As I sit and write, it’s early October in what’s been a fantastic year for apples. I have over 190 litres of juice fermenting away, six crates of apples waiting to be pressed and still more trees heaving with fruit. Now is a good time to continue from my last cider article, Cider Making From Scratch, with some more advice on how to make the most of your homemade cider, and how to avoid spoiled batches.
Home cider makers like ourselves are at the mercy of the seasons, the soil, and the trees. To make good cider is to understand this and know how to “correct” the juice when the year hasn’t been so forgiving. Tree maintenance is a book within itself, and I’m sure many readers want to keep their day job, so let’s focus on what we can do to make the best cider possible.
1. Get a Blend of Apples
There are very few apple varieties that lend themselves well to a single variety cider. Most trees out there are dessert, cookers, or crab apples, and to find wild cider varieties is incredibly rare. But even cider varieties are best blended, and commercial brands which claim to be a single variety like Dabinett or Foxwhelp are almost always blended with other apples.
Dessert apples are high in sugar but lack important tannins and acid which add mouthfeel to the finished drink. Cooking apples are higher in acid, lower in sugar, and crab apples tend to be high in tannin. Each apple variety will also have its own blend of sugar, tannin and acid, and the more varieties that can be mixed in the more complex and full the cider will be, with less need to further process the juice.
When I make my cider, it’s made entirely from dessert, cookers and crab apples. I get as many different varieties as possible and mix them up to make a more complex cider.
2. Pick the Right Apples
Cider apples are going to be crushed and juiced so they don’t need to look as clean and neat as the ones sitting on the supermarket shelves. Start by picking up the windfall apples (the ones on the ground). Bruises, wormholes, scabs etc. are all ok for cider, just don’t pick any with mould on.
Whilst it can help to store apples so they ripen, if the fruit is already ripe, or even overripe, it can be used straight away. I pick apples with cuts in them if I know I’ll process them in the next couple of days. Any longer and there’s a risk they’ll develop mould.
3. Check the Juice’s Gravity
Once the apples have been juiced, take a gravity reading with a hydrometer. Hydrometers work at certain temperatures, so if the juice is cold remember to do a temperature correction. If the gravity is below 1.045 it will need sugar added to reach this gravity or above. For the cider to keep for so long, it needs the right amount of alcohol content (ABV%), pH, and sulphites. Adding more sugar ensures the cider reaches the correct ABV%.
This chart explains how much sugar to add to reach the desired gravity.
4. Check the Juice pH (and Add Sulphites)
The pH is important to check: if it’s too high there’s a risk the cider will go bad, if it’s too low it will become a very sharp cider. It also dictates how much sulphur dioxide (sulphites or campden tablets) to add. There’s an ongoing debate in the wine world on whether sulfites are bad for you or not, with some misinformation about sulphites causing headaches, but they are a known allergy and can cause an increased risk of an asthma attack for those with asthma.
However, sulphites are very effective at preventing cider going bad. They inhibit the growth of spoilage bacteria whilst allowing beneficial yeasts like saccharomyces cerevisiae to flourish. When I don’t use sulphites, I find it’s 50/50 if the batch will make it to bottling and drinking. After all the physical labour I’ve put into a batch, I would rather ensure it doesn’t ruin.
This table explains how much sulphites to add:
Campden tablets are sulphites in pill form, but it can also be bought as a powder. To lower the pH of the juice, use 1g of malic acid per litre. To raise the pH, use 1g per litre of precipitated chalk until desired results.
If you can’t add sulphites, use Chemsan to sanitise all the equipment the juice comes into contact with. Add a packet of rehydrated wine yeast. The inoculation with such a high cell count should help to ferment the cider with mostly good yeast.
5. Ferment and Condition
A natural fermentation (as opposed to adding yeast) can often create a more complex cider as there will be multiple strains of yeasts as opposed to just one. (Bonus points, save the yeast and use it in turbo cider, or culture up for beer!) Fermenting naturally can sometimes take up to a few weeks to start, but I’ve also seen it start in a few days. Similar to beer, it’s best to leave the lid on the fermenter and not peek inside unless really necessary.
Sometimes there can be a very low s. cerevesiae count and other bugs might outcompete it. If a white film starts to appear on top, add more sulphites following the chart above. If in doubt, add a sachet of yeast.
The actual fermentation usually doesn’t take too long, maybe two weeks or so. Whilst it’s technically cider at this point, it can be a bit rough and will always benefit from some conditioning. The longer cider is left, the nicer it becomes, and conditioning times of 1-3 years are often recommended. I find my cider is good after a year, and bottle in the autumn whilst pressing the next batch.
Air is the enemy of cider, and fermenters should be filled as much as possible to get rid of air after fermentation is complete. This can be done with sugar water with the same gravity as the cider’s OG, or with apple juice. Some cider makers will freeze juice for this purpose, others like myself will use store bought apple juice. Do whatever is easiest for you!
Once spring comes around again and the temperatures warm up, the cider will undergo a malo-lactic fermentation. This is where sharp malic acid is converted to lactic acid and rounds off some of the harshness. It’s best to wait at least until this is finished before bottling.
Traditional cider is aged in oak barrels and sometimes has an oaky flavour to it. This can be achieved at home by using oak chips. They need to be sanitised before going into the cider. Oak chips can be soaked in whiskey or another spirit and added to the cider (along with the spirit) to give a [insert spirit of choice here] barrel aged flavour.
I prefer not to soak in a spirit as I just want the oak flavour, so I boil my woodchips for 10 minutes to sterilise, then add to the fermenter, water and all.
Woodchips are quite strong and will impart an oaky flavour in 1-2 weeks, depending on the type used. Take samples 1.5 weeks in and see if the cider has the desired flavour. Leave longer for a more intense woody taste.
Adding woodchips can mask some off flavours. If the cider is a bit sharp or there are some subtle fermentation off flavours, woodchips can improve the overall cider.
Whatever happens, time is a great healer.
6. Package and Enjoy
Well done if your cider has made it this far! Package as you would your beer, serving either carbonated or still, in bottles or keg. Just remember that if kegging, some pressure will need to go onto the cider to serve it so some carbonation will occur. Conditioning in the bottle or keg takes the same amount of time as beer, but the shelf life is actually longer. Cider gets better with age and some bottles can be kept for years.
Cider is one of the most rewarding ferments I do, and I hope you get as much out of it as I do. It’s a great way to save food which would otherwise go to waste, and a fun activity which can be shared with friends and family all whilst creating a craft product. Let us know how your cider got on this season!