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10 Tips for Better Homemade Cider

One of my most popular posts ever has been my tutorial on Making Hard Cider From Whole Apples (without a press). I love that so many people are giving it a try– it’s so much fun! Now that it’s apple season again, I thought it would be great to provide some more information on making your homemade cider even more awesome than last year’s. I’ve moved away from apple country, but I have a fantastic resource for you– my brother Nathan is a terrific cider maker, and has a lot of great information to share. I asked if he would be willing to do a guest post for us, and he agreed! So here he is, with a lot of cool ideas for kicking things up a notch.

Craft cider is gaining popularity around the world just as craft beer exploded in the late 90s. However, one thing that is different is that cider is an agricultural product that is made seasonally like wine. It’s great to take advantage of the surplus of apples that are available in the Fall and make some cider to sip throughout the year. Every year many apples fall on the ground and are wasted. Cider is a perfect way to make something useful out of someone else’s “mess”.Cider ApplesI have been making cider for about 15 years, but in the past 4 years the scale and depth of the annual project has gotten much greater. This year I’m taking care of a small orchard and have access to as much fruit as I can press. I have experimented with many different aspects of cider making and have begun to settle into a few things that will “stick” in my process. I’m sharing them here.

10 Tips for Better Homemade Cider

  1. Just Call it “Cider”.  This may not affect your actual brew, but I still think it’s important. At one time North Americans (prohibition) almost forgot about fermented cider and started calling unfiltered apple juice “cider”. Then, the fermented stuff had to be called “hard cider”. The rest of the world still calls the boozy stuff cider (or cidre, sidra, etc), so we (North Americans) need to get back to that. Pretty soon, that sweet juice will have to be qualified with “sweet” cider… and all will be right with the world.
  1. Get to Know Dry Cider*. Try to get to know and love “dry” cider. Yes, perhaps it’s hard to get used to something tart… but, it’s what the fruit really gives you after fermentation. It shouldn’t taste like apples, it should taste like cider. Just as wine doesn’t taste like grapes, it receives it’s own unique set of flavors from fermentation. The sweet draft ciders at the grocery store are poor examples of natural fermented products. They reflect the same industrial process used to make soda pop (carbonated water, sugar, apple flavor, preservatives). Try to look at making cider as making wine. It can have all the interesting and complex flavors of the place and fruit that it came from. Dry ciders can also taste rather sweet if the fruity aromas are still present. My bone-dry ciders are never regarded as very dry because there are enough fruity aromas present to communicate sweetness via aroma department. I shoot for something akin to champagne. Good dry cider has some fruity character… and shouldn’t taste harsh. (Ariana here: the tutorial I did is for a dry, English-style cider, by the way.)*dry ciders are also the easiest to make, which also makes them loveable.
  1. Don’t Be Afraid of Ugly Fruit. To make cider, the fruit doesn’t have to be pretty… in fact, it can even be damaged and deformed by insects and disease. Much of my cider fruit is deformed and has a few blemishes. The neighbors think their apples are ugly and inedible. They are perfect for cider. The guy at our local cider mill has told me that as long as the fruit is firm and solid, it is good for cider. It is recommended that you not use fruit that has spent time on the ground. If you shake fruit out of the tree, it is fine if you pick it up quickly. However, some of the spoilage bacteria on the ground can impact the cider if it has spent extended time on the ground. Large soft brown areas of rot are something you want to avoid. The sulfites that are discussed later are even more necessary if your fruit has a questionable history. Many commercial cideries use ample sulfites because they have no way of knowing where the fruit has been.
  1. Create a Good Blend. One single type of apples doesn’t usually have all the qualities that you want in your final cider. Most cider is made from a blend of apples that contribute various flavors and aromas to the beverage. If you can use a few different apples in your cider blend, the results are often better than apples from one single tree. Try to choose a mix of apples that are sweet, tart, aromatic, and interesting.Even apples that are inedible on their own can add something special to cider. In fact, most apples that are “cider fruit” are not recommended for eating. Adding some crab apples to your blend will usually add some interesting tannins and round out the flavors. I find that aromas are the thing I look for the most when I make a cider. Adding some Red Delicious and Gala can add some aroma, if your main apple source is lacking in that area.That being said, sometimes it can be interesting to make a cider from one apple to see exactly what that apple tastes like alone. It’s like research, and can lead to some interesting discoveries. This year I am doing some pressings where I am trying to focus on specific apples to see what they contribute.Try to avoid having all tart fruit, as the acid level may be too high for the finished cider.
