To Make a Simple Cider

By Master Richard the Poor of Ely

Well, apple season is once again upon us. For those who are interested in dabbling in the Art of Brewing, this provides an excellent opportunity to make a very simple, but nonetheless fine alcoholic beverage - hard cider.

To begin, you will need the following equipment:

(these last four can be obtained from a home brewing supply shop.)

Also needed are a very cool, very dark space where your cider can ferment and one gallon of freshly pressed cider (obviously). THE CIDER MUST NOT BE PASTEURIZED OR HAVE ANY PRESERVATIVES IN IT! You want the natural wild yeast culture that came with the apples. Otherwise, you'll have to do some extra work and add a yeast culture, which can get messy.

If you can, buy your cider late in the season. Give the apples the chance to get as much flavor as possible before they get pressed.

When you have everything together, sterilize one of the jugs and pour the cider into it. Don't strain out the sediment; that's where most of the yeast is. Put the fermentation lock on it and put it away. I put mine in the refrigerator. There are two competing processes going on in cider: yeast that make alcohol and bacteria that make vinegar. Since you aren't doing this to make vinegar, you need to suppress the bacteria. As it happens, they can't work in carbon dioxide, which is a by-product of fermentation. I reasoned that by putting it into the refrigerator, I would slow both processes to the point where the yeast had the chance to get ahead of the bacteria and therefore prevent vinegar formation. It also prevents blowoff - the first rush of fermentation where excess yeast and other sediments foam over the top of the container, clog the fermentation lock, and make your home smell like a bad apple pie.

About once a week you will have to rack the cider. You don't want it to sit on the sediment for too long; it can pick up bad flavors from it. This is what you have the second jug and the hose for. Sterilize them and siphon the cider into the empty jug. You may want to get some help from an experienced brewer for the sterilization and siphoning until you are comfortable with what you are doing. You will lose some liquid in the process. Top off the cider with a little water before you leave it to ferment some more. You don't want the fluid level to be more than two or three fingers below the lip of the jug. Again, reducing the amount of contact with the air reduces the chance that you will wind up with a gallon of vinegar.

After it looks like no more sediment is forming and fermentation has stopped, take it out of the fridge and put it into a closet. Now that it's at a warmer temperature, fermentation may start up again. You will have to keep racking it, but not as often.

When things have really come to a stop, it's time to bottle it. Sterilize the bottles and fill them to the base of the neck. If you prefer still (non-carbonated) cider, you can fill them to about halfway up the neck or top them off with water. If you want your cider to be sparkling (carbonated), top them off with a little bit of 100% pure apple juice. This will give the little bit of yeast in the cider some more sugars to work with.

If you started at the end of October, you should be bottling around Christmas, and the cider should be aged enough to drink by the next summer. Of course, you can really drink it anytime after bottling - but if you wait, the flavors will have time to mellow out. The final alcohol content should be around five to six percent, just like a strong beer.

What should you do if the cider goes bad? There are two common problems. First, your cider may have turned to vinegar. The other is a bit more complicated. As the yeast turns the sugar to alcohol, acids in the apples are left untouched and make the cider sour. Different apples have different acid content (surprisingly, table apples like Red Delicious have some of the highest acid contents), and your cider may have come from apples with high acidity. In either case, your cider will be too sour. Fortunately, the fix is easy. Just add more "soft" cider or apple juice until the added sugars cover up the sourness. Of course, if it's really sour, pour it down the drain. No use throwing good money after bad.

So how Period is this? Very Period. Other than the high-tech equipment (fermentation locks, refrigerators, etc.) the method isn't significantly different. Remember, cultured yeast strains aren't Period. Wild yeast was all they had, and they didn't even know what it was that made the alcohol. They were smart enough, though, to keep cultures that turned out unusually good batches and use them for future batches. I recommend doing this if you get a particularly tasty batch of cider.

If you are really lucky, you can get cider made from Period varieties of apples. Ask the people at the farm stand where you got the cider what apples they used. Unfortunately, some of the best varieties have been lost. The legendary Redstreak apple produced a cider with an estimated alcohol content around eleve percent - the same as wine. But when cider fell out of favor last century, the variety was allowed to die out. A number of places grow Period apples, but since it takes about twelve bushels of apples to make one gallon of cider, you probably aren't going to get to use them.

Anyway, good luck and may you be in a constant state of ferment.

NOTE: The FDA has decreed that as of Sept. 1998, all cider must be either pasteurized or carry a warning label about the possibility of bacterial contamination. If you get pasteurized cider, you will have to add a yeast culture. If you can't get a cider yeast, use a wine yeast - NOT beer. With unpasteurized cider, there's a greater risk from drinking the resulting alcohol than from any bacteria.

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Last modified: Thu Nov 19 13:07:00 EST 1998
Stephen Bloch /