Recently we purchased a Victorio Steam Juicer, and after making some delicious apple juice, we decided we wanted to make hard cider ourselves at home. It's very easy to make small batches of 1 to 5 gallons at a time, using ingredients and equipment that should cost under $20 for your first batch (and even less for future batches). Let's get started.
How To Make Hard Cider The Easy Way
You'll need a few pieces of equipment to begin:
- One or two one-gallon glass jugs. We found jugs that already contained apple juice - we were unable to use the juice (more on that in a bit) but the jugs were perfect. Do NOT try to ferment cider in plastic!
- A fermentation lock and stopper-- This is used to allow the gas to escape from the bottle as it ferments, without allowing air to get back in.
- A brewing siphon (optional)-- This allows you to siphon off the cider when the fermentation is complete, without getting the yeast that has settled to the bottom of the jug. You could also just use a piece of clear food-grade tubing, or even just try to pour carefully.
- A hydrometer (optional)--This is used to determine the alcohol content of your cider. You really don't need it for your first few batches.
You'll also need some apple juice and yeast. You can either use fresh homemade juice as we did, or purchase it. You want to look for juice that has nothing added to it - if the ingredients have anything like sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate added, you can't make hard cider. These are chemical preservatives and will kill your yeast.
Speaking of yeast, you'll want to use a brewer's yeast rather than ordinary bread yeast. You could use bread yeast if there was absolutely nothing else available, but it's not going to give you as clean a taste. Instead you should use a wine or champagne yeast designed for brewing.
Once you've obtained your equipment and ingredients, the first step will be to sanitize everything that the cider will touch. You want to kill off any natural yeast or bacteria that is already on your equipment. You can do this by soaking everything for a few minutes in a solution of one tablespoon of bleach per one gallon of water. After everything has soaked, rinse thoroughly and allow everything to air dry - you just killed off any germs, why risk putting them back with a slightly dirty towel?
Alternatively, you can use Starsan to sterilize - this is a no-rinse sanitizer, you use one ounce per five gallons of water. Again, make sure to air dry.
The first step is to proof your yeast (just like we did when making homemade soda). Heat a cup of the apple juice to about 105 degrees, and add about 1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon of yeast. Stir it in and allow it to sit for about 10 minutes.
We added about 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient to the mixture. This is optional, but it helps get your fermentation started sooner.
Next we poured the yeast mixture into our glass jug, and filled it up with juice. Make sure to leave a couple inches of space at the top; you mixture should bubble and foam as it ferments.
Once the jug is full of liquid, add the fermentation lock. Make sure the cork fits tightly.
Your fermentation lock may not look exactly like ours, but they all work a similar way. You add water to the lock so that the escaping gasses bubble through it. The allows the gas to exit without any air (and new bacteria) getting in.
Our completed fermentation assembly. Notice the white cap on top of the fermentation lock - in most cases you will want to have this snapped onto the lock, but make sure it comes with small holes drilled in the top - you need to let the gas escape. I once used a lid with no holes it (without realizing it...) and it wound up making a pretty big mess.
At this point move your jug to a cool dark place where it can sit undisturbed. After a few days you should see a steady stream of bubbles forming - this means the yeast is eating the sugar in the juice and turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bubbling process will slow down and almost stop after a while - this means the cider is ready to rack and bottle. This process could take anywhere from just a few days to a few weeks, you just have to watch your jug.
When the bubbling is almost completely gone, it's time to "rack" your cider. This is the process of siphoning off the cider from the yeast "sludge" that has settled at the bottom of the jug. The easiest way is to use a siphon specifically designed for brewing, but we'll talk about a couple other ways as well.
You'll insert the brewing siphon into the glass jug, with the outlet hose draining down into a glass container. You could either use another gallon jug like you used for brewing, or just use a mason jar. Either way, make sure you sterilize everything (including the siphon) before beginning.
The siphon will have a small "foot" on the bottom that will keep it out of the yeast. You just need to gently raise and lower the pump and the cider will start flowing.
If you don't have a brewer's siphon, then you can also use a piece of plastic tubing. After sterilizing and rinsing it, immerse it completely in water. Place a saucepan next to the glass jar that will catch the cider. Hold your thumbs over each end of the hose, and insert one end down into the jug containing the fermented cider. With your thumb still on the other end, place it over the saucepan, then remove your thumb. The water will flow out, followed by the cider. As soon as the cider starts to flow, place your thumb back over the end, move the hose to the other glass jug, and continue to let the cider pour into it.