  1. Consider Your Sugars.  Ideally, you want your fruit to be pretty ripe, and to have a high sugar content. Fruit from neglected trees often have more intense flavor because the fruit are often small and contain less water. This often means more concentrated flavors, and sugars. The typical cider will press at around 10 Brix (SG 1.044) which can produce a dry cider of 5.5% ABV. Some cider makers will add some sugar to bring the gravity up to 1.050-1.055 before fermentation. This is called chaptalization and it helps increase the alcohol level and makes the cider more stable for storage. I have practiced chaptalization, but a professional cider maker has challenged me to leave the juice as it is. He said even a low-sugar juice can contribute to a good cider.
  1. Balance Acidity.  The level of acid in your starting juice impacts how your finished cider tastes. When you ferment away all that sugar/sweetness you end up with some fruity aromas and acidity. If the acid levels are too high it can taste unpleasantly tart. If the acid levels are too low, it can come across as watery and insipid. You want to keep enough tartness to give it a thirst quenching bite. So how do you know where you are on the acid scale? pH Test strips that test from 3.0-4.0 are perfect for finding out how acidic your juice is (available at a homebrew shop). You want your starting juice to be 3.2-3.6 for best results. If your juice is at 3.8 or above, it will be lacking in tartness and will be less biologically stable. If your juice is 3.0 or below it is likely taste too sour after it ferments.
  1. Maximize Aromas. Apple aromas are wonderful and I think they are the focal point of a good cider. If you can get those to stay in the cider till you drink it, you will be happier with it. A couple tips for maintaining aromas in your cider:
    1) Ferment at a cool temperature. If you can keep your fermentation going at 55-65 F, it is more likely to ferment slowly and keep the aromas in tact.
    2) Using a pectic enzyme helps the aromas to be released by the pulp and absorbed by the juice. (More on that below.)
    3) Your yeast choice may help to retain some fruity aromas. Most wine yeasts have been selected for this trait.
    4) Storing your fruit for a bit before pressing can allow it to develop aromas.
    5) Sometimes giving your cider some time to age will help bring the aromas out, so don’t be afraid to sit on it for a while to see how it changes. I have liked my cider more the longer I have kept it around. The longest I have aged it is about a year.
  1. Choose the Right Yeast. Yeast can contribute both positive and negative attributes to the finished cider. Most cider makers use wine or champagne yeast to give the cider a fruity character. You can also depend on the natural yeast found on the apples, but that method requires that you also allow a multitude of other microbes to be part of the fermentation, and the outcome can be less predictable. When things turn out well, though, it can be really interesting and satisfying.
    I can recommend the following yeasts available at homebrewing and winemaking stores, or online:
    Lalvin EC-1118
    Lalvin D-47
    Fermentis S-05 (ale yeast)
  1. Decide Whether or Not to Use Sulfites. You have to decide whether or not to use sodium metabisulfite to sanitize your juice. Wine makers and cider makers often use campden tablets to kill off the wild yeast and bacteria before using a commercial yeast to ferment the juice. This method also helps ensure that your cider won’t take a turn in the wrong direction.If you choose to use sulfites, it is normal to add your sulphites just after pressing the juice. It will take about 24 hours for the sulfites to do their work and then fade away. You will need to wait to add commercial yeast till 24 hours after adding the sulfites. I have found that when you use sulfites, the cider will have a cleaner flavor. But, it also might be missing some of the interesting nuance that you get from a more microbially diverse ferment.Personally, I haven’t found sulfites to to be essential on the home-scale. I made cider from unpasteurized and unsulfited juice for a few years before I tried using sulfites. One thing that I noticed, un-sulfited juice tends to continue to evolve beyond 3 months, because it’s still alive. The evolution is usually in a positive direction, but sometimes along the way the cider is “in flux” and will taste different/odd.Something I have started to do is adding a minimal amount of sodium metabisulphite (30-50ppm) at racking, after primary fermentation is over. This stops any dramatic changes that may take place and makes the cider more stable after that point. With this method I retain many of the interesting characteristics that I get from a natural ferment. If you want to use this approach and make a carbonated cider, you should add yeast along with priming sugar at bottling.If you are using pasteurized juice you do not need to use sulfites.
  1. Add Pectic Enzyme for a Clearer, More Flavorful Cider. Adding pectic enzymes like Pectinase will help to clarify the juice, and release some of the aromas into the cider. Pectic enzymes should be added before fermentation so that the pectins can be broken down before there is alcohol in the mix. If you do not use pectic enzymes, the cider maybe be hazy, but it will still be tasty. You can find pectic enzymes in your local winemaking or homebrew shop. (Or online, here.)10 Tips for Better Homemade Cider

