Making hard cider, part 2

My last column went into detail on the basics and equipment you need to make hard cider. This week, you’ll learn what needs to be done to brew a better cider.

Making the Cider

To get good cider, we need good yeast and ONLY good yeast, so killing off the wild beasties is the first step. There are a few ways to be a yeast and bacteria assassin, with two common and highly-recommended methods: chemistry or heat.

The simplest way to kill the gremlins isn’t sunlight, it’s campden tablets, available at any homebrew store (local places mentioned in the last column). After you put your cider in the carboy, just crush one tablet per gallon and drop it into the cider, stir, and let it sit for a day. After 24 hours “pitch” (add) your yeast and you’re good to go.

A second method is to slowly heat your cider to 160-170F, making sure to NOT boil it, and just keep it there for 10 minutes. The heating method takes more time and effort, but also makes it easy to add additional sugars to increase the alcohol level. My favorite recipe includes adding 2 lbs of brown sugar to a 5-gallon batch of cider to bump the ABV to around 7% (or adding 4 lbs to get to 9.2% or so). The heating process is essentially pasteurization, but it also lets some of the apple flavor and aroma dissipate, so it’s a trade-off.

After you heat it up, cool it off as quickly as possible. An ice bath in the sink will do the trick, as will a copper “wort chiller” hooked up to a back yard water spigot. Once it cools to below 100F, pour it into the carboy or bucket (use a funnel if you’re fermenting in a carboy), called a fermentor.

After the temp drops below 70, pitch your yeast by simply pouring it into the cider and rocking your fermentor around for a minute or so. Yeast should be available at any homebrew stores. If you like your hard cider on the dry side, use a wine yeast or a specific cider yeast like White Labs English Cider Yeast. I prefer mine a bit more to the sweet side, so I tend to use Safeale US-05, a very common beer yeast that brews clean, but won’t get too crisp. White Labs English Ale Yeast, Danstar Nottingham Ale Dry Yeast, and Safale S-04 also come highly recommended.

After you’ve pitched your yeast, attach the sanitized airlock (filled with a bleach/water blend) and put it in a cool, dark place (basements are great) and let it sit. Within 24-48 hours, your airlock should be bubbling nicely and should do its thing for a few days to a week or so. A carboy is much better than a bucket here because you can actually watch the process and know when it settles down.

Most likely, your cider will be cloudy for a long time. Don’t be concerned. There are ways to clarify the cider, so do more research online if that’s really important to you.

After fermentation has slowed way down, you can start sampling the cider. Pour it very gently into a glass so you don’t expose it to oxygen or stir up the sediment at the bottom. Over time, it will become more and more tart, so when it reaches the sweet/tart level you prefer, it’s time to bottle.

Bottling the Magic

Bottles are available at any homebrew store, but the easiest method is to reuse old beer bottles. Just make sure you rinse them right after first use, then sanitize them immediately before bottling. Next, use your sanitized racking cane to move the cider to your sanitized bottling bucket. Using the sanitized hoses, fill one bottle at a time and use your capper to tighten the sanitized caps on the bottle. Did I mention that everything needs to be sanitized?

If you want your cider to be carbonated, boil 1 cup of water and 3-5 ounces of corn sugar for 10 minutes, then gently swirl it into your bottling bucket. This gives the yeast something extra to chew on in the bottle and create carbonation. The sweeter your cider, the less sugar you should use for bottling. Too much sugar in the bottle can lead to exploding cider, and nobody wants that. Finally, wait a couple of weeks for the bottles to carbonate and enjoy!

Cider can also be enjoyed uncarbonated, or “still.” Simply don’t add sugar and either cap it in beer bottles or champagne bottles or use wine bottles and corks.

Be forewarned that any imperfections in the cider will become more and more evident as time goes on, so if there’s any odd flavors, drink it quickly!

Originally published on October 24, 2013