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The art of taking sweet, cloudy brown cider and turning it into a crisp, alcoholic, pale yellow beverage has been going on in Vermont for a very long time. With basic brewing equipment you can make all kinds of hard cider. In this space I'm going to assume that you have some homebrewing skills and equipment. I would like to cover some of the things that you might want to be thinking about as you design your hard cider. As always, please ask us to clarify anything you don't understand. You should plan to keep a journal as you plan and brew your cider. Not just to record what you do, but use it to record ideas for future ciders. I sometimes take the labels off ciders I've purchased and write down my tasting notes so I can "borrow" ideas for next year's recipe.
It's not hard to find sweet cider year round. In September and October you will find lots of orchards selling freshly sqeezed cider. As a cider maker, you need to be sure that the cider has not been treated with sorbate. Sorbate is a commonly used food additive that kills yeast. Cidermakers that don't want to take back "fizzy" cider will use sorbate to kill any wild yeast that may have been on the skins. Unfortunately, it will kill your yeast too. Pasteurized cider can be fermented. If you can, try to find a cider that is a blend of apples. Sweet, eating apples make a nice cider, but if there are authentic cider apples or crab apples in the mix, you'll have something special. Once the sweetness/sugar has fermented, there needs to be something left to balance the alcohol. A bit of tang/tartness really adds a lot of pizzazz to your hard cider. Unless you don't like that. It's your cider after all.....
In October we have sponsored a crush at Chapin Orchards in Essex Center. The blends are different every year (you can see them posted on their website) so the ciders are new every year. The blend features some rare old cider apple varieties. You can sign up at the store in September. This is a great way to get started making hard cider. The cider is not treated with anything. You should plan on taking a starting gravity with a hydrometer. The potential alcohol is typically around 6%/volume, but that can change.
Fresh, untreated cider may have wild yeast from the skins. Under a microscope you may see more than one strain. As the cider warms up to room temperature it may start to spontaneosly ferment. I've done a few ciders this way and they all came out fine. There is an element of uncertainty when you do it this way. As a beer brewer it felt a bit risky, but go for it if you want to try it. Since it is an "unknown" yeast I feel it's best not to test it. I don't do a spontaneous fermentation with a very high alcohol cider or at very cool temperatures. If you keep the alcohol under 9% and the temperature over 60F, the wild yeasts should kick in. One year I waited six days and nothing was happening. That was as long as I felt comfortable waiting so I finally pitched a wine yeast and fermentation was going soon after.
There are lots of different yeasts to pick from at the store. We have wine, cider and mead yeasts that will do a nice job with higher alcohol contents. Champagne yeast is probably the most popular choice. It ferments out very crisp and dry. It is also a good choice is your house is cool, but I would still recommend keeping the fermenter at least 60F during active fermentation. If you are fermenting a cider made with a tart apple blend, then the champagne yeast might end up a bit too tart & tangy for you. I sell other white wine yeasts, Premier Cuvee, Chablis, or D-47, if you want crisp and dry, but not as dry as the champagne yeast. We carry dry yeast and Wyeast liquid yeast. As a beer brewer, I use mostly the Wyeast yeasts so I am comfortable using them in my ciders and wines. I am particulary happy with the port wine yeast when I make my New England barrel style cider. Please ask us if you have any questions.
You will run across recipes that encourage you to add campden tablets, or potassium metabisulphate, to your cider. If you want to make sure wild yeast is not participating in the fermentation, campden tablets should be added. One tablet per gallon, crushed, goes into your cider. You should then wait 24-36 hours and then proceed with the rest of the recipe.
Once you have taken the hydrometer reading of the fresh cider you'll know how much alcohol you can make. Your decision now is whether that is what you want. Once you have decided to fortify your cider with sugar you'll need to decide what kind of sugar to use. Light colored dextrose, or corn sugar, will not change the color or flavor of your cider, it will just add alcohol. Honey is another good sugar to add to cider. Cider fermented with with honey added to it is called a cyser. It's good...
I find that 1 pound of sugar per gallon will increase the alcohol content by about 1%. I usually take a quart or two of cider and the sugar and heat it up on the stove to dissolve it. Stir well and take another hydrometer reading to see if you have reached your target of potential alcohol.
Other sugars can be used in your hard cider too. I use other, darker sugars in small amounts to add more layers of flavor and aroma. The color will change from a pale straw yellow to a richer, amber color when you add darker sugars. Molasses, in small amounts, is often used in New England barrel style cider. I have used amber, Belgian candi sugar to good effect too.
Barrel or not
If you don't happen to have a 50 gallon barrel hanging around (or you don't want to make 50 gallons) you can still have a cider that is barrel aged. We sell oak chips with various degrees of toasting (or not) at the store. You can add the chips in secondary and the aroma and flavor is much the same effect with much less hassle. Last year I steeped my oak chips in some spiced rum and added the them to a secondary of barrel style cider. Haven't bottled it yet but I'll report back later. Beer brewers do this all the time with various whiskeys, etc. Start with one ounce per 5 gallon carboy and see what you think. I usually boil the chips for a couple of minutes to sterilize them them pour off the water and add just the chips to the carboy.
When you think fermentation is over, a hydrometer reading will usually read 1.000 or less. Rack into a carboy that you can fill right up. Still keep it under a stopper and an airlock since there may still be some de-gassing going on. This is where I might add the oak chips or raisins. I want the cider to stay here till I could read a paper through it. Not every cider will clear to the same degree, but you don't want to bottle it before it has a chance to settle out. I don't usually bottle till after February the ciders that were made in the fall.
If you are sure that you want a sweeter, non-carbonated cider then this is something you can do now. Once the cider has finished fermenting, you need to treat it with sorbate (same stuff you didn't want in the cider before fermentation). The easiest way to do this is to have it mixed with a little water or wine in the bottom of the carboy you plan to rack into. Now you know that it has mixed evenly, without splashing or oxidizing the cider. Later, after the cider has settled out, you can take a sample and decide how much you want to sweeten it. I sometimes make a simple syryp (equal parts water and sugar) and add that it small amounts till the cider is as sweet as I want it. Since you killed the yeast it won't ferment. You might experiment with using different kinds of sugar, not just white sugar or dextrose.
Well, finally...you've made it to bottling day. Your main decisions now are whether or not to carbonate your cider, how much carbonation you want and what kind of bottles to use. If you have sorbated and sweetened your cider, then you won't be able to carbonate it. You can put it into any kind of bottle you want, either capable beer bottles, screw cap bottles or wine bottles. If you want to carbonate your cider, then consider doing it the same way a beer brewer would do it. I use 1/3-1/2 cup of dextrose boiled in a cup of water. That is a priming solution that I pour into my bottling bucket and I siphon the cider into it. Then I rack into bottles, cap and leave them at room temperature for a month. Fermenting and carbonating are done by the same yeast, so make sure the bottles are warm enough, long enough for the yeast to do its job.
The time your cider spends in the carboy for secondary is important for more than just clarifying. At the same time, it is doing what is called conditioning. Over time, you will probably find the cider tastes better. All that alcohol, layers of flavor and acidity, need time to blend and mellow. If you bottle as soon as it's clear, then you'll notice the conditioning as you open bottles. The last ones are the oldest and best conditioned. If you are patient when the cider is in secondary, then it has a huge head start. You'll bottle more of a better conditioned cider. Either way, your observations about how the cider conditions is worth recording in your journal.