Finally, if you don't have a siphon or even a hose, you can carefully pour off the fermented cider into the new container, stopping when the yeast at the bottom begins to flow.
Now you're ready to bottle the cider. We like to use these bottles with swing-top lids, but you can use anything from regular capped glass bottles to emptied 16 ounce water bottles. If you just bottle the cider as-is, you'll probably have a "still" cider, or non-carbonated. There's definitely nothing wrong with that, and it's still very tasty!
However, if you'd like your cider to be a bit bubbly, you can add a little bit more sugar to it as you bottle it. Try 1-2 teaspoons per bottle, and seal them up. Pop one open in a week or so and see if it has the right amount of fizz to it. If so, go ahead and refrigerate your cider to stop the fermentation process. If not, you could try adding a little bit of yeast nutrient to try and wake the yeast back up, or just go ahead and drink it as a still cider.
Check out our post on pasteurizing hard cider to learn more about a process to be sure your fermentation has stopped.
One thing to be aware of is that adding more sugar when you bottle the cider will not make it sweeter, since the yeast is going to be consuming it again. If you'd like to make your cider sweeter, you'll need to use a sugar alcohol like xylitol, or another natural sweetener like Stevia.
If you'd like to find out how much alcohol your cider has in it (or what "proof" it is), you'll need to use a special tool called a hydrometer. The hydrometer measures specific gravity - the relative density of a liquid. Whatever hydrometer you purchase should come with instructions, but basically you take a reading before fermentation, another one after, do a little math, and you have your alcohol percentage.
You'll float the hydrometer in a beaker filled with a sample of your apple juice.
Here our initial specific gravity reading is about 1.045.
And our final reading is about 1.005. Notice how the hydrometer is floating lower after the fermentation is complete. With a tiny bit of math, this tells us our cider is about 5% alcohol by volume. We only let this batch ferment for about 5 days; we probably could have gotten a higher number if we'd let it go a little longer. You could also add a little more sugar (or even honey) at the start of the fermentation; it's all personal preference.
Our cider turned out tasting almost identical to the store-bought variety, at a fraction of the cost. We added some mulling spices to one of the bottles to give it that fall flavor. You could also substitute another form of juice in the mixture to give it a fruity addition - try adding about 1-2 cups of pear, cranberry or raspberry juice before you start to ferment. Just be sure the juice doesn't have any preservatives!
Now, making your own wine and cider at home is perfectly legal (as long as you don't try to sell it), but distilling your cider at home is not. Distillation is the process of concentrating the alcohol by removing the water, either with heat or cold. Heat distillation will produce apple brandy, while freezing will produce applejack, a drink dating back all the way to colonial America.
Heat distillation is a dangerous process, and the fines for doing it at home are staggering. There is some debate as to whether the freezing process is legal or not in the US, so to be on the safe side, make sure you DON'T do any of the following:
- Put your apple cider in a soft plastic food grade container (don't use glass, it can crack when frozen), put it outside in freezing weather, or in the coldest part of your freezer with the thermostat turned down as far as it will go.
- Each day you'll scoop off the ice that has formed on the surface, leaving the alcohol and apple flavor more concentrated.
- The more days that go by, the less ice will form on the top. Eventually no more ice will form, and the applejack is as concentrated as it is going to get at that temperature.
With temperatures of zero degrees, you'll probably wind up with about 14% alcohol, and if you can take it all the way down to 20 below zero, you should be able to get it to around 25% alcohol.
Once you've sampled your first batch of homemade hard cider, you'll probably be ready to start making even more! One of the fun things about making your own is that there's no single perfect recipe for you to follow - you can experiment with different types of apples or juice, different amounts of sugar, added flavors, still or sparkling, etc. Be sure to keep a notebook so you can recall your favorite recipes, and if you make hard cider with an interesting new recipe, let us know in the comments!
Want To Learn More?
Check out the Homebrewing eCourse from Self Reliant School!
And now that you've made hard cider, how about making some Hard Ginger Beer? It's just as easy, and just as good!