This is my summary of cider making based on a longer blog post I wrote last year. For the full version including pictures and my political commentary, please visit Amelia's Bitchin' Kitchen
Hard cider is one of the easiest fermented beverages to make, as long as you have good equipment. And the fresh juice, if consumed within minutes of pressing, is so tasty it tingles on the way down. Hard cider is really a simple beverage to produce, yet as with many other things, there is a challenge to achieving greatness. I have high hopes for batch #8, because this year all of the details fell together just right. Apple quality is good, the right equipment is in place, all of the cleaning and prep work was done ahead of time, participants are lined up, and plenty of food and beverages are lined up to keep our energy and spirits high. Because apples are fresh and plentiful in the fall, and the equipment is expensive to buy or rent, this is a once a year project, so for it to be successful its important to get the details right!
First of all, the apples chosen are key to making great cider. Variety is more important than cosmetics in this case. In fact, you don’t want the picture perfect apples you find in a large grocery store. Although such apples look great, chances are they have been handled too many times and have sat around too long, plus they cost about 3 times as much as cider apples purchased in bulk directly from a grower. Since apples grow all over the country it should not be too hard to locate a source, unless you live in the deep south. Mine come from a local farmer in the Santa Cruz area. His family has been farming apples for about 100 years, and his apples are organic. This year we are crushing Pippin, Granny Smith, and Jonathan apples. These are all good cider apples because they produce a decent flow of juice but they are not too sweet. I like my cider nice and tart!
Because we are after the juice, we are not worried about any scabby parts or even a small amount of worms. Those will be left behind in the pulp, and will compost just fine. If there are any rotted bits, those should be cuty away, or else the rotted flavor and bacteria could taint the cider. Our friend Eden makes quick work chopping out the rotten bits- if only it were so easy to chop away the rotten elements in our country like over-bloated banks and corrupt politicians!
Next in line of importance is the equipment. There are actually a lot of options here, and I have tried many of them. But if you are going to press 1000 lbs of apples and you have one day to do it, renting the right equipment is the best way to go. Most homebrewing shops rent equipment that can be used for crushing and pressing apples. I rent mine from Seven Bridges Cooperative in Santa Cruz CA.
Once the apples are cleaned they have to be crushed. This crazy looking machine is basically a giant stainless steel apple blender. They cost about $1000 new, or you can rent one for $50 or $60 a day. It can crush almost as fast as you can throw the apples in. There are hand crank versions that cost much less, and have a slower throughput. Plus they take a lot of manual labor. But, they will work without electricity, so a hand crank crusher would be a good thing to have if technology fails and we go back to the dark ages. If you search around on the web, you can find other ideas for crushing apples. If you only have a small amount of apples, a large food processor would work. Or, you could try the medieval approach: Take a 3 foot long 4 x 4 piece of wood or a hardwood log of about the same size. Pound a bunch of 4″ nails about halfway in so they stick out like flat-headed spikes about 8″ up one end. Fill a 5 gallon bucket about halfway up with apples. Then just pound them into a rough pulp with your handy “apple mace” Raawrrrr!
Big glass jugs- called “carboys” are cleaned and ready to accept fresh pressed juice. These are 5 gallon jugs. Two factors really make pressing day go smoothly. First, clean the fermenters ahead of time. You will be too busy processing apples to clean them on pressing day! Second, sanitize them on pressing day (sanitizing must be done shortly before use to be really effective), with either an iodine, acid based, oxygen based, or peroxide based sanitizer. Do not use bleach.. unless you fancy chlorine tasting cider! Its also a good idea to make sure you have plenty of cleaned airlocks, stoppers, blowoff tubes, and a funnel and strainer ready to go. Also needed- containers to catch the fresh crushed apples and the newly pressed juice. I like stainless steel best, but clean food grade plastic buckets will do. The acidity of apple juice can react with aluminum, so please don’t use it.
After the apples are ground into a pulp, they should be pressed as quickly as possible. There are many different ways to squeeze juice from pulp. A simple way could be a colander and cheesecloth.. but this is not an efficient extraction method. The yields would be low, and the amount of effort would be high. Not worth it unless you are only doing 10 or 20 pounds of apples. So we skip right to the best technology for the volume we are pressing: a water bladder wine press. There is a lot to like in this press: because it uses water pressure there is little grunt effort involved in the squeezing part. You don’t need power either. You simply hook up a garden hose, and as long as you have water pressure of at least 30 psi, you will have an easy and efficient pressing.
In my experience, a decent yield is 100 lbs of apples to make 5 gallons. With the bladder press this year we yielded 5 gallons out of 70 lbs. The $60 a day rental cost paid for itself because out of 1000 lbs of apples we yielded 20 more gallons, about $140 worth of cider considering the total project cost (equipment rental, apples, and yeast).
As the fresh pressed juice is collected, we pour it into cleaned and freshly sanitized fermenters. By sanitizing everything (including the funnel and the screen insert), we are reducing the risk of funky bacteria spoiling a batch. It is almost impossible to keep it really sterilized.. but since we are using lively fresh yeast the yeast will grow quickly and inhibit other bugs from taking hold.
I mentioned the wild yeast issue. It is perfectly true that you can make hard cider without adding yeast. I have done it before. There are some risks however. The wild yeast could be an unfavorable strain, perhaps from bread baking nearby, making an unpleasant tasting cider. Or, you could just end up with a bacterial infection, resulting in a bad batch that has to be tossed. Or possibly made into vinegar. Since we spent about $400 on apples and equipment rentals, I decided not to take the chance. This year, we add yeast to every fermenter of cider.
Once the yeast is added, its time to ferment. The little doohickey on the top is an airlock. It allows the CO2 and other gasses produced during fermentation to escape, while preventing any nasties from getting in. Something to keep in mind is that the foam produced in the early stages of fermentation often gets high enough to need an exit path from the fermenter. In this case, a tube that runs from the stopper to a small container of sanitizing solution or sterile water will collect the excess foam without creating a pressure buildup, which can lead to a fine mess!