This is the first article in a series on making hard apple cider at home. This article covers the ingredients and equipment need. Each item is presented with options, and some basic information to help guide your choices.
If not to be too obvious, the cider is the most important ingredient. Good cider is usually made with a blend of different varieties of apples. Those varieties should be chosen to provide a balance of sweetness, tannins, and acids.
If you are pressing your own apples, you will need to get in a grinder and press. This can be a pretty substantial investment for most folks. But you can also buy cider already pressed.
Your local grocery store may have apple cider, but be sure to check the label. Look for the ingredient “sorbate” (may be listed as potassium sorbate) or other preservatives. These ingredient are added to the cider to prevent it from fermenting. And that's exactly the opposite of what we want to do. Furthermore, grocery store ciders usually are not high quality.
Your local orchard and farm stands often have good cider. But again we have to be careful. All ciders sold commercially must be pasteurized. Try to avoid ciders that have been heat pasteurized. Heat pasteurization will chemically alter the juice. Ultra Violet (UV) pasteurization is much better, but there are many who claim that this process will still have an affect on the flavor and quality of your finished product.
Unpasteurized fresh juice is the best. Some orchards will allow you to purchase unpasteurized juice, but you usually have to ask for it specifically. And it’s best to talk to the person who is actually doing the pressing, not the hired help behind the counter. Expect to be required to sign a waiver, leave your own bucket, and be prepared to pick it up on their schedule, not yours.
Campden tablets are made of potassium (or sometimes sodium) metabisulfite, a common ingredient in wine. Sulfites are toxic to bacteria. It can also be toxic to yeast to a certain degree, which is why some purist might decide not to use it, especially when a natural fermentation is desired. But if you are new to hard cider making, use it. It’s great insurance. Otherwise you may be disappointed when you find you have made five gallons of Cider Vinegar instead of hard cider.
Depending on the sugar content of your cider (we’ll discuss this more when we talk about the hydrometer), you may decide to add sugar to help boost the alcohol content. Additionally, certain sugars can be used to add flavor complexity as well.
If you sole objective is to raise the alcohol content, corn sugar is the best option. Corn sugar adds no flavor and is very fermentable. Table sugar (cane sugar) is also a good fermentable but not quite as good as corn sugar. And cane sugar will add a sight flavor that most people consider less that complementary.
Brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, and raisins are all sources of sugar that will add a pleasing flavor component.
But if this is your first batch, it’s probably best to stick to corn sugar for now.
Calculating how much sugar to add will be covered in another post.
There are several strains of yeast that work well for cider. Each has advantages and disadvantages. And each will give you a slightly different flavor profile. Bread yeast is the least desirable. Of course cider yeasts are available. Wine and beer yeasts all work very well. With wine yeasts, champagne style yeast are the most popular. If your using a beer yeast, use one with a low ester profile and good fermentation characteristics, such as an American ale yeast. English and Scottish ale yeasts also work well. Once you’ve done a batch or to and feel confident in your cider making skills, start dividing your cider into small batches and experiment with different yeast strains, and different fermentation temperatures (more on fermentation temperatures later)
As the saying goes, “man does not live by bread alone”, so it is with yeast, as it does not live by sugar alone. Although not necessary, adding yeast nutrients will improve the fermentation quality and improve the overall outcome in our cider.
The primary ingredient in all yeast nutrients is Di Ammonium Phosphate, also know as DAP. Other ingredients might be urea and spring cells (also called ghost cells). These additives are the yeasts equivalent to the vitamins and minerals in our diet.
When deciding on a primary fermenter, size and material are the main considerations.
Most home cider makers will choose between a plastic bucket or a glass carboy. Stainless Steel is another option, but it’s usually expense and availability limits this option.
Plastic is light weight, inexpensive and it bounces instead of breaking when dropped. Most suppliers will steer you in this direction if you are a beginner, to lower the entry level cost. And that’s not a bad idea if you’re not yet sure if this is something you are going to want to do every year. But plastic does have a couple drawbacks. For one, plastic is susceptible to scratching. Even tiny micro scratches can be a place for bacteria to grow, and hide from sanitizers, resulting in an unpleasant sourness, or even vinegar! Another argument against plastic is that it is somewhat permeable, meaning it breathes. Not so much that your cider will oxidize, but enough that a trained pallet will probably be able to discern between glass (or stainless) and plastic.
