For the past several years, I’ve been riding the homebrewing and craft beer bandwagons, sampling too many styles to count. My interest in cider, however, is a more recent development. Before I visited England a couple of years ago, I didn’t even realize alcoholic cider was a thing. To me, “cider” was that dark, cinnamon-tasting stuff that appeared in my supermarket’s produce section every fall.
But cider, in its true and original form, is indeed alcoholic. Unlike nonalcoholic apple cider (also called “sweet cider”), proper cider is similar in color to apple juice, usually anywhere from pale yellow (roughly the color of Pinot Grigio) to a cloudy gold. It’s usually made from apples, though pear cider is commercially available as well. And unlike nonalcoholic cider and apple juice, it doesn’t have to be sweet – some of the best-regarded ciders are tart and crisp, like dry white wines.
There are several reasons for cider’s new-found popularity in the U.S. First, it’s roughly the same strength as beer, so you can drink a decent amount of it in one sitting without ill effects. It’s also gluten-free, making it a great beer alternative for anyone who avoids gluten products. It can be cheap, with widely available varieties such as Woodchuck priced at or below the cost of a six-pack of craft beer, though there are certainly more expensive ciders.
Perhaps most crucial to its popularity, cider is both tasty and versatile. Due to the high number of apple varieties, and natural variability within each, there’s almost as much to choose from in the cider world, as in the beer and wine world.
If you enjoy cider and want to experience new flavors without becoming best friends with your local liquor store clerk, consider making it at home. It’s not nearly as difficult or labor-intensive as you might think – and it could just turn into a hobby that you’re able to share with your friends and family. Over time, it might actually cost less too. Though your first five-gallon batch of cider is going to be somewhat expensive (typically costing around $100), subsequent batches should be in the $30 range. That’s cheaper than the equivalent volume of store-bought cider.
General Principles of Making Hard Cider at Home
Making cider is more similar to making wine than beer. And, if you use nonalcoholic cider or juice, the process can be considerably faster and easier than brewing beer.
Basically, cider is fermented apple juice. Over a period of weeks or months, the yeast eats the sugar in the juice, extrudes alcohol, and eventually dies. Once the supply of yeast or sugar is exhausted, fermentation ceases. However, cider is drinkable before this happens.
Since making cider doesn’t involve boiling, sanitation is especially important. Potentially harmful strains of both wild yeast and non-yeast bacteria can contaminate cider during the fermentation process, rendering it unpleasant to the taste or even turning it into a foul-smelling soup. In addition to cleaning and sanitizing all your equipment, you must add a sulfur-based treatment called Campden tablets, which cost a few cents each, to kill any wild yeast that may be present in your juice.
Cider-Making Ingredients & Cost
Cider is a great option for gluten-free drinkers, and those who don’t like hoppy or malty flavors in general. Though there’s a wide variety of cider, it’s generally crisper and tangier than beer – closer to the white wine universe, though generally lower in alcohol.
Historically, hard cider is made from fermented apples, though pears and plums are gaining favor as an alternative. As a trip to a well-stocked supermarket indicates, there are a lot of apple varieties out there – 2,500 in the U.S. alone, including 100 commercial varieties, and 7,500 worldwide. While you can technically make cider from any of these, the best ciders actually come from aptly named cider apples, which are tough, bitter things that you’d struggle to choke down raw. Unfortunately, you may not be able to find cider apples at your local grocery store or even farmers’ market. Other options, however, can still produce great results.
Cider’s key ingredients include the following:
- Apples or Fresh Apple Juice. Commercial cideries typically use crushed, pressed fruit in their batches. You can purchase a fruit crusher, which looks like a medieval torture device, to extract juice from raw apples at home. However, it may be more practical and less expensive just to buy unpasteurized, no-preservative (preservatives can kill yeast) apple juice at your local co-op or organic market. Whole Foods’ 365 juice brand is probably the least expensive option, but a thicker cider may create more complex flavors. If there’s an apple farm or cidery nearby, use its fresh, nonalcoholic cider instead. Cost: About $20 for five gallons
- Yeast. As with beer, there are a handful of yeast strains that can be used to make cider. Some are used to make wine as well. You can find cider yeasts at your local brewing supply store. Cost: $1 to $2
- Yeast Nutrients. Unlike homebrewing, cider-making requires the addition of yeast nutrients to keep the yeast healthy and productive during fermentation and ensure that the process completes properly. Cost: $5 to $7
Note that you need to buy more of these items each time you want to make a new batch of cider.
Cider-Making Equipment Costs
Cider kits aren’t as popular as homebrewing kits yet, so you may need to buy your equipment à la carte at a homebrew supply store or website. For juice, you may need to make a special trip to the grocery store.
Here’s what you need, and what you can expect to pay:
- Fermenting Bucket: $12 to $15
- Lid: $2 to $3
- Airlock: The lid and airlock create a seal to keep out airborne yeast and other harmful microbes. They’re typically sold separately from the fermenting bucket when not included in a brewing kit. $1 to $2
- Bottling Bucket: Provides for smooth transfer of the partially fermented cider into bottles. $12 to $15
- Yeast: $1 to $2
- Caps: $2 to $3
- Bottling Equipment: Typically includes a spigot, siphon, tubing, and filler. $10 to $15
- Bottle Capper: $12 to $14
- Priming Sugar: This is essential for completing the fermentation process and sufficiently carbonating the beverage. Even though it’s sweet, there’s not enough digestible sugar in apple juice for yeast to achieve optimal carbonation without help. $1 to $2
- Sanitizer: $2.50 to $5
- Campden Tablets: $3 to $5
Though your costs may vary depending on where you shop and what brands you buy, you should expect your initial equipment and ingredients to cost around $100. This is about as costly, or slightly more expensive, than buying 9 six-packs, which typically cost $8 to $11 each. Remember, however, that subsequent batches should be cheaper.
