Back in July, Molotov Cocktail ran a wonderful piece by Frank Swigonski explaining the importance of cider in the early days of colonial America, through Prohibition, and beyond. Seeing as apple season is upon us in the Northeast, this topic is worth revisiting.
Since War on the Rocks readers and contributors are not just thinkers but practitioners, it would be most prudent to explain how cider can be made and (hopefully) enjoyed at home.
While I’ve written for War on the Rocks about how to make beer, in many ways cider is a better place to start because you don’t need to cook anything (usually), and the actual time spent laboring over the product is much less than required for beer or wine. In fact, a cider “brew day” could be as short as adding yeast to juice. Turnaround is quick too; you could be drinking your homemade cider in 2–3 weeks. Also, you probably have most of things you need in your kitchen already, and the equipment you’ll need to buy will probably run you about $25–30.
All of the equipment described below should be available at your local homebrew or wine-making shop, and the staff working in those places is usually pretty knowledgeable. This recipe is for one gallon, but you could easily multiply by five for a full five-gallon batch.
One thing that I cannot stress enough is the importance of sanitation. You need to be diligent about making sure everything that could potentially come in contact with your cider is sanitized. Unwanted microbes can totally ruin weeks of work and waiting.
A reasonable question I often get is, “Sounds easy, but will it be any good?” There isn’t a straightforward answer to this. It will not be the cider you’re used to and will probably remind you a bit more of cheap wine than the super-sweet commercially available ciders of your local megamart. The first batch of cider I made was probably objectively bad, but it tasted like the best thing in the world to me because I made it. The procedure below is basically the brewing equivalent of learning to play Wagon Wheel on guitar. You’re hardly Bob Dylan, but you’ve accomplished something and you’re a bit more fun at parties.
- 2x One-gallon glass jugs (if you can buy one with apple juice in it, then you’ve killed two birds with one apple)
- 1 Drilled #6 stopper to fit in the top of the fermenter
- 1 Airlock to put in the top of the stopper
- Auto siphon with vinyl tubing
- A reputable no-rinse sanitizer (Star San or One Step)
- Optional, a hydrometer so you can determine the alcohol by volume (abv) of your brew
- Optional, an electronic scale
- One gallon apple juice/cider. It can be supermarket variety, but make sure it doesn’t have potassium sorbate or other preservatives, as these inhibit or halt fermentation (vitamin C or ascorbic acid are okay). If it’s unpasteurized you’ll need to kill any naturally occurring microbes with either sulfites or heat.
- One yeast packet (only use half). You can buy cider yeast (usually a refrigerated vial) or use ale or wine yeast. I like Nottingham Ale yeast (dry packet) or American Ale II (wet).
- Yeast nutrient (apple juice has lots of sugar but not a lot of other things yeast needs to be healthy).
- Pectic enzyme (helps the clarity of your final product).
If you buy your juice in a one-gallon glass jug then you don’t need to sanitize said jug, because the juice has been pasteurized and thus is already a sanitary environment. If you’re adding juice to an empty jug then you’ll need to sanitize the jug. Also sanitize the stopper, airlock, and anything else that might come in contact with your “must” (this is what you call unfermented juice in cider- and wine-making). To make a bit of room for the yeast to do its thing, pour out about a cup of juice and drink it (or throw it away, if you’re wasteful).
Add the yeast nutrient and pectic enzyme to the levels suggested on the packet/vial with a sanitized measuring spoon and then add a sanitized cap to the fermenter. Shake. Let sit for an hour.
After an hour, shake again (what you’re doing here is aerating your must). Remove the cap and add about 1/2 of your yeast packet. Apply the stopper and airlock. Fill the airlock to the line with vodka or another neutral spirit and put it in a dark cool place.
You should see activity within 24 hours (bubbling airlock, foaming must). If you don’t, fret not, it will take off eventually.
