Introduction: Cider From Scratch
We live in an area with lots of apple orchards. Picking season has consequently become one of our favorite times of the year, when we gather as many apples as we can. We dry quite a few of them in our solar food dehydrator, and we also can some for pies and such to eat during the winter. However, the vast majority of our bounty we turn into juice.
There’s nothing better than freshly squeezed, 100% natural apple juice. The only downside is that it doesn’t keep for very long. We freeze as much of it as we can fit in the freezer, but that still leaves us with a lot of excess. So, a few years ago, we started making cider. It’s taken several years to get the recipe and process down, but we now produce a delicious, sparkling cider that has quite a kick to it. As more and more of our friends and neighbors get to sample our bottles, they have started to bring us more and more crates of apples (in exchange for a few bottles, of course)!
Over the course of this article, we hope to run you through the whole process of making cider, including how to decide which apples to use, how to make a grinder and a press, how to control the fermentation, and what is needed before and during bottling. It may seem like a lot of work, but once you make the equipment, you’ll be able to add to your collection year after year.
Step 1: Tools & Materials
- Sink with 3” drain
- Stand (about 36” tall)
- Food waste disposal (1/2 hp) to fit a 3” drain – should come with sink flange and gasket
- Food grade 3-5 gallon bucket
- Chopping board
- Large cup
- 20 ft 3” rectangular tubing
- 8 ft 2” square tubing
- 4 ft 1” square tubing
- 6 x 6” bolts, nuts and washers
- Scissor Jack
- 2x 5 gallon buckets
- 1x 16” square cutting board
- 4 to 6 x 9 ¾” diameter round cutting boards
- Plastic container, 8-10” square or round, about 3” or 4” tall
- Chunks of metal or lumber (that go in between jack and cutting boards to be pressed)
- Tape Measure
- Drill and bits
- Metal saw
- Metal paint (optional)
- Dremel or jigsaw (for the cutting boards)
[Amazon links included for some of the products, so that you can see what they are.]
- Hydrometer for wine/beer
- Sanitizer (Star San or bleach)
- Potassium sorbate
- Campden tablets (potassium or sodium metabisulfite)
- Large wooden spoon
- Measuring cups and jugs
- Large, plastic bottle (depending on the size of your batch)
- Plastic bottle (slightly smaller than above)
- Lids with airlock (plus a cheap alcohol, like Vodka, to put in airlock)
- Clear hose
- Glass bottles, with corks
- Corking machine
- Wine thief (optional)
Step 2: Apples
We have tried several different types of apples, all of which seem to make a pretty decent cider. The qualities you are looking for are high content of juice, sweetness and flavor.
There are so many types of apples, and the flavors and textures of the same apple can vary from place to place, so make sure you keep meticulous records of every apple you try. For each crate, record the amount of juice produced and its sugar content (using a refractometer to measure brix), and then later write notes about the flavor and how much sugar you had to add to get the sweetness you desired. It’s a good idea to have a notebook dedicated to cider trials, so that you can keep notes on each batch (we prefer not to use electronic devices for note-keeping when liquids are involved).
Quantity of juice
Each apple varies on the amount of juice produced. However, in general, you can expect between 2 ½ and 3 ½ gallons of juice per box of apples.
These are the apples that have fallen from the trees and are often in a less than ideal state. Most well run orchards want to get rid of the ones on the ground, as they can perpetuate the life-cycle of various pests that can ruin future crops (thereby increasing the need for chemicals). They are often given away in exchange for you gathering them.
If the price of apples is an issue, you can certainly use windfall apples for your cider. However, they do increase the workload, as you have to cut out any really nasty, rotten parts from the core. If you don’t cut out these bits, the moldy taste will carry over into your cider. Furthermore, they do not produce as much juice as healthy apples. We started off using windfalls, but now prefer to use ones from the tree, as these just need to be cut in half before putting them into the grinder.
This is a red apple, with some yellow color coming through the red. It is the first apple to ripen in our area, so we always do a few batches. In general, it is the one of the tastiest local varieties for cider.
This is a green/yellow apple that is very juicy and sweet, and produces a great flavor. Cider tends to be bland, so mix with other apples to bulk up your batch.