Glass on the other hand is not permeable, and it wont scratch (unless you use a diamond). But it is heavier, and costs more than plastic. And don’t ever set a glass carboy on a hard surface such as the concrete floor in the basement. Thats just begging for a crack. Always place something under it before setting it down. A matt, rug, towel or thick cardboard are all good protection.
The size of the fermenter should be larger than the volume of your cider. If you plan to do a one gallon batch, use a two gallon bucket. If you are doing a 5 gallon batch use a 6.5 gallon bucket or carboy. The additional space is necessary for what is know as the Krausen, the foamy stuff that forms on top of the cider during fermentation
The primary fermenter should be equipped to accept an airlock. An airlock is a device that usually has water put in it, and allows for CO2 gasses to escape without letting airborne contaminants into the cider. For a glass carboy, a bung or rubber stopper is used. For a plastic bucket, the lid should have a hole in it with a grommet to accept the airlock.
Occasionally, a blow-off tube is used instead of an airlock. This tube will run from the top of a fermenter down to a bucket or other vessel that has water (or sanitizer) covering the end of the tube.
Optionally, it’s a good idea to have a thermometer to monitor the fermentation temperature. By this I do not mean something next to the fermenter. It should be measuring the temperature of the cider, not the ambient temperature. This is because fermentation gives off heat. So the temperature of the cider, when fermenting, will be higher than ambient temperature. How high depends on how vigorous the fermentation
The best option is a “stick-on” style thermometer that adheres to the fermenter. Optionally a digital thermometer with the probe taped to the fermenter will do. There are also devices that allow the temperature probe to inserted into the juice.
Once primary fermentation is complete the cider will be racked (transferred) to the secondary fermenter (more on this later). All the attributes that were discussed about the primary fermenter, apply to the secondary fermenter, with a few exception: size and material.
The secondary fermenter should be just big enough hold the volume of cider. Ideally we want to minimize the surface area of cider exposed to any oxygen. To accomplish this, we would use a narrow necked vessel such as a carboy or jug, and fill it to almost the very top.
This can present a problem for standard size batches. Lets say for example, we are doing a 5 gallon batch. A five gallon carboy actually holds a little more than five gallons when topped up all the way to the neck. Furthermore, when we rack the cider to the secondary, we will loose some of our cider to the sediment on the bottom of the primary fermenter.
However, if we do some pre planning, we can ferment 6 gallons in the primary, and fill a 5 gallon secondary to the neck, and sill have a bit left over in the primary. Yes, we might waist a bit, but thats ok. As we get better at it, and learn our equipment, process, and ingredients, we can dial in the volumes to get just the right amount.
Ideally the secondary fermenter will be made from glass or clear plastic. This allows us to see the cider. One of the main reasons to the cider to sit in the secondary fermentor is so it can clear. Using a glass vessel allows us to see the cider clearing.
The airlock that was used for the primary can be used for the secondary as well. Some folks might be inclined to just use a solid stopper or lid at this point. But the fact is that fermentation, while extremely slow, is still going on, and co2 is still being produces. This will cause pressure in the secondary that will pop out the plug.
A Hydrometer is a laboratory implement that measures the density of a solution as compared to water. The most common hydrometer from a homebrew supply store is a triple scale hydrometer. The three scales are: Balling (seldom used anymore), Potential Alcohol, and Specific Gravity. The one we are going to use is the Specific Gravity scale. This measurement is often abbreviated SG.
By measuring the Specific Gravity of the cider before adding yeast, we can predict how much alcohol will be produced, and determine if we should add more sugar. This reading is referred to as the Original Gravity, commonly abbreviated OG.
Also by measuring the cider after fermentation, we can tell if fermentation is complete, and calculate the amount of alcohol produced.
We’ll do the math and calculate the alcohol content of a theoretical batch in another post.
We may also want a sample jar, or a wine thief, to hold a sample while we take our measurements. These items are only necessary if we are using a fermenter with a narrow neck such as a carboy or jug. If using a bucket, we should be able to put the hydrometer right in the bucket. Remember that any equipment that touches your cider should be sanitizes.
Long Handle Spoon
A long handle spoon is only necessary for adding sugar to the cider. When adding sugar we want first melt it down in some boiling water, then gently stir it in. If we want to carbonate the cider in the bottles, we will also add some sugar before bottling.
When using a plastic bucket, remember that we don’t want to scratch it!. So be careful when stirring, and it’s best to use a plastic spoon rather than a metal one.
If we are using a glass fermenter, the handle on a plastic spoon should fit into the neck and allow for good stirring.
