What is it that brings memories of autumn to mind? Some of us sense the cooler nights and crisper days. For others, the diminishing light is a reminder of a season gone by and a new one at our doorstep. The days are shorter, but are alive with a palate of autumn color. The perfumed fragrances of nature surround us as the autumn harvest season arrives. I anxiously wait for this fall panorama and especially look forward to the new crop of apples. The fragrant aromas and flavors of the season remind me that it’s cider season again.
Picking a cider
Your first decision in the cider making process is finding the right type of apples. Cider makers from differing climatic zones throughout America produce a multitude of ciders, using many types and blends of apples. The local cider apples in the Northeast, where I live, include MacIntosh, Rome, Granny Smith, Empire, Delicious and Baldwins. I attended a fall festival in Massachusetts last year where a farmer had at least seventy five different apples on display. I was astonished that so many different varieties are grown here in New England. Combinations of sweet, bitter, tart and sharp apples are blended by the individual cider maker. As veteran cider maker Tom Muska of Applebrook Farm in Broadbrook, Connecticut said to me, “The trick is in the blend.”
Making cider starting from apples requires a fairly extensive knowledge of apple varieties and access to an apple press. This can be a bit much for a beginning cider maker to bite off, so this article will discuss basic home cider making using already bottled sweet (unfermented) apple cider.
Get your hands on the freshest cider possible, and taste it. If it tastes good, use it in your brew. There are orchards all across North America and you can probably find a local cider mill in your area by looking in the yellow pages or asking at your local farm stand. Spend a little time driving around the countryside visiting as many cider mills as possible. You’ll eventually find a cider that you like and have a blast doing it.
Do not use any “supermarket juice” that has preservatives (usually potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate). Those chemicals may inhibit your fermentation. Always read the label. However, keep in mind that there may not be anything added to your local supermarket cider. If not, and it tastes good, go ahead and use it.
Sanitizing the must
In brewing, the wort (unfermented beer) is sanitized by boiling. When making cider, there are a couple ways to sanitize the must (unfermented juice). You can pasteurize the must by heating the sweet apple cider to 160 °F (71 °C) and holding it there for at least fifteen minutes. After cooling to below 80 °F (27 °C), you can add the yeast. (Before heating, check the label or ask at the farm where you buy your cider — it may already be pasteurized and ready to go.) Some cidermakers have a negative attitude towards pasteurized as opposed to unpasteurized cider. I’ve used both types in my ciders and can’t detect a difference.
As an alternative to heating, some cider makers prefer to add 50–100 parts per million (ppm) of sodium or potassium metabisulfite to their freshly squeezed cider before pitching their yeast. This is approximately one Campden tablet per gallon (3.8 L) of must. After you add the sulfite (which will kill any wild yeast and bacteria), allow the must to sit for 24 hours before the yeast is pitched.
Start by sanitizing a clean 5-gallon (19-L) carboy or bucket. Make sure that you also sanitize the lid, airlock, stirring utensils, stopper and whatever else you will be using. Next, pour your sanitized sweet cider into its primary fermentation vessel. If you are making a cider with an initial addition of sugar or other flavorings, reserve a quart of sweet cider in a cooking pot.
For a New England cider, you will add some raisins and brown sugar. Raisins are a traditional addition to a New England style cider. They add some tannins to the mix and also some fermentable sugars. Slowly bring the temperature up to 160 °F (71 °C) and hold for fifteen minutes, then add this mixture directly to your must. This volume won’t affect the temperature much when added to the five gallons.
The most common yeast used in cider making is Champagne yeast. It has a neutral flavor and tends to ferment to dryness. I never make a starter for my ciders and haven’t had any problems. (The initial pH and sugar composition of sweet cider is closer to unfermented wine than wort, and winemakers typically don’t worry about pitching as much as brewers do.)
You must, however, aerate the entire mix before primary fermentation. After aeration, affix a sanitized lid or stopper and airlock to your primary fermenter. Ferment the must at 65–70 °F (18–21 °C).
Some cider makers prefer to add pectic enzyme — usually at a rate of one quarter teaspoon per 5 gallons
(19 L) — to improve the clarity of the end product. Adding yeast nutrients can also be a good idea, especially if you have added a lot of refined sugar to your cider must.
