Each year when October rolls around, my body begins to crave things beyond my control: sweet, roasted pumpkins; warm, baked treats; And crisp, sparkling cider. For years I had dreamed of making my own hard cider, but never had the gumption to just try it already. But no store-ready cider is ever satisfying: they’re too sweet, too syrupy and far too expensive for what they’re worth. Finally, after an early autumn trip to a local apple orchard, I resolved to make my own hard cider. And surprisingly, it was easier than I ever expected it to be.
Home brewers argue on the type of apple cider you should start with: pasteurized or unpasteurized. Some claim that the wild bacteria in unpasteurized apple cider can affect the flavor for the worse; those in favor say it can benefit the drink’s final flavor. It seems to be a gamble either way, but being a purist (and one not too fearful of beneficial bacteria), I opted for the unpasteurized cider. Fortunately, I was able to find unpasteurized cider at Riley’s Farm just outside of Los Angeles, and I happily brought a gallon home to use for my hard cider.
While you can technically just let unfiltered apple cider sit and ferment on its own to create hard cider, the process can take several months. What most folks will do, myself included, is add a small yeast starter to the original juice. Doing this, the yeast will feed off the sugars in the juice, and your hard cider should ferment in just about two weeks. If you’re lucky enough to have a homebrew supply store in your area, I recommend heading there first. You can easily get help selecting what yeast to use, as well as picking out fermenting jugs and other equipment (to be discussed later). I chose a dry wine yeast that would help my cider ferment into a drier flavor instead of a sweeter one (closer to English ciders than American).
For a single gallon of cider, you’ll want a standard glass gallon jug. At the brewers’ supply shop, I was able to find a brewing jug lid that’s specially designed for fermenting drinks: it allows carbon dioxide to be released (so that the drink won’t explode as it ferments), without letting any oxygen in (so that it won’t turn to vinegar). Talk to your local supplier about choosing the best lid for your jug; they were just a few bucks each. For the bottling process down the road, plan to have (or buy) a few glass bottles with airtight caps at your disposal, so you won’t be fumbling in two weeks for something to carbonate your fermented cider in.
I couldn’t believe how incredibly simple the initial process was. Some experts recommend you simmer your apple cider first in order to kill off any remaining wild yeasts or bacteria inside (again with the wild bacteria uncertainty), but as I said earlier, I like to dive right in with those wild yeasts. You will want to add sugar to the cider, though, so that the yeast has plenty of food to eat and get nice and gassy in the cider. Don’t worry, your cider won’t be chock-full of sugars; the yeasts actually eat the sugar you add, which is how the drink ferments. Dissolve 1 pound of sugar (or honey, etc.) with a small bit of cider in a pot, stirring over low heat until mixed. Remove from heat and allow to completely cool. Siphon the sugared apple cider into your large gallon glass jug, along with the remaining cider; add the yeast packet and shake ever so gently. Place your selected cap onto the jug and set it aside, preferably in a dark, cool place (around 60 degrees seems best). Now let it be for two weeks. That’s it. One week for the yeast to do its thing and ferment the cider (thus creating the alcohol) and another for the dead yeast to settle and the flavor to develop.
Your hard cider is technically done at this point. And truthfully, it’s tasty as can be—it’s just not carbonated. I go for the sparkling bubbly, so I chose to carbonate mine. Once again, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had anticipated. To carbonate your cider, it will need another heavy sugar dosing to re-ferment and carbonate inside your drinking bottles. Gently heat 1 cup of water with ¾ cup honey; stir until dissolved. Evenly distribute this syrup into your final bottling containers (I used 4 tall resealable glass bottles) and allow to cool. Siphon the fermented hard cider into your bottles; swirl gently to mix with the syrup. Seal bottles with about an inch of room at the top (use airtight caps and bottles), and refrigerate for two weeks. You can refrigerate your hard cider up to several months before opening it if you’d like to really let the flavors develop… but it’s October, darn it, and I’m ready for cider.
All images by Kimberley Stakal