RECIPE: Homebrew Simple & Delicious Hard Cider

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Safety Husband has been making hard apple cider for me for a couple of years now. He’s super crafty in his own way, and loves to dissect projects down to their base elements, starting with the most basic method and backtracking till he has done every step he can. He put together a very simple recipe for making your own apple cider out of non-preservative apple juice, similar to his first foray into the sweet sparkling beverage.

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Important Points

Hard Apple Cider is Alcoholic

In most places it’s legal for an adult (21+) to brew their own beer and cider, but make sure to check with your state/county/hoa laws before you get started, and before you try to take your homebrew from your home. Drink Responsibly, and all that other wisdom.*

Brew Times and Temperatures Will Vary

Depending on how everything comes together for you, and what season it is when you’re fermenting, it may take a little longer to go from apple juice to cider. Make sure to keep your bottles in a place that you will check on a regular basis to makes sure everything is still looking right. (More on that below.)

Sanitize Everything

Make sure to keep a rag and bucket of sanitizer around during all the steps. You will wipe down and/or soak every piece of equipment and packaging that touches your ingredients. Your goal is to give the yeast a clean house to go nuts in, they don’t need any dirty roommates (bacteria, etc.)

Overflows and Busted Bottles Happen (from time to time)

Since fermentation creates pressure and lots of action, there can be the occasional accident that ends in a spill. Safety Husband recommends placing your bottles of brew (both during fermentation and after bottling) in a waterproof bin that can catch any run-off or popped bottles. If you want added protection, put a cover loosely over the top of the bin, or hang a curtain across it. (Make sure that you’re still allowing air to escape from your bottles during fermentation, though.)

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Basic Supplies

If you are able to find a local homebrew shop, I highly recommend trying them first for ingredients and supplies. Good homebrew shops (like my local favorite Mt Si Homebrew Supply) always stock the freshest ingredients and provide helpful advice. The Homebrewers Association keeps a list of shops sorted by country and state/province. It’s a great place to find the names of local shops. One caveat – you may need to search for the shop on a search engine or Facebook to find their full info and website.
AHA – Find a Homebrew Supply Shop

Ingredients

  • Apple Juice – any pasteurized juice will work. Be sure that it does not contain sulfites or sorbates, because these will prevent fermentation. Ascorbic acid (sometimes listed as vitamin c) is the only common preservative that will not hurt yeast.
  • Yeast – any yeast intended for wine, cider, or beer will ferment apple juice into hard cider. Different yeasts will bring out slightly different flavors, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Red Star Cotes des Blancs is a great one to try first because it has a good flavor, is easy to find, and cheap. Dry yeasts are easier to ship and can be stored longer.

Supplies

  • Star San – Use this to sanitize everything that will be in the cider, or could touch it. Soap and detergents just remove dirt. You need to sanitize equipment immediately before using it to ensure that extra bacteria, mold, or wild yeast won’t be there to foul up your brew. Follow the directions on the bottle to mix it on brew day. The concentrate could burn you, so follow the directions closely. Once mixed properly, its too weak to hurt your skin and the residue is completely safe. You can keep the same batch in a bucket for a few weeks and use it again later as long as it is not cloudy. If its cloudy, mix a new batch. Star San gets rid of disagreeable bacteria in a minute. It doesn’t need to be rinsed off, and will not leave any flavors in your cider. If your hands are in it enough, it may dry them out a bit but otherwise it won’t hurt you.
  • Drilled stopper – You need a stopper to fit the top of your bottle so that nothing can get in while the cider is fermenting. It needs to have a hole in it so that CO2 may escape. This small universal stopper fits many 1/2 and 1 gallon apple juice bottles.
  •  Airlock – As yeast ferment sugars, they release CO2. The cider will have a constant stream of tiny CO2 bubbles that need to escape. An airlock allows that pressure to release without allowing nasty bacteria, fruitflies, pet hair, or ordinary dust into your cider. The 3 Piece Plastic Airlocks are the easiest to use and clean.
  • Bottles – One the cider is done fermenting, you need clean bottles to carbonate and store it in. They need to be able to handle pressure during carbonation, so make sure they’re designed for carbonated beverages. We used glass flip-top bottles; just be sure they’re rated for high pressure. Some people have had luck reusing clean plastic soda bottles, and many people reuse and cap glass beer bottles. Make sure whatever bottle you choose is rated for the pressure of carbonation. Anything else (like a glass beer growler) will explode.

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Brew Day

Step 1:  Clean and Sanitize

Before you do anything else, sanitize all of your tools. Put your rags, scissors, stopper, airlock, and even the yeast packet into the sanitizer for at least 1 minute. You can leave it soaking until you’re ready to use it.

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You also want to wipe down the top of your juice bottles (and any other possibly contaminated surfaces) with a sanitizer saturated dishcloth.

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Step 2: Mixing

You will be fermenting in the bottles that your juice came in. During the fermentation process there will be a lot of action in your cider, so the first step in brewing is to pour a little off the top of the jug to leave an inch or two of space.  Some yeasts, especially beer yeasts may also accumulate on the top, which is normal.  (This is called krausen.)

