As fall fast approaches, many homebrewers begin thinking about brewing up a batch of hard cider. In addition to being a crisp, refreshing beverage that brings forth images of fall and the changing of the seasons for many, hard cider can be enjoyed and made year round. It also has the benefit of being gluten free, for those that have difficulty processing gluten proteins. While hard cider made with real cider may be more authentic and have the potential for more flavor and complexity, it is easier and simpler to simply use commercially available apple juice. As an interesting side note, the cider/hard cider distinction seems to be mostly American, with other countries simply calling ‘hard cider’ just ‘cider’, and what we call ‘cider’ just apple juice.
If you’ve been following along with the any of the homebrewing ingredient posts, you will know that there is a fair amount of process and technique that can go into making beer. While cider can get more complex (balancing pH, etc), the basics of cider making are dead simple.
…Yes, that’s it. All you need is a source of fermentable sugars, in this case coming from apples, but really any fruit could be used, and yeast to consume those sugars (I recommend champagne yeast). In terms of the juice, I have often used commercially available juice from the grocery store. You just want to check the ingredients and stay clear of any apple juice that contains sorbitol or potassium sorbate, as these chemicals have been added to inhibit the growth of yeast to increase stability and shelf life. Ascorbic acid is completely fine and is often added to balance the acidity of the juice (see my comments on malic acid below).
There are a few things that you can add to your cider that will create a better finished product, but aren’t really ingredients. They are all available from your local homebrew shop:
- Yeast nutrient/energizer: These nutrients will provide a source of nitrogen and other chemical compounds the yeast need for healthy growth. There aren’t many proteins available in apple juice that the yeast are able to use.
- Pectic enzyme: Pectins are a class of sugar molecules that tend to stick together and clump. If you have ever made jam or jelly, you will have used fruit pectin to help it to set. Apples have a decent amount of pectin, but we don’t really want pectins in our cider, as it will produce a clumpy haze at the bottom of the bottle. Pectic enzyme will go through and snip apart the pectins such that they will be available for the yeast to metabolize.
- Malic acid: This can be used to brighten up the acidity of a cider that doesn’t have the the crisp level of acidity that you are looking for. Ciders with too high of a pH (remember, low pH is acidic, high pH is basic) can taste thin and unremarkable, but adding a bit of acid can bring that back down and improve the cider.
As far as the process of making cider, simply put your juice in whatever you are using as your fermentation vessel (could be anything from a 5 gallon glass carboy down to a 1/2 gallon growler, or even the jug the juice came in). If you are using yeast nutrients or pectic enzyme, add the recommended dose at this point. It is best to rehydrate your yeast before adding it to your juice. Once you pitch (add) your yeast, fit a stopper and airlock into your fermentation vessel and place it in a cool (65 F ish) place to merrily bubble away!