How is Cider Made? Q&As for New Home Brewers
If you’ve ever wondered how cider is made, if it’s safe to drink, or what goes into a homebrew cider, then this article is for you. We’ve mapped out some common questions and answers that we had when considering if we should start homebrewing.
By Dustin Miller on Jul. 02, 2020
If it’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that hobbies keep a home-body sane and that’s even been proven by science! It turns out people with hobbies are happier in life (and we can take all the happiness we can get, right?). So, roll up your sleeves, wash your hands, and let’s get you started on your new hobby, homebrewing apple cider!
Overview of making cider – understanding the process: Making cider is simple, but it is an exercise in following the process and having the materials to do what you need to do. Making cider can be as complicated (and expensive) or as simple (and budget-friendly) as you’re comfortable with.
In fact, it can be as simple as just having store-bought apple juice (which has no preservatives), a large jug, an airlock (a gadget that stops oxygen from entering your brew but lets carbon dioxide escape) and lastly, yeast—which can either be wild from the skin of apples or store bought. In a pinch, you can even use bakers yeast to homebrew alcohol.
This article is a precursor to actually making cider and we’ll cover some foundational things you should understand and answer questions you might have like, is homebrewing cider even safe? Once you’ve got a grasp on the basics, jump over to the homebrew cider recipe which includes how to steps and some great videos we found, so you too can make your own apple cider at home!
FAQs – Homebrew Hard Apple Cider
This post is long so we’ve linked to each question and answer. Click on any of the questions in this list and it’ll take you to the answer; or keep scrolling for all the answers!
- How is alcoholic cider made?
- Is homebrewing cider safe?
- What about deadly methanol?
- What can go wrong when fermenting cider? What if your batch is “bad”? Is it toxic then?
- Where do you get apple juice to make cider?
- Can you add more than just apples to cider?
- Does the yeast type matter? Can you use baker’s yeast?
- How strong (alcohol by volume) can you make hard cider?
- How do you increase or decrease alcohol content of your cider?
- How do you determine alcohol content of Cider?
- How do you get fizzy or carbonated cider?
- What can go wrong bottling cider?
- Where can I find a recipe or steps on how to make cider at home?
How is alcoholic cider made?
Cider (and any other alcoholic beverage like wine, beer, sake and mead) is made by using yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to ferment natural sugars in juice, under oxygen-free (anaerobic) conditions, to produce alcohol.
All the sugar-based foods that can be fermented to make alcoholic drinks
Brewers use yeast (and select types of bacteria) which consume the sugars and produce alcohol. This byproduct of fermentation is what produces Ethyl Alcohol (AKA ethanol) which yields the intoxicating properties we have come to know when consuming liquor products. The process of fermentation also alters and concentrates the fruit flavours and increases shelf life of the beverage which is why historically fermentation was valuable.
Standard steps showing how alcoholic cider is made
Basic Steps of the Cider Fermentation Process
1. Get apple juice—either crush raw apples and strain the pulp or buy juice.
2. Primary fermentation: Add yeast to the juice into a vessel (can be a bucket, jug, carboy, or jar);
3. Allow for fermentation until sugars are consumed; roughly 5 days to 3 weeks; during this period you will see active bubbling and may even hear it as yeast produce an abundance of CO2.
4. Secondary fermentation: Transfer fermented juice into a second vessel (generally a carboy), leaving behind the old, expired, and dead yeast from the bottom of the primary fermentation.
*This can be reuse this to start a new fermentation
5. Condition for another 2-4weeks in secondary fermentation
6. Bottle again leaving behind any yeast that builds up at the bottom.
7. Let condition in bottle based on desired flavour (roughly 1week to 9 months or more).
Cider Home Brewers Terms for Newbies
Yeast Starter: a pre-culture of yeast intended to help build colony numbers so that the yeast when introduced to the juice aren’t stressed. A yeast starter can be as simple as adding a dried yeast pack to a 1/2L of juice 24h before adding the yeast to the main juice, or it can be done with wild yeasts in a 1/2L container of freshly-juiced apples and may take 2-7 days to build up a sufficient colony.
Pitch Yeast: adding your yeast (or yeast starter) into your juice to begin the fermentation process.
Primary Fermentation: The first part of fermentation in which the main action of fermentation happens—yeast consume sugar, bubble and produce alcohol. During this process the yeast activity is visible (and can even be heard), while the colony balloons in numbers and dies off, it creates a layer on the bottom of the primary fermentation vessel. Time in primary varies between 5 days and many weeks depending on the type of yeast, temperature, amount of sugar, and so on.
Cider Lees or Yeast Lees: this is the sediment buildup on the bottom of the container during fermentation. It’s called “lees” and it’s the dead, dormant, and active yeast bodies that have settled out of solution to the bottom of the cider—the lees also includes any fruit bits, pulp, twigs, leaves, and other things that fall out of the solution during fermentation.
