Quench your thirst for hard
cider by making it at home
I first tasted hard cider in a scruffy London pub, in a previous century, when I was maybe 22 years old. I innocently asked the barman if the “cider” on the chalkboard menu had alcohol in it. “Yes, it does,” he barked, with an eye roll that silently added, “You nitwit.” But he pulled a short draw from the tap and planted it on the bar in front of me. It was a lovely amber color and smelled of apples—a welcome alternative to strong, warm British beer. I drank a lot of cider for the next week or two then returned to the States where I didn’t see it again for years.
Hard apple cider, like mushy peas and spotted dick, was a British culinary staple that seemed to defy American duplication. Even in our own Pajaro Valley, with its abundance of apples, hard cider vanished with Prohibition and was slow to make a comeback.
That long drought is now over, thank heavens, with locally brewed hard cider increasingly appearing on bar taps throughout the Monterey Bay area. Hard cider is also easy to make at home, especially if you bypass the apple-crushing part and use fresh juice from our local orchards.
My first batch of hard cider was made from backyard apples, which had to be meticulously scrubbed, hand-pared to remove apple worms and chopped small enough to drop through the chute of a Jack LaLanne juicer. It took hours to produce a gallon of very cloudy juice, which I then spiked with an entire packet of champagne yeast. Champagne yeast is a good option for cider making, but it turns out that one packet is enough to inoculate five gallons of apple juice. Rookie mistake.
But the result of too much yeast was fun to watch. The microbes gorged themselves on fruit sugars, belching clouds of carbon dioxide that created fizzing, swirling currents inside the glass brewing jug. To avert explosion, excess CO2 bubbled through a one-way valve comprised of a bung, an airlock, plastic tubing and a Mason jar filled with food-safe sanitizer. The jug-and-tubing contraption sat on a kitchen sideboard, where the blub-blub-blub of escaping gas serenaded us for weeks.
That first batch was, well, yeasty. But we drank it gleefully, and over the next few months experimented with bottled apple juice, frozen juice concentrate and, finally, fresh-pressed apple juice from Gizdich Ranch in Watsonville.
Lacking a cider mentor or a family recipe, I relied on trial and error and the Internet. Online recipes were all over the board, with some calling for white sugar, chemical flocculants, artificial sweeteners, pre- and post-brew pasteurization and compressed CO2. At the other end of the spectrum were hippie homesteaders who advised pouring juice into a covered bucket and leaving it in the barn for a few months.
As it turns out, cider fermentation is inherently pretty safe. Yeasts eat sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as digestive byproducts. Apple juice is packed with sugar, and a sprinkling of champagne-, beer- or cider-making yeast will quickly multiply, out-competing most troublesome microbes and/or killing them with rising alcohol levels.
Some brewers reject added yeast, relying on wild microbes that naturally appear on apple skins.
Adding sugar to the apple juice—whether refined sugar, maple syrup, honey or apple juice concentrate —gives the microbes more to work with and can boost alcohol levels significantly. Our three-ingredient, home-brewed cider reliably achieves a 9–10% alcohol content using nothing but juice, yeast and three tablespoons of honey per gallon at bottling. See recipe and procedure in illustration.
Cleanliness also keeps bad bugs out of the brew. I like Star San, a food-safe sanitizing product that kills microbes with a highly acidic pH. Bleach- and iodine-based sanitizing solutions are also effective but can stain clothing and equipment.
Brewing is a two-part process. Pour the apple juice into a sanitized glass or food-safe plastic container, sprinkle in the yeast and cover with an airtight lid equipped with a one-way valve and bubbler.
Let the yeasts work for at least two weeks, or as long as several months. Siphon or carefully scoop the cider into a sanitized bucket, leaving behind the gunky bottom layer of yeast and apple debris. You can bottle the cider at this point as a non-carbonated drink, pump in pressurized CO2 or add a bit of sugar to fuel a secondary fermentation.
Unpasteurized hard cider is a living food. Microbial action continues inside the bottle over time, albeit at a declining rate as sugars in the cider are consumed.
I’ve found that the three tablespoons of honey I use per gallon of cider is enough to generate a bit of natural fizz from the remaining yeast microbes without blowing up any of my swing-top glass bottles.
Maria Gaura is a lifelong writer, journalist and gardener. She lives in downtown Santa Cruz with her family, two elderly cats and an ambivalent garden that can’t decide if it wants to be a vegetable patch, a flower bed or a miniature orchard.