out buds, thoughts of the coming apples come to mind. After eating your fill, what do you do with the rest of the apples? Hard Apple cider is a great use for the apples. And since you are reading this, it’s an option that you are considering. My goal here is to convince you that you can do this. It is a rather simple process and if some simple basics are followed, you’ll have a great drink and will be even more excited to pick apples the next season.
Hard apple cider is a great point to start learning how to start a hobby into fermentation. I’ll give you some pointers on key points that will get you started down the road of fermentation. A hobby that can be fun and yield some beverages for you to enjoy. I’ll cover apples, equipment, preparation, ingredients and one of the main ingredients, besides the juice—Patience. Yes, you can make changes in any part of the process, but if done incorrectly, it can lead to something less than drinkable.
The first and most important thing about apples is Quality. If the apples are of poor quality, your drink might be destined to ruin right from the start. If there’s any part of the apple you wouldn’t eat or put on the table for guests, discard it. Bruised or wormy apples don’t make good cider, so out they go. A common question is which variety of apple makes the best cider. If you have access to several different varieties, you can blend them to fit taste. If you enjoy an apple you have, then it will make a good cider for you. If it’s tart and you would like to tame it down, add some apples that are less tart, like a red delicious apple. I have used several different types to make cider and each one has its own character. This is one of the things that can be switched up and you’ll still have a tasty drink when you’re done. As a side note here, you can buy apple juice/cider to make your hard cider with as well. If you decide to buy, make sure there aren’t preservatives added. Pasteurized is okay, but I suggest avoiding any additives, since some will kill your yeast. The best juice to use is raw apple juice. A lot of apple orchards will offer this right at their stands. It’s also okay to use frozen raw apple juice as well.
There’s several things that you will need for this part. Again, you can improvise on some things, but some is non-negotiable. Most of the beginner kits will have the stuff you need to get you started and I suggest that you get one. These kits will also come in different sizes. If you want to just test the waters, get a one gallon kit. If you tend to jump in with both feet, get the 3-5 gallon kit. The basics you want to get in the kit is: Hydrometer, Vessel for fermenting and an Air lock. Some will even have some additives, sanitation solutions and some basic guides for using the kit. You can buy each component, but in the long run, you’ll save a few dollars and will have what you need to get started. The one thing that can be a struggle for some is the cider/fruit press. I have one that is made of stainless that is small (about 3 liters) and under $100, but if you are doing more than a couple gallons you might look at the bigger ones that are made of wood. If you opt for the wood ones, it means you’re jumping in with both feet, because they can cost up into the thousands. You might be able to find one used. You’ll also need a storage place for it in the off season. Another option is to check with any local brew supplies or rental stores, you might find one to rent. If you are pressing your own juice, you’ll need something to chop the apples small enough to press. I have used a couple methods for this. Before getting an actual apple chopper, I used a meat grinder. A little warning here, Do Not use a blender or food processor for this. Over processing will bring in excess bitterness from the skin of the fruit.(Yes, I have done this. Drinkable, but with a bitter bite to it.)
The first, and probably the most important is sanitation. As important as it is to use clean equipment and fruit, it isn’t good enough. Some of the kits will come with sanitizers, but it won’t hurt to buy specific sanitizers. There are different products out there that work good. I use one that is based on an acid base to sanitize equipment, like fermenting vessels, spoons, tubes, funnels etc. Sanitizing is done after everything is washed clean with standard cleaning practices. Sanitizing isn’t something to change up here. The common product that is used for other jobs is chlorine bleach, DO NOT use bleach as a final sanitizer. If you do wash with bleach, rinse with clean water until all trace is gone and then sanitize with a product specifically for brewing equipment. Bleach/chlorine can cause an undrinkable product. Use clear fresh water for your apples. It’s best if you don’t use chlorinated water on the apples to clean them. You can use the same sanitizer as you use on the equipment, just rinse well. You’ll be sanitizing the juice before the yeast is added as well. I personally just clean the apples with clean water before processing. Anything that is going to contact the juice/cider before or after fermentation needs to be sanitized. You will need to treat the juice to kill both bacteria and wild yeast cells 12-24 hours before adding yeast. There’s a couple options for this, heat or a sanitizer. I don’t use heat because of two side affects. It can and does alter flavor. It can cause the pectin, that is highly present in apples, to setup and cause jelling and/or cloudiness in your hard cider. (Yes, I have made hard apple cider Jello) A common juice sanitizer to use is Campden tablets. You need to crush the tablets and dissolve in a small amount of water or juice before adding to the juice. Easier than heating.
