Fall has fallen, which for many parts of the country, means hayrides, swapping out your wardrobe, and enjoying all sorts of hearty, autumnal fare. Unfortunately, not all of us can subsist on a strict diet of pumpkin spice lattes and leaf-changing Instagram content. No, many of us will turn to a different fall staple to warm us up while we tailgate, hit the bars, or relax around a fire. I’m talking about the delicious, boozy, concoction that is hard apple cider. And this year, friends, we’re making it ourselves.
First off, if you’ve never made your own cider, wine, mead, or beer, I envy you, big time. There’s no joy quite like the first time you drink booze that you made—except, perhaps, watching other people enjoy booze that you made for the first time. And if making your own hooch seems like a daunting task, don’t worry: Cider is an easy, straightforward way to embark on your fermentation journey, and there are lots of helpful books to guide you through the entire process. But just to be sure we didn’t miss anything, we chatted with our friend Ryan Burk, head cider maker at Angry Orchard, to help us get you started on what may become a deep, deep obsession with fermenting your own booze.
“I think cider can sometimes be perceived as just one style, and it’s really so much more,” Burk explains. “Cider is a dynamic and innovative category that doesn’t stick to just the expected.” He and his team are proud cider evangelists, and at their Orchard and Cider House in New York’s Hudson Valley, they’re constantly experimenting with wild fermentation and showcasing a spectrum of ciders ranging from sweet to dry. “Cider can really push the boundaries, and we like to do just that,” he says.
We won’t delve too deeply into how apples become hard cider (there are plenty of online resources that do a great job) but here’s the gist. First, apples are washed, milled, and pressed to release their juice. Then, that juice is collected and transferred into a sanitized fermentation vessel. At this point, yeast and yeast nutrients are added, and fermentation begins. After a few weeks, fermentation ends, and the cider starts to age. Once the aging process is complete—Burk recommends at least three months—the cider is transferred, or “racked” into a secondary fermentation vessel for clarification (or even more aging), then packaged in bottles or kegs for serving. Easy peasy!
Step one? Getting some juice. While you’ll be able to ferment most ciders and apple juices you find in the supermarket, getting cider from a local orchard or mill (if you live near any) or pressing your own cider from farmers market apples are the best ways to go, according to Burk. More interesting varieties of apples will also bring more character and depth to a cider, he explains, rather than just using the Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples that are usually on display in supermarkets.
Alrighty, let’s get to work.
The best jugs for making hard cider
These big ol’ jugs, colloquially known as “carboys” (get it?) are where your cider will live while it slowly turns into a boozy, palatable beverage. Glass is your best bet when it comes to fermentation vessels, since it’s easy to clean, hard to scratch, and less porous than food-grade plastic, which means it’s less likely for unfriendly bacteria to take up residence on the surface, and that you’ll have less oxidation during the aging process.
Next up, you'll need an airlock
As your fermentation gets started, the yeast will kick off a ton of CO2, which means you’re going to need a way to let gas out without letting unwanted outsiders (namely airborne funk and bugs) into your cider. Enter: the airlock. Airlocks are essentially one-way valves that use gravity and water to allow your ferments to release gas as pressure builds up inside them. This way, you won’t have to worry about exploding carboys—and the brutal mess that would ensue.
The sun rises in the yeast
While lots of online forums and cider-making videos suggest using Champagne yeast for cider making, Burk disagrees. “In fact,” he says, “avoid Champagne yeast at all costs. The only thing you should be making with Champagne yeast is Champagne,” since the clean-fermenting qualities of that strain aren’t great for cider making. “Instead,” he explains, “look for a white wine yeast that’s used to bring body and character to something. Getting some body from fermentation, instead of sugar, is a really nice thing.”
It’s like a thermometer for booze
Hydrometers measure density—in this case, sugar content. By taking hydrometer readings before and after fermentation, you can determine how much sugar your cider had to begin with, as well as the amount of residual sugar in solution. Then, you can pop those numbers (known as “Plato”) into a free online calculator to figure out how much alcohol by volume (ABV) your end product contains. Neato, huh?
Keep your yeastie boys happy
If you’ve got good ingredients and are careful about sanitization, the best thing you can do for making good cider is to keep your yeast as happy as possible. Burk recommends adding organic nitrogen yeast nutrient at the beginning of your fermentation, as well as after you drop 4-5 Plato (check your hydrometer), to really give your yeast what we need. (We like Fermaid-O for this.)
Squeaky clean is the name of the game
There’s an old saying that 90 percent of brewing beer involves being a janitor, and while beer and cider are totally different animals, keeping everything that comes into contact with your soon-to-be cider clean is just as crucial. Powdered Brewery Wash (PBW) is great for getting rid of organic material on carboys and other equipment. Star San is the no-rinse sanitizer of choice among brewers, and 16 ounces of this stuff will last you a long, long time. (Make sure to follow package instructions when using both of these products!)
Bottle your booze
OK, you’ve made your first batch of hard cider. Congrats! Now, if you don’t plan on drinking flat cider directly from the carboy—possible, but we don’t recommend—you need to bottle that sucker. You can either use Grolsch-style bottles with attached swing-tops, or you can use standard bottles and seal them with crown caps. (You can always collect amber beer or cider bottles and clean them, as well. Just not twist-offs.)
Then, if you want to carbonate your bottles of cider, just add a carbonation drop to each bottle before you cap it, leave them in a dark place at room temperature for two to three weeks, and boom: You got bubbles.
The perfect fall gift
If you’re looking to take the easy route and buy you (or someone in your life) a complete cider-making kit, Brooklyn Brew Shop has a couple great ones, complete with everything you’ll need to get started.
Now pour yourself a big glass and drink to your health. [Clink!]
The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.