Making Cider: Tips from the Pros

In the fall, apples are everywhere, so why not take a break from beer and try making a batch of hard cider? Before you start, however, take some tips from this issue’s three hard cider makers who will tell you that all apples were not created equal when it comes to fermentation.

Brewer: Greg Failing, Woodchuck Cider in Middlebury, VT

We make both a New England and a slightly more English style cider.  The Woodchuck line was designed to be very American and the amber is sweet, fruity and easy to drink.  When we created the product there was no real cider category in the US market and I knew most Americans thought of cider as the stuff coming off the press in the fall.  It was not until later that we came up with a cider aimed at the beer drinkers (802) and then one for the wine drinkers (Granny).  The other part of our product line is Cider Jack, which is designed to be similar to the European style.  

We ferment our ciders with a derivative of the Champagne yeast, but any white wine yeast that is designed to maintain the original character of the juice will work. The advantage with a full size professional operation is that we can have temperature control of the tanks and large-scale filtration.  Most of our cider is cold settled after fermentation and then it is filtered through a very tight filter.  This removes any solids and the residual yeast.

The easiest way to clarify cider at home is to chill the product after the fermentation so that the yeast will settle to the bottom.  The product needs to be racked at least once after it settles to be sure the product is as clean as it can get. Remember that during this time the product is susceptible to infection and oxidation and one should add SO2 to keep it safe. SO2 can often be found in the form of tablets or powdered potassium metabisulfite. Follow the directions so you do not get too much, as it affects the taste, but you need to have enough to keep the product healthy.

The most common problem I’ve seen in cider making is having no temperature control on the fermentations.  If they get too hot they can develop strange characters. Getting the product as clear as possible after the fermentation is also important.  If the product sits on the yeast and solids for too long, it can start to pick up off characters as the yeast and solids breakdown.

When making small batches of cider at home, the biggest consideration is to have clean equipment and healthy juice.  Using barrels and other items that cannot be cleaned is a good way to end up with many gallons of cider vinegar, which might not be bad if that is what you actually wanted, but won’t satisfy your craving for hard cider.

Brewer: Andrew Brown, Blue Mountain Cider in Milton-Freewater, OR

The varieties I feel make the best cider are the old English cider varietals, such as Foxwhelp and Braeburn, as well as some that are common to the US like New Town Pippen. The main thing to look for in a cider apple is above average glucose and fructose levels, lower pH and high acidity. Choosing apples is a balancing act between acidity and sweetness to get the mouthfeel where you want it.
I use dry Champagne or dry wine yeasts for cider because nutrient deficiencies don’t affect the yeasts as much — EC 1118 is a good one.  Definitely experiment as much as you can with small batches. If you don’t have the time to try different yeast strains, choose a yeast that isn’t temperamental.
Clarifying all depends on the style of cider you’re going to make. We have experimented and used all kinds of ways to clarify our ciders, including cold stablization, bentonite and different enzymes to break down proteins and pectins. My preferred method is bentonite because I end up with the least amount  of loss but get the best clarification.
Probably the most common mistake when making cider is trying to ferment with a lack of nutrition in the cider. Backyard apple trees may not yield the correct nutrients. Look to your local brew supply store for someone with knowledge about making ciders.

Brewer: Stephen Wood, Farnham Hill Ciders at Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, NH

I believe that choosing apple varieties is the most fundamental part of making cider. Like wine and unlike beer, if you follow a relatively low intervention method, the fundamental thing you get is an expression of what you started with. I like to use a blend of varieties, including some bittersweets, which are high in sugar and high in tannins that bring a tannic structure to the cider that is not available from other varieties. Some examples include Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Somerset Redstreak and Bramto. Bittersweets tend to be very low in acid, however, so to get the palate-cleansing acid I use varieties like Esopus Spitzenberg, Ash Mead’s Kernel and Wickson. Finally I also use varieties that add a fruity characteristic such as Golden Russet. It is important to note that apples that make a great eating or cooking apple, or even a cider apple, may not make the best hard cider. For example, Macintosh changes entirely when it’s introduced to yeast.
We use Pasteur Champagne yeast, which is readily available from manufacturers like Red Star and Lalvin. Do not use brewer’s yeast — you are fermenting something very different than beer. The main objective to us is to allow the fruit to express itself. We did a lot of yeast trials for years looking for a yeast that didn’t sing its own song in the cider, and the Champagne yeast works best.
If you want to make a small batch of cider, try locating a cider producer that presses the kind of apples that make good hard cider. Every year while we are pressing cider, we make a small tank of a few hundred gallons of the sort of juice that makes good hard cider, and we collect a substantial collection of customer carboys and corney kegs to fill. The fruit is the main thing — just going to an orchard and buying some cider is just not a good bet no matter how good that cider is.
Also, when you’re first starting out, don’t add stuff. Just because your grandfather added a quart of maple syrup doesn’t mean you should too. It’s like salting your food before you taste it. If after you are finished you want that flavor, go for it, but in the beginning just make cider and see how you like it first.
Issue: September 2009