Unfortunately, we don’t know the real name for this apple. It is locally called the “Negra” and is the last of our apples to ripen. It is a deep, deep red (more so than the Red Delicious), and is by far the best we have tried for cider. It produces a lot of juice and is very sweet. It is usually the one that locals store over winter, as it tends to last the longest.
These are usually too tart to eat raw. However, you can add a few to any batch of cider to increase the flavor. Traditional cider was made mostly of apples like this.
Once you start experimenting for real, you’ll want to try some combinations, adding some varieties for flavor, others for juice and sweetness.
Step 3: Grinder
- Find an old sink that you can use. You want it as large as possible, with a 3” drain. Ours is 15” x 20” inside dimensions.
- Mount the sink on a stand. You can make a stand to fit your sink exactly (making a rectangle out of square tubing that fits under the sink’s rim, that then has square tubing legs, between 33” and 36” tall), or you can make something you already have work. The basic purpose of the stand is to hold the sink steady, so that its top is between 33” and 36” off the ground (you need space to fit the waste disposal unit under it with a bucket under the unit’s drainage pipe).
- Screw the food waste disposal unit into place under the sink’s drain. We bought a ½ HP unit and it came with all the mounting pieces required, including the sink flange and gasket. Follow the instructions for your particular unit.
- Place a clean, food-grade bucket under the outlet of the waste disposal unit.
- Wash your apples.
- Cut the apples in half (or into quarters if the apples are especially large). You do not need to remove the core or seeds, but make sure you cut out any nasty bits like moldy interior or bugs (though bruises are fine).
- Have on hand a large cup of water (once you start producing juice, you should use it instead of the water).
- Fill up the sink with the apple halves.
- Turn on the waste disposal unit. Add liquid (apple juice is best, but you can use water to get it going) as you push the apples into the sink’s drain to make it easier for the grinder. Do NOT use your fingers to push the apples into grinder, as it has fast turning blades and can be dangerous.
- When you have ground up all your apples, place an empty bucket under the disposal unit and pour several gallons of water into the sink, cleaning the sink itself and the waste disposer as you do so. If you do not do this fairly soon after finishing, the apple juice in the disposal unit will harden and be very sticky.
Step 4: Press
[It helps to view the images along with the instructions, as this is the most complicated part of the article.]
- Cut 2 pieces 3” rectangular tubing, each 5 ft long.
- Cut 2 pieces 3” rectangular tubing, each 26” long.
- Cut 2 pieces 3” rectangular tubing, each 16” long.
- Cut 1 piece 3” rectangular tubing, 9” long.
- Cut 4 pieces 2” square tubing, each 22” long.
- Cut 2 pieces 1” square tubing, each 22” long.
- Place one of the 5 ft pieces of rectangular tubing on its 3” side on a raised flat surface, with 4” of one end hanging off the edge.
- Clamp the center of one of the 26” long pieces of rectangular tubing to the outside of the 5 ft piece’s end, running perpendicular to it. This is the foot of the stand.
- Weld the two together.
- Repeat for the other 5 ft and 26” pieces.
- Place the two 16” pieces of rectangular tubing on their 3” side on a flat surface, 3” apart.
- Bridge the 9” piece of rectangular tubing across these two in their center. The 9” piece wants to be standing up on its 1” instead of the 3” side. Weld them together. This will be what the cutting boards sit on.
- You should now paint all the pieces of metal if you wish.
Drilling and Bolting
- Drill a hole, large enough for your bolts to pass through, in both ends of the 4 pieces of 2” square tubing and the 2 pieces of 1” square tubing.
- Place the two stands that you welded on a flat surface with their feet over the edge.
- Bridge one piece of 2” square tubing across the two legs of the stand at the top. Make a mark through their holes onto the stand, and then drill a hole on each leg.
- Bridge another piece of 2” square tubing across the two legs of the stand at 45” from the top. Make a mark through their holes onto the stand, and then drill a hole on each leg.
- Bridge a piece of 1” square tubing across the two legs of the stand at 22” from the top. Make a mark through their holes onto the stand, and then drill a hole on each leg.
