Cider Making for Beginners: A Complete Guide

In this comprehensive guide to cider making for beginners, we'll take you through the process, from selecting the perfect apples to savouring your first homemade batch. Renowned for its refreshing character and versatile taste profile, cider has charmed countless generations as a delightful product of orchard harvests. With the resurgence of craft brewing and the ease of access to home-brewing tools, there has never been a better time to embark on the rewarding journey of homemade cider making. This comprehensive guide will provide you with the necessary steps to start your cider-making process.

The Essentials: What You Need to Start Making Cider

To start crafting your homemade cider, there are a few essential items and pieces of equipment you'll need:

  • Yeast: The hero of fermentation, yeast consumes the sugars in the apple juice and transforms them into alcohol and carbon dioxide, a key process in cider making.
  • Fresh Apples: Ripe, freshly washed apples will give you the best juice yield and sugar content, paving the way for a flavourful cider.
  • Cider Press: Should you choose to press your own apples, a cider press will be essential to extract the rich, fruity juice.
  • Fruit Crusher: An efficient tool for breaking down whole apples into a pulp, the fruit crusher makes the juice extraction process a breeze.
  • Straining Bag: This handy nylon mesh bag helps strain the fruit or juice mixture, making it especially useful when using an apple press.
  • Fermenter: This could be a plastic or glass container, such as a demijohn or fermentation vessel/bucket. It's where the magic happens, and the apple juice starts its transformation into cider.
  • Airlock: The airlock is a crucial component that allows gases to escape during fermentation, whilst preventing oxygen and contaminants from getting into the fermenter.
  • Siphoning hose: Useful for transferring the cider from one container to another without disturbing the sediment.
  • Cleaner: Ensuring cleanliness and sterilization of all equipment that comes in contact with the juice is crucial for a successful fermentation and to prevent any off-flavours.
  • Hydrometer: A useful tool for measuring the specific gravity of the cider, giving you an estimate of the potential alcohol content.
  • Bottles or Keg: To store your finished cider, you'll need bottles or a pressure barrel.

Additional items that can enhance your cider-making experience include:

  • Campden Tablets: These tablets kill off wild yeast and can also be used to prevent oxidation, keeping your juice fresh and stable.
  • Pectic Enzyme: For a clearer and drier cider with more pronounced flavours and aromas, consider using pectic enzyme.
  • Brewing Sugar:  If you're after a cider with a higher alcohol content than what is produced by the natural sugars in the apples, brewing sugar is a great addition.
  • pH testing kit: Useful for monitoring the acidity levels of the cider and ensuring a balanced taste profile.
  • Pasteuriser: If you're aiming for a cider with longer shelf life and no residual yeast activity, pasteurising your cider might be an option to consider.
  • Carbonation Drops: These are a popular method for achieving consistent carbonation levels in your bottled cider, contributing to that satisfying fizzy mouthfeel.

If sourcing fresh apples or acquiring a press and crusher seems daunting, our cider making kit for beginners is an excellent starting point. This comprehensive package includes a detailed set of instructions, a cider kit, and all the essential fermentation equipment needed to kick-start your home cider making journey.

Step 1: Choosing Your Apples

The journey of making cider from fresh apples begins with the careful selection of apples. The variety of apple you choose can greatly influence the character of your cider. If you're fortunate enough to have an apple tree in your garden, it could provide a wonderful, readily available source for your cider-making adventure. Don't be afraid to experiment with different apple varieties - it's not only a fun part of the process but also helps you fine-tune your cider to your personal taste.

The quality of your cider is only as good as the quality of your apples. One bad apple can, indeed, spoil the whole batch. Always ensure your apples are fresh, unblemished, and free from mould.

When it's time to press your apples for juice, remember that ripe fruit is essential. Ripe apples offer superior flavour, yield the most juice, and have the highest sugar content. This last point is crucial for cider fermentation, as the sugar content in the apples directly determines the alcohol level in your final product.

