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Hard Cider Rules

August 15, 2016
Pick your own apples for hard cider! (Photo: Jaclyn Einis)

First things first: let’s get our definition of “hard cider” straight. True cider is “an alcoholic beverage fermented from apples, just as ‘wine’ is an alcoholic beverage fermented from grapes,” according to New Hampshire cider makers Steve Wood and Louisa Spencer of Poverty Lane Orchards. Wood’s instructions for home brewing are below.

Cider Through the Years

Cider making is a throwback to colonial times when hard cider was the everyday drink of choice (safer than water) and the breakfast of champions (John Adams sipped it in the morning to soothe his stomach). Prohibition stifled the cider craft in the U.S., and years later, Americans would come to view hard cider as a sweet alternative for those who weren’t big fans of beer.

In recent decades, however, a growing league of American cider makers has been working to reestablish respect and demand for classic hard cider. Among these advocates are husband-and-wife duo Wood and Spencer, who back in the 1980s began making Farnum Hill Ciders; these ciders use uncommon heirlooms and cider apple varieties – the “bittersweets” and “bittersharps” that may taste unpleasant off the tree, but ferment beautifully.

How to Brew Your Own Hard Cider

  1. Buy or make a little more (soft) apple cider than you’d like to end up with, as you lose some liquid in the fermentation process. Juice with plenty of bright acidity and bitterness fares much better with fermentation than the sweet variety you’re probably used to drinking, so look for acidic and tannic apples or cider — think bitter, astringent, earthy and dry.  Ask and taste around your local farmers market, or see if there’s somewhere nearby you can pick your own apples to press. Unfortunately, the best apple varieties for cider making aren’t always easy to come by in this country. If you can’t find any bitter apples, Wood says, go for acidic ones, and if all you have to work with is sweet cider, go ahead and proceed with the rest of the recipe anyway — it’s not a deal-breaker. Plus, the more you make cider, even with less-than-ideal ingredients, the more you’ll learn, and the better you’ll get.
  2. Pour your cider up to the neck of a 3-5 gallon carboy (a clear, bottlenecked container available at Brooklyn Kitchen and home brew shops), preferably in a warm environment.
  3. Add in a minimal amount of potassium metabisulphite (which will form sulphur dioxide, aka sulphur); Wood recommends 50 parts per million or about 1/3 of a store-bought sulphur tablet per gallon. The sulphur helps inhibit or kill potentially spoiling yeasts, bacteria and mold while letting the yeasts needed for fermentation thrive. While the amount of sulphur Woods recommends using is less than most wines contain, if the idea of using sulphur is unappealing, you can skip this step.
  4. Let your cider-in-progress sit for a couple of days.
  5. Take a packet of yeast (5 grams) and hydrate it with warm water, stir it, and let it sit for 20 minutes, then pour it into your cider bottle. Wood recommends Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast for its neutral flavor profile.
  6. Leave the cider container uncovered. In a few hours (exact timing depends on how much sugar is in your juice), the cider should start fermenting (e.g. bubbling); when this happens, gently move the container to a cool place.
  7. Once the bubbles have calmed down a bit, fill the funny-looking top that comes with the carboy halfway with water and places it lightly on the top of the carboy. If it blows right off, it’s too early to put it on. At this point, if you lean in close and listen, you should hear your concoction bubbling rapidly.
  8. After several days, you should only hear 1-2 bubbles per second; at this point, secure the top on more tightly on the bottle.
  9. Watch and wait. Don’t take the top off! You’ll notice the bubbles slowing down and the color of the liquid brightening. Once the juice becomes clear (can you see your hand through the container?), it’s done fermenting. This could take 1.5 to 5 weeks.
  10. Use a clean ¼ inch plastic hose to siphon the liquid from your carboy into bottles or a smaller carboy, making sure not to suck up the lees — dead yeast and other residual solids — at the bottom (though some drinkers like a little bit of lees). Make sure you fill up the containers completely. If you’re left with air on top, add more cider (freeze some to be safe), or even wine.
  11. Add 30 ppm (1/5 a tablet) sulphur to preserve the cider’s fruity aromas.
  12. Rack your cider and store in a cool place. Wait at least a month before drinking. The flavor should improve month to month, but it’s not a beverage you should age for years like you would a fine wine.
  13. Wood strongly encourages beginners to start by making still cider, but if you’re set on adding bubbles, you can use a cornelius keg.
  14. Drink and enjoy! As Wood suggests, “If it tastes worst than Milwaukee’s Best, which you can get a six pack of for under $5, it’s not worth drinking.” Be sure to take some tasting notes to help guide future brewing attempts.

If you follow this recipe, be sure to send in pictures and let us know how it goes!

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