The journal of a DIYer from Jamaica Plain giving hard cider-making a shot. Follow her elating successes and devastating failures through our three-part weekly series. Along the way, tell her what she’s doing right and wrong. This is part one.
Maybe I’m just imagining this, but it seems that lately the craft cider market has exploded. Perhaps it’s due to the popularity of gluten-free diets or just an offshoot the craft beer trend, but I’ve noticed a wider variety of ciders flooding local bar taps and liquor store shelves over the last year.
As a cider fan who has watched friends brew beer, the apparent rise of the craft cider has inspired me to make my own hard cider from scratch. I started planning this project nearly two months ago, determined to pick and juice the apples for the cider myself. How satisfying would it be in the end, while drinking my delicious finished product, to know that it came from apples I picked myself? That’s the best feeling.
The first thing I did was go apple picking. It was a picturesque September day and I went with my friends to an overpriced orchard somewhere in Western Mass. We took a bunch of the obligatory posed apple-picking photos and posted them on our social media accounts (see above).
The next thing I did was browse my trusty source for everything: Amazon. I ordered a cider-making kit without doing much research. I figured the people at the online homebrew supply store must know what they’re doing. Along with it, I ordered two books on cider-making. One of which I skimmed through and promptly lost, and the other never arrived.
When I opened this kit full to find random tubing, two buckets with just one lid, bottle caps, multiple packets of powdered substances and a DVD labeled “Beer and Wine Making Video,” I started to panic. I realized I’d missed an important step: Research.
I began the research process by phoning a friend. I called the only person I know who has actually made homebrewed cider, a longtime family friend. The first thing I learned from him was that I would need to wait about nine months before producing a delicious hard cider. Of course, this was from his opinion and method, but this new knowledge crushed my hope of having a yummy cider to share by this Thanksgiving.
If anyone else is thinking of homebrewing cider, I highly recommend starting with the research before ordering any supplies or picking a bulk stock of apples. I may have bitten off a bit more than I could chew. Pretty much all of the information online about cider-making offers various contradicting instructional information and gives a plethora of options for the amateur cider-maker to blindly make as they embark on their big project.
Knowing that you get what you pay for, I paid a few dollars each to download two short, cheap cider-making e-books from Amazon, “Cider Making From Your Garden: alcoholic apple cider, an English method” and “Making the Best Apple Cider.” Then I found the paperback copy of “Making Craft Cider,” which I had previously ordered and lost, and proceeded to skim it more thoroughly.
I highly recommend the e-books I read (also available in print), as they were helpful for boiling down the abundance of information out there for beginners. They each had their drawbacks but together left me feeling like I can do this. The physical book I bought, “Making Craft Cider,” was a little bit more expensive and includes more history and in-depth information about the various options for the complex process of preparation and fermentation of the cider. This book is probably a better purchase for those who already know they want to get serious about making cider.
My cider-making family friend gave me these wise words: “The process is as simple or complex as you want it to be.”
It turns out, the most “simple” way is also probably the riskiest. Apparently, if you put raw cider into a jug with an airlock, and do nothing, it will naturally ferment with the wild yeasts on the apples. Pretty cool, huh? That’s what people have been doing for centuries. The catch is that cider probably hasn’t actually been consistently delicious for centuries. They used to call it “scrumpy” which probably tasted about as good as it sounds, or worse. The natural method also has a greater chance of being contaminated by some kind of crazy bacteria that makes it poisonous or turns it into apple cider vinegar.
I’m nervous because apparently cider can be pretty easy to screw up, even if you choose one of the more “complicated” methods, which have been developed in order to improve the outcome of the cider. Unfortunately, from what I understand, many of the factors that can cause a bad batch are more or less out of the control of the cider maker, especially a beginner.
I didn’t go into this knowing that making cider is somewhat of a gamble, but at this point, that’s almost part of the appeal. It could be tastier than any bottled or kegged cider I’ve had, or it could turn out as vinegar. Maybe this is crazy but I’m actually excited — I could use a good challenge. And if I mess up, it will be a learning experience.
Stay tuned for my next two posts in this three-part series, where I will get into the business of juicing the apples and discussing the various options for fermentation.