Cider season is upon us, and while I’m normally a staunch partisan when it comes to beer as the one true drink of the people* I’ve taken the opportunity to dip my toes in the world of hard cider whenever fall has rolled around over the past few years.
Cider used to be a big thing in the United States but fell out of favor after Prohibition. With the consolidation of breweries and the lag time between planting cider apples and production, cider never had a chance in a post-prohibition world. Cider has recently had a resurgence and good cider is getting much easier to find. If you’ve never brewed a cider before, then no misconceptions await you - it’s quick and fun! For homebrewers who typically brew beer, brewing a cider can be shockingly easy in comparison, with results that are no less rewarding. You skip the time-consuming mashing and boiling aspect of brewing beer and go straight ahead to pitching yeast and fermenting. It feels a little like you’ve cheated the barley gods of their due and that you’ll pay for your betrayal at some point in the future. In the meantime, you can drink the fruits of your labor (literally) in the form of a delicious, dry cider.
New York State is known for the quality of its apples and getting good fresh-pressed cider around harvest time is a remarkably easy affair - no apple press required. Take a walk down to your local farmers market and chat up anyone who is selling apples. In my neck of the woods, Breezy Hill Orchard is always hawking their delicious wares. It is important that you find a producer who offers unpasteurized or UV (ultraviolet) pasteurized juice. Most apple juice/cider sold in stores contains potassium sorbate or sodium benzoate as a preservative (they prevent yeast from working properly) and won’t ferment very well. The next step is to pick your yeast. Typically, most people will use champagne yeast, like Red Star Premier Cuvee. It’s a reliable yeast that will ferment out dry and produce a tasty cider relatively quickly. It is not your only option though.
I’m an inveterate experimenter and have tried a variety of yeasts (both ale and wine) over the years including:
- Wyeast 1968 London ESB
- Danstar Nottingham
- Red Star
- Pasteur Blanc
- Lalvin EC-1118
- Lalvin 71B-1122
- Lalvin D47
Overall, I’ve been less impressed with ale yeasts (despite what the AHA might tell you) and tend to gravitate towards wine yeasts as they tend to preserve the apple character more fully. I’ve been especially impressed with the Lalvin 71B-1122 and the Lalvin D47. The former is typically used for nouveau wines (young wines meant to be drunk within a short period of time) and the latter is better for something you plan on aging. It’s important to consider the alcohol level of your cider and factor it into your yeast selection. Most fresh pressed cider will clock in with a specific gravity ranging from 1.040-1.050. As ciders will finish dry (all the way down to 1.000) that means your cider could range from 5-7% ABV.
Some people add sugars to their cider to boost the alcohol and to add other flavors. In that scenario, I’d offer up the same advice we give for high gravity beers, consider aging them to let them mellow. I’ve already made five gallons of cider this year (and have consumed at least 2 gallons of that) and plan to make at least five more. I like to split my batches and will be trying two new yeasts next time around. We recently got in a fresh shipment of Wyeast’s Dry Cider Yeast which promises a “crisp and dry [fermentation] with [a] big, fruity finish.” I’ll be splitting that with another (to be determined) wine yeast. As always, if you’ve fermented something delicious, no matter what it is we’d love to try it at our swap! Join us on the first Wednesday of every month at 6:30pm.
Johnathan Hagen Certified Cicerone® (aka “Tastemaster General”)
*I’m open to counter-arguments made in the form of a good bourbon.