How To Make Hard Cider

Embarking on the journey of crafting your own hard cider is a delightful endeavor that connects you with centuries-old traditions and the artistry of fermentation. Beyond the shelves of commercial beverages lies a world of flavors waiting to be explored, and making hard cider at home provides the perfect gateway into this rich and rewarding realm.

Whether you’re an experienced homebrewer or a curious beginner, our detailed guide will take you through the step-by-step process of producing your own crisp and invigorating hard cider. From choosing the best apples to mastering the fermentation process, come along on this aromatic adventure as we unravel the secrets behind creating the perfect brew in the comfort of your home.

Many successful cider makers also double as orchardists, managing clean and efficient cider mills. In addition to their expertly crafted ciders, they offer a wide array of late-season apples for sale, including Northern Spy, Macoun, Baldwin, Roxbury Russet, Winesap, Macintosh, Cortland, and Golden Russet, just to mention a few tempting options.

Origin of the apple

Apples, though not native to North America, have left a significant mark on the country’s history. In this limited space, I’ll unfold some fascinating aspects of this story. Additionally, I’ll provide an overview of the steps involved in fermenting hard cider. For those with technical queries, I’ll suggest some insightful reading to delve into the intricacies of the process.

The intriguing tale of hard cider’s rise, fall, and revival in both America and Europe may captivate your interest. Perhaps, by the end, you might be persuaded that hard cider is not only a beverage worth sampling but also one worth producing in a small batch for yourself. It’s essential to note that, like beer, ale, and wine, crafting hard cider is enjoyable, and thankfully, it’s a less arduous process than some of its counterparts.

Within the recipe section, you’ll find some unique recipes utilizing fresh apples, French apple brandy, and apple cider to enhance flavors and textures. My family and I savored six months of apple-infused bliss, creating and relishing a variety of apple-based appetizers, beverages, entrees, and desserts.

We explored over 30 apple orchards so far, indulging in the fresh cider from the 12 that produce their own. Additionally, my husband and I tasted and experimented with popular commercial hard ciders from local cideries and global manufacturers.

An abundance of apples

Ever wondered about the sheer variety of apples? Post-Civil War, American nurseries listed over 800 distinctly different apple varieties, and worldwide, the count soared to nearly 7,000. However, the modern U.S. apple crop, comprising 80 percent, revolves around eight main varieties: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan, Macintosh, Rome Beauty, Stayman Winesap, and York Imperial. Your typical supermarket, for most of the year, offers a rather limited selection, occasionally introducing newer varieties like Fuji and Mutsu.

But in apple-growing regions, everything changes during the fall months. Local orchard stands come alive, offering a myriad of varieties absent from supermarket shelves. Northern Spy, Roxbury Russet, Gravenstein, Spitzenberg, York Imperial, and the diverse Pippin variations await the ambitious and persistent apple enthusiast. It’s a lamentable truth that, in a country teeming with food purchase options, finding a diverse selection of one of the world’s favorite fruits can be quite challenging.

The apple, second only to the banana, holds its ground as the world’s most popular and cherished fruit. When the juice is extracted from this esteemed member of the rose family, the fruit’s tannins oxidize, transforming the juice into a dark and somewhat opaque liquid. While the rest of the world simply labels it as apple juice, in the U.S., we affectionately refer to it as sweet cider.

Insights into cider

insights into cider
Cider and apples

When carefully guided through controlled fermentation, the sugar in sweet cider transforms into alcohol, known as cider globally and hard cider in the United States. Unpasteurized and free from preservatives, sweet cider stands as a refreshing drink, rivaling the world’s best non-alcoholic beverages in aroma, taste, and diversity. It’s a thirst-quenching delight, on par with a glass of pure spring-fed well water.

Properly fermented fresh juice adds a nuanced complexity, enticing even the most discerning palate. Friends share tales of struggling to resist well-made sweet cider, attesting to its irresistible allure. Yet, when mishandled—mixed haphazardly, lacking consideration for apple variety characteristics, and fermented without control—even sipping becomes challenging. Whether sweet or hard, both demand a delicate balance of sweetness, tartness, aroma, and astringency for a truly exceptional drink.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of sweet cider on the market comes from high-volume producers who prioritize bulk-purchased cider-grade apples. They blend without concern for balance, heat-pasteurize, and occasionally add preservatives, compromising the beverage’s integrity.

Commercial hard ciders, while consistently well-made, often lack the diverse and intriguing flavors found in small regional cideries and wineries. These artisanal operations, scattered wherever apples thrive, produce the most interesting and varied hard ciders. Most hard ciders have a moderate alcohol content ranging from 2 to 6 percent, but some regional varieties boast an alcohol content of 11 percent, edging towards apple wines.

Despite their unique qualities, both sweet and fermented hard cider have faded into near anonymity over the past few decades. Sweet cider faced a blow in 1996 when an E. coli outbreak was linked to unpasteurized apple juice. In response, all unpasteurized juices, including sweet cider, were mandated to bear warning labels akin to those on cigarette packs.

