Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hard Cider - America's Underdog Home Brew

Hard cider is an underappreciated underdog in America. There was a time when it was a beverage of choice, going toe-to-toe with beer and outstripping wine. Our population was predominantly rural and everybody had apple trees around the place. It was a great way to save the harvest and produce a tasty drink that wasn’t liable to give you polio or dysentery the way the water of the time might.
I believe prohibition and the urbanization of the country were the 1-2 punch that set cider back. It is beginning a resurgence with the import of European labels and drafts and the growing number of artisanal ciderys springing up across the country. The biggest detractor is that many of the mass market ciders regularly available aren’t much more than apple flavored wine coolers.

Ciders come in a variety of styles from fully dry to very sweet, still or carbonated, and ranging from 2% to 12% alchohol. Like a wine, the cider is dependent on the fruit it is made from, but the finished product bears the signature of the maker, with the handling, choice of yeasts, decisions on oaking and aging all coming into play.

As a home project, cider is more forgiving than beer, and quicker than wine, and can yield a result that is imminently drinkable. Our biggest problem is that making it in 3-5 gallon batches, we are always running out.

This batch of cider started out on Thanksgiving weekend with 3 gallons of an acidic blend of unpasteurized cider grown in Zillah Washington, and pressed and bottled in Gervias, Oregon in the Willamette Valley. While it tasted refreshingly tart, there was enough sugar to reach 6% alcohol, but it was masked by the acidity. That’s a good thing, because without a strong acid backbone, cider tends to come out tasting insipid. Typically a 3-4 Ph is where you want to be.
We sterilized a 5 gallon food grade bucket, poured in the cider and added some sodium metabisulphate which “sterilizes” the cider, getting rid of any native yeasts that are present. We let it sit for 24 hours covered with a Tea towel allowing the sulphur compounds to dissipate. Apples are high in pectin which can lead to a cloudy finished product. Pasteurized cider is worse as the heat treatment changes the pectin causing it to be more likely to stay in suspension. I added Pectic Enzyme which will react with the pectin and cause it to precipitate more easily. I also added a touch of powdered tannin to boost the tannic mouth feel in the finished cider. Finally we added the yeast and let it go.

The yeast you choose has a surprising impact on the finished product. Ale yeasts produce something of a beery quality that I tend to equate to some of the English scrumpy style ciders. Use of a white wine yeast like Montrachet produces a more winey cider something like a Saxon Hausen Apfelwein from Germany. For this batch, we chose a Wyeast Laboratories Dry Mead yeast. Why? Because we’d never used it before and I wanted to see what it would do.

We let the primary ferment go for a week or so until it began to taper off. At that point we siphoned the cloudy juice off of the sludge of yeast and apple waste in the bottom of the bucket and into a 3 gallon glass carboy. Since I wasn’t making this in an oak barrel I added a tablespoon of toasted oak chips to the cider and let the slow ferment continued for another week. At that time obvious fermentation had stopped and we were totally dry, all of the sugar converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

At the end of December, the cider had cleared and was a beautiful amber-straw color. It was time to bottle.

As with all things fermenty, cleanliness is next to goodlyness. I picked out 30 12 oz. beer bottles, inspected them for cracks, chips or encrusted gook inside and then washed them in the dishwasher on sani-rinse. I then soaked them in an ammonia bath to further eradicate any unwanted microbes, then triple rinsed each bottle to get rid of any hint of ammonia or soap.

We siphoned the cider off the lees, the mat of expended yeast and pectin on the bottom of the jug, into a sterilized and triple rinsed 5 gallon bucket. We then tasted it and found that it had good balance, a nice apple component, a subtle vanilla-caramel aspect from the light oaking, and no off flavors. It was hard dry with no residual sugar. We decided to add apple cider concentrate to re-introduce a hint of sweetness which accentuates the apple and makes it more identifiable. It will also allow for a little secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce carbonation. We filled the bottles, capped them and I’ll leave them in the house where they are warm for a few days to help induce the secondary fermentation, then transfer them to a case in the garage which this time of year is about like a fridge. We’ll start checking them in a couple weeks and we’ll be enjoying a little bottled summer during the dark, wet days of February.


  1. Oh, very, VERY nice. I can see who's having a great new year's already! =)

  2. Love this. I am a big hard cider fan, and unfortunately, often find myself in the minority. Luckily though, living in New England I have a selection of delicious ciders to choose from all year long, from both here and Quebec.

  3. I don't know that I've ever had much hard cider, but my husband loves it. Looks like you did an amazing job making your own.
    Your mention of prohibition put me in mind of my new favourite show, Boardwalk Empire (HBO)!

  4. Outstanding! I'll be right over! ;-)
    Seriously though, great post! I will definitely be referring to this when we start making our own. Thanks for posting!

  5. Great how-to overview. Looks familiar from my years of making cider. I still have a good amount of 2009 batches (35 gallons) available to drink so I am not sure if I am going to make more in 2011 or not. For a good read you should read Ben Watson's book Cider: Hard & Sweet. I did a review earlier in the year. It has great history on cider and lots of how to info as well. Enjoy your cider.

    Since I wrote my last posts on cider I was the lucky winner of the Common Cider of a regional homebrew competition. I had never entered my cider before so I was quite surprised at the result.

    I'll send a toast your way when I open my next bottle of my own!


  6. Oh, how this brings back memories of my first trip to London!

  7. Another cider fan here- apple and pear too. I'll be curious to hear how it tastes in Feb.

  8. We've done wines over the years - but never cider. So this interests me - I love the history behind it and there is some ease involved.

  9. I just started drinking cider again. It's been years, and I have no idea why. Great post.

  10. That is incredible. I don't drink a lot of cider but for you to make it from scratch is just amazing!!

  11. Good job we don't live near you - round there rading your cellar! Always like to hear it being called hard cider compared to us softies in the UK who just have cider. Tell me yours is stronger!