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A Beginners Guide to Making Cider from Scratch

making cider from scratch

Written by Josh Charig

5 April 2022

Apples are a heritage fruit to Britain, and cider plays an incredibly important role in that story. It’s a drink which is closer to wine than a beer alternative, as many bars and pubs would have you believe. One of the great things about cider is that with a few basic tools almost anyone can make it, and here’s how.

Equipment

To make cider you’ll need the following:

  • Apples
  • Scratter/mill
  • Press
  • Fermenter
  • Demijohn
  • Sulphates (optional)
  • Yeast (optional)

Source Some Apples

Perhaps you have a heavy cropping tree in your garden, and no matter how many apple cakes you bake it doesn’t make a dent in the windfall. Maybe you live near a common with an apple orchard. If you have a source of apples already, great! If not, I get my apples from a few sources: I live near a common with an orchard; I put messages out on my local Whatsapp chat and facebook group, promising to share a few bottles of the finished cider with those who donate; I have relatives with apple trees who don’t use their apples; Sometimes I buy crates of juicing apples. Make sure you have permission to pick the apples first before you do!

Some sources say cider must be made from cider apples, but this is not true. Using cider varieties may yield a better cider easier, but I’ve made some great cider from dessert apples. What will help is using a range of different varieties where possible, and even crab apples can be utilised adding much needed tannins and bitterness to the juice.

To check if an apple is ripe, it should come off the tree with an easy twist and pull. If you’re still not sure, cut into the apple and have a look at the pips. If they’re brown the apple is ripe, if they’re green the apple needs some more time.

It’s beneficial to use fruits which have already fallen from the trees. Remember, these won’t be used for eating so slight bruises and blemishes are not an issue in cider making. The apples need to be a bit soft before pressing, and picking them from the tree means waiting longer for them to soften slightly.

Store the Apples

You might be tempted to press right away, but the apples need to have the right consistency. Storing them softens them slightly making them easier to process later, but also the longer chain sugars break down which is beneficial for fermentation. Once you can press the apple with your thumb and it leaves an imprint, the apple is ready to process.

If any of the apples have cuts in them revealing the sugary flesh underneath, it’s likely they will grow mould and should be discarded (or eaten, or turned into apple cake if there are enough). Apples are best stored at fridge temperatures.

Scratting

I’m sure you can picture the image of apple pressing: a wooden basket press squeezing the juice out of the apples on a pleasant autumn afternoon. Before this can happen apples need to be scratted. This basically means milling. Whilst large cideries have industrial hydraulic presses which can crush apples whole, that may be a bit expensive and overkill for the home cider maker. Therefore we need to turn the apples into pulp for pressing.

There is a range of scratters out there, from hand cranked mills to electric processors. The simplest method would be to get a builder’s trug and place the apples inside. With a big log or wooden post smash the apples into a pulp. It takes a bit of work so invite your strongest friends over with the payment of some cider once it’s ready.

Pressing

The pressing stage will separate the bulk of the juice from the apples, and the idea is to squeeze the juice from the pulp and collect it in a container.

There are projects online that will give details on how to build a press, but for most cases a simple basket press will be more than capable of handling whatever gets thrown at it. Set up your press where it will get used. Most presses have holes in the feet for screwing down and securing, I’d strongly recommend screwing it down if possible. Once in place and secured – before any apple pulp goes in – put a container under the spigot to catch the juice. Have another container next to it ready to swap out when the first gets full. (I tend to keep two or three just in case.)

Start shovelling in apple pulp. There will be some juice already coming out of the milled apples which is why the container comes first. Pack in as much pulp as possible and start pressing. As the container gets full quickly swap it out with an empty one and pour the juice into a fermenter. Repeat until you have processed all the apples.

I scrat and press immediately after each other, and keep the process going until all the apples are finished.

Fermenting

So far you’ve made apple juice. It’s a sugary, incredibly tasty juice which every yeast and bacteria finds just as tasty as you do, so you need to make sure the right bug ferments it. There are a couple of approaches to fermentation, natural and adding yeast, and whether or not to add sulphates. 

Sulphates, A.K.A. campden tablets, prevent the growth of spoilage yeast and bacteria whilst allowing beneficial yeast to grow. Many cider makers use sulphates as it greatly decreases the chances of a batch not spoiling. If using tablets, a good rule of thumb is 1 tab per 4.5 litres.

Fermenting the cider with yeast is a good way to ensure the cider has a healthier fermentation. The trade off is that it may lack the complexity compared to a natural fermentation. Wine yeast is preferable to beer yeast, but experiment around and see what you prefer.

Natural fermentation is waiting for the bugs naturally occurring in the juice to ferment it out. It’s strongly recommended to use sulphates if going down this route. Whilst there is saccharomyces cerevisiae (the main yeast we want fermenting the juice) present in the juice, it’s in small amounts and can be outcompeted by spoilage bacteria. Sulphates will help the s.cerevisiae become the dominant yeast.

If this is your first time making cider, or you want a reliable batch with no issues, the best way to ferment is to add sulphates, wait 24 hours then add a pack of wine yeast.

Conditioning

A cider fermentation can be as short as a week if adding yeast, or months if left for the natural yeasts. Either way, cider benefits from extended conditioning times. It can be very harsh young, and when left for a long time will undergo a secondary fermentation (malo-lactic fermentation) which will create a smoother cider. The longer you can leave it the better, and a year is often required for a good cider.

Once fermentation is finished, transfer the cider to a glass demijohn (or a vessel where it can sit for a long time) and top up with apple juice, or a sugar solution of 125g sugar to 1 litre of water. The vessel should have no air in it. This will start another fermentation as the sugars present in the juice or sugar solution will be eaten by the yeast. 

Bottling

Once the cider has conditioned at the flavour has improved, it can be bottled or kegged like any beer. It doesn’t have to be carbonated, but if you prefer it can be batch primed or bottle primed. It will need another two weeks in the bottle if it’s carbonated.

The next stage is to enjoy the cider! Share with friends and remember to give bottles to those who helped produce it!

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