Most homebrewers plan out their fall brewing schedule something like this: get a quick ale or two going to replenish the beer fridge, then brew some stronger beers to lay down for a while. Usually there are some new recipes to try also. But many don’t think to include cider, one of the best seasonal fermented beverages ever.
Making cider is appallingly easy, and is one of the quickest brews you’ll ever do. Imagine no boiling, mashing, straining, or cooling, and if you feel adventurous you don’t even have to pitch yeast! You can make a wide variety of ciders, depending on the varieties of apples, and they can be single varietals or blends of different types of apples. Not to mention adding fruit and spices and basically any type of fermentable sugars.
You can also experiment with splitting batches and using cultured yeast on one half, and letting the wild yeast on the apples ferment the other batch. This means you’ll be able to blend the two together at the end, if you so desire. Really, this stuff is so easy to make it almost feels like cheating.
But besides all that, there’s something timeless about cidermaking. It connects you to the generations upon generations of people that came before you that each fall looked no further than their own apple trees to make a refreshing and stimulating alcoholic beverage to relax with. Brewing a cider makes you one with the ages.
The ideal apples for hard cider are the late harvest apples from your local orchard or farm stand. These are usually classic cider apples like Baldwin and Northern Spy. The most efficient way is to travel to a local orchard on a day that they are pressing cider. Some homebrew clubs make a day of it and have all interested members gather at the orchard with their carboys. Being present at the pressing and getting your juice straight from the source also connects you to the whole cidermaking continuum. Of course, you can just purchase gallon jugs from your local farm market, making sure that the cider is unpasteurized.
One of the first decisions to make is whether to use cultured or wild yeast. If you want a cider with a neutral character, pitch a cultured yeast. If you want a wild cider with a funkier, more lambic-like profile, by all means try fermenting at least a portion of your cider with the natural wild yeasts that are already present in your fresh pressed cider. If you split your batch you will also have the option of blending the two later.
The best thing is to go to your local orchard or greenmarket and talk to the people that are selling cider. Ask them what varieties of apples go into the cider, and if the blend changes with the advancing season. Find out when the last pressings are, because those usually contain apples that are optimal for making hard cider. Farmers are usually a great resource, and many of them have been making cider for generations.
When you get your cider, first take a hydrometer reading. It will probably be around 1.045, but if it is lower, you can compensate with some extra sugar. You can also experiment with adding other fruits to get the level of fermentable sugars up, such as peaches, pears, raspberries, cranberries, and raisins. See what’s plentiful and on sale. One year I made a pineapple cider when golden pineapples were two dollars each.
Hard Apple Cider Recipe:
4-5 gallons late harvest fresh pressed unpasteurized cider
.5 cups cane sugar for each gallon
1 cup of raisins, or 2 to 5 lbs. other fruits (optional)
Yeast starter (optional)
Add the sugar to a sanitized carboy, and pour in the cider. Ideally leave a little headroom, because cider fermentations can be vigorous. Attach a blowoff tube and put the other end in a bucket of sanitizer. Ferment at 60-64°. After a few weeks when primary fermentation has slowed and blowoff has ceased, you can add the raisins or other fruits if you choose. This will probably restart the fermentation. Let the cider continue fermenting until bubbling has almost ceased, then move to a colder area if possible, to let the cider further clarify. When the cider has cleared, rack to a keg or bottle as usual.
Paul Sullivan began homebrewing in 1992, and has won three Gold Medals in AHA National competitions. He is a professional musician, writer and teacher living in New York City. For more information, go to http://paulsullivan.com.