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Next, open your sanitized yeast packet with clean, sanitized scissors.

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A typical packet of yeast is enough to brew 5 gallons. If you’re brewing less than that, toss it all in. Once the pack is open, you can’t save it. If you have more than one jug, try to add the same amount to each. It doesn’t need to be exact. What’s important is that its fresh and clean. Don’t worry about stirring – there’s no need it. [Note: if you read dry yeast packet instructions, it may say to rehydrate in water first. That may be important for a wine that may be higher alcohol, but for cider, it’s not necessary.]

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Step 3: Capping and Storing

After adding the yeast, it’s time to cap the bottle off with a sanitized airlock. Push the airlock into the stopper, then fill it to the line with sanitizer or cheap vodka. (This will allow CO2 to escape the bottle, but keep any foreign substances from getting in.)

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Now, push the stopper gently into the top of the jug. It only needs to be tight enough to keep dust out. If its still wet with Star San, it may want to slip out. Be sure to check it later and tighten (by pressing it down at the stopper) if needed.

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Last, put it into a safe place (indoors!) and let it rest for at least a few weeks to ferment.

Waiting Days

Fermentation follows multiple stages:

  1. Multiplication – For the first 12-48 hours, it will look like nothing is happening. The yeast is building up its forces and getting ready to crush that sugar.
  2. Fermentation – Once the numbers are up, the yeast binge on all the sugar they can find. There will be a stream of tiny CO2 bubbles constantly for a few days to few weeks, and the pressure bubbles out of the airlock. The cider will turn cloudy because its so crowded with yeast. There may be so much yeast that they float and pile up in a beige layer (krausen) on top of the cider. This is all normal, and the party lasts at least a few days to a few weeks.
  3. Clarification – Once yeast have eaten all the sugar, they crash hard. When they sleep, they fall. Most krausen will sink. The cider will turn from cloudy to mostly clear over the next week or two. All the yeast will have fallen asleep in a pile at the bottom of the jug that could be up to an inch deep.

Depending on the type of yeast, amount of sugar, and temperature, this may all happen in as little as a week, or drag on for 1-2 months. Cotes des Blancs usually finishes in about 3 weeks. Once its clear, it’s time for bottling day. Bottling day is when you want it. It’s perfectly ok to leave a fermented cider in the jug for up to 3 months.

If Something Goes Wrong

  • 2 inches of beige foam – It may be alarming, but this isn’t a problem. Its yeast and this sometimes happens. If it’s coming out the top – clean, sanitize, and replace your airlock daily or twice a day if needed. It should stop producing mountains of foam in a few days. After a few weeks it will all fall to the bottom.
  • Sulphurous odors – This can happen too for a few days, and isn’t usually a problem. If the yeast are strained for nutrients, they may produce sulfur dioxide. Next time, add some yeast nutrient and hopefully it won’t happen. Usually the cider will taste and smell just fine a few weeks later.

Ok, we tricked you. Those aren’t wrong, but they frequently happen and can be alarming. Relax and wait a bit.
There are a few things to look for that can tell you that your fermentation has gone a little wonky…

  • Black, green, and white floaties – This could be mold. It will often appear fuzzy or change color as more grows. Give it a few weeks and if it spreads or is still there after 3-4 weeks, then the cider is probably going to taste terrible. By comparison – good yeast won’t change color and will fall down on its own. There’s no reason to drink bad cider so dump it.
  • Cider smells like a barnyard – If it’s been less than a month, let it sit another month or two. If it still does, then be extra careful to sanitize everything and be sure to use fresh yeast next time. This is probably due to wild yeasts. Dump the offending beverage.
  • Cider tastes like vinegar – It probably is. Be extra careful with sanitation and make sure you’re using fresh yeast next time.

appleciderimg_0244Bottling Day

Bottling cider takes a little longer than getting it ready to ferment (but both take less time than writing this post!) However, you can do it when you have time.

Step 1: Making a simple syrup for carbonation (optional)

This is completely optional. If you want a still cider, skip straight to step 2.
If you want sparkling cider, the first thing you need to do is sanitize some sugar. The yeast are just sleeping, not dead. If you add sugar, they’ll wake up and start partying again until the sugar is gone. If this is done under a closed lid, pressure builds up, and now you have a carbonated cider! But watch out – too much sugar = too mush pressure. Too much pressure could mean a bottle bomb.
So how much sugar? 1.5 tablespoons per gallon, or 3/4c for 5 gallons. I used an online calculator to figure out how much sugar to add. I entered my batch size (2 gallons), desired carbonation (2.25 volumes – that’s typical for a cider), and room temperature (70F). This recommended 1.4oz of table sugar. I measured that out on my scale, and got 1.4oz with 3 tablespoons of sugar.
Mix the sugar with an equal part water, then bring it to a boil for 1 minute. Cover it with foil or a lid, then leave it to cool.

