Literary Beer Episode 1: Traditional Hard Cider

Fri 26 Oct 2007 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Posted by: Michael

(Episode 0 explains the conceit.)

The word ‘traditional’ is here meant to indicate that I’m not using added sweeteners (which could range from raisins to honey to plain white sugar, and would increase the resulting alcohol content) or other mitigating elements (such as campden tablets, fruit pectin, fruit enzyme or packaged yeast, which would ensure a more reliable fermentation, but would require me to expend more money and effort). This article gives a good overview of the terminology for the different styles of cider and their composition.

A caveat: I’ve been brewing successfully for awhile now, but I have never made cider before. What follows is largely an experiment (albeit a meticulously researched one), whose results will hopefully lead to further experimentation and refinement in years to come.

Why a traditional cider? Most of the wise, jaded homebrewers I polled via the internet firmly advise against the choice of natural wild yeast over cultivated yeast in cidermaking. They say it’s too much of a gamble, that the wild yeast indigenous to your region may or may not be good for cider, and risking it also means taking a chance on whatever other random bacteria wind up your apples. My response to this, after some deliberation, is that most of these naysaying fun-ruiners don’t live in New England. Different regions of the world become known for the different strains of yeast that thrive there. San Francisco, for example, is famed for the quality of its sourdough yeast. And New England happens to be known for its cider. The Massachusetts Bay Colony has been fermenting cider since 1629, when nobody knew what the hell yeast even was. The way I figure it, if they could do it, I probably can’t go too far wrong. So at least this once, I’d like to try it the old-fashioned way.

I’m not sure yet how to balance theory with practice in these posts. There’s a lot to talk about. This cider recipe, however, is by far the simplest I’ve ever done, so I think I’ll do my best to keep it that way, and get to the nitty gritty later on.


  • 2 pecks apples. I got most of mine from Quonquont Farm, in Whately, MA. I picked several different varieties, in the following proportions. For each 4 Cortland, 4 MacCoun and 1 Macintosh (tart, soft, eating apples), I used 2 Empire, 2 Rome, and 1 Golden Delicious (harder, sweeter baking apples). I chose these varieties because they were in season and I enjoy eating them, but the idea was to get an approximate 2 to 1 mix of tart to sweet apples: first because I prefer tart to sweet, and second because I was trying to avoid having to doctor the pH levels of my resulting apple juice with additives. Too acidic, and cider will turn to vinegar before you can drink it. Not acidic enough and it will quickly become home to foul-tasting non-yeast bacteria. I do not own a pH tester, and am (for now) too cheap to buy one, so I went by approximation. I also got as many decent windfall apples as I could—apples that had fallen on the ground, but which weren’t too bruised and whose skins were intact)—because apples that have spent awhile on the ground a) have accumulated more natural yeast and b) have had time for cell walls to break down such that sugars are more concentrated and juice is easier to extract.
  • 1 quart apple cider, unpasteurized and unpreserved, purchased along with apples direct from orchard. The batch I got was over-sweet for my palate, but I figured I had enough sour apples to balance. Failing a nearby orchard, just find a natural grocery store and ask if they pasteurize their cider. Apparently Whole Foods does not. Failing that, just use water, or reuse some of what you’re making.


  • 2 antiquated glass gallon jugs circa 1940 (from Gavin’s basement)
  • 2 sets of fitted rubber corks and airlocks (purchased from Beer & Winemaking Supplies, Northampton, MA for about $6)
  • apple corer and/or paring knife
  • blender
  • 12 quart pot
  • sturdy colander to fit securely over pot
  • enough cheesecloth to cover colander
  • large bowl to fit more or less snugly inside colander
  • some 5-pound bags of flour (yes this is equipment) or anything else that weighs a lot and won’t break anything if dropped
  • big spoon
  • plastic siphon hose
  • household bleach

1. Sterilize all equipment. Just because I need the bacteria naturally occurring in the apples doesn’t mean I also want the bacteria naturally occurring in my kitchen. You can accomplish this by boiling everything, but as you’ll note, a lot of the stuff in the list above is made of materials susceptible to melting in extreme heat. Instead, I fill my 12 quart pot with water, dump in all the equipment that will fit, add 3 teaspoons of bleach (1 teaspoon per gallon of water) and stir. After half an hour everything is sterile, I can take out what’s in the pot and let it air dry while another round of stuff goes in, and repeat.

2. Press the apples. Traditionally you would do this with a cider press, which is a hollow wooden cylinder with a pressure plate on a screw and a hole in the bottom for juice to run out. I am too cheap to buy a press and too lazy (as yet) to make my own. The following is a workaround developed from my process for mashing grain for beer (more on that in episode 3 or 4 or so). Core the apples (but do not peel, ’cause the peels are where the yeasts are), cut them up into bite-sized pieces and dump them in a blender. Add enough unpasteurized cider (or water) to submerge the blades. Liquefy the apples. Line a colander with cheesecloth and fit it over the top of your 12 quart pot. Dump the apple pulp into the colander. Cut up more apples and repeat, until the colander is about 1/3 full (for me that was 3 blenderfuls, about a peck of apples). Now get a bowl of approximately the same size as your colander, fit it into the colander over the pulp, and weigh it down with two or three bags of flour. Juice will begin to trickle out of the colander into the pot. Go away for awhile (say half an hour). When you come back, the pulp will be sufficiently dessicated, and you can remove it from the colander, dump it in the compost, add more pulp and repeat.

3. Primary Fermentation. After squashing two pecks of apples in my makeshift press, I had just over a gallon of dark, thick, soupy apple cider. I probably could have run this through the cheesecloth a second time to filter it some more, but I was lazy, so I siphoned the cider from my pot into the first of the gallon jugs, put on my stopper and airlock, set it aside in a cool place away from the windows, and cleaned up my mess. The small amount of cider that wouldn’t fit in the bottle I sequestered in the fridge for later use. Then I sat back to wait.

After three days, sediment has started to fall out of solution. Little or no yeast activity as yet. A few particles have risen to the surface instead of sinking, but no CO2 has been produced.

After five days, most of the sediment had settled, so I decided to take a specific gravity reading. Pull off cork, drop in sterilized hydrometer (device that measures specific gravity by liquid displacement): 1.051. Water, of course, is 1.000. The difference between the two measurements is an indication of the starch and sugar content of the cider solution. It tells me the maximum potential alcohol, if all sugar is consumed, is 7% (though ideally I’d like to keep some sugar in there). This is actually right on the money. I am psyched.

After a week, fermentation begins in earnest. A thin head of froth appears at the top of the bottle. Bubbles emerge from the airlock approximately every twenty seconds. Not as rapid as you’d expect from one of your fancy store-bought yeast strains, but pretty respectable for some random wild yeasts naturally occurring in the apple skins.

This is as far as things have gone up to now. After another week or two, I expect the first stage of fermentation to be over. I’ll siphon off the clarified cider to the second bottle (probably re-sterilize first, because I can), and wait two more weeks before I taste a little. I’ll post an update when I do.

(For the continuation of my cider-making exploits, please see Episode 3: Cider Revisited.)