Monday, March 19th, 2012

How To Make Hard Apple Cider

I woke up hungover the other Saturday. It was just a mild headache, a low-level pain easily vanquished with a cup of coffee and a few glasses of water. But the hangover was special to me all the same, because I'd made it myself. The night before, a few months after buying five gallons of unpasteurized apple cider from an orchard east of Los Angeles, I got drunk for the first time off of my homemade booze.

This is how you make hard apple cider: simply put, do nothing. Apples are sweet, and their skins are covered with wild yeasts, giving you the only two ingredients needed to make alcohol. Yeast devours sugar and booze is born.

There are eight billion things that can be added to cider, and if you were to fall into the black hole that is the world of home brewers’ message boards (Exhibit A), you can read the various reasoning for adding sugar, honey, ascorbic acid, sulfites, yeast, heroin, nutrients, enzymes, and various other narcotic-looking powders. But when I cook a fucking steak, I season it with salt, and true to minimalist form, I added nothing to my cider. The juice was dumped into a plastic bucket I bought at the homebrew store and largely left to its own devices.

Booze made with one ingredient and no work may sound like the perfect recipe for broke, lazy drunks—and it is!—as long as you have patience. And there’s a bit of work to do along the way, like siphoning the nascent alcohol from one container to another every month or so, leaving behind the film of dead yeast and sediment that sinks to the bottom.

There’s also the rotten-egg state to be reckoned with, when sulfurous gas starts to leak out of the sealed fermenter, filling, say, the kitchen with the stench of rotting bodies. On those messages boards, homebrewers call these “rhino farts,” a name that’s really too kind.

One more deterrent for lazy boozehounds thinking about getting all DIY: bubbles. Apple juice left to ferment for a few months will turn into something undeniably boozy, but it’ll be flat too. If the four or so percentage points of alcohol my cider weighs in at were easy to come by, carbonating it was far more difficult. It’s not that there’s a lack of bubbles involved in making booze—my cider was kicking off so much C02 that I practically knocked myself out cold after inhaling a cloud of it. It’s capturing that gas that’s the difficult part—the part that involves math, science-y measuring devices and the anxiety born of knowing that the two cases of 750 ml bottles full of cider sitting in your girlfriend’s closet could turn into so much apple-y shrapnel if things go wrong.

Here’s the gist of it: seal slightly sweet cider in a glass bottle, leave it the hell alone, and you’ll have a drink with some fizz to it in a few weeks. But if the cider is too sweet, if the bottles get too warm, if the glass isn’t strong enough… boom. The ten-foot arc of cider I sent spraying across a friend’s apartment when opening one bottle is as close to an explosion as I ever hope to come.

But catching a homemade buzz is an end that justifies the means only if the cider actually tasted good. And so: it smells a bit funky—like a horse, as one friend put it—and like yeast, too; the taste: tart and apple-y. It has none of the earthy, almost meaty depth of French ciders, or the intense tartness of Spanish ones. But it’s drinkable, which is all I was hoping for, and it was agreeable too.

The cider wasn’t the only batch of alcohol bubbling away in my apartment. There was a small lot of wine made from Grenache grapes grown near Ojai, too. And now every time I open a bottle of cider, I have to sacrifice a small, sparkling sip, one poured out in memory of its 2011-vintage brother, because that wine was an unmitigated disaster. Making wine was part of a larger project for me, one in which I grow up to be an old Italian man. So my attempt at winemaking followed my imagined school of old-man basement winemakers of the East Coast and Italy, one in which you just stomp on the grapes and don’t do—or add—much of anything else. My winemaking experiment cost a few hundred dollars—sixty pounds of grapes, a five-gallon fermenter and some other booze-making supplies. But that money largely went to waste, as I proved to be a grand failure of a vintner.

Pine Sol. Dry-erase markers. Burnt rubber. Tires. Eraser. These are just some of the lovely scents that wine had to offer. Having smelled and tasted the Grenache from its alcohol-free youth, before the various bacterial infections and attacks by ethyl acetylene turned it into something far worse than sour grapes, I know that there was something appealing about the juice—something the proceeding months completely obliterated. I’m afraid to even let it turn in to two gallons of vinegar.

If I try my hand at making wine again this fall, my approach will be less laissez-faire. But I won’t change the way I ferment my second vintage of cider—I’ll just make more of it. Those two cases of 750ml bottles are a stockpile that will be killed off after a month or so worth of spring picnics.

With this second round of cider I might be more ambitious in sourcing and pressing the juice, too. I’ve heard tell of an old, gnarled orchard of heirloom apples not far from L.A., and to buy part of the crop and pulp and press the apples myself would be ideal. But to do so would involve retrofitting the motor and blade of a garbage disposal to pulverize the apples and buying or building a basket press to extract the juice—far more work at a far higher cost than simply buying some juice and more or less ignoring it. I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the end-goal of making booze at home, namely, actually getting drunk off your own supply.

Willy Blackmore is the Los Angeles editor for Tasting Table. He has a Tumblr.

20 Comments / Post A Comment

vanick@twitter (#226,506)

Here is a pro tip: don't be like my roommates and I and try to make homemade ginger ale with bread yeast. It carbonates all right, to the point of distending the 2L bottle we were using to dangerous proportions. Upon opening it the majority of the ale turned to foam and vigorously escaped from the bottle. The remainder was bready, yeasty, and fairly gross. A waste of good ginger.