Typically, brewers will remove the lees as they transition to the second phase; however, some brewers will ferment ‘on the lees’, further developing the flavour of the cider as the yeast breaks down. Fermenting ‘on the lees’ takes longer and the cider will need to condition for many months (9 months or more) to allow the process to complete as the yeast bodies break down and release proteins and sugar.
Racking: the action of transferring your cider from the first primary fermentation vessel to the second vessel—the goal is to avoid transferring the lees. There are many details to racking including how one may opt to do it, you can learn more about that over at DIY Dry Cider.
Secondary Fermentation (conditioning): the process of aging or conditioning a cider after primary fermentation is complete. Typically, it should sit in a secondary ferment for 2 weeks and up to several months. During conditioning, the cider will become more clear, the flavours will mellow, and the overall flavour should improve as the yeast falls out of the cider. Little or no fermentation actually takes place in secondary fermentation and if yeast is still actively produced or a thick lees builds up, it likely means that the primary fermentation was not complete.
Is homebrewing cider safe?
Yes, it turns out that homebrewing is actually quite safe and there are protocols to make it even safer. Pasteurization (heat) kills any preexisting bacteria or wild yeasts and allows for desirable yeasts (and possibly bacteria) to take over the fermentation. This yields a more consistent product provided the brewer follows good sanitation through the fermentation process and is diligent about cleanliness.
Wild fermentation bypasses pasteurization and rather than killing wild yeasts and bacteria, encourages them. This method of brewing is more “free form”, allowing whichever local yeasts and bacteria exist on the fruit to ferment the juices. In general wild fermentation is safe provided you don’t pick fallen fruit off the ground (which can become contaminated by E. coli from animal feces) and that you keep the fermentation anaerobic. Cider in general results in an acidic product (3.5-4.5pH which also kills many pathogenic or not-good bacteria), so even wild ferments are regarded as fairly safe so long as you’re not using fruit off the ground.
The process of fermentation has been followed by countless cultures and people over thousands of years and it’s been relied upon to increase the shelf-life of foods; making things like wine and beer, or sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha and pickles which can last many months longer as a result of fermentation. So…it’s safe, but err on the side of caution – sanitize, wash, and disinfect your hands, tools and containers at all steps through brewing and use your sense of sight, smell and taste to guide you. If you see mold (fluffy white with black green or brown dark spots), if it smells bad, or if it tastes bad—throw it out and start over.
What about deadly methanol?
High levels of methanol is toxic – it can cause blindness, permanent neurological dysfunction and even death and is a frequent concern for new homebrewers. However, methanol isn’t a heavily produced product in standard fermentation and if you’re sticking to the rulebook, you have nothing to worry about.
Methanol can be created in very low quantities during fermentation from the breakdown of pectin (a polysaccharide that exists in most plants and in apples); however, this breakdown of pectin and production of methanol also happens in our bodies when we eat the same fruits and vegetables [source]. The actual amount of methanol produced during cider fermentation is minuscule which is why homebrewing is permitted/legal.
If you’re overly concerned about methanol in your cider, pasteurizing the cider and not adding pectinase enzyme has generally shown to reduce the methanol levels in the final cider. Beware though, most vegetables and fruits have low amounts of pectin in them and adding other things to your brew beyond apples may potentially increase the chance for methanol production—again though, in general, it’s not of concern. Some examples of pectin composition in various foods include: apples (1–1.5%), apricots (1%), cherries (0.4%), oranges (0.5–3.5%), carrots (1.4%), citrus peels (30%), and rose hips (15%).
According to Gary Glass, president of the American Homebrewer’s Association, simple fermentation produces only ethanol and while low concentrations of methanol do occur naturally in most alcoholic beverages, they’re not concentrated enough to cause harm. According to WHO (2014), methanol concentration of 6–27 mg/l in beer and 10–220 mg/l in spirits is not harmful.
TL;DR – the bottom line is that homebrew is safe (that’s why it’s legal) and if you follow the process you should be more than okay to make and produce your own cider. To get high levels of methanol in your cider would require active efforts on your part and deviate from the process of standard apple fermentation. However, if you want to know more about methanol brewing risks, check out this article from How to Homebrew Beers.
Video: Is homebrewing safe? What about methanol production?
What can go wrong when fermenting cider? What if your batch is “bad”? Is it toxic then?