After about a week, activity should have stopped and you’ll see sediment at the bottom of your jug. If you bought a hydrometer, you can take a gravity reading. It should be close to 1.000 SG. If it isn’t, let it sit for a few more days.
Once your cider is close to 1.000 SG, sanitize your auto-siphon and your second jug. Siphon your cider into the second jug, taking care not to disturb the sediment (this is dead yeast and it can cloud the final product and impart off flavors). Re-apply (and re-sanitize) the stopper and airlock. Let it sit for two weeks or until clear. If you chose not to buy a hydrometer, you can tell when it’s pretty close to done when bubbling in your airlock has slowed to less than one bubble per minute. Whether through taking a gravity reading or through careful observation, it’s important to make sure that fermentation is complete before you take any steps to bottle the cider. If you bottle too early you risk creating bottle bombs as residual sugars will be consumed by the yeast and will lead to dangerous levels of pressure in the bottle.
At this point you have cider that’s probably around 5–6% abv (typical beer strength) and is flat and very dry. You can take a few different paths from here depending on taste.
For still, dry cider that you will drink quickly (within a week or two), I wouldn’t bother bottling. Throw your gallon jug in the fridge, cap it and consume as wanted, taking care to open the cap every now and then so that CO2 doesn’t build up and create a small bomb.
If you want flat, sweet cider you can do the above and sweeten in the glass with agave nectar or simple syrup to taste.
For naturally sparkling dry cider, you’ll need to prime and bottle. Basically, priming introduces a small amount of sugar that the remaining yeast turns into CO2 (and a small amount of alcohol). When this happens in a closed environment (e.g. a capped beer bottle) the CO2 is forced into solution and you end up with fizzy cider. You can do this with either table sugar or dextrose (corn sugar that dissolves easily).
For one gallon you’ll need 10–11 12-oz beer bottles (sanitized), crown caps (sanitized), a bottling bucket with a spigot (sanitized), and a capper. Siphon the cider from the glass jug into the bucket and add priming sugar to the levels specified from this calculator (I’ve found 2.4 volumes of CO2 is fizzy but not too fizzy) to a small amount of water. Bring the mixture to a boil on the stove and hold it there for a minute or two. Let it cool slightly and add it to your cider in the bucket. Gently stir but don’t agitate too much. Using the spigot (which you’ve sanitized) fill the bottles, leaving about ¾ inch at the top. Cap each bottle and store in a dark place. After about a week, throw one in the fridge for a day and then have a taste. If it’s where you like it, throw the rest in the fridge and enjoy at your leisure.
It’s important to be precise with your priming sugar measurements. Too much priming sugar will result in too much CO2, which will result in over-carbed foaming bottles at best, and potentially dangerous exploding glass bottles at worst.
(A trick I use sometimes to tell when carbonation has been achieved is to follow the same instructions as above but to fill one small plastic soda bottle instead of glass. This way you can squeeze the soda bottle to tell how much Co2 is inside. When the soda bottle is rock hard you know your cider is ready).
Fizzy, sweet cider is difficult to achieve naturally and I wouldn’t recommend it for first time cider-makers. The risks include exploding bottles and glass shrapnel. And despite this being War on the Rocks, I’d advise against creating cider grenades in your kitchen. If you REALLY want to try this, there is a stovetop pasteurization method outlined here. Basically you follow the procedure for fizzy dry cider, but add extra sugar and then heat the carbonated bottles in a waterbath on the stove to kill off the yeast. Pressurized glass bottles? Pots of hot water? Not for me.
So what are you waiting for? Wow your friends, make your significant other respect you again (so that she stops talking about how great her co-worker Todd is), and be a big hit at your next neighborhood soiree.
Embrace the autumn and fight back against all those pumpkin spice wannabes! Make this weekend the weekend you become a cider-maker!
James Sheehan is a homebrewer and cider-maker. When he’s not fermenting things he works for a Washington, D.C. based democracy education non-profit. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College, London.
Photo credit: Rebecca Siegel