In some parts of the country, hard cider has grown from a down-home project to a mass-marketed trendy drink. To brew your own requires few materials outside of care and cleanliness. David Shearer, owner of Pine Hill Orchard in Colrain, MA shared a few secrets about brewing your own hard cider. “Most people, when they are starting out, use one five-gallon carboy and pail,” said Shearer who has been experimenting with brewing hard cider since 1970. A “carboy,” which is sometimes referred to as a “demijohn,” is essentially a jug with a large body and a small neck. Carboys can be made of glass or plastic.
Other materials you will need include three to six feet of food grade plastic tubing for siphoning or “racking” your cider, and an airlock which fits into the top of your carboy. An airlock for fermenting cider, beer, etc. looks like a glass or plastic flat bubble with chambers on a cork. “The real secret to making the best hard cider is to keep air out as much as possible. It’s an anaerobic process,” said Shearer.
You can time fermentation to coincide with a holiday party, or you will need clean bottles, caps, and a capper to store your hard cider. Shearer said that it’s best to drink your hard cider within the first year, but it can be stored for two to three years. “I had an old farmer give me a bottle he had in his basement he said was one hundred years old. It wasn’t great, but it still tasted OK,” said Shearer with a laugh.
Naturally, you will need apple cider and possibly sugar, maple syrup, or beet sugar to increase the alcohol content. Any unpasteurized apple cider will do, but Shearer said that using a blend of ciders makes for better flavor. “Traditionally, Baldwins, Northern Spys, or Granny Smiths are used, but they are a little harder to find these days as fewer people grow them,” he said.
Once you have selected your cider to ferment, pour it into a sterilized carboy or a specialized bucket that has an opening on the lid for an airlock. Place the airlock (also called a vapor lock) onto the well-sealed carboy or bucket and let your cider go to work!
Shearer said yeast is not required to brew hard cider, as the fruit contains its own yeasts. You can, however, choose to use champagne yeast to speed up the process.
Fermentation starts right away, and can take three to four weeks from start to finish. Generally, if you keep your cider in an area that is 65 to 70 degrees, the fermentation will take about two weeks – you’ll hear it bubbling. If your cider gets too cold, it will stop fermenting. You will want to let the cider sit at least another week, then siphon it off into another sterilized bucket to help “clarify” your cider, as there will be a sludge of organic material on the bottom of the carboy or bucket. Some like to let their hard cider sit another week (in a well-sealed sterilized bucket) and rack it one more time before drinking or bottling.
Shearer said that hard cider has an average alcohol content of three to four percent unless sugar is added. “You can add up to a pound of sugar to the cider, and that will bring the alcohol content up to seven to nine percent. Once hard cider has an alcohol content of nine percent, it won’t ferment anymore (as all the organisms needed to ferment die off at that point),” he said.
Shearer said that in terms of recipes, the real ”secret” is in experimenting and finding out what you really like – sweet, dry, tart, etc. Shearer said that, for one person, he even ground sugar beets with the apples to eventually make a kind of “pink champagne.”