It turns out the main issues you’ll face with homebrew is soured or vinegared batches. This happens if the brew isn’t maintained in anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions, or if you get the wrong type of bacteria or yeast into your brew. If you end up with mold, lactobacteria, or “bad yeast” (yeast candida or other undesirable wild yeast species) it can wreck the batch and make it taste bad or off. That said, this is why brewers either pasteurize the brew or use enzymes that halt the growth of any preexisting yeasts on the apples and then use specific strains of brewing yeast to complete the fermentation process. It’s also why it’s important to sterilize all of the tools throughout the brewing process. In the event your batch goes “bad” as a result of bacteria or fungus, you’ll know it. The cider will either smell bad or taste like vinegar (because it is—you’ll have just made apple cider vinegar).
Where do you get apple juice to make hard cider?
You have two options to get apple juice: you can either crush fresh apples and squeeze the juice from the mash yourself, or you can buy apple juice from the store. If you’re going to crush and squeeze your own apples, you’ll need a hand crusher (aka pulper) and a press with a muslin cloth, and then you’ll need to smash the crap out of the apples and squeeze the juice for fermenting.
If you’re going to go the simple route and buy apple juice at the store, just make sure it’s free of any preservatives (though Vitamin C AKA ‘ascorbic acid’ is okay). You can literally use SunRype apple juice and it makes surprisingly good cider—if you want to alter the flavour a bit, you can even take some sour apples, crab apples, or other fruits, chop them up, blend them, and squeeze the juice to augment your store-bought juice. Just make sure if you’re using “real apples” (not from a jug), that you pasteurize them unless you intend on running a wild fermentation.
Steps showing how apple juice is crushed and pressed to make juice
Can you add more than just apples to cider?
If you like to tinker, it turns out you can ferment pretty much any type of fruit or vegetable as long as you follow the same general brewing process. You can also add edible flowers, spices, and herbs as well. Bridging the gap between cider and beer, some cider brewers add hops to their cider to create more of a bitter-style and floral/citrus flavoured cider. As noted above though, some fruits and plants are higher in pectin which can end up contributing additional methanol in your brew. Use caution when adding extras to your fermentation, and consider doing some research about the ingredients (and pectin levels) in your adjunct additives before you start brewing it. Also, beware that some plants may be naturally anti-microbial (like cinnamon) and should be added after the fermentation process is complete rather than during fermentation in case they stop the fermentation altogether.
Examples of adjunct ingredients you can add to cider, beer and wine
Whatever you decide to add to your brew, make sure you also add enough sugar for the yeast to convert to alcohol and understand that fruits will have more sugar compared to vegetables, herbs or flowers. This might mean you need to add extra sugar if you’re using less fruit and more herbs or vegetables.
Does the yeast type matter? Can you use baker’s yeast?
Bottom-line “yeast is yeast”—all three types: baker’s yeast, winemaking yeast and brewer’s yeast are the same species, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. However, not all yeasts are equally valuable for the task at hand.
Abstracting this slightly, Huskies and Chihuahuas are both dogs (the species Canis familiaris), but you wouldn’t strap eight Chihuahuas up to a sled and get them to pull you across the Yukon tundra. Like what dog breeds are to the dog species, there are strains of yeast that have been selected over hundreds of years to work better for specific brewing purposes. This is why one species of yeast is so versatile and useful for different applications. An example: champagne yeast survives in higher alcohol conditions and as such can convert more sugar to alcohol during fermentation; this makes them better for brewing high-alcohol wine (or cider) than say…the actual form used for baking. That said, in a pinch (if all you want is a companion pet and you don’t care about the dog breed), then even the baker’s strain will work and make alcohol if it’s all you have access to (though it may produce a more frothy brew).
It turns out the the final product can be fairly good using either brewers or baker’s yeast—check out this flavour comparison & experiment by City Steading (CS) Meads & More.
Types of Yeasts found in Cider Brewing – There many different yeast and bacteria species found in wild fermentation – if you want to try something more exotic look into:
– Saccharomyces cerevisiae – ‘Baker’s Yeast’ (different strains exist and are commonly used for making beer, wine, champagne, mead and cider)
– Saccharomyces bayanus (hybrid yeast used for cider & wine)
– Saccharomyces eubayanus (cold temperature yeast)
– Saccharomyces uvarum (cold temperature yeast)
– Saccharomyces pastorianus (another cold temp yeast)
– Brettanomyces and/or Dekkera (acidogenic yeasts which produce acetic acid and can cause ‘spoilage’—historically not desired for cider production; however it may be valuable for select applications by experienced brewers and ‘Brett Ciders’, ‘Wild Ciders’ and ‘Natural Ciders’ are becoming more popular).
Can you use ‘wild ferment’ and spontaneous yeast and/or fermenting cultures to make cider?
Yes… but use caution (in other words, do so at your own risk).
With the rise in popularity of fermented foods over the last decade and the rising trend in Western culture for the pursuit of more organic/holistic gut-health options, some homebrewers may be interested in exploring wild fermentation rather than using single-strain selected yeasts.
