If you would have asked me three years ago about hard cider making I might have scoffed and rolled my eyes. I’m a “beer guy.” Two years ago a friend talked me into making a few 6 gallon batches of hard cider using apples from the family farm. It was excellent! In the last year I’ve made over 14 different batches and there’s no stopping me now! Hard cider is light, refreshing and a pleasant gear shift from the malty, bitter brews I’m so deeply rooted in. Here are some quick and easy tips for making your own. Spoiler alert: It’s easier than brewing!
First things first, you’ll have to find some juice. Many store-bought apple juices will make great hard cider as long as you avoid those that are stabilized. Read the label. If the juice contains sulfite, sorbate, benzoate or other chemical-sounding ingredients, it most likely will not ferment. What about “pasteurized?” No problem.
Your options for yeast are virtually limitless. I’ve had success with traditional cider yeasts like White Labs 775 English Cider and Wyeast 4766 Cider. For a more adventurous batch, try Wyeast 3711 French Saison, or add some sour culture with Wyeast 3763 Roeselare. I love Red Star Cote des Blancs; a wine yeast known for promoting fruit flavors, especially apple. Fermenting Cote des Blancs less than 68°F will leave a slight residual sweetness and retain the most apple character. Adding a little yeast nutrient will help keep your yeast healthy during fermentation.
The sugars in cider are very simple and any yeast will feast until the sugar is gone. This will leave you with a dry cider. I recommend fermenting your cider to completion. Then, if you prefer a sweeter sipper, you can back-sweeten to taste. Keep in mind, if you want a sweet and carbonated cider, kegging is the only option. See Brewing TV – Episode 67 for a great tutorial on back-sweetening.
You can expect most juice to ferment out to 4-5% alcohol by volume. If you want to boost it, you’ll have to add some extra fermentables. Table sugar will raise the alcohol but it lacks character. I’ve had luck with brown sugar, Belgian candi syrup, dry malt extract, maple syrup, and even agave syrup!
What about other flavors? Toss some fresh fruit or spice into the fermenter! Cherries, raspberries, black currant or cranberries work great. Vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, coriander, anise or crystallized ginger can be fun and flavorful, as well!
So what does your “brew day” look like? About 30 minutes. Clean and sanitize your fermenter, pour in your juice, add your extra ingredients, and pitch your yeast. Two weeks later you can rack to secondary or bottle it still.
Want your hard cider sparkling? Make a priming sugar solution to carbonate your cider. For every gallon of cider, add one ounce of priming sugar to a half-cup or cup of water. Bring it to a boil, stir to completely dissolve sugar, and let cool to room temp. Then add this sugar solution to your bottling bucket with the cider and stir gently with sanitized spoon. Bottle cider and let bottles sit for about two weeks at room temperature to properly carbonate.Your hard cider will be fantastic on a hot summer day or a cool fall evening.
Thinking of entertaining or pairing your hard cider with food? Start with nice mandarin orange salad with fig and gorgonzola. For your main course, a creamy shrimp risotto or a mild curry dish. Finish up by scooping some vanilla ice cream into your glass for an apple cider float while you enjoy a hot apple tart sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon.