In Fermentation We Trust – apple juice turns into cider

On a lovely bright November weekend, I pressed a load of apples for cider-making.

For the next part of the process, you need to put together the following bits and bobs:

  • Your apple juice (which is already in a fermenting bucket with any luck – you’ll need the lid, if it’s one with a hole for an airlock, so much the better – if so, you’ll also need an airlock)
  • Wine or cider yeast, and yeast nutrient
  • A nice warm location at about 18 – 21 degrees celsius
  • Enough demijohns (plus stoppers and airlocks) to contain the volume of apple juice you’ve collected.  All my demijohns have come from Freecycle, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open.  For recommendations of UK homebewing equipment suppliers, see the suppliers list.
  • A syphon
  • Homebrewing steriliser solution

Now, time to turn your wonderful juice into cider (for any Americans who might be reading, we mean hard cider – the traditional alcoholic sort).  Traditional ‘real cider’ makers would do nothing with it at this stage, and wait for the natural yeasts which you hope are already present on the apples to do their job and get fermenting.  There is an alternative approach which involves using campden (sulphite) tablets to kill off the wild yeasts and then adding some wine or cider yeast of your own, which with any luck should guaranteed a ‘clean’ culture of your chosen yeast strain.  I decided to go a third route, didn’t use any campden, but did add wine yeast and yeast nutrient to give the process a ‘kick-start’ and make sure that an appropriate culture was at least in there with a fighting chance!

Apple juice before fermentation

You should probably take the specific gravity of your apple juice before you start fermenting, as this will tell you something quite important – with a bit of arithmetic (or there are online SG to ABV calculators out there you could avail yourself of) you should be able to work out how alcoholic your cider ends up.  This is relevant both for keeping your driving licence, and for making sure your cider contains enough sugar, and therefore after fermentation, enough alcohol, to keep well.  You’re aiming for a minimum of about 3.5% ABV, real ciders can easily get up to about 8%.

I didn’t test my juice (do as I say not as I do, right?), but it tasted nice and sweet so I think it’s likely my cider is about the 6% mark. Invest in a glass hydrometer (they’re cheap, easy to use with a bit of practice, and ever such pretty bits of old-fashioned looking laboratory glassware), you won’t regret it!

Fermenting by the fireThere is lots of advice that you should ferment your cider under lock.  I didn’t have an airlock capable bucket available so just kept the lid loosely on.  My experience from beer brewing is that the CO2 produced during fermentation will give a good blanket over the brewing liquor, being heavier than air, and oxidation shouldn’t be a problem at this stage as long as you don’t disturb the fermenting juice.  If your bucket does have an airlock, after adding the yeast and nutrient close the lid tightly and set up the airlock.  If it doesn’t, just fit the lid loosely so that the gas produced during fermentation will be able to escape without blowing the lid off!  Put your bucket in a nice warm place and try to avoid peeping.  Mine went by the fire in the living room for the first few days, as we were having a bit of a cold-snap.

Ready for rackingYou’ll be able to tell fermentation has started when you see bubbles through your airlock, or when a nice loose foam starts to form on top of your apple juice (because you’re not peeping, right?).  During fermentation, the dead yeast and quite a bit of the solids from the apple juice will settle out in the bottom of the bucket, and the colour of the juice changes from brown to a yellow-orange.  In general, the cider will not clear completely, but it will be brighter than it was before.

Top fermenting yeastOnce fermentation seems to have stopped (I gave mine a generous month), you’ll have a nice thick layer of debris on the bottom of the bucket with cider above it.  Now it’s time to ‘rack’ the cider into demijohns for bulk conditioning.  When I opened the bucket, I found rather an alarming-looking layer of yeast floating on the surface of the cider.  I can only assume that this was a wild, top-fermenting yeast strain, as it seems to have done nothing awful to the cider so far!

Clean and sterilise your equipment (demijohns, syphon, stoppers & airlocks) carefully this time, following the directions on your steriliser.  Now the cider has fermented you risk accidentally making cider vinegar if acetobacter bacteria were to get in.  It’s also important to avoid introducing oxygen into the cider at this stage – acetobacter need oxygen to make vinegar from alcohol, so even if there’s some contamination they’ll struggle to get going if the cider stays free of air.  Syphon carefully, keeping the outlet of the syphon below the level of the liquid and avoiding introducing bubbles.  Then fit your stoppers and airlocks and put the cider in a cool dark place to mature for a few months before bottling. Keep an occasional eye on your airlocks to make sure they’re not drying out.  I expect to leave mine in the demijohns until spring, and will then bottle into champagne bottles with a bit of priming sugar to make sparkling cider.

Filled demijohnsWe had a couple of pints more cider than fitted in the demijohns, and it would have been inconceivable to waste it – I can report that it is, already at this stage, definitely cider.  It’s a bit rough around the edges with quite a hard tannin that hopefully will mellow a bit with maturation, but has a lovely fresh apple aroma and definitely shows promise!