Image: Google Search Trend Since 2004
Wild fermentation means the brewer relies on whatever ‘wild’ yeasts and bacteria already colonize the fruit to complete the fermentation process. Raw (unpasteurized) apples or juice are used (because pasteurization would otherwise kill the natural colonies) and the conditions are maintained in fermentation to favour the growth of good yeasts over pathogens (for example, using an anaerobic fermenting vessel that locks out air which is vital for many types of ‘not good’ mold, fungi and bacteria). pH is another factor for controling “bad bacteria” and lowering the pH slightly at the start of the brew can help increase the chances of success in an effort to lock out ‘bad colonies’ at the start of fermentation—however, though the brewing process the pH will drop and if you add too much acidity to the start of fermenation, you can end up with a stuck fermenation. Wild ferments may have a higher risk of spoilage, off flavours, and the risk to you personally is potentially higher due to the chance for pathogens; however, this method of fermentation also has a higher chance for unique flavours and it’s been used for thousands of years across hundreds of different human cultures, so it’s generally considered safe. Even today people around the world use wild ferments to make pickles, sour beers, sauerkraut, hot sauces, wines and many other types of fermented food and drinks—so the cost/benefit analysis is up to you.
Wild ferments do potentially increase the chance of contamination of your tools. If you get one contaminated batch of Lacto-fermented apple juice, which becomes extraordinarily sour, you may risk that same bacteria surviving batch after batch in your bucket or carboy as it only needs a tiny scratch for a few bacterial cells to survive in. So understand that travelling down the path of wild ferments could affect your future brews.
If you’d like to know more about how to make wild-fermented hard cider check out this article from Grow, Forage, Cook, Ferment.
How strong (alcohol by volume) can you make hard cider?
The yeast we use in brewing has a limit of how much alcohol by the volume they can survive in. As the yeast are eating the sugars and producing alcohol—they progressively increase the total alcohol content of the batch—eventually, they reach a maximum threshold of how much alcohol they can tolerate in their environment and they slow down or halt growth. This is why most wines top out at around 12-17% alcohol (unless they are further concentrated after fermentation). Often the yeast simply consumes all of the available sugar and then stops fermentation (and subsequently producing alcohol).
The production of high-alcohol spirits (vodka, tequila, gin, whiskey, and so on) is similar to the production of beer and cider. These high-proof spirits are made via fermentation of things like potato, agave, grains, or corn, and the resulting alcohol is then further concentrated – through distillation, a process that extracts and concentrates the alcohol, and also removes impurities (like methanol). The same goes for how ethanol-based sanitizer (Rubbing Alcohol) is made, but don’t drink sanitizers made of ethanol, there is a high likelihood they have other chemicals added which are specifically not safe for human consumption.
How do you increase or decrease alcohol content of your cider?
For a more boozy cider, add more sugar during the fermentation phase but make sure you give the fermentation enough time to convert the sugar to alcohol—if you don’t, you could end up with an overly sweet cider. Also beware: too much sugar can stress the ferment so when starting out, target around 1-2 cups of sugar per gallon of apple juice.
If you end up with a cider that’s too boozy, you can add regular apple juice and water after fermentation is complete. This will both sweeten the drink and dilute the alcohol. If you do this, you’re and you add sugar after fermentation and before bottling, you might want to pasteurize the bottles to kill any remaining yeast or you could risk bottle explosion from CO2 buildup as the sugars continue to convert to carbon dioxide in the bottle.
Before you can decide if your brew is too boozy or not, you need to test the alcohol percentage and to do that properly, you need to take steps before fermentation starts…
How do you determine alcohol content of Cider?
To measure the alcohol content of your homebrew cider, you need a hydrometer and you need to measure the specific gravity of your original pre-fermented apple juice. Then you take the final specific gravity after fermentation. With those two numbers, you can calculate the alcohol-based on the change in specific gravity using this formula:
Formula for Calculating Cider Alcohol (ABV)
Using Specific Gravity
(Final Gravity – Original Gravity) * 131.25 = ABV%
How do you get fizzy or carbonated cider?
For carbonation, brewers will add additional sugar when the cider is bottled—about ½ tsp per bottle. This gives the yeast a bit more food to convert to carbon dioxide and under the pressure of a closed bottle, this results in carbonation.
What can go wrong bottling cider?
If the pressure in a glass bottle builds too much, then a bottle can become a grenade and explode. A good strategy to prevent this is to add the same amount of sugar to each bottle and then keep an additional one or two ciders bottled into plastic bottles. Then you can use the plastic bottles to test the pressure—once the plastic bottles are firm, you can *carefully* pasteurize the batch (to kill the yeast) and store the cider for consumption.
Now that we’ve covered all of those questions, let’s get start a batch of home-brewed hard apple cider!
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