While cidermaking is more akin to making white wine, many of the concepts we learn from beer brewing does translate over quite nicely. Let’s look at some of the tricks that beer brewers might learn from winemakers to get the best from this year’s cider.
- First things first, decide on your sweet spot: Before you do anything, I suggest picking up a wide range of commercial ciders. Taste them and decide what style suits you. Do you like them sweeter or drier? Maybe the semi-sweet one tickled your fancy. Also try to hone in on the acidity levels. Once you decide on a sweetness level, check out the nutritional facts of that particular cider and read the sugar levels. Jot that down (grams per serving size), as it could be a potential guide later.
- Using store-bought kits, sweet cider, and apple juice concentrate: While purists may turn their nose up at making cider this way . . . it will save hours of picking, macerating, pressing, and cleaning to get a similar volume of hard cider. Many homebrew stores offer several lines of kit ciders that I can say from experience make some quality cider that can be tweaked to your personal preference if you so desire.
While store-bought cider/juice and concentrates (found in the frozen juice section of your grocery store) may seem like cheating, they can in fact make refreshing and crisp hard cider if handled properly. Just like with the kits, you can play with sugar, alcohol, and acid levels to your liking. Don’t purchase juice if potassium sorbate or other preservatives is found in the ingredients list. These juices will not properly ferment.
- When picking your own: If you have your own or have access to apple processing equipment, try to pick a wide array of apple varieties. Apple trees growing in the wild will often contain the malic acid and tannins (often smaller apples with more peel to pulp ratio) we’re after to provide balance to the cider. A blend of sweet and sour apple varieties will give you a nice mix of sugar and malic acid levels. Also, cull out any apples (or parts of apples) that have signs of insect damage or browning. As a rough estimate, 30 lbs. (13.6 kg) of apples will yield 1 gallon (3.8 L) of fresh apple juice. The original gravity of the juice will depend on many factors such as growing season, the timing of harvest, and apple varieties used, but between 1.045–1.050 is often a good estimate. When fermented dry, that means low- to mid-6% ABV range if no supplemental sugar is used.
- When processing your own juice: For cidermakers, the most prevalent enzyme used is pectic enzymes. Pectins are large polysaccharide chains that are found in apples and if left intact can cause a haze in the cider. Not only that, but adding pectic enzymes to the apple pulp prior to pressing can also increase yields as well.
While rice hulls are well known to brewers, they are also used in the cider and wine world. Adding some rice hulls to your apple pulp prior to pressing is another way to increase yields. Many commercial operations use this trick.
- Yeast selection and supplements: Since there are a lot less complex sugars found in apple juice, attenuation is not much of a factor. Ester production and final character are more the driving factors when selecting your strain of yeast. There are many white wine/Champagne yeast choices that you may opt for if you’re going big, like an apple wine, but cider-specific or beer yeasts are often going to provide more character to the cider. One added benefit to many cider-specific yeast strains is that nutrients are provided in the packet. Cider is naturally low in nitrogen levels and some yeast may struggle to finish if a yeast nutrient, such as diammonium phosphate (DAP), isn’t included.
- Sugar, alcohol, and acidity levels: The final three tricks are completely optional. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to go back to #1 on this list and hit your target sugar level by a process known as backsweetening. For more on that process visit: https://byo.com/article/backsweetening/. Utilizing apple juice concentrate is one way to add more apple character if your cider seems to be lacking in a fruity apple character. Many cidermakers will boost the character by adding sugars like maple syrup or brown sugar. This will boost alcohol level and add a hint of molasses as well. Winemaker’s acid blend (or malic acid) available at your local homebrew shop is a great way to add some complexity to hard cider that lacks that crisp bite. Certain wine yeasts can consume the malic acid, so this may be needed if you used a strain like Lalvin 71B. If you do this, add slowly and incrementally over the course of several weeks. It’s easier to add more than to try to step backwards. A malolactic fermentation, a common practice in the winemaking world, can be done if the cider is too tart for your liking.
- To oak or not to oak: Some people like it; some people do not. But to add an earthy, slightly caramel, and vanilla character to your cider, medium or medium-plus toast oak cubes or chips, may be what you’re after. Go light to start, you can always add more later.
- Sulfites are your friend: Winemakers use sulfites regularly. They can protect your cider from oxidation and prevent spoilage bacteria and yeast from causing problems. Adding them a day prior to fermenting and again during the aging process can be beneficial. To learn more on them, I recommend the following read: https://winemakermag.com/article/the-basics-of-sulfite