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Hard Cider

Homemade hooch is cheap and easy

Michelle Gienow
Home hard-cider-making apparatus--yep, that's it.

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 1/20/2010

Watch a video demonstrating how to make hard cider.

Once upon a time, apple cider--both sweet and "hard" fermented (alcoholic) cider--was early America's favorite beverage. Cider was simple to produce, and in a time before municipal sewage treatment and indoor plumbing, it was often safer to drink than water. These days cider's more of an autumnal novelty drink, but I recently became obsessed with making my own. I was looking for a good supply of local, organic, and affordable fruit juice to get my family through the winter, and since oranges don't grow in Maryland, apple cider seemed the natural answer.

Two things about me: I'm frugal, and also brazen. For the past several years, I've been tracking apple trees in and around Baltimore City: you'd be amazed--apples are everywhere once you start looking, including a dozen-plus well-bearing trees along the median of Perring Parkway near Morgan State. The brazen part comes in handy for knocking on the doors of total strangers to ask if I can pick their apples. The land owners have been really generous with access to the unharvested fruit from their untended trees (one lady asked in astonishment, "I have apples?"), so each fall I have access to basically as many scabrous, weird-looking apples as I can find time to harvest. Many stayed behind as too twisted and wormy for eating, but I always sighed regretfully at the waste--once upon a time these culls, or waste apples, would have been used for making cider.

My problem was, of course, that lacking a cider press, I had no way to render them into cider. Fortunately, during a monthly gathering of other local-food obsessives (Baltimore Food Makers, it out), I happened to mention my unfulfilled desire to my friend Brian Murphy. Brian, a mechanical engineer, enjoys building random contraptions; having never seen a cider press before, he watched a couple of YouTube videos and then basically threw one together from wood scraps in his basement over the course of a weekend.

Squeezing your own cider is an insane amount of work. Even if you don't build the press and pick the apples yourself, as we did, it's still brute manual labor to grind or chop the fruit into small pieces--the better to squeeze forth more juice--and then, load them into the pressing basket, wind down the plate until your arms threaten to fall off, wind it all the way back up again until they actually do, dump out the mealy leftover apple bits, clean out the press bag (sort of like a giant tea bag), and then repeat the process several dozen more times. You don't have to get far into it before just buying some fucking cider at the fucking farmer's market starts to seem like a much better idea.

So why not just buy cider when there's terrific apple cider available from Maryland orchards? First, I've been unable to find organic local cider, and apples are a pesticide-intensive crop; since cider essentially concentrates a third of a bushel of apples (14 pounds of fruit) into one gallon of squeezins that's way more toxic exposure than I'm comfortable with, especially for my two juice-guzzling little boys. Furthermore, food safety laws demand that commercial cider must be pasteurized, which basically means boiling the cider to kill pathogens. Even newfangled UV pasteurization, a light-based cold-temperature process, still degrades the raw product's complex and fantastically fresh flavor. I've been buying some marvelous local-ish raw, organic cider from Pennsylvania, but it's pricey; saving nine bucks a gallon by making my own rendered me a highly motivated grinder and presser.

I was delighted simply to be making regular old sweet cider, but then Brian suggested we take things to the next level and ferment some of our product into hard cider--as in homemade hooch. My first reaction was, is that even legal?

It turns out that fermenting your own hard cider is in the same category as home-brewing beer--unlike distillation (the making of actual moonshine), brewing is legal without a license so long as you don't sell your product. It's also insanely easy: Basically, I poured a gallon of home-pressed cider into a ceramic crock, sprinkled some yeast on top, covered it and set it off to one side of the basement. Two weeks later, I had hard cider. It seemed like a minor miracle: Though I don't think it would win any taste tests, my homemade hard cider was dry and crisp and very drinkable--plus it packed an undeniable alcoholic wallop. And it won't even make you go blind!

Curious to see if the process would work with commercial cider, Brian bought some Whole Foods organic pasteurized apple juice. Once again, it was unbelievably easy: I sprinkled in some yeast, stoppered the jug with an airlock, and stuck it in a cool corner. A month later--really, cider's usually done fermenting after 10 days or so, once it stops emitting bubbles, but hey, I was away for awhile--I took an exploratory swig. To my consternation, the results were even better with the WhoFoo apple juice over our laboriously produced homemade cider: a luscious, effervescent, full-bodied brew I would put up against any commercial hard cider out there.

You, urban-apartment dweller, can totally do this: Make a gallon of hard cider for about five bucks (a comparable quantity of Woodchuck: $14. Satisfaction of brewing your own alcohol: priceless).

