Hot on the heels of Repeal Day last week (and just in time for Tuesday Boozeday), we thought we’d arm you with the knowledge to make hooch right at home. But rather than explain how to homebrew beer, we opted to take an easier path. Hard cider, made simply by fermenting fresh-pressed apple juice, may very well be the cheapest drunk available. You’re welcome.
For the uninitiated, hard cider — known merely as “cider” throughout the rest of the world — is one of the world’s oldest fermented drinks. It’s also clasically American — the average adult in the 18th-century U.S. consumed dozens of gallons every year, and kids drank it, too. Early America was quite the party, it seems.
Cider was slowly falling out of favor when Prohibition hit, but the effects of the temperance movement caused permanent damage. Many orchards were cut down or burned, destroying hundreds of unique varieties that we have yet to rediscover. But as the cider grows again — it’s currently America’s fastest-growing alcoholic beverage market — the apples are coming back.
The easiest way to make cider is to start with a fresh, unpasteurized, preservative-free juice. During autumn months, you can buy this fairly cheap from local orchards. If you’re really in a bind, you can use the stuff you buy at the store (look for the dark, cloudy “cider,” not the clear, light “juice”). Whatever you use, make sure it’s free of preservatives.
The best cider, however, comes from fresh-squeezed apples. Contact local orchards to see what varieties they have available. There are literally thousands of different apples, each with different uses. Do a little research online to figure out which ones available near you make a decent cider. Once you get your hands on apples, here are the basic steps to follow to make hard cider:
Wash your apples. The goal here is to remove all dirt and grime from the apples. Discard any rotten or moldy fruit, but ignore superficial flaws like bruises or minor insect damage. Change the water in your wash tub regularly as you wash the fruit (we refilled it for every bushel we washed).
Grind the fruit. Rather than try to squeeze the juice out of a full apple, cidermakers first grind the fruit into a sort of coarse applesauce, known as pomace. These can be rented from certain homebrew or home-winemaking stores, or you can track down new ones online. Whether hand-cranked or powered by a motor, they work basically the same way. Collect your pomace in a sanitized, food-safe container.
Press. The basics of this step are simple: Wrap the pomace in fabric and press, forcing the juice out of the mixture and into a container. There are a few different kinds of presses, but most home cidermakers use a screw-press version, the same thing winemakers use to press grapes. Make sure to clean all the equipment thoroughly and collect the juice in a sterilized container.
Blend the juice. If you’ve kept the juice from different varieties separate, now’s an appropriate time to start mixing them. You’re looking for a balance of acidity and tannins (the bitter or dry-tasting compounds found in the skin and flesh of apples). You can find blending advice online, or just follow your tongue. You’ll get better the more you do it. After blending, add sulfites if desired and let sit, covered, for 24 hours.
Ferment. Add a wine or beer yeast (different kinds will impart different qualities to the finished cider), then let sit in a cool, dry place (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit). Add an airlock, available online or at homebrew stores, then allow fermentation to continue for a few weeks. When the bubbling stops, move the cider to a new container and discard the gunk that falls to the bottom.
After letting the cider mellow for a month or two, you can bottle or keg the cider. If you add a bit of sugar (preferably corn sugar) to the bottles before sealing, the yeast will convert that to carbon dioxide, making for a sparkling cider. You can also use a carbon dioxide tank and force carbonate in a keg.
You’ll want to do a bit more research (maybe pick up a book or two) before diving into this, but the process is incredibly simple. And after you take care of equipment costs, you can successfully make cider for just a few bucks a gallon. Hooray!
Do you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and drink cider? I’ve been putting together a group to connect cider drinkers in the area that you can like on Facebook or follow on Twitter. Eventually we’ll have tastings, facility tours, and educational programming to help build the cider community in the region. All are welcome!
— Ben Adlin