Now that summer has given way to autumn, our attention turns to fall seasonal beers. We also have our annual chance to make fresh cider. Apple cider, the original American “microbrew,” has never been more fashionable, and the artisanal cider industry is blossoming. Homemade cider is the ultimate taste of autumn and quite easy to craft.
Cider-making, like brewing, caters to the minimalist, mad scientist or culinary artist, and presents unlimited dimensions of creativity. This synopsis will outline keys from which to build a solid, successful framework. I’ll refer to the finished product as cider and the raw material as juice.
Apples and Juice
Excellent apple cider begins with high-quality, fresh apple juice. This can be regular market juice, bulk from orchards or apples milled and pressed at home. The boom of micro-orchards, natural grocery stores, farmers markets, roadside stands and heirloom and organic apple varieties has greatly expanded the opportunity for making top-notch cider. The array of apples available today is amazingly vast, and those gallon jugs of juice are tailor-made for experimentation, small batches and blending.
Look for varietal information when selecting apples or juice. Blends of sweet and tart apples (including crab apples) are preferred for juice with rangy complexity, but single-variety cider is also worth exploring.
Store-bought juice must be free of preservatives (potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate). Usually it is pasteurized and will indicate as much. At farm stands or orchards, inquire about the condition, sanitary state, preservative content or lack thereof, and composition.
Apples must be washed, cleaned and milled (scratted) before pressing. Soak the apples in water and rinse to remove any detritus. Seconds (apples sold at discount because of imperfections) are perfectly suitable here. Cut away major bruises, rot or large blemishes to eliminate unsavory flavors. After inspecting and cleaning, pass them through the mill. Milling maximizes extraction from the pulp (pomace) when pressing. A fruit mill is optimal if you can get your hands on one, but otherwise, use a grinder or food processor, or chop by hand. There’s no getting around the labor intensity of this task.
Apple (fruit) presses can be pricey, but if you’re serious about cider-making, purchase one or have your homebrew club get one as a communal unit.
Unpasteurized juice must be sanitized to kill wild yeast, mold and bacteria. Pasteurization (160 degrees F for 6 seconds) is one option, and it won’t have an appreciable effect on flavor or aroma.
Campden tablets (potassium metabisulfite) or granular sodium metabisulfite is better than pasteurizing for sanitizing juice, slaying wild yeast, mold and bacteria quite effectively and effortlessly.
When the juice is ready to ferment, aerate well and add yeast nutrient or energizer and pectic enzyme (optional, for impeccably bright cider) before pitching yeast. Wyeast and White Labs offer liquid cider yeast culled from commercial makers and perfectly suited for the task. Wine, champagne or mead yeast is preferred by many makers, including professionals, since it performs gallantly in the fruity, nutrient-diminished environment and can be selected for dryness, residual sweetness, attenuation and flavor/aroma expression. Dry and liquid yeasts are equally effective.
Allow complete primary fermentation, followed by a cleansing secondary fermentation for a few weeks to sediment the particulates and smooth out the edges. Cider made in the fall usually takes at least a couple of months before it is mature enough to drink.
Apple juice has an original gravity of about 1.050, and will finish at about 1.000 with sound fermentation. Gravity and attenuation can be manipulated by some of the suggestions below.
Once fermentation is complete, cider can be clarified by cold-conditioning (like lagerbier) or fining. Sparkolloid and bentonite, both natural, inert agents, will leave cider crystal-clear and minimize particulate carryover to keg or bottle.
For sweeter cider, wine conditioner (invert sugar and potassium sorbate) can be added. The sorbate will halt further fermentation, but also nix the chance to bottle-condition sparkling cider. Kegged, force-carbonated or still-bottled cider is still very much in play, though. You can also “backsweeten” with any sugar or juice, and add wine stabilizer (potassium sorbate) to prevent refermentation. Again, it will prevent primed carbonation.
Fermenting with sweet wine or mead yeast will leave a marginal amount of sweetness as residual sugar, though it will not be very pronounced.
For bottle-conditioned cider, prime with ¾ cup sugar, add a dose of fresh yeast and condition for at least one month.
Cider juice fairly begs for additional, character-enhancing ingredients. Sugars, such as honey, natural cane, dark (turbinado, panela, jaggery), maple syrup, malt extract or wort and steeped specialty malts add a decisive and desirable component.
Spices, flavorings and hops are also useful for seasonal character or accents. Apple dessert spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove) are an obvious perk, but any culinary herb or spice is fair game.
Fruit additions (juice, macerated fruit, canned purée) are a perfect complement to apple juice. Use fruit juice at a rate of 20 percent of the total volume to start. Pear, peach, apricot, berry, pomegranate and cherry juices all happily marry with apples.
Apples are as autumnal as pumpkins, football and Märzen. Fall is a favorite season for many. Learn to make great apple cider, and you’ll have a reminder at hand year-round.
Recipe: Sparkling Cider
This is my foolproof dry sparkling cider recipe, made with juice from local orchards. It is quite amenable to substitution or additions of spices, botanicals, fruit, sugar and nearly any type of cider, wine, Champagne or mead yeast. Further experimentation is encouraged.
5 gallons, OG 1.062, 7.5%
1. Dissolve 1.5 pounds turbinado sugar in 5 gallons of blended or single-variety apple juice.
2. Pasteurize and chill to room temperature or sanitize overnight with metabisulfite.
3. Rack to sanitized fermenter and add pectic enzyme and yeast nutrient.
4. Pitch hydrated yeast of choice (I prefer Lalvin EC-1118 wine yeast).
5. Ferment until primary is finished, then rack to secondary.
6. Leave in secondary fermenter for at least one month (add finings to secondary).
7. When clear, prime with ¾ cup corn sugar and bottle with a dose of fresh yeast or keg and force-carbonate.
8. Allow one month for bottle-conditioning.