The Art of Fermenting Cider

OK, I have some pretty definite opinions about this subject, formed after more than fifteen years of seeing people try to ferment hard cider using the apples of the local Oregon region, and then hearing their opinions on the process and their product months later, so bear with me as I share the brunt of my experiences with you here.....

If you have a kegging setup, and want to put your hard cider in a keg, then there will be a special section for you at the bottom. Most of the hurdles of making good-quality cider will not apply to you. If you want to bottle your cider, pay attention to these words well, O my children...

There are three main ways to ferment cider. In each case but the third you must use fresh-pressed, non-pasteurized apple cider, the kind found at farmer's markets in the autumn. (Hillsboro Farmer's Market has apple-pressing days each fall, usually in early October. This is a great source of fresh juice.) I also will have information in my store from a woman who sells fresh-pressed English cider apples from her farm. These are not your ordinary "eating" apples, but specialty varieties, such as "Kingston Black" and "Medaille d'Or" that are meant solely for cider production. Please go here for more info on types of apples.

OK, the three main methods are:

Using the Natural Yeast on the Apples: This is the easiest, and, arguably, the best way to go. It has the potential to produce the most nuanced, complex ciders, but you run the risk of the whole thing spoiling and turning to drain cleaner. The theory is: Over millions of years, the natural yeasts that have most "liked" to be near apples have grown symbiotically with them, and today, the apples we pick from the fields are covered in "apple-philic" strains of yeast. All you do is collect your fresh-pressed apple cider, put it into a sterilized glass fermenter and keep it warm - above 60 degrees F. Within a few days, it will be off and running. The benefit to this method is that the yeast flavor is very complex and full of apple nuances. The drawback is that you may get some not-so-desirable beasties in there and you might wind up with something that is better suited for killing slugs. The odds, from what I see, are about six or seven-to one, in your favor. Be sure the press and the apples are relatively clean when attempting this method.

Using Campden Tablets, and then the Natural Yeast: This is tricky, but, again, it can produce some good effects. You add Campden Tablets (sulfites) to the apple cider in small doses, about 1/2 to 1 crushed tablet per gallon (please see thepage on supposed sulfite intolerances if you are scared of sulfites). This (theoretically) stuns the weaker, undesirable bacterial organisms, but the desired yeast are able to fight through the sulfites and begin the fermentation a few days later. You minimize the chances of spoilage, but you also run the risk of stunning enough of the desired yeast that the fermentation may never kick in, or may be stunted, or may spoil from an outside source. Keep an eye on the process closely if you do this method - it's a fine line, and you can always call if you need a judgment call.

Using Campden Tablets and a Wine or Cider Yeast: This is the most foolproof and most certain of the methods. Five years ago, I would have warned you that the taste will be "one-dimensional" because the yeasts are not "apple-philic," but today there are several cider yeasts which have been released by the liquid yeast companies - these are your best bet if you do want to try this method. Add 1 to 1.5 crushed Campden tablets per gallon of cider, wait 24 to 36 hours and then add your desired wine yeast. You have killed the wildlife in the natural cider, and then added your own single-strain alcohol-fermenting yeast. This ensures a clean, crisp fermentation with no spoilage, but you will not have the complex multi-yeast taste of the natural yeast. But it is a fairly "sure thing."

OK, after you decide which way you want to go, now comes the process. Put your cider into a sterilized fermenter with an airlock. It can be plastic or glass. You can do a hydrometer reading at this point if you like, and test the potential alcohol level: it should be about 1.050 to 1.060 on the specific gravity scale. This is about 5 - 6% alcohol. You can add sugar or honey, but beware: although this WILL raise the alcohol, it will make the product DRIER (continue to read about dryness below), not sweeter, and may make it more harsh and less apple-tasting. Higher alcohol does NOT (by any means) mean better tasting when it comes to ciders - usually the opposite: they may taste far less "apple-y" and more like dry, burning alcohol.

If you are using the natural yeast, do nothing. Keep it warm. If you are adding the sulfites, measure them out, crush them up and add them to your cider. Cover LOOSELY with Saran Wrap or a towel - you want the sulfite vapors to get out, but the fruit flies not to get in - and let sit for 24 to 36 hours. If you are then adding wine or cider yeast, add it after that resting period. You do not necessarily need to add anything else, although a very small dose of tannin (1/8 tsp. per gallon) can add "depth." If you are using English cider apples, add nothing else - they have natural tannin.

The natural yeasts should kick in within three to five days AT MOST. The cultured yeasts within one to two days. If they do not, email me, or call me for more info - you may need to add more yeast. Once it gets going, the ferment will either be fast and furious or mellow and slow, depending on temperature, yeast vigor, acid levels, etc. I've seen both, but you DO want to get it active and moving no matter what. In either case, just let it be, and try to keep the temperature between 60 and 72 degrees F.

Let it continue until it stops fermenting, and then rack the fermented cider off to a glass secondary. Let sit for two weeks to four months. Cider is pretty forgiving, pretty easy and pretty mellow. If you leave it a long time, and you have used little to no sulfites, there may begin a spontaneous "malo-lactic fermentation." This is a very slight spritzing in the fermenter which will lower your acidity and smooth out the cider - this is good. (The sign that this is happening is TINY pinhead-sized bubble rising from the bottom of the fermenter and rising to the top. They form and move slowly and easily.) If this does not spontaneously occur, and you so desire it to, we also sell living packets of malo-lactic bacteria that you can innoculate artificially in order to force it to happen, or to speed up the process. Your call, but malo-lactic fermentation makes for less-harsh ciders.

In any case, if it does happen, let it finish; this may take a few weeks. Or just bottle or keg the cider before malo-lactic fermentation begins, and add a dash of sulphite to keep it from happening in your bottle. Or just ignore it totally - many people do and never even know that it can exist. It's not that big a concern.

OK, the cider is now aged and settled out and it is time to bottle or keg it. See our page of bottling beer and our page of bottling wine for more info (depending on whether you plan on capping or corking your cider). But, either way, here's the tricky part. Taste your cider: it will be very dry. This is the nature of natural old-fashioned apple cider. Many people tell me before making it,"Oh, Kev, I LIKE dry cider, it won't be a problem......" and then come back a few months later and say, "I didn't know it would be THAT dry..." It will be so dry that it will have little to no apple flavor, and very little apple aroma. It will suck the moisture out of your mouth. It may just taste like acidic, sour alcohol. It will be DRY. Now the dilemma:

Everybody wants sparkling, carbonated cider. If you are bottling your cider, and want it sparkling, it MUST remain this dry. You cannot sweeten it, or else you will blow up your bottles. Add your 1 cup of corn sugar per 5 gallons of cider, bottle it in beer bottles or champagne bottles under bottle caps and that is all there is to it. You have dry, sparkling cider.

If you want sweet cider, with lots of apple flavor and aroma, then it cannot be sparkling. Kill your yeast with something we carry called Sorbistat-K, and then add in "x" amount of frozen apple cider concentrate purchased from the freezer section of the supermarket. (You know, those little cylinders of slurry you make drinks out of...) Add in enough to bring out a rich apple flavor. Then bottle and cap. You will NOT have carbonated cider, but it will be sweet and apple-tasting.

The only way around this - the only way to have sweet and carbonated cider - is if you have a keg. (On the commercial side (Seven Sisters or Hornsby's), they kill their yeast, sweeten their cider slightly and then force-carbonate it with CO2. With a keg, you can do the same.) Kill your yeast with Sorbistat, rack it into a keg, and then add your frozen apple concentrate to taste. Force carbonate under high pressure and serve: you now have alcoholic, sweet hard cider with as much fizz as you desire - it will resemble many of the bottled hard ciders that you can buy these days. This is the best way to do cider, from the consensus that I have seen.

That's it - if you have more questions, please call or email, and if I wasn't clear on anything, let me know and I will re-write the sections I get the most questions on... Good luck and I'll be here for you if you need any advice...