In a bid to mitigate potential legal issues and customer loss, many cider mills now subject their fresh cider to heat pasteurization, eliminating E. coli but imparting an unpleasant cooked taste. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of mass-produced and flavor-altered foods in supermarkets has conditioned many American shoppers to overlook these changes. Sweet cider, like other authentic foods, has succumbed to a taste-altering fate, overshadowed by appearances rather than flavor.

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Unraveling the origins and evolution of cider

The discovery of cider’s roots or its initial creation remains veiled in mystery, perhaps owing to the widespread distribution of apples across the temperate zones of the Earth. The resilient apple, a stalwart member of the rose family, thrives in diverse climate conditions, which is evident in Paleolithic cave art dating back between 35,000 and 8,000 BC. Throughout history, wherever apples grew, cider seamlessly wove itself into the gastronomic culture.

As the Romans swept through northwestern Europe and Britain in 55 BC, Julius Caesar’s soldiers documented the locals fermenting native crab apples into alcoholic elixirs. The Romans, bearing a wealth of horticultural knowledge and a trove of cultivated apple varieties, introduced orcharding techniques like grafting and pruning, practices that endure today.

By the 4th century AD, the Romans expanded their fermentation expertise to include the juice of pears, creating a variant known as perry. Propagating over 30 pear varieties and approximately 24 apple varieties, the Romans left an indelible mark on the world of cider.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, the Dark Ages ensued, posing a threat to the advancement of horticultural arts in Western Europe. Fortunately, the skills of fruit cultivation found refuge and refinement with Islamic Moors in Spain and Christian monastic orders elsewhere. It was during this period that classic high-tannin apple varieties, integral to crafting some of the world’s richest and most distinctive ciders, were developed and introduced.

Despite this kickstart, cider’s ascent to popularity in northwestern Europe was gradual. Before the 12th century, cider lingered as a secondary beverage to beer, ale, and other grain- and herb-based concoctions. The early 14th century witnessed cider gaining traction in places like Normandy and Paris, rivaling beer and wine in popularity. However, the Hundred Years War in the 12th century hindered cider’s growth in France due to heavy taxation, only to rebound in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The 17th century heralded technological advancements that further refined the taste and preservation of English cider. The introduction of robust coke-fired bottles significantly extended cider’s storage life, replacing the previous method of wooden barrel storage susceptible to spoiling aerobic organisms during cider withdrawal.

England’s cider industry received an unexpected boost when burnable wood faced a sudden shortage. Unlike the beer-making process, cider brewing, not reliant on heat, became an appealing alternative. In the late 19th century, the transition from small regional cider-making to a centralized industrial system marked a new era. Notably, H.P. Bulmer, Ltd., founded in 1887, now stands as the world’s largest cider maker, a testament to the evolution and enduring appeal of this timeless beverage.

Making your own hard cider

Ever wondered about the complexity of whipping up a batch of hard cider in the comfort of your home? Fear not, for what follows is a straightforward formula for fermenting sweet cider into the timeless, uncarbonated farmhouse cider popular since the 17th century.

This traditional concoction, a New England favorite, is brought to life with a touch of commercial yeast for a speedy fermentation start. While relying on natural yeasts in the sweet cider is possible, experts often recommend a reliable commercial yeast for your inaugural batch, readily available at brewing supply stores.

Before you dash out to grab that sweet cider, you’ll need some basic brewing equipment conveniently found at beer and wine supply stores at a reasonable cost. Skip the hardware shopping list; a call to your local supply store, expressing your brewing intentions, will set you up with everything you need for less than 60 dollars.

Here’s a snapshot of the essential equipment to give you an idea of what’s required:

  1. Glass Jugs: Whether recycling two one-gallon glass wine jugs or acquiring two five-gallon glass carboys, these vessels play a key role in primary and secondary fermentation.
  2. Fermentation Locks: A minimum of four of these cost-effective fermentation locks is crucial to prevent contaminants from ruining your cider during fermentation.
  3. Rubber Stoppers: Four bored rubber stoppers (size #5½ or #6 for gallon jugs) securely hold the fermentation locks in place, ensuring a tight seal.
  4. Hydrometer: A wine and beer hydrometer with a test jar aids in gauging the cider’s progress, complete with easy-to-follow instructions.
  5. Thermometer: A reliable food thermometer is a kitchen essential, ensuring accurate temperature monitoring during the brewing process.
  6. Measuring Tools: Include a two-cup Pyrex measuring cup, a full set of plastic measuring cups, and stainless steel measuring spoons.
  7. Siphoning and Bottling Kit: This kit, or its individual components, helps with siphoning and bottling, featuring a 6½-gallon plastic bucket, lid, fermentation lock, bottom draw spigot, and hose.
  8. Sanitizer: Two packets of suitable sanitizer are vital for maintaining a clean and bacteria-free environment.
  9. Beer Bottles: Opt for undamaged 16 or 12-ounce bottles, avoiding screw-off type necks.
  10. Cleaning Tools: A carboy brush and a bottle brush for keeping your equipment spotless.
  11. Bottle Capper and Caps: Secure these tools for sealing your hard cider in beer bottles.