Now that you have everything together and sanitized let’s get started. We’ll want the juice at room temperature, 68 degrees minimum, 80 degrees maximum. You’ll want to ferment in this temp range as well. You’ll want to ferment in a place that gets very little to no sun light. At this point I use a food grade, sanitized bucket to use to prepare the juice and do primary fermentation. First thing you need to do is to use that new hydrometer you got in your kit to measure the specific gravity or percent alcohol of your juice. The juice generally will need to have sugar added to get the desired reading. Generally, for hard cider, you will want a reading in the 7-8 percent alcohol reading. It’s important to get this reading and to document it so you will know that fermentation has gone through the whole process. You do not want to bottle before it’s done fermenting. Add sugar to bring your readings up. I don’t recommend trying for more than 9% alcohol level because you will come to a point where the yeast will need help. If you end with it higher than you want you can either add water or more juice to bring it down, just keep in mind that the water will weaken the flavor if you add very much. I suggest adding a cup of sugar per gallon of juice to start. I don’t heat to add sugar, so it takes a little more stirring to get the sugar dissolved. You can’t stir to much, and you want the sugar completely dissolved. Once it’s dissolved recheck with your hydrometer. Compare your first reading to your second one. Use the readings to guide you for further addition of sugar. (I use regular white sugar. You can use corn sugar, brown sugar or honey, but we won’t be discussing them here) After getting the specific gravity (Percent alcohol) to the desired level, you’re ready to add your Campden tablet solution. After adding the Campden, cover the bucket with a clean dish towel. You need to cover with the towel to keep things out of your juice, but you need to have the juice breathe off the active ingredients from the Campden tablet. At this point, take a break for at least 12 hours, I generally go 24 hours at this point before continuing.
There is a couple of ingredients that you should add to the juice as well. Yeast nutrient should be added to the juice since apple juice is low in nutrients that the yeast need to stay happy. Usually nutrient is added at a rate of ½ teaspoon per gallon. The nutrient package will have a guideline on it. The other ingredient is pectic enzyme. It will help break the pectin down in the juice, which help in clearing the cider. It is usually added at ½ teaspoon per gallon. Again, check the label for the recommended addition. Both of these ingredients can be added either at the time of the yeast or before.
After the juice has rested for the 12-24 hours, you’re ready to get the fermentation started. Now we are going to talk about the thing that’s going to do all the real work, the yeast. You do have yeast options that are designed/grown for ciders and/or wine. The yeast you can buy at the super market is not the yeast you want. Yeast types make differences in the finished product and the standard yeast that is used for baking will give flavors/smells that are not favorable. And may not even be able to complete the fermentation. You will want to get a yeast that is designed for hard cider or a Champaign yeast. The yeast that I use a lot is made by Lalvin and its strain is 71B1122 or EC1118. There are instructions on the yeast pack for hydration of the yeast. Some people will tell you to just pitch the yeast into the juice. I have done this, but after having either slow or no starts and doing some studying, I don’t do that anymore. But, with that said, you do want to follow the instructions on the package very closely, especially the temp of the water you use. The packages of yeast will do up to 6 gallons, but don’t worry about dividing it for smaller batches, you can’t over yeast it, so use the whole pack. In this case, the more the better. Once the yeast is hydrated and it is within 8 degrees of your juice, put it in the juice. At this point your juice is still in the bucket and that is where you want it, this is the primary fermentation. Cover it with your towel. I use bungee type cords to hold the towel on tight and pull down the towel to get all wrinkles out so there isn’t a spot bugs can get in. After about 24 hours, you should have a fairly strong fermentation going. You can hear it as well as smell it. If in doubt look inside and you should see a fair amount of bubbling. It can be a little slow to take off sometimes due to temperature and/or other reasons, but after 48 hours at the most it should be going. Once you know it's fermenting good, give it 5-7 days to slow down some. At this point you are ready to put it into your secondary fermenting vessel. If you move it before it has slowed down, it can overflow your secondary due to the foaming. We want to move it before it stops completely so it builds CO2 above the cider. I try to fill my secondary to within an inch or so of where the air lock is in the jug. I put sanitizer solution into the air lock and put it on the fermenter and push it in until it is well sealed. When transferring the cider, try not to mix up the bottom sediment in the bucket. Transfer using your hose and try to leave the sediment in the bucket.
Now is the hard part, WAITING. This part will take from about three weeks to three months, depending on temperatures and other variables. At some point you will see the air lock stop bubbling. STOP, don’t touch it, it’s not done yet. Look for tiny bubbles coming up in the cider. If none, ask yourself, “Is it clear enough to almost sparkle?” If so, get your hydrometer out. Using either your siphon hose or a wine thief, fill your (Sanitized) graduated cylinder enough that your hydrometer is floating and take a reading. The reading that you are looking for is a specific gravity of 1.00-.990 If you are in that range, you are ready to prepare it for bottling. After it has cleared, you have to be very careful to not disturb the sediment at the bottom of the fermenter. Crush up one Campden tablet for every gallon of cider you are going to bottle. Boil a half cup of water and dissolve the powdered Campden. If you don’t dissolve it well, you’ll have floaters. Put the Campden solution into a sanitized bucket and transfer your cider, being careful not to splash, which introduces un-wanted oxygen. Gently stir to mix the Campden. (Doesn’t take much stirring) Now you’re ready to bottle your cider into sanitized bottles of choice. It is drinkable at this point, but does get better with a little aging.
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