(I sit drinking my first glass of hard cider that I brewed myself while eating Roasted Gorgonzola crackers from Trader Joe’s….it’s the right thing to be doing). This fall I slid into a cider obsession. It all started when I was sitting at my computer, uploading datasets for about the seventh straight hour, staring at the wall…..and I had an inspiration. I need to start brewing hard cider. My aunt and uncle own a cherry orchard called High Rolls Ranch, and have about 80 apple trees “for personal use” (totally unfathomable to those of us living in the city). They said we could come pick as much as we wanted. My cousin and his wife have a cider press. All the pieces were there….I just had to learn how to make cider.
I bought this book, which was pretty helpful, but a little dry and doesn’t have enough pictures. Then I found this book that I am now obsessed with. Explains things simply, has beautiful pictures, and tells you how to brew homemade soda, kombucha, beer, wine, sake, cider….everything. Also helpful is this online article on how to brew hard cider from Mother Earth News. These are all great resources to check out. For what it’s worth, here is my version of the steps to make hard cider:
1. Pick some apples. A mixture of sweet and tart is best.
2. Grind them up, and press out the juice. You can do this with a traditional apple cider press, or some other way. It takes about 15-20 pounds of apples to make one gallon of juice.
2. You have a few options with the fermentation process. You can let the unpasteurized juice do its thing and ferment with whatever wild yeast is in there. But you run the risk of having it end up apple cider vinegar rather than hard cider if there were more vinegar bacteria than yeast in the batch. To avoid that risk, heat up the juice to between 165 F and 180 F for 10 minutes. Then let it cool down to under 100 degrees (so it is not too hot for the good yeast you are adding to survive) and pitch the yeast into the bucket. You can use champagne or white wine yeast; or even beer yeast.
3. Yeast eat sugar and poop alcohol. So they can only make as much alcohol as there is sugar. Most apples have enough natural sugar to make a weak (around 5 or 6% alcohol) hard cider. It is best to dump in some sugar. Any kind will do; I used brown sugar. Adding maybe two pounds to a five gallon bucket of apple cider will only increase the potential alchohol maybe 1% I’d guess. Yeast also need some nutrients; you can buy yeast nutrient to add to the brew to supplement whatever is in there naturally.
4. Put on the lid and a water lock, and wait a couple of days for it to start bubbling. Primary fermentation will last about 2 weeks to one month. You will know the yeast have eaten all of the sugar and turned it into alcohol when the water lock stops bubbling.
5. You can bottle it at this point (it may not have bubbles; you will have to do some additional steps that I won’t outline here to get bubbles), or drain the cider off of the lees into a new container, and let it sit and mellow out its flavor for awhile.
6. Bottle or put into a keg.
There are countless variations you can try that will change the flavor of the finished cider. We tried four or five different styles. My favorite was a light, citrusy one with floral notes. One turned out more dark and nutty that a lot of people liked as well. (And no, I will not share my secret ingredients….).
Some lessons learned:
Just because you have access to free apples does not make it cheap to make hard cider. There were many costs we did not consider at the beginning that would have been good to consider. Since the apple orchard was almost 2 hours away, we wanted to get as many as we could at one time. A friend brought a van and we picked about 600 lbs. each. But there is the gas to consider as a cost of driving a van full of apples for two hours. Then once we had that many apples, and the friend with the van was at his own home with his own apples, we didn’t know how to transport them in our Subaru to the friend with the cider press. We decided it would be easier to rent a cider press; another $40. Then we didn’t have enough fermenting buckets for 20 gallons of cider, so we had to buy more equipment. More cash gone. Then once it was done, what do you put 20 gallons of cider into?? We didn’t want to buy a keg, we were just done with spending big chunks of money at that point. Plus, we had 4 different kinds brewing, so we didn’t want to mix them all into one keg, we’d need like 4 kegs. But the cost and time to bottle that much cider! We drank five gallons (with help from friends) over the course of a few months, without bottling it. We bottled another 8 to 10 gallons and gave it away for Christmas presents and drank it. (Many hours into that…sanitizing bottles…filling….capping…cleaning up….). Then…..sad moment…we ended up dumping out another 5 gallons because it had sat so long in the buckets, and had this film on top that were weren’t sure was OK or not. After all the time and money to just dump it out!! But nobody wanted to be the guinea pig to check if it was still OK….
Next time….smaller batches. It would be really cool to have our own press. Pressing the apples was a really fun, community time. Lots of friends came by. Good excuse to get together. Plus, if we had our own press, even if we picked 600 lbs of apples, we could spread out the pressing over a few weekends. Do one batch at a time. That’s more like 5 gallons to heat, ferment, bottle at a time.
Or…just go commercial. 🙂 I am here publicly admitting that I have a small fantasy now of starting my own label and doing this for a living. I made some damn fine cider for my first time. All the legal stuff of getting approved to sell your cider, even just at a small scale, seems a bit overwhelming. But this is Portland: there must be some co-ops or something where you can do that, right? This is my mission to figure out….