image right by Wheeler Cowperthwaite
Cider. Nectar of the gods, or at least of people too lazy to brew beer. Technically all you need to brew cider is apples and sloth as you can run unwashed apples through a press then bottle the results after a few weeks. However, not everyone has access to a press, fresh apples, cheesecloth for straining pulp, and patience. So here is a quick guide to brewing cider that also serves as a good general introduction to homebrewing.
To start with: we are dealing with things that bridge the gap between “food” and “poison.” Everything below is to be done entirely at your own risk. In fact I will save you the trouble and say don’t do anything below. Just don’t. Go read a book or something. Preferably on Jimmy Carter, for whom we can somewhat thank for legalizing the forthcoming mess.
1. Go to Whole Foods. Purchase a one (1) gallon bottle of apple juice, preferably “apple cider” although it isn’t necessary. What is necessary is that the cider come in a glass bottle and that it has no preservatives added of any kind. If there’s a comma after the word “apple juice” followed by words, put it back. While you’re there also pick up a vial of champagne yeast from the home brewing section (which I think only one in the entire country does so maybe just pass by your local home brewing store. Bread yeast will work but not terribly well.)
2. Boil the juice. Actually boil everything. Spray everything that’s not getting boiled with a food grade sanitizer or else bleach. Rinse with hot water if you’re paranoid (and I certainly am) or using bleach (not optional in latter case). If it touches something that touches the juice, sanitize it. Maybe you want to wrap yourself in a body-sized condom while you’re at it. Me, I wear a hazmat suit, but only to freak out my roommate when he comes in the kitchen and I’m in a white bodysuit with three pots on the boil.
3. This should probably go without saying but don’t boil the yeast. It’ll come with instructions – follow those. Basically all the boiling is to make sure that the only thing getting its biochemical groove on in your juice is the yeast and not, say, botulism. So boil boil boil just don’t boil the yeast.
4. Another caveat about boiling: for the juice itself I really mean “simmer at low heat so as to reduce the volume of liquid without destroying the fermentable sugar.” While you’re at it add some stuff for flavoring – cloves, star anise, and cinnamon sticks are easy to come by and can be found in their whole forms, sans preservatives. Use sparingly.
5. The ways in which humans experience time is endlessly elastic and perception of time is situational. That said, waiting for a gallon of juice to boil will be the second longest period of time in your life. In the meantime, this step has a name in real brewing. There are all sorts of fun words here like “mash,” “sparge,” and (my favorite) “wort.” Fuck all of them. We’re making booze, not visiting colonial Boston.
6. You’re still going to lose sugar and furthermore we want as much as possible for the yeast to turn into delicious, delicious ethanol. So add some honey and/or brown sugar. No I don’t know how much to add. I heard a pound but that seems like a crazy amount and also don’t have a scale (which will be a recurring theme in these instructions). I used about 16 fluid ounces total, which, if I had it in front of me, I’d know how many dietary carbohydrates this was and if this remotely resembled science would be the unit we were using (again more on this later).
7. Reduce the liquid by maybe a fifth. Transfer to the sink and immerse it in a cold bath until it is again room temperature.
8. Waiting for the juice to return to room temperature will in fact be the longest period of time in your life. Add ice if necessary. Try not to splash shit into the juice. Sanitary, remember? One mote in the wrong place and you wind up with skunk cider. Technically you should have the pot covered but then it’d never cool. There are ridiculously expensive copper tools you can use for this.
9. Transfer the juice back into the gallon jug via a FUNNEL YOU ALREADY HEAVILY SANITIZED YOU DIDN’T REMEMBER TO SANITIZE THE FUNNEL DID YOU AND YOU HAVE A HUGE FUCKING GALLON THING OF JUICE IN YOUR SINK.
10. Go to the bathroom and use the sink in there to sanitize your funnel. Cursing optional. Transfer juice back to bottle. You sanitized it, right? Sigh. Bathroom.
11. “Pitch” (snobbish for “throw” or “dump”) the yeast into the mix. Put the cap back on the bottle. Wait, you sanitized the cap, right? God dammit. After doing that, give the bottle a good long shake, for 20 seconds at least. Mind you we’re at the stage where having sanitizer in the wrong place is as fatal (or more so) as getting contaminants in. So be careful. If it’s not bubbling within a day you messed up.
