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How to Make Apple Cider: A Fledgling Brewer’s Guide

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TO AN AVID HOME-BREWER like me, colder temperatures mean stouts, porters and, the true star of the season, hard apple cider. I salivate thinking about each part of the pastoral process: picking apples with pals, pressing them into “soft” cider, mustering up the will to not chug it all in one go. Mercifully, it takes little effort to turn that juice into something as refined as anything you could buy at your local liquor store.

It starts with the apple. For any lucky people with an apple tree in their yard or neighborhood, this is the easy part. (I rely on the trees at my church.) Failing that, go to an orchard. Kevin Stahr, owner of Mainbrew, a home brewing supply shop in Hillsboro, Ore., says you’ll need around 20 pounds of apples for each gallon of cider you hope to make.

The process of making cider has changed little since the 1920s.



Photo:

Getty Images

For the best hard cider, you shouldn’t pluck any old apple within reach. Ask around for “cider apples,” which aren’t as sugary and acidic as what Mr. Stahr refers to as “eating apples.” Apple varieties like Kingston Black and Medaille d’Or are bred to be much less acidic.

Next, you’ll need a way to pulverize those fruits. That means some sort of apple crusher, which grinds apples into a pulp, and a press, which squeezes the juice from that pulp. Equipment specific to these purposes can be expensive, but effective. While the handsome, handcrafted Correll Cider Presses, for example, start at $1,300, they’re far more efficient than the oft-suggested hack of dumping apples into a food processor, then straining the messy mash through a mesh bag.

Mr. Stahr says investing in a pricey contraption is worth it if you have your own apple trees and make cider each year. Otherwise, you can usually rent one. Some orchards let you use theirs on site for a fee. And home-brew shops often have a set on hand. (Mainbrew rents out a crusher and press for $40 a day.)

But you needn’t press your own apples. Emmet Leahy is COO of Clawhammer Supply in Asheville, N.C., which sells equipment for home-brewing. He usually buys soft cider from orchards, then makes it into hard cider at home. What you lose (an Instagrammable moment) matters little to him. Either way, the end result is great cider. Plenty of home-brewers even buy their soft cider from (gasp) the grocery store, and still insist their end products are delicious. The only catch: Check the label for preservatives like potassium sulfate or sodium benzoate, both of which can kill the yeast required for fermentation. However you get juice, making it alcoholic is easy. “The nice thing about cider is all you’re really doing is throwing yeast on it,” said Mr. Leahy.

What kind of yeast? Opinions abound, but Mr. Stahr and Mr. Leahy say yeasts made specifically for cider, rather than champagne, wine, beer or bread, generally preserve apple flavors better. White Labs, a San Diego-based company, offers a liquid cider yeast packet ideal for five-gallon batches; Mangrove Jack, a New Zealand-based company, sells a dry yeast that’s easier to split between smaller batches. Your local brewing store might carry these or similar yeasts; if not, check online.

Whatever yeast you use, it’s time to add it to your soft cider. The yeasts will consume the sugar in your soft cider and turn it into alcohol and gas. This step can be intimidating, but the right tools leave little room for error. You can buy such tools a la carte, but it is much easier to just get a brewing kit that has it all. The Northern Brewer Hard Cider Making Kit ($66) includes a large lidded, food-grade bucket that can hold up to 6.5 gallons of fermenting cider. The bucket also has a spigot for an airlock (also included) that lets gas escape without letting any in. Mainbrew also sells a Cidermaking Starter Kit ($126) that comes with a bigger bucket, some additional measuring tools and Annie Proulx’s 1983 classic “Making the Best Apple Cider.”

It takes little effort to turn that juice into something as refined as anything you could buy at your local liquor store.

You’ll want to leave your cider in the bucket—henceforth known to you, and anyone who might wonder why there’s a bucket in the corner of your bathroom, as your “fermenter”—for at least a couple of weeks in any temperature-controlled room. The longer it ferments, the drier your cider will be. After that, you’ll need to separate the liquid from the layer of yeast that’s dropped to the bottom of your fermenter. Your kit should contain a siphon that allows you to direct your fermented cider into bottles or a keg.

Since kegs are expensive, most brewers opt to store cider in bottles. You’ll need to provide your own (start saving your empties now), but most kits come with some sort of solution that you should use to clean them. Once your cider is in the bottles, add a bit of corn sugar ($4, NorthernBrewer.com) to make sure your end result is appropriately carbonated. Then, use a bottle capper (included in both the Northern Brewer and Mainbrew kit) to seal your bottles. After a few weeks in the fridge, crack one open and savor the fruits of your labor.

There are many ways to tailor the process to your preference. You can try using different kinds of apples, different strains of yeasts and longer fermentation times. And don’t be afraid to play around with other ingredients. Last year, Mr. Leahy added hops, usually reserved for beer, to a cider. “It tasted amazing,” he said.

Or, if you wanted the most autumn experience imaginable, you could try flavoring your cider with pumpkin spices. I certainly wouldn’t try to stop you. That’s the best part of home-brewing: You can do whatever you want.

Beyond the Bushel

All the gear you’ll need to buy (or borrow) to make hard cider at home.



Photo:

Lilly Fields

1. Correll Cider Presses

These artisan presses have been handmade by the same family for three generations and are known to last for decades. Granted, you probably don’t need to buy one. But if you’re spending any money at all, you should get something that will last you longer than a season or two. (from $1,300, CorrellCiderPresses.com)

2. Great Northern Hard Cider Essential Equipment Kit

Everything you need to start fermenting cider—including a fermenter bucket, an airlock, a hydrometer for measuring alcohol content, and bottle caps for your finished brew. ($66, NorthernBrewer.com)

3. White Labs WLP775 English Cider Yeast

A wet yeast bred to preserve the apple taste while producing hard cider, this is ideal for five-gallon batches. It’s available on sites like Amazon, but because it needs to be kept cold, you should probably try to get it from your local homebrew shop or from a brewer-focused marketplace. ($11, MoreBeer.com)



Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal

4. Mangrove Jack’s Cider Yeast

This dry yeast is also great for preserving the apple flavor but is a little easier to store and ship. This means you can split the packet and use it over a couple smaller batches. ($8, Walmart.com)

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.

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