Shark and Frenchie, thanks for the recognition. I would never claim to know everything about cider but I do love to experiment with it and I’m trying to learn as much as I can! Glad to see others are interested as well. Cider is really the next big undiscovered alco-beverage in the USA. There is SOOOO much more to cider than the commercial junk popping up everyplace from the beer giants. Try some little ciders from lesser known places and you’ll usually be very pleasantly surprised at how interesting and complex these ciders are in comparison to the usual sweet fizzy yellow stuff. Plus it’s extremely easy and rewarding to be able to create a cider that is instantly 20 times better than these commercial versions, which are so often made from concentrate and artificial flavors. (Please, please don’t tell me you enjoy Redd’s Apple Ale.)
And now to answer Shark’s specific questions:
- Yep, fresh unpasteurized cider from a local orchard with no preservatives is best. Or juice your own.
- My favorite cider yeast is Cote des Blancs. It preserves all the wonderful appley flavors that other yeasts sometimes destroy. However it comes out a little too dry if you want to try to duplicate a commercial cider. For a sweeter cider, I’d try Wyeast 1728, which I have not yet tried myself but I will next week. Zymurgy reports this as their favorite yeast for cider that leaves a hint of sweetness.
- Currently I am recommending that we rack the cider once a week. Why? To get some of the yeast out of there, to slow down fermentation, and to preserve a little sweetness! The more yeast you have in there, the stronger and faster your fermentation. If you want to maintain control over your fermentation, you should ferment cool in the 50s or low 60s, and get some of the yeast out and take a hydrometer measurement often. When specific gravity hits around 1.010, start thinking about knocking the yeast out more completely using gelatin and/or sulfite and sorbate. Otherwise, final gravity will usually keep on running down to the 0.990s, and that is quite dry. SG=1.005 seems the right point for a guy like me. Many/most people might like it even sweeter at about 1.010.
- Yes, use Knox gelatin. It’s really awesome, like magic.
- I heat my fresh juice to 160 F for a few minutes to kill stuff. I do this up front before pitching. In my experience it’s worked much more effectively than sulfite alone. Just take care never to heat it above 170 F or to a boil. I boiled my last batch on accident after fermentation and the cider that was pretty good before is garbage now. Alcohol is totally gone. Now I just have really thin apple juice, and it’s cloudy. In future I will probably only heat the juice before ferment, but only rely on sulfite and sorbate after fermentation. I’m still learning… still experimenting.
- Carbonating cider through bottle priming is a crapshoot. Inevitably, you’ll either get a bone dry gusher, or you’ll have something sweet and flat that never carbonates. Your guess is as good as mine as to which one happens. Lately I’ve given up on bottle priming and I just enjoy the cider flat. This is perfectly acceptable and traditional. If you want to try bottle priming, just be warned that you might not get the results that you expected. You’re most likely not going to get anything resembling commercial ciders with respect to carbonation unless you force-carbonate with CO2 gas.
- Cold condition for as long as you can before drinking. I left last year’s ciders in the fermenters in the refrigerator for almost a full year before bottling. Every once in a while I stole a couple of pints out of the fermenters. One batch I didn’t even bottle. I just drank it all right out of the fermenter. (I guess I should also mention… Once fermentation is complete, you don’t need to rack it every week anymore.)
8 ) Sharing is very strongly encouraged, if not essential. Show people how awesome cider can be when made at home! It’s a beautiful thing.
- Don’t add too much extra crap to your cider. This includes yeast nutrients, acid additions, pectic enzyme, cinnamon, spices, brown sugar, etc. All unnecessary. Just ferment the juice. By itself. One exception is that if the original gravity is less than 1.045, you can add a few ounces of sugar to bring it up above that level. You’re shooting for upper 1.040s / lower 1.050s for good traditional stuff that won’t go stale with age. If you like wine, you can add pounds of sugar, but personally I would NOT recommend this. I’m kind of a cider snob I guess. Another exception: I suppose a very small addition of tannin is okay. Use about half as much as the label says to use for white wine. But it’s totally optional and not necessary. Sulfite and sorbate is also important at the end if you want to help prevent bottle bombs. Of course, if you just leave your fermenter in your refrigerator for like 9 months like I did, then this is not necessary as the yeast will be dead on its own by then.
Other pointers… Ferment as low and slow as you can manage. If you can ferment in the 40s, great. Otherwise 50s or low 60s is great too. Too warm, and you’ll lose control and your cider will probably turn out too dry. The slower it ferments, the more control you have over when it quits. When it tastes good, shoot the yeast with gelatin, sulfite and sorbate, and then let it sit for another couple weeks to make sure it quits fermenting. Then you can think about bottling, and whether you want to try backsweetening and carbonating it. If you have CO2 tanks, go for it. If not, carbonation’s a crapshoot.
Um… there’s a whole heck of a lot I could say about apples, but suffice it to say: First of all, if you want to juice your own, I find that a few crabapples will help your cider, but not too many. Maybe 5% should be crabs. These will usually add astringency (good in a cider, to a point) and tartness. And with tart apples, tartness is also nice, to a point. If the cider gets too tart, it’s more difficult for many folks to enjoy. But really, don’t be afraid to try ANY apple in a cider – they really all turn out quite good. In my experience, there’s no real need to pursue so-called “cider apples” or single varietals – they’re not that much more awesome than normal culinary apples, or at least, not that anyone will notice until they have many years of experience tasting different ciders. But this is also the nice thing about cider, in that you truly can use ANY apples to make good cider. Just as long as you don’t use a high percentage that are too terribly tart or bitter, it’ll be great.
And same goes for good fresh pressed juice from your local orchard. They all will make great cider. But one thing you can do, and has made a difference in my own ciders, is to buy from like three or four different orchards, and taste all the fresh juices side by side. Then you can get a feel for which orchard makes your favorite, which one is most tart, which one is sweetest, which has the best aroma, and how you might like to blend them to try to get your perfect hard cider. It’s worthwhile education. Plus, such experimentation supports the locals, and that’s always cool, too. That being said… I know which ones are my favorites, and this year I plan to buy many gallons from each. Plus juice a few of my own apples for fun, and maybe add them to the blend, or ferment them separately. It’s all good.
Bottom line: If I have made this all sound complicated, then I apologize. Cider making is SO simple, a caveman could do it. It’s true. All you really need is some apple juice. Period. Leave it sit for a while, and it will become hard cider all on its own! But it will indeed help if you add your own yeast and attempt to control the fermentation, just a little bit. But there’s really no need to get too fancy with it. Anyone can make FANTASTIC cider on their very first try that is much much better than most of the commercial ciders out there. It’s certainly worth a try! It really doesn’t get any easier. It’s even easier than mead and wine, and FAR easier than making beer! And so rewarding. Mmmmm…