Odm (#11,228)

If you're worried about the carbonation turning your glass bottles into grenades, perhaps you should try plastic bottles. As vanick points out above, it's not totally foolproof, and it still might be messy when you open them, but plastic bottles are a lot stronger and have less shrapnel potential.

julebsorry (#5,783)

@Odm I once bottled in plastic without checking to see if the yeast had fully converted all the sugar, and the resulting pressure caused slow leaks around the bottlecaps. I didn't catch on until I noticed that my dog had been really lazy and pink around the ears for several days – apparently, he'd been lapping up the spillage and getting roaringly drunk during the day when I wasn't home. Since he didn't get sick, it was copacetic – happy dog, clean kitchen floor. Much better result than shards of glass and beer residue splattered around the kitchen!

Apropos of nothing, you know that whole story about Johnny Appleseed, clean-livin' guy who enjoyed nothing more than eating a delicious apple and wanted to spread the love all over America? Yeah, back in the early 1800s, most apples weren't grown for eating. They were grown for making hard cider. Johnny was all about the homebrew.

And now you know … the rest of the etc. etc. etc.

wb (#2,214)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Apples got such a bad rep for getting people drunk that a grower lobby came up "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" and started the successful rebranding of apples as good and wholesome.

BadUncle (#153)

I've been making wine for a couple of years with juice concentrates, but it may be a while before my testicles descend enough to crush real grapes. FWIW, I went through a cider making phase, using juice from the Union Square greenmarket. Sometimes, I'd get it close to right. But more often than not, I ended up with flat apple wine, or CO2 bombs. That's when I said to myself, "Dude, you really need a still, because that will bring a lot more force to bear."

spoondisaster (#189,637)

@BadUncle Anything that results in you realizing you need a still is probably an Awl-approved activity, which means that you should do more of it. And also build a still.

wb (#2,214)

@spoondisaster A still! A still! Do it! It's only a federal crime, after all.

sparrks (#228,057)

While fresh cider is preferred, one can make hard cider out of frozen apple concentrate. Brew it in a closed container with a ferment lock to let the CO2 out. Yes, I use bread yeast or ale yeast. Once it's done bubbling it's ready to bottle. But add just a little more sugar before you bottle it, which makes it a nice bubbly cider.

SeanP (#4,058)

@sparrks I made the most lovely dry cider one time using Champagne yeast. It was awesome.

Jesus. I know you want to be all hippy-trippy locavore close-to-the-earth and shit, but pitch some yeast next time. Even Medieval ciderers were smart enough to do that.

That hydrogen sulfide comes from some nasty bacteria like Zymomonas. It's contamination, even if it came with the apples, because Zymomonas is mainly a soil-dwelling bacteria.

It's not going to kill you, but with that level of contamination, there's no guarantee you aren't going to end up with vinegar instead of ethanol via plenty of other nasty things. I wouldn't want to put in all that time and just get some rank smelling salad dressing.

julebsorry (#5,783)

@Bus Driver Stu Benedict yeah, two words: Campden Tablets. Or, just boil it if you don't mind having slightly cloudy cider. Pitch some yeast, shove in an airlock, and forget about it for two or three months. Your results will be much, much better tasting and less likely to make you sick. For bubbly cider, boil a few tablespoons of corn sugar in some water, add to your cider, bottle, and let it sit for another week. If you invite enough friends over to drink the finished product, you'll ensure that your cider doesn't sit in bottles long enough to create any potential bottle bombs. And, if your friends bring booze and leave it, then you're ahead of the game.

@julebsorry I swear on the 6 gallons of beer I need to bottle tomorrow, I am asking a serious question: what the hell is the deal with using corn sugar? My father was in brewing his whole life, and now that he's retired, we're both into the home-brew thing…but we always use whatever table sugar we have in each respective house, because we can't tell the difference! I once tried to find an answer on the forums but everyone there seemed just as baffled.

julebsorry (#5,783)

@Roxanne Rholes@twitter Haha, you have caught me. I use corn sugar because that's what my first "how to brew" handbook recommended. And it's what the homebrew store carries, so I never bothered to question it! Apparently table sugar and malt sugar are also fine to use:

The one benefit I can think of is that corn sugar is 100% fermentable, while malt sugar isn't – so maybe it's a consistency issue?

Haha, I'm fighting so hard not to be "that guy," but I think I'm losing…

It's mostly about a guaranteed level of carbonation. The nth generation of yeast that's still in there may have suppressed the ability to ferment some or all simple sugars, since they got eaten up a long time ago, but in home practice that's unlikely.

People who really try for a consistent recipe, or need consistent carbonation for gifts or competitions will add a bit of fresh yeast along with that sugar to make sure of the CO2 level.

And that's the short answer…

@Bus Driver Stu Benedict @julebsorry Thanks, guys! I figured it had to be something like that…we are basically bootleggers, so I think I will continue as is. Haha.

SeanP (#4,058)

@julebsorry my understanding is that corn sugar is a more simple sugar than cane, and ferments more cleanly… which leaves less flavor in your beer or cider. I guess sucrose fermentation produces undesirable flavors or something?

SeanP (#4,058)

The best cider I ever had I made by accident. My wife and I went camping somewhere near Asheville, and along the way we picked up a gallon of unpasteurized fresh apple juice (which was heavenly in its own right). We drank about half of it. Got to our campsite, had a lovely time camping, but more or less forgot all about the remaining cider. We were getting ready to leave when my wife found the jug, which was bulging noticeably. She said, oh, no, looks like we'll have to throw it out. My response: like hell. I took a sip. It was divine. It had really only just begun to ferment, so it was still quite sweet and the alcohol content was low. It was ever so slightly carbonated. The rest of the jug disappeared pretty quickly.

mulleybull (#228,312)

hhhmmmm yammi ;-)

mulleybull (#228,312)

hhhmmmm yammi ;-)

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