How to Make Hard Apple Cider

Brewing hard cider from nonalcoholic, or “sweet” cider, is a simple process.

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by Adobe Stock/Springfield Gallery
For the best hard cider, use freshly pressed sweet apple cider.

Brewing hard cider from nonalcoholic, or “sweet” cider, is a simple process, and the inebriating end product is as delicious as it is intoxicating. Here are the steps you’ll follow to make hard cider of your own.

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‘Harrison’ makes a dark drink that leaves a memorable sensation in the mouth. This cultivar’s rich juice will produce the quintessential North American cider on its own or when combined with the juice of another cider apple. Its dense, yellow flesh yields a high volume of juice when pressed. The volume produced by ‘Harrison’ has been measured at 18 percent higher than that yielded by an equal amount of ‘Winesap’ fruit.

Hard Cider Ingredients

  • 5 gallons of preservative-free sweet apple cider, preferably unpasteurized
  • Two packets of wine yeast (Lalvin 71B or Red Star Côte des Blancs are good choices)
  • Optional for higher alcohol content: 2 pounds of brown sugar or honey
  • Optional for creating a starter: One 16-ounce bottle of preservative-free, pasteurized apple juice
  • Optional for sparkling cider: 3/4 cup honey or brown sugar
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‘Roxbury Russet’ is likely the oldest named North American apple cultivar, dating back to the mid-1600s. These trees bear an all-purpose fruit that’s well-suited to cider-making, with coarse flesh that’s more sweet than tart when fully ripe. The juice of ‘Roxbury Russet’ contains nearly 13 percent sugar, which will ferment to 6 percent alcohol in hard cider. This fruit is fine in desserts and retains its flavor well when dried.

Choose Your Juice. The best hard cider is made from fresh-pressed sweet apple cider, whether your own or a local cider mill’s. If you’re buying sweet cider, start by checking the label to be sure the cider doesn’t contain chemical preservatives because they’ll kill your yeast, and your cider won’t ferment. (The cider is chemically preserved if sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate are listed on the label.) Your best bet for preservative-free cider is either to buy it in season from a local orchard or to make it using fruit from your own trees. For best results, look for the cultivars described in the photo slideshow. In a pinch, you can also make hard cider with apple juice from the grocery store, as long as it doesn’t have preservatives.

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‘Winesap’ was first described as one of the best apples for cider in 1804, and now dozens of strains exist. This long-keeping apple is sweet, crisp, and aromatic. The versatile fruit is also a fine dessert apple and is delicious in brandy, applesauce, and apple butter. Standard rootstock trees will grow vigorously, reaching as high as 30 feet tall and producing heavy crops — as many as 100 bushels in a single season.

Also, be aware that most commercial cider makers are required to pasteurize their cider. The usual method of pasteurization kills microorganisms with heat, which affects the flavor of the juice. Preferably, your sweet cider should be “cold pasteurized,” which kills microorganisms with ultraviolet light. If you’re not sure which method a local cider mill uses, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Choose Your Yeast. A variety of dry and liquid brewing yeasts will do the trick — you can find them online or from homebrew stores. Although you can buy specialized liquid yeast packs for fermenting cider, dry wine yeasts do an excellent job and are much cheaper. (You can buy a pack for less than a dollar.)

Make a Starter. The day before you brew your cider, make a starter. This step is optional, but it ensures that your yeast is proofed (i.e., alive) and that it will start fermenting your cider right away. To make a starter, open a 16-ounce bottle of preservative-free apple juice, pour out a few ounces to set aside or to drink, and add the contents of one yeast packet to the bottle of apple juice. Then, reseal the bottle and shake it for a few seconds. Within five or six hours, you should see a bit of bubbling inside the bottle. After you see bubbling, release the pressure within the bottle, reseal it, and put it in the refrigerator. Take it out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before you brew.

Brewing Equipment

  • One 5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket with spigot, lid, and airlock
  • 3 to 6 feet of 5/16 -inch food-grade plastic tubing
  • Stainless steel or plastic spoon
  • Enough half-gallon glass “growler” jugs or other bottles (including caps or corks) to store the finished cider
  • Optional: Stainless steel or enameled pot
  • Optional: A second 5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket with a spigot, or a glass carboy
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Image by Matthew T. Stallbaumer

An example of the equipment you’ll need for making your own hard cider.

Simmer Your Cider. On brewing day, pour your cider into the brewpot and simmer it over medium heat for about 45 minutes. This will kill most of the wild yeasts and bacteria in the cider. More adventurous cider makers will forgo this step by pouring the sweet cider directly into a plastic bucket and then pitching in the yeast. If you follow this strategy, wild strains of yeast will still be in the sweet cider when it begins fermenting. This will alter the flavor of the cider. (It may or may not improve it.) If you do heat the cider, don’t let it boil! Boiling causes pectins to set, which creates a permanently hazy beverage. While simmering the cider, you can add the optional 2 pounds of brown sugar or honey. This will boost the fermentable sugar content in your cider and increase the alcohol content.