Racking Cane and Tubing
“Racking” is the process of transferring your cider from one vessel to another. The objective of racking is to separate the cider from the sediment at the bottom of the fermenter. This process can also be used to speed up the clarifying process.
A Racking Cane is a tube that is shaped like a cane and allows us to form a syphon. By syphoning the cider rather than pouring, we can leave the sediment undisturbed in the bottom of the primary fermenter.
Racking canes come in different sizes and design. Most are plastic, but stainless steel versions are available as well. They normally come with a small cup that covers the end. This allows the cane to reach the bottom of the fermenter, while the cup prevent most of the sediment from getting in.
Racking canes come in different lengths and different diameters. Choose a length that is appropriate for your fermenter. The most common diameter is 5∕16 inch, but ½ inch is is also available. ½ inch tubing will transfer your cider faster, but it may be too fast for bottling.
The tubing that we connect the racking cane should be of the appropriate diameter to fit snuggly on the racking cane. Then length should be enough to reach the bottom of the secondary fermenter (which is on the floor) from the top of the primary fermenter (which is on the counter). Normally this is 5 or 6 feet.
There a three basic types of sanitizers that are commonly used: Sulfites (potassium or sodium metabisulfite), Acid based, and Iodine based.
Sulfites are commonly used in wine making. You may already have Campden tablets, which are potassium metabisulfite in tablet form. You could use these to make your sanitizing solution. Follow the instructions on the package.
Acid based are the most common form used by beer brewers. Acid sanitizers kill germs when the solution is below 3PH. One advantage of acid based sanitizers is that they can be mixed in a bucket and stored indefinitely. Sulfites and iodine evaporate, and thus loss effectiveness when stored.
Iodine based sanitizers, unlike the others, is dark in color and allows you to see the surfaces that it touched, insuring that you thoroughly sanitized everything. However, Iodine can stain plastic. And, like sulfites, iodine evaporates. Mix up only what you are going to use today, and discard it when you are finished. Iodine sanitizers come in concentrated form, make sure you follow the instructions on the container to mix it to the proper strength. Too strong will stain your equipment, too week will be ineffective.
Bottles, Caps, or Corks
Deciding what bottles to use is mostly a matter of ascetics and cost.
Beer bottles are inexpensive, and even free if you collect used ones. There are two common sizes, 12 oz and 22 oz. When selecting beer bottles, make sure you are not using twist off bottles with screw threads on the top. These bottles may not seal well and may not hold carbonation. Used bottles need to be de-labled and cleaned. Thoroughly inspect used bottles after cleaning. Often times contaminants will stick to the bottom of the bottle. Beer bottles take a 26mm standard crown cap, available at your local supply shop.
Swing top bottles. Otherwise know as EZ-cap or Grolsch style, are another option. These bottles come with a spring loaded, rubber seal cap attached to the bottle. No special equipment is needed to close or open the bottles, which is their big advantage. However they are the most expensive option. And if you plan on giving some cider to friends, neighbors, and relatives, you probably won’t get your expensive bottle back! These bottles come in two common sizes, ½ liter (16 oz) and 1 liter. Used Grolsch beer bottles might be available via Criagslists or yard sales. Treat these bottles as used bottles mentioned above. Also check the rubber gasket on the lid. Often they will dry out and crack. New gaskets should be available from your Local Home Brew Supply Store.
Wine bottles are another option. Most wine bottles will not accept a crown cap like beer bottles. They need to be corked. Wine bottles come in various sizes. The most common are 750mL and 1.5L, but 375mL are also available. Champagne style bottles have the unique capability to take either a crown cap or a cork, but the crown caps are not the standard 26mm but rather a larger 29mm. If you are going to cap champagne bottles, you will need a capper with a 29mm capping bell.
Capper or Corker
You will need a capper to crimp the caps onto the bottles. These come in different styles, hand cappers and bench cappers. Bench cappers are a bit more expensive, but are more stable and easier and faster to use.
Corkers come in both hand corkers and bench corkers as well. And while there are different size corks, corkers are universal. Corks come in size rated by a number that represents the diameter, number 7 being the smallest and number 9 being the largest. A number 9 cork gives the tightest fit, and therefor the best protection against oxidation.
A bottling wand is a hollow tube with a spring loaded valve at the bottom. As you insert the wand into the bottle and press it down the valve opens allowing the cider to flow in to the bottle. This fills the bottle from the bottom up and reduces aeration due to splashing. These come in 5/16 and ½ inch sizes to match the racking cane and tubing.
Now that you have everything you need, check out our article "The Cider Making Process" for a step by step guide.