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Step 2: Sanitize the Bottles

All of the bottles need to be sanitized in Star San for at least 1 minute. They don’t need to be full, but every surface needs to be wet. Its easy to fill them part way up, swirl it around (swirled, not shaken), then gently poured out. The more Star San is agitated, the foamier it gets. Its easiest to sanitize all bottles at once, then start filling them.

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Step 3 (optional): Add sugar for carbonation

If you are carbonating, split the sugar syrup evenly between the jugs. The yeast may probably wake up, start eating again, and making their presence known with bubbles.

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Gently stir the sugar in, but try not to disturb the sleeping yeast at bottom. If you do, no problem, there will just be a bit more left in the bottles later.

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Step 4: Fill Bottles

Pour or siphon the cider into the bottles, leaving 1-2 inches empty at the top.  If a bottle is too full, it may not carbonate fully.

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Wow, that’s a lot of yeast. It’s hard to get every last drop out of the jug without getting a bunch of yeast into the bottle.

There will be a layer of yeast at the bottom, try not to pour that into your bottles (or your friends will complain.) I typically use a siphon to fill  bottles, which makes it easier to separate the yeast sediment. More on that below.

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Once all of the bottles are filled, store them at room temperature for 2 weeks. Its best to keep them in a plastic box in case they leak or explode while carbonating. After 2 weeks, chill a bottle, open it up, and enjoy the results! If its not fully carbonated, wait another week or two before chilling and opening the other bottles and hopefully they will carbonate. If not, chill and enjoy it straight up or in a cocktail. Cider can be stored for 1-2 years and often improves over time.

Other Tools, Variations, & Scaling Up

A: Faster Bottling

Pouring cider into bottles is hard, and stirs up the yeast sediment. You don’t have to worry about the yeast – it will settle back out in the bottle after a week. However, its easier and faster to use an autosiphon and bottling wand. An autosiphon makes it easy to start transferring the cider out without pouring. A bottling wand has a pushbutton valve at the bottom. You put it in the bottle, push down, and cider starts filling the bottle. When it’s full to the top, lift the bottling wand up just a bit and it stops. Cap the bottle, and you’re on to the next one!
All of these should be available at your local homebrew shop, or online retailers.

B: Other Ingredients to Try

  • Sugar – if you want a cider with more alcohol and a drier finish, just add sugar. Unbleached organic is our favorite, but you can use any type. However, be careful with dark molasses – too much and it will get bitter. Yeast will turn almost all of it into alcohol, but some of the flavor remains. 1-2 pounds in five gallons of apple juice makes a great applewine.
  • Other fruit juices – you can use any fruit juice instead of or in addition to apple. Just be sure that it doesn’t contain any preservatives other than ascorbic acid (sometimes marked as vitamin c). Sulfites and sorbates will prevent yeast from fermenting and you’ll end up with vinegar or a bucket of mold instead of a delicious cider. Pasteurized, bottled juices are the easiest and safest to start with. Unpasteurized juice could foul the whole batch or even make you sick if it contains certain foodborne bacteria.
  • Stevia or Xylitol – if you want a cider to taste sweeter, try mixing in a bit of stevia or xylitol before bottling. Yeast cannot ferment it, so the flavor will remain in the cider.

C: Scaling Up

Brewing beer, wine, or cider at home is easy up to 5 gallons per batch. Whenever you buy yeast, you’re buying enough for five gallons. All you need is a bigger vessel, more juice, more bottles, and more friends to help drink it. When you buy a bigger fermenter, be sure to get something bigger than your batch size. I use the 8 gallon bucket from my local homebrew shop even though I’m only brewing 5 gallons (see picture C). Some yeasts intended for beer are “top fermenting,” meaning they like to pile up on top. If there isn’t room, it will foam up into the airlock and then out onto the floor, walls, or ceiling.

FAQs

How much alcohol is in my cider?
The short answer is – it varies. To find out, you need to know how much sugar was there before fermentation, and how much is left afterwards. You can measure this with a hydrometer. The hydrometer will have a chart, or you can use an online calculator to calculate how much alcohol was produced. This will vary batch to batch depending on ingredients, which yeast was used, and the temperature it was fermented at.

What are the laws surrounding homebrew in my state?
That’s a great question for the advocates at the American Homebrewers Association. They have a state by state list for the USA available online. If you’re outside the USA, look for advice from similar organizations working to promote homebrew in your area.

Will that yeast in the bottom hurt anything?
No. This is a delicacy known as Vegemite or Marmite that’s best enjoyed on toast with breakfast. You could buy it, or you could enjoy yeast on toast after your morning cider. Its up to you. Ew

How many times did this article mention “sanitize”?
About 100 times. Nothing else matters if the equipment is dirty.

Safety Husband is also pretty sanitary. Well, I hope you enjoy this post as much as I like drinking home-brewed cider. Please make sure to be safe with your cider experiments (including the drinking of said cider) and let us know how your batch turns out!

*We love sharing recipes and ideas with you, but trust you to take responsibility to do all projects safely and legally. Safe fun is the best fun.