I've made many batches of cider for my lady and figured I share the success we've had with the homebrewing commonwealth. It took many iterations, but I've got a great cider recipe that we both enjoy (and I'm not much of a cider fan!). It's dry but not sharp and very smooth with just a hint of sweetness. Not to mention that it's between 7 and 8% ABV. Plus, once you get this "base" recipe down there are limitless variations. You can use honey or molasses. Maybe try a trappist yeast or an irish stout yeast. You can vary the juices you use to backsweeten (we'll talk about that later). Always wanted to make that blueberry apple cider? If you can find the blueberry juice (or can press your own) then you can make it with this recipe. What's not to love?
I've also learned a few things along the way about cider making that can help a beer brewing veteran make a great batch of cider from the first batch. As I go through the recipe and the procedure that I use, I'll relate as much as I can to beer brewing to help it all "translate" over to the beer brewers out there.
Let's start with the "basic" recipe. If you follow this recipe, you'll get a great tasting hard apple cider. Nothing fancy, but delicious! Once you master this recipe, you can vary your yeasts, the fermentable apple juice and the backsweetening juices. We'll go over some variations I've made and some other possibilities after I go over the basic recipe.
Batch size: 5 Gallons
5 Gallons Pressed Apple Cider (4 to ferment and 1 to use after fermentation to backsweeten)
EXTREMELY IMPORTANT: Get apple cider with NO preservatives. The preservatives will not allow you to ferment the apple juice. Pasteurized is fine, but NO PRESERVATIVES! You can usually find this at your grocery store. It will be cloudy and brown with lots of sediment.
I've used "Simply Apple" and "Louisville 100% apple cider" with great success, but as long as you find pressed apple cider with NO PRESERVATIVES you will be good to go. Did I mention no preservatives?
1 Package of Red Star Montrachet yeast
This type of yeast will give you a nice and balanced cider.
1 Tsp of yeast nutrients (or whatever is recommended for a 5-gallon batch)
Apple juice is naturally low in nutrients. This can put unneeded stress on your yeast. Give it some nutrients to ensure a lively and complete fermentation.
0. (OPTIONAL) Check your cider for pH and O.G. and adjust if necessary (see notes below). This is usually only needed for pressed cider from an orchard or something you press yourself. You very rarely need to adjust a store-bought pressed cider. O.G. should be around 1.055 and pH should be between 3.4 - 3.6.
1. (OPTIONAL) Bring 4 gallons (not 5!) of your apple cider to a boil. You do NOT need to boil store-bought cider that has been pasteurized. You're not going to do a 60-minute boil like you do when brewing beer; this is just to be sanitary and to add things like irish moss.
2. (OPTIONAL) Add 1/2 tsp of irish moss (or whatever is recommended for a 5-gallon batch) and boil for 15 minutes. I've seen a significant improvement of clarity with the irish moss.
3. (OPTIONAL) Once the cider has boiled, cool to about 80F. The faster you cool your cider, the clearer it will be (same with beer). I use an immersion wort chiller and can get from 212F to 80F in about 30 minutes (I live in Houston so the tap water is quite warm).
4. Transfer the cider to your primary fermenter and add the yeast nutrients and the package of yeast and give it a good stir. Make sure everything is sanitized! Don't measure out the yeast nutrients with measurement spoon that hasn't been sanitized. I always just tossed in the dry yeast and have not had any issues, but if you'd like to make a yeast starter go right ahead.
5. (OPTIONAL) Ferment at 60F. I've fermented at room temperature (72-75F) and made excellent ciders, but a cooler fermentation is better for cider.
6. Allow to ferment for 1 week (or 2 weeks if you're skipping step 7).
7. (OPTIONAL) Transfer to a secondary fermenter. Otherwise, just allow it to ferment for 2 weeks.
8. On bottling day, pour the remaining 1 gallon of apple cider (the extra gallon you didn't ferment) into a sanitized bucked and then transfer the 4 gallons of fermented cider into the same bucket to get it nice and mixed up. The 1 gallon of apple cider is acting as both your carbonation sugar and your backsweetener.
9. (OPTIONAL BUT HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) Fill up a durable plastic bottle with your cider (a plastic coke bottle works perfectly). This can be used to gauge the carbonation level of your cider after you have bottled.