- Put a piece of 26” long 2” square tubing under the legs of the stand at the top and at 45” from the top, so that the holes line up. Then put the other two pieces of 2” square tubing on top of the legs of the stand at the top and at 45” from the top, so that the holes line up. Put a bolt, with washers, through each of the 4 holes and tighten the nut onto it.
- Put one of the 1” square tubing under the legs of the stand at 22” from the top, so that the holes line up. Then put the other piece of 1” square tubing on top of the legs of the stand at 22” from the top, so that the holes line up. Put a bolt, with washers, through each of the 2 holes and tighten the nut onto it.
- Stand the press up.
- Take the scissor jack and center it on the underside of the top pieces of 2” square tubing. Screw it in.
- Take the piece that you welded in Step 6 of Welding and put the 9” part in between the pieces of 2” square tubing that are 45” down from the top. You may need to hammer it down.
- Cut 4 strips, ½” wide and 15 ½” long, of cutting board.
- Drill 3 evenly spaced holes in each strip.
- Glue and screw the strips around the perimeter of the 16” square cutting board.
- Drill a hole in the center of one side of the 16” cutting board, on the inside of the strip. This is your drainage hole.
- Place this board on top of the pieces of 2” square tubing that are 45” down from the top.
- If you couldn’t find any round cutting boards that are 9 ¾” diameter, you will need to cut square ones to size. Mark your circle on the board, and then use a dremel tool or jigsaw to cut around the line.
- Turn a 5 gallon bucket upside down and cut out its bottom, just inside the rim.
- Drill several large holes all over the walls of the bucket (your juice will be squeezed out through these holes, so make sure there are lots of them).
- Place the bucket on top of the square cutting board that you just made, and center it.
- Place a clean, empty bucket on the floor under the drainage hole of the 16” chopping board.
- Line a 8-10” square or round container (about 3” to 4” tall) with a piece of nylon that’s 30” x 30”.
- Fill the container with the ground up apple pulp that came out of the grinder and tie the nylon closed with a piece of string.
- Remove this apple patty and set it on top of the 16” cutting board, inside the bucket with holes in it.
- Place a 9 ¾” diameter chopping board inside the bucket, so that it sits on top of your nylon patty.
- Place another patty and board on top of the last until you run out of chopping boards or apple pulp.
- Place a piece of wood or metal in between the two 1” square tubing. Put a small piece of wood or metal on top and under this piece.
- Lower the scissor jack slowly to squeeze all the juice out of the patties. If juice starts to squirt too forcefully out of the holes in the bucket, you are going too fast.
Step 5: Fermentation
For each step of the following process, you will need to sanitize any bottles and equipment that you will be using. We started off using bleach water, but have since changed to a product called Star San, which is an acid sanitizer (phosphoric acid).
- Rinse your bottles or tools using clean water.
- Make up a solution adding 1 ounce of Star San to every five gallons of water.
- You can use this solution to wipe items with a cloth, to spray onto items, or to immerse items.
- After two minutes of contact, your items will be sanitized. You do not need to rinse it off.
- The solution can be reused for up to four weeks. It remains effective as long as the pH is under 3.
Preparation of juice
- Using a refractometer, measure the brix of the fresh juice to find out its inherent sugar content.
- You want the juice to be about 18 brix. If your juice is not sweet enough, you will need to add sugar. To get precise, use a hydrometer, and aim for 1.06-1.07 specific gravity.
- It takes 4.5 oz of sugar per gallon to raise your juice .010 SG. Most juices start out around 1.05 SG, so they will require about 9 oz of sugar to reach 1.07.
- Stir the sugar, little by little, into your juice until it has fully dissolved and then take another reading. Keep adding more until you reach you target specific gravity.
- You now need to kill any natural yeast that is present in the juice. You can either pasteurize it (heating it to 160 degrees for 10 minutes), or you can add potassium sorbate and campden tablets to kill the wild yeasts. You will need ½ tsp sorbate and one campden tablet per gallon of juice.
- Take out about 2 cups of your juice and dissolve the potassium sorbate and campden tablets (crushed) in it. Once it is dissolved, pour it back into the rest of your juice.