While additional bells and whistles exist, the basic list provides all you need as a curious hobbyist venturing into cider-making. The process, although seemingly complex in books, is inherently simple. Despite the numerous variables, it’s worth remembering that ancient Celts mastered hard cider over 2,000 years ago without the knowledge of these intricacies.

To illustrate the simplicity of cider making, let’s walk through a basic batch. Keep in mind a successful batch, akin to beer or wine, necessitates a clean and sanitized brewing environment.

Directions:

making your own hard cider
Making cider

Embarking on the quest to craft your own hard cider starts with the hunt for a source of unpasteurized sweet cider. This initial step might pose a challenge, but persevere, for it’s a critical element in the entire process. If opting for the one-gallon jug approach, ensure you have enough sweet cider to fill a five-gallon glass carboy or brew bucket, leaving 4½ gallons of space. Reserve an additional couple of gallons to top off the cider during fermentation, and conveniently, you can freeze this surplus cider for up to three months without compromising its flavor.

With your sweet cider ready, it’s time to enhance its potential. Mix a rounded cup of cane sugar into the cider (or ¼ cup for a one-gallon batch), elevating the alcohol level and stability of the finished product. Introduce a packet of ale yeast, preferably one that has been pre-mixed in a starter solution as per the yeast package instructions. For beginners, ale yeast is recommended for its swift action. Cover the neck of the carboy or the brew bucket hole with plastic wrap, ensuring it’s lightly secured. Position the container in an area of your home with a consistent temperature ranging between 55 and 65 degrees.

Now, the anticipation begins. In about a week or sooner, fermentation kicks off, and the cider transforms. Remove the plastic wrap, allowing the “ugly sludge” to escape – a natural part of the cider cleansing itself. Wipe the outside of the container daily. Primary fermentation persists for a few weeks before subsiding. Once calm, clean the container exterior and attach a fermentation lock.

Now, the patience-testing stage sets in. Forget about your cider for approximately three months, letting the primary ferment slow down and the cider commence clearing. A layer of sediment, known as lees, will settle at the bottom. Use the siphoning kit to transfer the clear cider away from the lees into another sanitized container, fitting it with a new fermentation lock.

Over the next eight weeks, the cider undergoes a secondary fermentation, further clarifying and mellowing in taste. Eventually, you’ll be greeted with a clear and smooth-tasting cider ready for bottling and sampling. While there are more nuances to each step, this encapsulates the essence of the process.

If you’re looking for a swift introduction to hard cider without the brewing commitment, a visit to your local liquor store is your go-to option. Inquire about hard ciders, and you’ll find popular national brands conveniently sold in six-packs, offering a taste of the hard cider world without the hands-on brewing experience.

Cooking with hard cider

this survival ration lasts 100 years unspoiled v2Venturing into the realm of cooking with apples, apple cider, and the exquisite French brandy Calvados has unveiled a multitude of culinary possibilities for me. The distinct flavor and texture of apples possess the remarkable ability to complement various meats, seafood, and other flavor enhancers without overshadowing their inherent character. Incorporating a cup of hard cider or a mere few tablespoons of Calvados can elevate even the most mundane dishes to an exciting culinary experience.

The versatility of apple-infused ingredients opens up a world of creativity in the kitchen. Whether enhancing the succulence of meats or adding depth to seafood dishes, the harmony achieved with apples is unparalleled. The delicate balance between the sweet and tart notes of apple cider or the refined complexity of Calvados can turn ordinary recipes into extraordinary culinary delights.

What makes this culinary journey so compelling is the ability of apples and their derivatives to blend seamlessly with a myriad of flavors. The result is an enhancement rather than domination, allowing the distinct character of each component to shine through. Whether used as a marinade, glaze, or a subtle finishing touch, the addition of hard cider or Calvados brings a layer of sophistication to a wide array of dishes.

Concluding

Making your own hard cider connects you with age-old traditions and the art of fermentation. This guide simplifies the process, making it accessible for both seasoned home brewers and curious beginners. Exploring the rich history of apples and their varieties enhances the appreciation for this flavorful venture. From the forgotten charm of diverse apple varieties to the step-by-step cider-making process, this narrative unfolds the delightful and rewarding world of crafting your own hard cider.

Useful resources to check out:

How To Build The Invisible Root Cellar

The basics of making fruit wine – Step by step guide

The vital self-sufficiency lessons our great grand-fathers left us

Smart ways to preserve and enjoy and your apple harvest

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