Home fermenting your own cider

Rendering plain old apple cider purchased from the farmer's market or grocery store into extremely drinkable alcoholic hard cider is amazingly easy, and requires very little in the way of special supplies.

The one inescapable ingredient, other than sweet cider, is yeast. You can find special brewing yeast at homebrew stores or on the internet; a packet costs about $4 and treats five gallons of cider. I used Saflager S-23, sort of at random--a lager yeast, it was what the brew store had on hand. There are also yeasts specifically made for cider fermentation but really any wine or beer brewing yeast will work, though different strains will produce varying flavors and even alcohol levels in the final ferment. S-23 works best at around 50 degrees which happens to be the nearly constant temperature in my basement/garage so it turned out to be a good accidental choice. Also, it's what's called a "pitchable yeast" meaning that you just dump it in, with no proofing or pretreating required. Since I'm lazy this was another nice side benefit to my uninformed yeast purchase.

You can buy your apple juice/cider in whatever volume you like--half gallon, gallon, 55 gallon drum. (Apple juice is basically apple cider that has been strained; thus, apple juice is clear and cider is cloudy). In my experience the best hard cider is brewed from fresh stuff from a local orchard, but in a pinch the bottled supermarket stuff works too. No matter what you buy, the critical thing is that it must contain no preservatives. Preservatives are wonderful for keeping food fresh by killing the microbes that cause spoilage, but they will also kill the yeast so your cider will not ferment. Check the label; if sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate are listed, don't buy it, though it's unlikely farmer's market cider will have preservatives.

Cider and yeast in hand, the only other thing you need is either a latex balloon (nothing special, just your regular happy birthday party balloon) or an airlock, a little reuseable $2 plastic device available from wherever you got your yeast. Either of these items function to let air out of the container as the cider ferments--little bubbles of carbon dioxide will form, indicating active fermentation is taking place--while preventing outside air from entering, carrying with it both extra oxygen that will turn your lovely alcohol to vinegar, and also wild airborne yeasts which could wildly skew or even ruin your brew.

Fermentation is our goal, wherein the yeast eats sugar and produces alcohol the same way that a cow eats grass and produces manure. Since apple cider has a fairly high natural sugar content the yeast has plenty to eat, but you can boost the final ferment's alcohol content by adding sugar, honey or any other natural sweetener so long as it does not contain preservatives. Straight cider usually ferments to hard cider containing about 5% alcohol.

The actual brewing process is quite simple:

  1. Drain a couple ounces of cider from the container--we will be brewing in the jug that the juice comes in, and fermentation can make a full container overflow.
  2. Read the yeast packet and /do what it says/. There will be directions on the package as to whether you need to activate the yeast (usually, soaking the yeast in warm water for a few minutes before adding). Some yeasts are "pitchable"-- i.e., you just dump 'em in (in which case see step 5).
  3. Put the cap back on the jug and shake the container vigorously for about 30 seconds. Yeast needs oxygen, so shaking the container aerates the cider and gets everything off to a good start.
  4. Add the yeast to the juice. If your yeast packet contains enough to treat 5 gallons, remember to measure out the appropriate amount for the volume of cider you're fermenting.
  5. Insert your airlock of choice. You can buy a plastic airlock from a brew store; it sits in a rubber cork that fits the neck of your jug. Or you can just use a balloon stretched across the opening. Be sure to poke a needle hole near the top of the ballon; a tiny air escape will keep the balloon from flying off the container as the CO2 bubbles out and inflates the balloon. With an airlock you put a small amount of water in it, to prevent outside air from getting in, and you can see the occasional bubble rise up. The balloon will actually stand up and even inflate a little bit, indicating that the yeast is doing its work.
  6. Find a resting place. Yeast supposedly likes the dark, so a cool closet would work. I've also had jugs sit out on my kitchen counter and turn out just fine, so whatever. The important thing is to be aware of the preferred temperature of your yeast strain; some like it very cool, around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, others as high as 70.

Depending on temperature, aeration, and quantity of yeast used, fermentation will take between five and ten days; when the bubbles start slowing down, you have probably extracted most of the alcohol out of the available sugars. Now you can start drinking! If there's any left, cap it and put it into the refrigerator, which will cause the yeast to "crash"--i.e., precipitate out of the cider and gather on the bottom. Don't worry, this is nutritional yeast, it's good for you, though if you're really picky you can carefully decant the hard cider into smaller bottles and leave the yeast behind. Fermented cider is naturally a little bit carbonated, so fizziness is good, but if you're keeping it for awhile in your fridge you may want to occasionally twist the cap a little to bleed off any over-carbonation.

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