- Pour your juice into a large container (like a 5 gallon plastic bottle). The container should be larger than the amount of juice you have to accommodate the bubbling of initial fermentation.
- Put a lid with an airlock onto the bottle (you can buy such lids to fit almost any size bottle from this store). Fill the airlock with cheap alcohol, like vodka.
- If you pasteurized the juice, make sure it has cooled before continuing. If you used the potassium chemicals, let the juice sit for a day or so before continuing.
- Remove the lid with airlock from the bottle. Make sure that you keep the airlock upright.
- Take out a cup or two of the juice and warm it slightly in a pan (it wants to be luke warm, but not hot).
- Add the yeast that you want to use to the warm juice and stir it gently. We use champagne yeast (1 packet per 5 gallons).
- Let the warm yeast mixture sit for 15 minutes and then pour it back into your bottle.
- Put the lid with airlock back onto the bottle.
- Leave the bottle in a dark place for a couple of weeks, until it has stopped bubbling furiously. It’s best kept around 60-70F for proper fermentation.
Two weeks after juicing
From here on out you should avoid pouring or shaking up the liquid. Doing so adds air to the liquid and can turn the cider bad. Use a siphon instead and if you have to move the bottle, do so gently and carefully.
- Once your juice has stopped bubbling furiously, you will want to move it to a clean bottle.
- Insert a clear hose into the bottle, just above the sediment at the bottom.
- Siphon off the liquid into a clean bottle, leaving the sediment behind. You want the bottle to be as full as possible, as a lot of space (and air) at the top of a bottle can cause problems. It’s best to use multiple smaller bottles and fill them all the way than one larger bottle with a lot of air space.
- Put a lid with an airlock onto the bottle. Fill the airlock with vodka like before.
- Leave for about two months to completely finish fermenting and settling. Specific gravity should be just under 1.0 (.990-.998). Now, it is ready for bottling.
- If you have a wine thief, use it to remove about 3 cups of cider. Alternatively you can remove it with a siphon.
- Using a hydrometer, test the specific gravity of your cider.
- Pour cider into four different glasses.
- For the first glass, add a ½ tsp of sugar and mix it in. The second glass should get 1 tsp, and the third, 1 ½ tsp. Leave the fourth glass without any sugar. Please note that we put our sugar into a blender first, as the more powdery it is, the quicker it dissolves.
- Now, taste the four glasses and pick your favorite. If they are all still dry, add another ½ teaspoon to all glasses.
- Once you find a glass you like, measure it’s specific gravity. Dry cider is .998 SG (no added sugar), whereas a sweet/desert cider will be around 1.010 SG.
- When you have the specific gravity you want, raise the specific gravity of your whole batch. It’s best to siphon some of the cider out into a sanitized container and dissolve the sugar into that, then siphon back to the main batch. Add a little sugar at a time and stir it in well. As a guideline, we used 4 cups of sugar to raise 5 gallons of cider to 1.008.
- Add potassium sorbate and potassium sulfite (campden tablets) to stop fermentation. Add ½ tsp sorbate and one campden tablet per gallon of juice. Alternatively, you can “cold crash” cider by reducing the temperature below 40 F.
- Put the lid and airlock back on and leave it for about a week to settle.
- Set your cider container on a shelf or cabinet a day ahead of time to make sure any sediment stays at the bottom.
- Start by washing and sanitizing your bottles and equipment. Everything should be as clean as possible. Dry your bottles completely, inside and out before adding any cider.
- Soak your corks in clean water.
- Siphon the cider into your bottles, one by one. Put the siphon tube into the bottom of the bottle while filling to prevent added splashing and air in your cider. Try to avoid any sediment at this stage, so keep the siphon well above the bottom of the main container.
- Using a cork tool, push the corks firmly into each bottle.
- Label the date, apple variety, yeast, and specific gravity on your bottles for future reference. In future batches, these numbers will come in very handy for adjusting your recipe and methods.
- For 3 days, store the bottles upright, then put them gently on their sides after this. Store in a cool, dark location, preferably 60F.
- The cider will age and get better after time. Although you can drink it at this stage (and it’s good), try and wait at least 6 months, when it will be excellent.