If you want to home brew your own hard cider, you can easily start with store or farm stand-bought sweet cider or apple juice. It's quick and easy and you can jump straight into fermenting them. But if you want to dig deeper and obtain a better blend of apples for a well-rounded, balanced hard cider, you can either find a farm or mill that will produce a good blend for you, or you can set off on your own to find, grind, and press your own to make a creation that's truly yours. This article is about the latter approach.
Not All Apples Are Created Equal
We must hold these truth to be self-evident: that not all apples will produce the same flavor qualities in a cider; that a juice of only one variety of apple will likely be disappointing and insipid; and that a diversity of apple types and varieties will likely yield a complex, balanced cider that our forefathers would be proud of. Yes, as in democracy, it is diversity that makes cider strong.
How so? First, start with this: what tastes great as a sweet juice may not be great as a hard cider. This is because almost all of the sugar gets fermented out when making hard cider, leaving different qualities of the apple more apparent--particularly acidity, bitterness, sharpness, and the aromatic essence left behind. Each variety of apple is different in terms of sweetness, acidity, tannic acid content, and other factors, so it is common to blend them together at some stage in the cider-making process in order to achieve the desired outcome.
The possibilities here are virtually endless.
Apple Categories and Ratios
While highly oversimplified, apple varieties can be broken down along these lines for cider-making:
- "Neutral"--high sugar, low acidity, low tannin. Many table apples fit into this category. Contributes sugar for fermentation and basic apple character
- Cider Varieties:
- Golden Russett
- Northern Spy
- "Bittersweets"--high sugar, high tannin. Adds tannin and aroma.
- Cider Varieties:
- Chisel Jersey
- Somerset Redstreak
- Kingston Black
- "Bittersharps"--low sugar, high tannin, high acid. Contributes a lot of flavor
- Cider Varieties:
- Stoke Red
- various Pippin varieties (e.g., London, Ribston, Kentish)
There are many, many other varieties that can be good for cider; the above are just a few examples.
With practice you'll tweak this formula considerably, but a very basic rundown for producing a balanced cider is:
- Approximately 50% neutral
- Approximately 25% bittersweet
- Approximately 25% bittersharp
Finding Cider Apples
If you're lucky enough to live in a state with apple mills or farms that make sweet cider, you may be able to bypass the selection and grinding of apples and simply buy a blend of pressed, sweet cider from the mill to take home and ferment. Be sure to mention that you're making hard cider with it, as their blend may be different for this than what they typically sell.
If you're not so lucky, you can still look around for orchards in your area (the farmer's market is a great place to get leads on this) and work with the orchard to acquire your apples. Because the bittersharps and bittersweets are much more rare than the typical neutral apples, locate the bitters first, find out when they mature, and use neutral apples that mature the same time. Orchards that work with cider-makers will likely also sell irregular-looking apples at a discounted price. These are gold for you--just as good as the regular product for cider, and a lot less expensive. If the orchard doesn't have the varieties you want, but they know you're making cider, they'll likely have some good substitutes. Make your intentions known!
Juice yield varies, but in general you're looking at 2-3 gallons per 42-lb bushel of apples, so plan accordingly (Given the trouble it takes, why not plan on an extra-large batch vs. a single, 5-gallon batch?).
Cultivating (har, har) a relationship with a good orchard is highly valuable, so keep in touch with them and stay abreast of their offerings.
Once you have your blend of apples, they'll need to be ground and pressed into juice before fermentation. Blending can be done at almost any stage, chosen primarily by the convenience vs. control spectrum. The main options are: 1) before grinding the apples; 2) after pressing but before fermentation; 3) after fermentation; and 4) when serving.
Simply mix the apples up together in the approximate ratio of your choice and grind them. Easy, but prevents you from determining the sugar content of each juice, just the final product.
This allows you to check the pH (with a pH strip) and sugar content (with a hydrometer) prior to blending the juices together. This will allow you to tweak the juice before fermentation for the right characteristics.
Assumes you press and ferment the juices from each category separately (I hope you have a lot of fermenters). This allows you to check the flavor of the finished product of each before blending them together (vs. the pre-fermented qualities).
In certain settings--meeting with your local home brew club, for instance--you may want finished product per category available so that everyone can taste the differences before blending them together to demonstrate the balancing effect
Because hard cider is best when aged for multiple months to break down the malic acid that gives it an overly tart taste when too fresh, you'll want a relatively high sugar content before fermentation to inhibit any potential bacterial growth. Generally, getting the alcohol above 7% is a good rule of thumb for this.
You can accomplish this by getting your original gravity to 1.06 or above on the hydrometer before fermenting, while ensuring a complete fermentation (cider will generally ferment out to close to 1.00). If your juice is too low in sugar content, you can add sugar or honey--boiled in a small amount of water to sanitize it--to bump the sugar content.
Speaking of sanitation, when grinding and pressing your juice, you'll likely want to add Campden tablets to it and let it sit for 24 hours before pitching yeast on it--this kills off the bacteria and wild yeast present in the juice. Campden tablets contain sulfite.