Cider-Making Process & Timing
Making cider isn’t quite as time-intensive as brewing beer, but it still requires some investment. You need to block off time on the day you begin initial fermentation and again on your bottling day. Note that these very general steps assume you’re using five gallons of juice or unfermented cider to produce five gallons of hard cider. The folks at your local homebrewing store can offer more specific advice.
- Setup, Preparation, and Equipment Cleaning. Prior to beginning – as with the beer-brewing process – you need to make sure that every square inch of your equipment is cleaned with dish soap and then sanitized. Once this is done, get all of your equipment laid out in an organized fashion, fill your fermenting bucket with your juice, and begin. Time: 25 minutes
- Add Campden Tablets. A Campden tablet is a sulfite-based treatment (also used by winemakers) that kills wild yeast and harmful bacteria in unpasteurized fruit juice. Add one crushed tablet per gallon of juice, stir it with a sanitized spoon, and let it sit in your sealed fermenter for two days. If you’re using pasteurized cider or apple juice, this step isn’t essential. Time: 10 minutes
- Prepare and Add the Yeast. Boil a cup of water, remove from the heat, and add the yeast nutrient at a ratio of two-and-a-half tablespoons to five gallons of juice. Once this cools below 100 degrees, but before it reaches 80 degrees, add it to the juice in the now-unsealed fermenter. Next, add your yeast – the ratio is typically one packet per five gallons. Time: 20 minutes
- Reseal the Fermenter. Close and seal the fermenter’s lid. Store the fermenter in a cool place, ideally below 60 degrees. Time: 5 minutes
Two Days to Two Weeks Later
- Status Check. Check back in a couple of days to make sure the airlock is bubbling – you should see its innards slowly moving up and down as gas builds and escapes inside. Once you confirm this, let it sit in the same cool place for about two weeks. When the airlock stops bubbling, it’s almost ready to prime and bottle. However, you should give it another few days to be sure, as premature priming and bottling can cause pressure to build up in the bottle and lead to an unpleasant surprise upon opening. Time: 5 minutes
- Priming. The priming process for cider, which spurs the yeast to produce more gas and creates a pleasantly carbonated beverage, is similar to that for beer. You need to add a specific amount of priming sugar, which should be detailed in the sugar packets’ instructions. Time: 30 to 60 minutes
- Bottling. After you prime the cider, sanitize the bottling bucket and carefully transfer the liquid from the fermenter. Use your bottling equipment – instructions should be included – to fill each bottle, then use the capper to seal each one. Time: 35 to 55 minutes
- Storage and Aging. After bottling, your cider needs to age for at least a couple of weeks before it’s tasty, carbonated, and alcoholic enough to drink. Cider ferments (and tastes) best below 60 degrees, so you should ideally store the primed, sealed bottles in a basement or another cool space with a consistent temperature. However, cooler temperatures lengthen the fermentation period. If you want your cider to be drinkable within about two weeks after bottling, store it at room temperature. Note that cider, like wine, experiences more noticeable flavor and consistency changes with age. If you want to experiment with different levels of aging, leave the bottles alone for a few months. But don’t leave them too long, as things go downhill after a year or so. Time: 70 to 120 minutes of active labor, plus two weeks to several months of waiting or aging
Altogether, you can expect to devote anywhere from approximately two to three hours, and spend between $85 and $110, during your first home cider-making experience. That’s about as much, or maybe a few dollars more, than you’d spend in the store. As your reward, however, you get five gallons of homemade hard cider to enjoy at your leisure.
Retail Cider Costs
Popular cider brands range in price from about $8.50 to $10 per six-pack. By contrast, it costs an average of about $97 to make your first 53 bottles of hard cider at home. With that money, you could buy 10 six-packs of Woodchuck or Angry Orchard – 48 bottles – and have some change left over. If you were buying by the bottle at the same price, you could afford 52 bottles of store-bought cider. Subsequent 53-bottle batches, however, cost about $30. That translates to 3 six-packs (plus change) of Woodchuck or Angry Orchard – just 18 bottles.
So, cost-wise, your first batch could be a breakeven affair, aside from the necessary time investment. Even if it’s a bit more expensive on the first go, we’re only talking a few dollars. Future batches should be significantly cheaper – producing the equivalent of about 9 six-packs of store-bought cider for the cost of three. And regardless of price, it’s nice to be able to enjoy your own homemade cider as soon as it’s in your hands.
It’s less and less difficult to find stories about homebrewers or amateur cider makers who successfully broke out and opened breweries or cideries of their own. However, let’s face it – not everyone who makes alcoholic beverages in their kitchen or basement is going to hit the big-time.
But even if your cider never winds up on a store shelf, you can take pride in knowing that you made it yourself – with a little help from some friendly microbes – and you can share it with pride with your friends and family. That’s definitely something worth raising a glass to.
Have you ever made cider at home?