Because You Can’t Knit All the Time

Have you looked around lately (those of you in the northern hemisphere at least)?  See those leaves all over your yard?  Or at least all over my yard in the recent pictures?  Have you noticed the chill in the air?  Or failing that, the barrage of Christmas decorations in the stores?  All that bodes very well.  Not because it’s almost time for the annual frenzy of gluttony and capitalism with which we mark the end of the year.  I’m kind of a grinch.  I don’t really do any of the winter holidays at all.  Nope.  It bodes well because it’s time to make hard cider.

Now you know we’re an alcohol-friendly household.  We visit distilleries and breweries on vacations.  We brew beer.  Brewing beer isn’t exactly hard, but it is just complicated enough to seem a wee bit intimidating until you’ve done it a few times.  It also requires a small bit of specialized equipment.  Not a lot as far as hobbies go, but a basic kit could easily run you a hundred bucks and would fill up the bottom of a small closet.

Hard cider on the other hand, at least in it’s most basic form, requires nothing more than five bucks worth of cider, a warm spot, and a bit of patience.  You can easily make an even better version with a tiny bit of equipment, but you don’t absolutely need it to get started.  It’s an excellent foray into the world of making alcohol at home.  (A brief legal note…home distilling is illegal everywhere in the United States in most other countries too.  Home brewing is legal in almost all states and in many countries.  Leaving a jar of cider sit around long enough to ferment isn’t specifically covered by most laws, but it doesn’t seem likely to be a problem, especially in those places where home brewing is legal.  It’s important to note though that I’m not a lawyer and certainly can’t say for sure that it’s ok where you live.  If you’re concerned, you should double check your local laws.  As a side note, selling alcohol you make is exceptionally illegal unless you have a host of expensive licenses.  Unless you happen to have said licenses, you should under no circumstances sell your concoctions.)  So what do you do?

Start by finding your local hippie grocery store.  Whole Foods is usually a good choice as are most natural food stores.  Look around for the plastic gallon jugs of apple cider.  They’ll be in a refrigerated case, possibly in the space your store reserves for seasonal items.  Read the label carefully.  “Apple cider” needs to be the only ingredient.  If it has sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate in it, it will not work.  Most cider that doesn’t have these things in it will say “no preservatives” and “keep refrigerated” somewhere on the label.  Buy a gallon.

Bring it home and set it on your kitchen counter.  Of course it doesn’t have to be your kitchen counter, but it does need to be a warm place that you will see several times a day.  I also recommend picking a place that can be easily wiped down in the unlikely event of a sticky mishap.  Now wait.  Don’t open the jug.  Continue to wait.  It will seem like absolutely nothing is happening.  Just keep waiting.  Be sure you glance at it once a day or so.

Some time about a week after you brought it home, you’ll notice that the jug has swollen.  It will look like the level of liquid has fallen (it hasn’t, it just looks like it because the jug is puffed out).  There will be a thick layer of foamy bubbles on the top of the cider.  If you watch them for a few seconds you may see the bubbles forming.  That means the yeast in the cider has started to do its thing (yeast is your friend, it eats sugar and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol).  Now you have to start paying attention.  Squeeze the jug.  If it’s totally firm and doesn’t give under your grip, you need to let some of the gas out.  Crack the cap just a bit.  You’ll hear a hiss.  Squeeze the jug to push out as much gas as possible, and put the cap back on.  For the next several days, you’ll need to do this two or three times a day.  If you forget, the cap may blow off and some of the cider will spill out in the process.  It’s very sticky.  Try not to forget.

After a few days, the rate of gas production will slow down and it will take longer for the jug to get firm between squeezings. When this happens, the cider is ready to drink.  Give it a final squeeze and put it in the fridge to chill.  Once it’s cold, give it a try.  Tasty isn’t it?  If you don’t drink it all in one go, put the leftovers back in the fridge.  This will put the yeast to sleep and keep it from fermenting more.  You want to drink the whole gallon within 2 or 3 days of opening it.  You’ll also want to be careful when you pour the last glass or two.  If you look carefully, you’ll notice there is a fair bit of sediment on the bottom of the jug.  You probably don’t want to pour too much of that into your glass (it won’t hurt you, it just tastes funky).

That’s the no equipment, very little effort version.  It makes something tasty and fizzy and easy.  It’s ready in around two weeks.  It also makes something with a very short shelf life.  If you want something a bit more stable, you’ll need some equipment.  Namely empty beer bottles, bottle caps, and a capper.  You can find the caps and capper at your local home brew store or order online.  You can find bottles there too, or you can save your own (they need to have pry off caps, twist offs won’t work).  Bottle caps are very inexpensive, less than five dollars for 144 of them, and a capper is about fifteen dollars.

If you want to go this route, get several gallons of cider (you’ll need about 11 regular size beer bottles for each gallon of cider).  Let them sit around as described above until gas production has really slowed down, maybe as long as three weeks.  Clean your bottles.  You can either use a very dilute bleach solution and rinse them out very very well or buy a bottle of sanatizer from the same place you got your caps and capper and follow the instructions on the package.  Fill your bottles (a funnel helps, if you find you want to do this often a bottling wand, also available at home brew stores, helps even more) being sure to leave the top inch or so of the bottle empty.  Cap them with your capper.  Put the bottles somewhere cool and dark and wait.  Wait as long as you can then try to wait a little longer.  It’s best if you can wait at least a month.  If you can manage to wait six months or a year, even better.  Your cider will carbonate and become clearer (and tastier).

Now please note that this is a very relaxed/low effort/little equipment way to make hard apple cider.  You’re counting on the natural yeast present in the cider to do all the work for you.  As such, it will be a bit of an unpredictable process.  If you want to have a more predictable product, there are other ways to do this.  You can kill off the naturally occurring yeast (with heat or chemicals), add in commercial yeast and yeast nutrient, put the whole thing in a proper fermenter (basically a glorified bucket with an airlock to let the gas out for you), possibly add extra stuff to change the final flavor and sweetness, and generally make the whole process into something that feels an awfully lot like an experiment in a high school chemistry lab.  It’s actually kind of fun to do it that way.  But you don’t have to.  You can get a very respectable end product with a far more low-tech, hands off approach.

One or two final words of warning, just to be thorough.  It’s always possible for things to go wrong.  First, if your cider ever smells really foul, throw it out.  Something besides our friendly yeast may have been at work.  It’s normal for it to smell a tiny bit funky, but it shouldn’t smell bad.  You’ll know if it’s bad, it’s quite obvious.  If you keep the caps on until the cider has started to bubble on its own, this is less likely to happen.  Second, if you’re going to bottle, be sure you wait until the cider has almost stopped making more gas to do it, and be sure you keep the bottles in a cool place (around 60F).  If you don’t, it’s possible the bottles could explode.  It’s unlikely, we’ve been making beer and cider for years and it’s never happened to us, but it is possible.

It is entirely acceptable to buy a gallon of cider every few days and have jugs in various states of readiness on your counter (in which case you may wish to date or number them).  We may possibly have put six gallons in bottles on Thanksgiving.  It’s also entirely acceptable to plan to make ten gallons of so for next year’s holiday festivities.  Just in case you were wondering.