Step 2: Assembling Your Equipment

Before you embark on your cider-making adventure, it's essential to gather all the necessary cider making equipment. For novices, a cider kit can be a great starting point, including apple juice concentrate and key equipment such as a fermentation bucket and an airlock. If you're opting for fresh apples, a crusher and fruit press can be valuable investments to optimize the juice extraction process.

Alternatively, we provide the unique opportunity to hire our trusted Apple Press and Classic Crusher. Over 20 years ago, we introduced one of these impressive duos into our own shop. Today, it has produced hundreds of gallons of juice, demonstrating its reliability and effectiveness. If you're located in or around Plymouth, we invite you to try out this marvellous pair for yourself. Rent our press and crusher and explore the art of juice and cider making at your own pace.

Pro-tip: Never underestimate the importance of sanitation in cider making. Keeping all equipment spotlessly clean and sanitised is key to preventing the growth of unwanted microorganisms that could ruin your cider.

Step 3: Crushing and Pressing

In traditional cider making, the process involves pressing the pulp of the apple, which is the result of crushing, chopping, or grating the fruit before pressing. If you're using an apple crusher, we recommend quartering the fruit first to allow the crusher to process the apples more quickly and efficiently. Alternatively, a budget-friendly solution like the Pulpmaster—a food-safe plastic bucket with a stainless steel cutting blade—can do the job effectively.

Once the apples are crushed, place the resulting pulp into a mashing or straining bag and position this in your fruit press. These bags help contain the pulp, making it easier to separate the juice from the solids. Additionally, flipping the bag upside down can increase the amount of juice you extract from the pulp.

Press the bagged apples and collect the juice in a sterilized bucket or jug. Depending on the volume you've collected, you can then transfer the juice into your demijohns or a fermentation vessel.

Step 4: Fermentation

If you wish, you can use Campden tablets at this stage to kill any wild yeast and bacteria in the raw apple juice, allowing more control over the fermentation process. If you do use these tablets, it's crucial to let the sulphur dioxide off-gas for 24-48 hours before adding your yeast. This waiting period ensures that the gas doesn't harm the yeast.

Pectin enzyme is another common addition in cider making. It helps produce a clearer and more flavourful cider. Since it works best pre-fermentation, you can use it in conjunction with Campden tablets while waiting to add the yeast.

Before starting the fermentation, take a reading with a hydrometer. This tool measures the sugar content (and potential ABV) of your cider. Ideally, you want a starting gravity (S.G) reading between 1.040 to 1.050, yielding approximately 4 - 5% ABV. If you fall short, consider adding brewing sugar, which will boost sugar levels without altering the cider's taste.

Different types of yeast can give your cider distinct flavours. Some yeast strains are specifically designed for cider making, while others, commonly used in beer or wine production, can also be used to create unique hard cider profiles. Traditionally, champagne yeast was frequently used in cider making. This particular yeast ferments swiftly, producing a clean, dry flavour that complements the natural character of the apple.

The choice of yeast can significantly influence the final taste profile of your cider, so don't hesitate to experiment with different strains to find your personal preference. Just remember that most yeast strains used in cider making, regardless of their origin, ferment optimally at temperatures between 18-22°C, slightly below room temperature. This ideal range is crucial for ensuring successful fermentation and achieving the desired flavours in your homemade cider.

Now, it's time to sprinkle your chosen yeast, cover the bucket with a lid, and fix an airlock. The fermentation process typically lasts about one to two weeks, during which time the yeast will convert the sugar in the apple juice into alcohol.

Clearing and Secondary Fermentation (Optional)

Once the initial fermentation has concluded, you have the options to clear your cider through 'racking' and to allow your cider to undergo secondary fermentation. These processes serve different purposes but can be carried out concurrently.

Racking for Clearing

Racking is a technique that enhances the clarity and taste of your cider. After the primary fermentation, a layer of sediment, known as 'lees'—a mixture of dead yeast cells and apple remnants—settles at the bottom of your fermentation vessel. Racking involves siphoning the clear cider into a clean vessel, leaving the lees behind. This process not only improves your cider's visual appeal but also helps eliminate potential off-flavours.