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‘Grimes Golden’ is believed to be a parent of ‘Golden Delicious.’ Popular for making brandy and cider because of its high sugar content of 18.8 percent, ‘Grimes Golden’ juice will ferment to 9 percent alcohol in hard cider. The apple’s crisp flesh has a spicy, sweet flavor. Only an average keeper, this cider apple cultivar is moderately susceptible to common apple diseases.

Sanitize. Next, pour the cider into a sanitized fermentation bucket — an unsanitized bucket may spoil the cider. To sanitize, pour a capful of bleach into your bucket, fill it with water, let it sit for half an hour, then dump it out and rinse the bucket with cold water. (You can also buy non-bleach, no-rinse sanitizers at homebrew stores.)

Add Yeast. Let the cider cool to nearly room temperature, then add your yeast — or starter, if you chose to make one. Stir the mixture for a minute or two with a clean stainless steel or plastic spoon to aerate, then seal the lid and affix the airlock. Place the bucket in a room or closet where the temperature is 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit — the closer to 60 degrees, the better. Stay within this range if you can: At lower temperatures, the cider won’t ferment, while higher temperatures will speed up fermentation but may also change the flavor.

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An airlock, such as this three-piece unit, allows carbon dioxide to escape from your fermentation bucket without letting in any air that could contaminate your cider.

Let It Ferment. Within a day or two, you should see the airlock start to bubble. The gas it’s releasing is carbon dioxide, a byproduct of the fermentation process. Congratulations, your soft cider is on its way to becoming a delicious, inebriating elixir! The bubbling should subside within two weeks, signifying an end to the primary fermentation. After that, let the cider sit another week to allow the yeast to settle out.

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‘Arkansas Black’ is suited to fresh eating, cooking, and cider-making. This 19th-century cultivar produces fruit that’s very hard — an excellent storage quality in an apple. The yellow flesh is firm and crisp with a distinctive flavor that’s enhanced after a few months in storage. ‘Arkansas Black’ is resistant to most major diseases, but it’s vulnerable to apple scab and fire blight.

Options for Bottling

There are a couple of different methods you could try at this point:

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Brewing and bottling your own hard cider is a rewarding experience that you can share with friends and family.

Option 1: Bottle the Cider Now. If you want to bottle the cider immediately, affix the rinsed food-grade tubing to the spigot on your fermentation bucket and pour the cider off into sanitized jugs or bottles. (Be gentle when moving the bucket full of cider because sloshing can disturb the yeast sediment at the bottom of the bucket and cloud up your cider.) Seal the jugs or bottles. Let the bottled hard cider sit for another two weeks, and then it will be ready to drink. Your cider will probably be “still” (i.e., not fizzy) unless you let it age for several months. Hard cider is more like wine than beer, and the flavor will improve as it ages.

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‘Goldrush’ is a dessert apple that has become the darling of professional cider makers. Developed in 1972 at Purdue University, ‘GoldRush’ exhibits a sweet-tart flavor and is a long keeper. The flesh is high in acid and sugar, with a rich, spicy flavor that improves in storage. ‘GoldRush’ trees are prone to cedar apple rust, but they’re highly resistant to powdery mildew and apple scab disease.

Option 2: Let It Clarify. If you only use one fermenter, your cider will taste fine but may not be perfectly clear because it’ll probably still have some suspended yeast. To reduce cloudiness, siphon your cider into a secondary fermenter (another sanitized food-grade bucket). After you’ve siphoned your cider into the secondary fermenter, put a sanitized lid and airlock on it and place it back in a dark, and preferably cool, location. A month should be ample time for the cider to clarify. After it’s aged for as long as you can stand, bottle it as above. This cider will most definitely be “still,” with no bubbles.

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Image by Adobe Stock/Thomas Oswald

With a few extra steps and a bit more time, you can add fizz to a “still” cider to create a “sparkling” cider.

Option 3: Make Sparkling Cider. Regardless of whether you decide to bottle immediately or let it clarify in a secondary fermenter, if you want “sparkling” cider, you’ll have to add a couple of steps at bottling time. First, boil 1 cup water with 3/4 cup honey or brown sugar. Pour this mixture into a sanitized bottling bucket (another fermentation bucket with a spigot at the bottom). Then, siphon your cider from your fermentation bucket to the bottling bucket. The cider and honey or brown sugar syrup should mix together naturally, but you can stir slowly with a sanitized spoon if you feel it’s necessary. Then, bottle as you would normally. You’ll have to let this sit a bit longer than the still cider so the residual yeast will have time to ferment the sugar and carbonate the cider inside the bottle.

Drink the Cider! At this point, it’s time to start drinking your cider and thinking about brewing your next batch. With time and experience, your skills will grow, and your recipes will become more complex. Soon, you’ll be making cider that’s as delightful and refreshing as a crisp autumn breeze.

Updated on Sep 22, 2021  |  Originally Published on Sep 26, 2017

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