If you’re going to try it, I would recommend having a bit more of a read about the process before you start.  Some of my favourite books on home-brewing are listed in the library.

And if all that seems a bit complicated and labour-intensive, I’ll give you my directions for the quickest and easiest (and remarkably tasty!) home-brewed cider in the world very soon!

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Hard Pressed – making real cider, the old fashioned way

Apple harvestAt the end of October, a lovely holiday in Cornwall yielded an unexpected bonus – three sacks of apples from the orchard where we stayed.  There was only one thing to do – make cider!  Only one problem – I didn’t have a cider press.  We’ve been faffing about building one for the last couple of years, but hadn’t got round to it.  A bit of pleading and cajoling later, and I’d managed to score a brand new apple press for an early Christmas present – what a result!

Ben's Red applesOf course, apples don’t just press themselves.  Real cider making – unlike most of the country skills in this blog – is time consuming (and good exercise!).  Set aside a nice sunny autumn day, and if you can talk some friends into coming around to help, so much the better.

For an idea of how much apple juice you’re likely to produce, we got a yield of just over a gallon per bag of apples – the bags are the sort you buy logs in.  It’s possible that with more practice and different equipment we may have done slightly better, but I doubt there was much waste.

As well as apples – lots of apples, all different sorts if possible – you will require:

  • a cider press – bought or home-built
  • a robust bucket, and a crushing pole (or a proper scratter, but they’re expensive) – we did try a cheap plastic bucket from B&Q but caved the bottom in very quickly, so ended up using a carefully washed old metal wastepaper bin
  • a large bucket for washing apples in – I used a big garden trug – and clean water
  • knife and chopping board
  • sieve / colander and muslin for straining
  • bucket or demijohn for collecting the juice
  • wine yeast and yeast nutrient (optional)

A quick note on sterility, first.  Home-brewers are obsessed with sterilising things.  I am not washing my apples in camden to kill off wild yeasts, my ingredients (the apples) and tools (wooden equipment and press components) will not be sterile.  But do wash everything very carefully in hot soapy water (not the apples, obviously), and rinse them carefully before using.  There is general advice to avoid metal tools and receptacles when cider pressing – we used a metal bin for crushing in the absence of any alternative – it was enamelled and in good condition, and does not appear to have caused any obvious problems, I suspect because the apples and juice were not in contact with it for very long.

Washing applesIf you have time (and let’s face it, if you’re planning for next year, time is on your side!) there are various plans for DIY presses on the internet, or have a look at some old-fashionned presses, they’re quite simple things really.  I was going to build something using a car jack for the pressing mechanism.  My lovely bought press has a 6l capacity which seems about right for domestic production – the bottleneck on our two-man production process was the crushing stage.

Chopping applesStart by washing your apples in the big bucket, you can do this quite a large batch at a time.  Then slice the apples up into quarters or eighths, discarding any obviously bruised or damaged areas.  Transfer these a batch at a time into your crushing bucket.

Crushing pole - end To crush you could use something like a new clean round-section piece of timber, we bodged a crusher together out of a small piece of inch-square timber we had and a plum-wood log, trimmed and stripped of it’s bark and formed into a blunt wedge at the end.  Avoid using anything which has been treated with timber preservative as it will be in intimate contact with your apples.  Make sure the pole is long enough that you can use it in a comfortable standing position above your bucket, or you’ll hurt your back and shoulders.

Crushing applesNow crush your apples to a rough pulp, until they’re making a wet squelching noise when the pole goes down and there’s just some free juice in the mixture.  The aim is to make it easy to extract the best juice yield you can from your precious apple harvest, so do put in the effort here, our first batch was definitely under-crushed and we got much less juice from this than from subsequent ones.

Loading cider pressNow load up your press.  Mine has a mashing bag to retain most of the solids within the press, some will use muslin cheeses or other approaches.  Once the press is loaded, apply pressure slowly, building it up over a few minutes, rather than trying to get the press as tight as possible straight away.

Cider press in useCollect your juice into a bucket through a  muslin to take more of the solids out.  It’s ok to taste some juice at this stage (and it should taste absolutely awesome!).  It will look… well, dirty brown coloured, probably.  This is a result of being hardly-filtered, and the tannins in the apple juice reacting with oxygen.  Don’t worry about this.  The leftover apple pulp (‘pommace’) can be fed to livestock, or composted.  My hens loved it, but be careful not to overdo it.  The rest can be composted.

Pressed juiceAt some point you will run out of daylight, apples, or energy.  At this stage you’re done.  Admire the juicy product of your labours.  At the moment you have unprocessed, unfiltered, unpasteurised apple juice.  Smells marvellous, looks decidedly suspect.

Next time, we make the juice into cider – that’s proper, ‘hard cider’ to any Americans reading!