Secondary Fermentation

Secondary fermentation is a further refinement process, allowing your cider to ferment a second time in a fresh, clean vessel. The goal here is to improve the overall flavour and potentially increase the alcohol content of your cider. Secondary fermentation occurs over a longer period once the cider has been separated from the lees during the racking process.

Ultimately, the decision to proceed with racking and secondary fermentation depends on your personal preference and the desired clarity and taste of your cider. This process can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks, and it's not uncommon for a cider to become much clearer over a period of several months. However, bear in mind that this extra step can increase the risk of contamination and introduce oxygen into the cider, which can lead to off flavours.

Step 5: Bottling

Once you're satisfied with the fermentation and clearing process, and you're happy with the cider's flavour, it's time to take a final hydrometer reading. Your final gravity (F.G.) should register between 1.015 to 1.000. Ensure this reading remains consistent for 2-3 days in a row before you proceed with bottling. Here's a simple guideline to help you identify the sweetness level of your cider based on its final specific gravity:

  • Dry Cider: For a dry cider, the final specific gravity reading should be under 1.002. This means most of the sugar has been fermented, resulting in a cider with minimal sweetness and a more crisp and tart flavour.
  • Medium Cider: This cider strikes a balance between dry and sweet ciders. The final gravity for a medium cider ranges from 1.002 to 1.012, giving it a semi-dry or semi-sweet taste.
  • Sweet Cider: A sweet cider has a notable amount of sweetness, which equates to a final gravity reading of over 1.012. In these ciders, not all the sugar has been fermented, resulting in a sweeter, fruitier taste.
  • Semi-sweet Cider: For those who prefer a bit of balance, a semi-sweet cider with a final gravity of 1.010-1.015 provides a middle ground between the dry and sweet ciders.

Once fermentation has ceased and you're ready to bottle, take care to avoid oxygen exposure, which can spoil your cider. Ensure all your bottling equipment is clean and sanitized. For beginners, we recommend PET bottles, though beer bottles or swing-top bottles are all suitable. To simplify the process, you might consider using a no-rinse sterilizer solution for cleaning your bottles.

After your bottles are clean, transfer the cider using a siphon or a bottle filler attachment,. Be careful to avoid introducing any sediment into the bottles. Fill each bottle to about 1 inch from the top and then seal them. If you're using beer bottles, you'll need a bottle capper.

If you prefer a sparkling cider, add a small amount of sugar to each bottle before sealing — carbonation drops are handy for this. This process prompts a secondary fermentation in the bottle, creating carbon dioxide that adds a delightful fizz to your cider. However, be mindful not to add too much sugar, as this could over pressurize the bottles, potentially causing them to burst.

Once bottled, store the cider in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks before tasting. This rest period allows the flavours to meld together. Remember, the longer you allow the cider to mature in the bottle, the better the flavours will develop. Enjoy the fruit of your labour!

Pasteurisation (Optional)

While not necessary for all ciders, some cider makers choose to pasteurise their cider to kill any remaining yeast and to extend the shelf life. If you choose to do this, a 27L Stainless Steel Pasteuriser can be an invaluable tool. Follow the instructions for your specific equipment when pasteurising.

Tip: Pasteurisation also stops any remaining fermentation, which can be useful if you prefer a sweeter cider. Just remember to bottle your cider before pasteurising!

The Final Reward

After bottling (and potentially pasteurising), the only thing left to do is to enjoy your homemade cider. Home cider-making can be a gratifying process, with the final reward being a cider that's made to your taste. Whether it's from your apple tree or sourced locally, turning fresh apples into cider can be a fantastic way to appreciate the fruits of the season.

Are you a beginner who's just starting on your cider-making journey, or an experienced brewer looking to improve your skills? Home Brew Hop Shop offers a wide range of cider-making equipment and cider kits to cater to homebrewers at all levels. So, why not give it a try? Here's to a fruitful cider-making adventure!