10. Bottle the remaining cider in glass bottles (just like beer). The heavier duty the bottle, the better.
11. Lightly squeeze your plastic bottle every day to check the carbonation level. Once it feels like a bottle of coke does, you have sufficient carbonation. If you're not using the plastic bottle, move to step 12 after 3 to 4 days. DO NOT EXCEED THIS TIME AS YOU ARE ASKING FOR A DISASTER IN STEP 12. If you are unsure if you have sufficient carbonation, it's better to proceed to step 12 sooner rather than later.
12. Pasteurize your cider to kill the yeast and halt fermentation/carbonation. See this post for instructions for stove-top pasteurization. The two pointers I will give you for this method is to NOT exceed a water temperature of 190F (I prefer staying around 170-180 F). You risk exploding your cider bottles if your water is too hot (it's happened to me - not a fun mess to clean up and also dangerous). My second word of advise is to take extra precautions during this step. Protect your eyes and make sure to cover your pot as this will contain any exploding bottles. I don't mean to scare people away, but if you're careless with this method you can really create a dangerous situation in your kitchen. If you think your bottles are over carbonated use a lower water temperature and let them soak for a longer period of time. For example, use 120-140F and soak for 20-30 minutes. If your bottles begin exploding, don't run over and try to take out the others because they will be exploding soon after. Just let them explode at a safe distance and be ready to explain to the police that you were not discharging your firearm.
13. Store your ciders in a cool, dark place just like beer. Don't put them in the fridge until they have cooled to room temperature.
13. (OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED) Put a couple of ciders in the fridge and open one the next day to enjoy. Take note of the carbonation level. Open the next bottle of cider 1 or 2 days after that and take note of the carbonation again. It should be the same. If it's noticeably different, you didn't completely pasteurize your cider. Go back to step 12 and pasteurize with extreme caution.
14. Your cider can be enjoyed immediately, but gets better with age. I found that they were best after about 6 weeks of aging. Throw some in the basement and see how the flavors evolve; it only gets better! Some industrial ciders are aged for a year or more.
See pictures at the end for what the end result looks like.
Notes about pH and O.G.:
You rarely need to worry about this unless you're experimenting with pressing apples yourself (or getting them from an orchard). Commercial cider makers will collect a specific blend of apples for their cider and then make pH and O.G. adjustments. Different apples will ferment differently and yield different flavors. There is a great book on this subject found here.
There are four main variables in this recipe: the fermented apple juice, the backsweetening juice, adding some spices, and the yeast. The easiest thing to change is the backsweetening juice.
The fermented apple juice: The thing you can change here is the type of apple juice you use. If you're near orchards, you can really get fancy here by selecting different apple blends, etc. There's a great book on this here.
Backsweetening Juice: Here's where you can make major changes without a lot of work or experimentation. Replace the 1 gallon of cider in step 8 with juice(s) of your choice. I've found that just adding 2 Qts of a fancy juice (like cherry) with 2 Qts of normal apple juice works wonders. You get a great new flavor variation with really no work at all. The same rules apply to this juice though: quality is king and absolutely NO preservatives.
Yeast: Here's where some experimentation may be required. Foxbarrel has some great variations with different yeasts and cloning them may be a great place to start. For example, they have a cider fermented with irish stout yeast and molasses (it's delicious!). I'd recommend trying their variations to figure out what you like and work from there.
Spices: If you'd like to add some spices (such as cinnamon or ginger) just boil your spices with 1 cup of water for 10 minutes or so and add to your secondary fermenter (or just add during bottling - your choice). You don't need much spice to add some serious flavor.
FALL SPICE VARIATION:
Boil 2 or 3 cinnamon sticks with 0.5 to 1 tsp of nutmeg and allow to cool before combining with your cider when you transfer to your secondary fermenter (step 7).
replace 2 QTs of apple juice in step 8 with 2 QTs of 100% cherry juice (for a 5 gallon batch) and add to your cider right before bottling. I used Trader Joe's 100% Red Tart Cherry Juice. See pictures for what the end result looks like.
There you have it! I hope this can be a helpful guide to potential hard cider makers. As always, post any questions or results you have!