I have been making hard cider for a few years now and it is totally worth the effort. That's not saying it is overly difficult, it just eats up a bit of time and space. Most of the time involves washing and sterilizing the equipment. Most of the space is taken up with glass carboys, big buckets and endless bottles. But the satisfaction I get from converting a perfectly wholesome drink like apple cider into a crisp, dry alcoholic beverage that packs a little punch (usually 7-8%, which is about 15 proof in liquor terms) is worth it.
Now I am in no way putting myself out there as an expert. I'm just sharing the methods I have been successful with. So don't get all high-handed on me and talk about real cider being fermented from wild yeast and how it should never be carbonated and only served in a dented tin cup tied to a string which is in turn tied to a barrel full of something that is one warm day away from turning into vinegar. You drink your cider with all of your friends, which are undoubtedly few because you are an insufferable prick, and I'll drink my cider with all of my friends, which undoubtedly number more than yours because my cider tastes good and is not served with a side of sanctimony (he says sanctimoniously). Ahh, I feel better for having said that. Onward!
- Get some fresh juice--(note: I will call un-fermented product 'juice' and fermented product 'cider' just to keep things clear) Go to an orchard and get it from the source, or if you are lucky enough to know someone with a press, get some apples and press it yourself. Try to avoid juice made from just one or two varieties of apples, especially if one of those varieties is Macintosh. The more complex, the better. Old heirloom varieties are the best bet, but be prepared to pay a premium. I get mine locally for an average of six dollars for some high quality stuff, but have paid as much as ten bucks a gallon for heirloom juice made specifically for fermenting. And it was really good.
- Gather your equipment together--5-gallon carboy, a funnel with strainer, airlock, hydrometer, sugar, and campden tablets. Thoroughly clean and sterilize your carboy, funnel and strainer, airlock and anything else that will touch your cider. You can research the best way to do this, I use a weak bleach solution but there are specific products out there if you want to go another route.
- Test the specific gravity of your juice--We do this so we know how much sugar is present for the yeast to act on. Pour some juice into the narrow tube the hydrometer came in and drop the hydrometer in, spinning it to free it from air bubbles. Use the instructions and charts provided to interpret the reading--in this case, my juice had a reading of 1.046. To be sure of consistency I took this reading again from a different container. I also ran the tube full of juice under hot tap water to get it to 70 degrees F, which ensures a neutral reading.
- Add sugar if needed--Anything less than 1.045 may result in poor fermentation due to a lack of sufficient sugars for the yeasts to convert into alcohol. If this is the case (and so far for me it almost always is) sugar is added, using the formula 2.25oz of sugar per gallon= 5 point increase in SG. So in this instance, with an initial borderline reading of 1.046, I wanted to increase the specific gravity by 5 points, to 1.051, which I find results in a good balance of dry and crisp with a slight taste of apple. I prepared 12.5oz of sugar, mixed with just a tiny bit of water to make it flow and dissolve a bit easier.
- Pour into carboy--Pour the juice through a funnel with a strainer insert to help remove particulate matter. After adding a few gallons of juice remove the funnel and add sugar. Replace the funnel and add the rest of the juice. If you feel like the sugar didn't get mixed in enough, stir the juice with a long thin paddle, sterilized of course.
- Kill the wild yeasts--At this point if you airlocked the juice it would eventually ferment on its own due to the presence of wild yeasts. This is how it was always made back in the day when people drank it for breakfast. While this is simple, it is also unpredictable, so I opt to kill the wild yeasts and add my own. To do this crush up 5 campden tablets, which are basically potassium metabisulfites, dilute in a bit of water and add to the juice. Insert a sterilized airlock into the neck of the carboy and let it sit for 24 hours.
- Pitch the yeast--There are a number of different yeasts you can use, from champagne yeast to wine yeast to specific cider yeast. Each one will impart different characteristics to your finished product. I like a crisp, dry cider but not completely dry. I have experimented with different yeasts and not settled on a specific one yet. This year I decided to try Lavlin K1116, which is a wine maker's yeast and should let a bit more of the apple taste to come through. Last year I used Lavlin K1118, which is a champagne yeast, and it resulted in a very dry final product. Previously I have also used special cider yeast shipped from England. I take notes each year and hope to eventually find the one that suits my tastes best. Whichever you use, one packet is enough for five gallons. Add one packet to 2 ounces of warm (not hot or it may kill the yeast) water and let it sit for fifteen minutes. Then give it a stir and add it to the carboy. Replace the airlock and wait. Within 24-48 hours, the bubbling should begin. That is the yeast eating up all of that sugar and converting it to alcohol. Congratulations! You are making hard cider.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of How to Make Hard Cider