As in established brewing and winemaking practice, you must transfer (rack) your cider off its dead yeast and sediment. Do this after seven to ten days of fermentation. Leave the still fermenting cider in this secondary fermentation vessel for at least two more weeks. After fermentation is complete, you may need to add a clarifier to brighten up your creation. Bentonite or Sparkalloid are commonly used for this. Usually, 2.5 teaspoons of Bentonite or 1 tablespoon of Sparkal-loid is used for 5 gallons (19 L). Follow the instructions on the package for the process to make them up.
Adjusting and bottling
You are now at the stage of finalizing, modifying and bottling. If your cider lacks tartness/acidity, you can add malic acid — the acid found in apples — or an acid blend, as used by many winemakers and meadmakers. Try adding 0.5 oz. (14 g), then taste and add more if needed. Likewise, if it lacks sharpness, you can add tannins by adding grape tannins. Start with 1/2 tsp., then add more if taste dictates. If your original sweet cider was a bit low in sweetness or body, you may end up with an extremely dry and flavorless cider. That’s why I like to add the raisins and some spices. One of my favorite ciders is a blend of cinnamon, ginger and allspice that is added after the fermentation is complete.
A few weeks before I plan to bottle, I marinate the above mentioned spices in a little rum. The fragrant oils and flavors of the mixture permeate the rum, and also settle out the spice sediment. You can then use the clear upper layer of the elixir as a flavoring. This will not ferment, so it can be added at bottling day to the taste you prefer. One of my favorite ciders using this recipe actually tastes like a liquid apple pie. If your creation has an alcoholic texture, a nice flavor but lacks the sweetness that seems to bind it all together, there is a syrupy commercial product called wine conditioner. Wine conditioner contains a high concentration of sugar, but also has a bit of sorbate added. The sorbate prevents fermentation from restarting and the sugars present will bring your cider back to life with a bit of sweetness. This can be done on bottling day to taste. I would start by adding 4 oz. (118 mL) to the 5-gallon (19-L) batch, then add more to taste.
Also, if the body of your cider is a bit thin or flabby, there is also a solution. Glycerine, another unfermentable, is another product available that builds body and can be added directly to the cider on bottling day. It will bring up the mouthfeel of the cider. It can also be added to taste (feel) on bottling day. With glycerine, I start with 2 oz. (59 mL) for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch, and increase to taste.
If you prefer a dry, light-bodied cider, do not add any of the conditioners or body builders. A Champagne-like dry cider can be produced this way by letting the fermentation go to completion.
If you prefer a bubbly version, you would then add three quarters of a cup of corn sugar and a package of Champagne yeast to your 5-gallon
(19 L) batch, and proceed to bottle. (If you’ve added sorbate solution to your mix, the carbonation will not work.)
Something as special as cider and especially your homemade creation deserves a special package. Wine makers have known for years that the bottle and label design help sell their product. Why not do the same with your cider? Corked wine bottles are a possibility. Another is using American Champagne bottles. They hold 750 mL to a liter, and can be capped with ordinary crown caps. (European Champagne bottles have a larger opening and require a specially sized cap and capper modification.) Dress up your bottles with a date and cider type. They make great Christmas gifts.
A few notes on recipes
The sugar content of different ciders varies. Use your hydrometer to determine the specific gravity of your juice and its potential level of alcohol. (Assume that final specific gravity will drop to 1.000.) Adding fermentable sugars, such as honey, molasses, maple sugar, piloncillo or brown sugar will produce more complex flavors and a higher alcohol level. Be careful here, though, I’ve sampled ciders with way too much alcohol. Sometimes the higher alcohol level produces an unpleasant hot, burning sensation. Balance is the key word here.
For traditional cider, shoot for maybe 4% ABV (the BJCP guidelines say 4.5–7.0). For New England cider, the sky’s the limit. (The BJCP says 7–14%). I think that you can do whatever you want, but the balance has to have apple flavor and not just alcohol. There shouldn’t be any restrictions . . . do what feels good for you. A nice blend of apple flavor, alcohol and other subtle factors make for a pleasant cider.
I add an extract of cloves to my perry (pear cider). Apple pie spices seem to go well with apple cider. The flavors seem made for each other. Cinnamon, ginger and allspice marry well with the acidity of apples. Cyser is actually a mead (honey based), but is made using apple cider in place of the normally used water. You get a nice blend of apple and honey flavors. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination.
Oh, one more thing . . . remember to bring a bottle or two of your creation to your cider press guy. Trust me, he’ll be appreciative, impressed and will probably share it with his family on Thanksgiving Day.
Paul Zocco is the owner of Zok’s Homebrewing Supplies, Willimantic, Connecticut. He was New England Cider Maker of the Year for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002.