Guest Post by Heartwood Farm and Cidery, hosts of our upcoming Cider workshop on November 5.
Making hard (i.e. alcoholic) cider is deceptively simple. Unlike brewing beer, which requires fairly precise temperature measurements and specialized equipment, making cider is, at its core, a matter of setting things up, stepping back, and letting Saccharomyces, that wonderful genus of yeast species, do its work.
In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that people have been fermenting apple juice into cider for at least 3,000 years. In fact, hard cider, with the antimicrobial protection that alcohol provides, has sometimes been considered a safer drink than water, which in unsanitary conditions can carry pathogens that can’t survive in alcohol.
So what does it take to make cider at home? How much specialized knowledge and equipment are required? The good news is that with a few apples and a bit of gear, anyone can get started.
Let’s start with the apples – experienced cider-makers tend to look for specific characteristics in the apples they use. They select for such qualities as tannins, acid profile, and sugar content, and often will go to great lengths to acquire hard-to-find cultivars that are known to make good cider. However, if you’re just out to make a decent, simple cider, then pressing the fruit of the neglected apple tree in your backyard is likely to work just fine. While there are a lot of variables, a conservative rule of thumb suggests that you can get about 8 litres of juice per bushel of apples.
Grinding and pressing requires some equipment, but even here, a bit of improvisation goes a long way. For example, a food processor can work as an apple grinder if you’ve only got a couple of bushels to get through. And it’s not hard to find a simple press, like an old basket press, for sale online.
Once the juice has been pressed into a fermentation vessel, like a 20-litre pail, the magic begins. You can pitch a cultured yeast that you get at any winemaking store, or you can simply wait for the yeast cells that were naturally present on the apple skins to begin fermenting the juice. Fermentation is the process by which the yeast culture consumes the sugar in the apple juice and turns it into ethanol (which is potable alcohol) and carbon dioxide. There is actually a whole lot more going on during this phase, but those are the two most obvious byproducts.
Once fermentation is complete, we tend to “rack” the cider into a different container, like a carboy. This allows us to get the cider off of the “lees”, which is the waste product of fermentation, and appears as a kind of silt that settles at the bottom of the tank. Ideally you’ll let this cider mature for several months before consuming, although, practically speaking, many ciders have a hard time sticking around that long. 🙂
You can also try adding other things to the cider – other fruit, berries, herbs, spices – the options are endless. This is where creativity and experimentation come in. It turns out that cider, while a great refreshing drink in its purest form, is also a great companion to many other flavours and there really are no rules. Well, actually, I wouldn’t recommend Brussel Sprout Cider, but other than that, go for it!