12. Oddly enough you’re almost done for now and yet this is where things get complicated. First, one of two things happens over the next 10 days: either your yeast runs out of sugar to consume or the alcohol content becomes too high. Which is to say it runs out of food or it dies poisoned in its own shit. May we all be so lucky. Champagne yeasts tolerate extremely high levels of alcohol though so yippee.
13. Carbon Dioxide needs to get out. Deliciousness needs to stay in and funk bringing motes need to stay out. What to do? Enter the first object of complication, the double wall vent thingy more commonly known as an airlock. Aside from the yeast, this is the weirdest thing to obtain and also the least replaceable. There are fun instructions for how to fill this without somehow getting sanitizer into your soon-to-be-cider. Good luck with that and put your jug in a dark place when done. Wait 10 to 20 days.
14. Drink a lot of Grolsch during the wait. You’ll need at least 9 swing top bottles of some kind, possibly more. Buy a capper if you think you’re making a habit out of this, but keep in mind that the heavier the glass = the less of a chance of beersplosion.
15. Once it’s done fermenting you need to put it into a bottle and prime it. This is an art in and of itself, requiring you to:
- Get the cider out of the jug without getting all the silt that’s settled to the bottom (usually using something called a racking cane and tube)
- Mix in a little extra sugar to re-start fermentation such that carbonation will occur in the bottle, but not so much carbonation that the bottle doesn’t explode in your face or closet. This is called priming and is usually be done in a separate container of some kind.
- How much sugar to add? Well, I don’t know. All the suggestions online are for ounces (weight) when nearly everything else is in fluid ounces (volume). There are endless bits of data on the side of a package of sugar that could be used to figure out how much to use yet none of them help me convert to weight. So in short: fuck you internet you’re surprisingly unhelpful sometimes and I am not buying a scale just to measure honey.
16. Did you sanitize the bottles? Of course you fucking didn’t. Making a bucket of sanitizing solution might be your best bet here.
17. Three tablespoons of sweetener per gallon seems right, or at least enough to do the job without threatening to asplode. Of course you need to somehow mix this in without disturbing the silt in the bottle, which means transferring to a container before mixing. A container that’s been sanitized. If your hands don’t feel like tree bark you’re doing it wrong.
18. Fun fact: your cider is cloudy and not at all like the stuff you get in the store. This is for two reasons: we added other stuff and we skipped a step called “secondary fermentation,” which isn’t so much fermenting as its aging and settling. But screw that for many reasons, main among them is that the crystal clear cider you know is marketed as a summery hypersweet, low alcohol beverage totally divorced from its origins. This stuff is high alcohol, tannin rich, bottle conditioned and unfiltered. It’s also delciious. This is cider for beer drinkers as opposed to for people looking for Smirnoff Ice with a side of Americana.
19. Refrigerate before opening. This allows the Co2 to settle into the liquid, preventing a geyser from occuring when you open. The first batch of beer I ever brewed sent a spout 6 feet high when I opened it. Another good reason to do swingtops: you can “burp” the bottle as you open it.
Try shaking it again or adding more yeast (might have been a bad batch). If neither of these work, you screwed up somewhere. Fermenting is like a game of SORRY. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and go back to start.
It’s not sweet enough.
Lactose. It doesn’t ferment but is sweet. Alternately splenda. Add either during bottling.
It’s too sweet
You went crazy with the honey, didn’t you. Mix it with some whiskey and club soda.
I can’t find swingtops
Go to Ikea or else buy beverages (like sparkling lemonade) that come in swing top bottles. For beer you need dark bottles, but for whatever reason it isn’t necessary for cider (I think because since we didn’t use hops it doesn’t get fouled by light).
I’ve gone blind.
Please direct your attention to the opening paragraph and maybe see a doctor.
After reading this I’ve decided I have better ways of spending my time than homebrewing.
Congratulations! You have attained wisdom. Now go buy a sixer to celebrate.
HUGE THANKS to Flickr users Wcowperthwaite, FatLlama, Magnuscanis, AnotherPintPlease, and Bevis for use of their photos above.