Friday, February 8, 2013

Homebrew hard apple cider, part 1

A list of places you can picture yourself while quaffing hard cider:

Any wretched hive of scum and/or villainy
Colonial Boston
The Eagle and Child (yes, that one)
The Prancing Pony

Now that you've done that, if you can't answer the question "do I want a hard cider?" with a resounding "YES!" then either you're pregnant, a teetotaler, allergic to apples, or we're probably not friends.
I've been dipping my toes into the intimidating pool of the world of home-fermented or cultured products for awhile. I kept kombucha  going for a awhile a few years ago, have kept sourdough starters off and on and used delayed-ferment bread doughs to excess, made yogurt. Every few months I go through a phase where I decide that now is the time I'm going to really brew my own beer, do a flurry of research, and then get turned off by the initial investment of time and money.
 I got a starter homebrew kit for Christmas for Joel, though, so my list of excuses got a lot shorter recently. I'm going to start up one of the batches of that soon, but first I'm tackling a project that's been rolling in my mind for awhile: Cider. Hard, sparkling cider. I mean, it's easy, fairly inexpensive, delicious, customization-friendly - maybe not as much as beer, but still - and awesome.
So I hit up the interwebs during some overnight shifts and then hiked down to Northern Brewer (highly recommended! They're extremely helpful and friendly, and I'm a first-timer!) for supplies.

Yeast, one of the jugs fitted with the airlock, Star San concentrate, measuring cup with leftover yeast/concentrate/tea,  pectic enzyme, mug of leftover cider, bowl of sanitizing solution, evidence of my messy kitchen)

What I've got:

  • 2 gallons of preservative-free (yeast + preservatives = no go) apple cider, in glass jugs. I got mine from Whole Foods. Good cider from an orchard (pasteurized, unless you want to have a go with wild yeasts, which is another post entirely) would make a much tastier brew, but it's January and this is what I've got...and I wanted the glass jugs this time to get started.
  • 1 can of the fanciest apple juice concentrate (likewise preservative-free) I could find, to add sugar (equals alcohol) and flavor, from the aforementioned lackluster juice. This will be used again to add sugar to prime the cider for carbonation in a few weeks.
  • Black tea bags - this is for adding tannins, re: weakish juice.
  • Pectic enzyme, for clarifying - not necessary, but it helps ensure a clear, sparkling end product
  • 2 airlocks 
  • 2 stoppers with holes
  • The plastic barrel that came with my beer kit
  • 5 feet of 5/16" food-grade plastic tubing
  • Star San sanitizing solution for everything 
  • Yeast - champagne yeast is the most often seen, but the super helpful guy at Northern Brewer suggested a Belgian ale yeast after I brought up the possibility of using a sweet mead yeast instead for an end product that isn't bone-dry. He said the sweet mead yeast would work, but had personal experience with the Belgian ale, so I went with that. It's Wyeast 1762 if you're interested.
  • The plastic barrel from my beer-making kit, for secondary fermentation - I'll be doing the first round in the glass jugs themselves. 
  • The plastic bottles that came with the beer kit. We have a bunch of glass bottles left from Joel's bachelor party, but I don't really want to invest (okay okay it's $15 but still!) in a capper until I know if I like this or not... and I'm pretty confident I can, uh, get rid of the products of this batch before anything near long-term storage is an issue. 
Haven't gotten yet, probably will before the primary fermentation is finished:
  • An auto siphon tool - about $10 and saves a lot of work.
  • Xylitol or another sugar alcohol - keeps some sweetness in the brew, since it can't be eaten (and turned into alcohol and carbonation) by the yeast. I don't want it super sweet, just not completely dry. It'll depend on how it tastes after the primary, so we'll see. 

It's almost impossible to talk about homebrewing without a certain amount of science, but I'm going to avoid it in this post, since you can find much better sources elsewhere. I'll put a resource list at the bottom for that!

Alright, so, here goes!

First, it's super super important to thoroughly sanitize everything involved. I made a big plastic bowl full of the sanitizing solution, and then put everything in - spoons, a plate to rest sanitized stuff on, the mug for the tea, etc. Every other surface is wiped down with the solution, too, from the outside of the cider jugs to the yeast package to the jar of pectic enzyme. Everything.
Next, I made a mug of overbrewed tea. It's just basic Tetley black - I've heard using Earl Grey can add a nice flavor, but I'm keeping it simple this time. Threw two bags in a mug with some water, and popped it in the microwave for a few minutes. Left it to brew away - the top of the mug covered by a saucer that had been dipped in sanitizer - until it was lukewarm.
This was mixed with half a can of apple juice concentrate. It was still mostly frozen and slushy, but the lukewarm tea thawed it out. I didn't want to microwave it, because heat can (in this case negatively) impact the flavor of fruit products, but I also didn't want to shock my yeast too badly by pouring it into icy liquid, so I put the bottom in a (yep, sanitized) bowl of hot water to take the chill off.
While that mixture was warming, I poured off a little of the cider from each jug into a cup, since I'd be adding about a cup of liquid to each. You don't want the mixture to be too close to the top, because the bubbles can get in the airlock or even push it out and make a mess.
Next it was time to pitch the yeast! I was using a smack pack, which is a package of yeast with a little pod of yeast nutrient inside that you break so it can proof before you open it. I had broken the nutrient pack a few hours ago and the package had expanded like a balloon, so apparently my yeast is alive! I added it to the tea + concentrate mixture, and then poured half of it into each cider jug.
There was nothing left to do at that point but put in the stopper, fill the airlocks with sanitizing solution, and let them be! Now I have to wait until the bubbling stops before I proceed, which should be in 1-2 weeks.

The Homebrew Helper - this is the most helpful resource EVER. It's succinct, and in layman's terms, and complete.
The Homebrew Talk forum's cider threads - All of the information you could ever need
The Paupered Chef - Incomplete, still useful.


  1. Replies
    1. Yes! I'm going to be trying two different methods after the primary fermentation and I'm gonna need some feedback...