Bonus! Here are some other additions you can make to your homemade cider:

Pre-fermentation:

Pears- Fermented pear juice is called perry. However, you can add some to your cider. Pears have some sorbitol in them which is a sugar that doesn’t ferment. This makes for a beverage that finishes a bit sweeter than cider. You can add some pears into your apple mix and wind up with a perception of sweetness that is more noticeable. Pears typically get ripe at the same time as apples, so they are a natural thing to include in your blend. Adding 10-20% pears to your blend will make a difference.

Post-fermentation (during aging):

Oak chips can add a little bit of tannin and some vanilla notes to the cider. I use DIY paper tea bags (made by Melitta) to add some oak to my cider. I use less than an ounce of oak chips for a 5 gallon batch. However, I have seen much larger amounts recommended (4 oz.). I fold the bags over and staple them shut before adding them to the fermenter.

Hops. I am a purist and like to taste just the flavors offered by the apples… However, if I have a boring cider that is lacking in the fruity aromas I’m so fond of… I will often dry-hop the cider with a hop that has some fruity characteristics. The first “hopped cider” that I liked was made with Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand. It had a zingy gooseberry aroma that complimented the cider well. I have also had good luck with the tropical aromas of Citra hops. I use the same tea bags described above and add about ½ oz. per 5 gallons. I let them soak in the cider for about 7 days. It’s remarkable what a fruity aroma will do for a lackluster cider.

Sweeteners… I did say we should try to like dry ciders… but, you can also add non-fermentable sweeteners to get some of the fruity character back and balance out tartness. Xylitol, and stevia are a couple of options to get your cider a bit sweeter without restarting fermentation.

Nathan Shackelford bio picNathan Shackelford accidentally won a Best in Show prize with the first cider he ever made (from grocery store juice). Since then, things have only gotten more complicated. He enjoys teaching homebrewing classes at the homebrew shop where he lives. Nathan makes equal amounts of cider and ale each year, but the terroir aspect of cider makes it much more exciting. His day job is teaching art/photography to high school students, but making something to drink after work is his passion.

You can check out his home brewing projects on his tumblr, What is Brewing. Nathan loves helping people out with their home brew projects, so you can email his any questions at nathan(at)shackelford(dot)org.

If you want to dig deeper into making homemade cider, then Nathan has a couple of great books her recommends: Craft Cider and Apples to Cider: How to Make Cider at Home.

Nathan, thank you so much for this great, super-informative post! I am sure a lot of people will enjoy having some more elements to work with for this year’s batch of ciders, and this was really helpful.  Happy Foraging and Home Brewing, Everyone!

10 Tips for Better Homemade Cider

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2 Responses to 10 Tips for Better Homemade Cider

  1. Diana Lynn Law August 15, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

    Thanks! I love both articles on the cider making!

    • ariana August 17, 2016 at 6:45 pm #

      So glad you enjoyed them, and thank you for taking the time to stop by and let me know.

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