Recently I decided to get back into making hard cider and figured this would be a good time to go over the basics of how it works. While a lot of purists will tell you only orchard-fresh, unpasteurized juice made from a blend of specifically cultured apples is the only way to “true” hard cider, a damn good drink can be made with regular store bought juice and a few techniques.
Some of you may have done the “jailhouse hooch” version in college, where you take a gallon of cider and throw a packet of bread yeast in, attach a balloon over the top with a pin-hole in it and let it bubble away. The purpose of this approach is getting wasted on the cheap (and to that end it works admirably), but for anyone with tastebuds this is definitely not the way to go.
There are a plethora of more complicated approaches, from cultivating specific varieties of apples themselves for the proper mix of tannin/sugar/acid, to fermentation techniques that use only the native yeast on the skins of the apples and the pectin they produce. The method I’m using is decidedly more simple, but still adheres to the rules of good fermentation: clean/sanitize/temperature control.
But first let’s talk juice. The most important thing to look for when shopping for the juice you’re going to ferment is that it’s preservative free. This is more than some hippie obsession with chemical-free foods, preservatives are in juice to prevent the exact thing you’re trying to accomplish: being consumed by yeast and bacteria. There are plenty of commercially available juices that are “flash pasteurized,” which heats up the juice to a high enough temperature to kill off all the bad bacteria. These juices are fine, as well as any that have ascorbic acid added. This is just vitamin C, and is harmless to the yeast we’re looking to add to it. Anything with potassium sulfate or sodium benzoate in it is no good for fermenting.
Speaking of yeast, there are a few options you can choose. In the recipe I’m using, I won’t be adding any additional sugar to my juice. When fermented completely, this should result in an alcohol by volume percentage of 6.5%, which is right around an IPA level. You can add more sugar and bump up that ABV, but the yeast you use will need to be tolerant of those additional alcohols, like wine yeast. I use wine yeast in my ciders because of the clean, fruit forward flavors it produces, but you can also use ale yeast for this approach as well.
I cleaned all the equipment I used with PBW and sanitized with Iodaphor. Make sure that everything you use is sanitized properly, including the airlocks on your fermenters and the funnel for pouring in the juice. I can’t stress this enough, you don’t want to waste all this time and money on something that’s going to turn putrid because you got lazy. Clean. Sanitize. Do it again.
So for my latest batches I decided to go with a few different juices, Apple and Eve and Musselmans, both from Walmart for about 4 bucks a gallon, and Trader Joe’s Honeycrisp Cider and 100% Cherry Juice. Both the Apple and Eve and the Musselmans had Lalvin EC-1118 yeast added, which is a champagne yeast, and the Trader Joes batch had Lalvin 71b white wine yeast added. The 71b tends to round out acidity in finished wines, so I thought that would work well with the tartness of the cherry juice.
I keep this in my study for now, because my basement is actually too cold for fermentation. I’m also cheap and don’t keep the heat very high in my house, so the ambient temperature swings from 62 to 65 degrees. This is right around where you want to ferment this, any higher and there might be some off-flavors produced by the yeast. Any lower and fermentation can take a long time. We’re already looking at a two to three month timeframe before these clear up and we can bottle.