A First-Timer’s Cider Making, by The Gentleman Fahma in New Hamsha

If you live in apple country, you have a wonderful resource readily available for pre- and post-TEOTWAWKI. All it takes is some up front costs for equipment, and your labor and desire. The process is simple. I’m speaking of producing fresh apple cider for immediate enjoyment or trade, and hard cider for delayed enjoyment, stockpiling, or trade. Thus, you can easily acquire a valuable skill for post-WTSHTF. A nice thing is you can gradually ramp up your expense and involvement.

You can:

  • Buy the fermenting equipment and use purchased fresh unpasteurized sweet cider, skipping the expensive apple crusher and press and all the hard work
  • Buy all the equipment and use purchased apples
  • Go all-in like we did, buying all the junk and picking our own apples

[Be aware that if you buy apples or sweet cider, even from a local farm, you will probably be getting traces of fungicides and pesticides. But no doubt the fruit will be big and beautiful.]

As we start, it is late summer at the recently-acquired Gentleman’s Farm (to say it like a local it is ‘fam’ as in ‘wham’), and we are finally in a position to get prepared “for real.” The vegetable garden is producing nicely. The grapevines, though they grew like crazy, yielded only a handful of ripe grapes, dashing our immediate hopes of wine making. Next year remember to prune! We have two robust but neglected apple trees in the orchard, and an ancient and very neglected one at the stone wall by the road. Plus, my next door neighbor has two ancient giants, and is thrilled to have the apples picked so there are fewer for him to pick up off his manicured lawn. None have been sprayed, at least not in recent history. The apples come forth all on their own. Now, I’m not saying they are beauties. In fact they are the sorriest-looking apples you could imagine—malformed and spotted—the stuff of a supermarket produce manager’s nightmares. But they contain juice, and that is all we care about.

So our cider-making adventures can be illustrated in stages. The first stage is “gather hardware.” The major hardware is:

  • Fermenting equipment and supplies
  • Apple picker
  • Apple crusher
  • Apple press

I am not a big fan of single-purpose equipment. Fortunately, most of this is multi-purpose.

First we bought the fermenting supplies. A local brewing supply store was our source. This equipment can also be used for beer and wine making, so the costs can be spread out over those purposes, and we intend to do so. All are good skills post-TEOTWAWKI. We bought the True Brew K6 Beer Equipment Kit, which contains a 5 gallon plastic primary-fermentation tank, glass secondary-fermentation carboy, airlock, siphon, cleaning brush, thermometer, hydrometer, 8-pack of C-Brite sanitizer, and a bottle capper. The cost was about $128. Another $50 bought us a carboy spray wand, a carboy carrier, a gross of bottle caps, and yeast.

Next up was a fruit picker. This is nothing more than a small, fingered wire basket on the end of a telescoping pole. We needed it because the trees have gotten tall from lack of pruning. It can be used on our other fruit trees, so it is not really single-purpose. We bought the Flexrake LRB190 on Amazon for $32 with free shipping, and were impressed with its quality.

Then the big outlays began. We needed a crusher and a press. The crusher is necessary for fully pressing apples. Whole or even quartered apples won’t disgorge all their juice. This tool unfortunately is only single-purpose. The press by itself will be fine for grapes and other soft fruits (and thus is multi-purpose), but for apple-pressing there has to be some pre-processing.

So, how to choose? Best of all would have been real vintage but working farm examples. I could not find any. A gentleman named Herrick Kimball that operate WhizBang Cider sells plans and parts for an innovative crusher utilizing a garbage disposal. The result comes out like applesauce and should be super-easy to press. But there was no time to build anything, you have to buy a new disposal (who’d want to use an old one?) and anyway, in a grid-down situation I think you’d be out of luck there. He also sells plans and parts for a press that uses an automobile jack. You have to see it.

In the end, I went with a crusher and press purchased from Cabela’s, figuring they would stand behind their offerings if need be. I read the mostly favorable reviews and made the decision. Here’s where it gets crazy. When I first looked them up in the Fall 2010 catalog, the crusher was $169.99 and the press $199.99. Imagine my shock when ordering online in Summer 2011 and finding the crusher at $229.99 ($60 increase) and the press on sale for $234.99 ($35 increase), regular price $329.99 (would have been $130 increase.) A huge increase in just one year! Oh right, there’s no inflation. Shipping added another $40 or so. Also be aware that the actual product delivered is somewhat different from the picture—the press in the picture stands taller (it shows a pitcher under the spout to catch the cider, but the delivered model can only accommodate a saucepan), and the ratchet assembly is enameled in the picture but the actual is plated steel.

Both arrived promptly and just in time for harvest. I was disappointed but not surprised to find they are Chinese-made. Makes you wonder what Chinese workers think they are making, given the strange products they ship us. But this stuff looked fairly well made and solid. They are marketed by Weston Supply.

The crusher comes almost completely pre-assembled unless you want to switch it to a wall-mounted unit. For the default bench-mounting, all you have to do is attach the flywheel to the shaft and install the stainless-steel chute. The latter is a bit of a design flaw, in my opinion. Unless you have really small hands it is difficult to reach in to insert the mounting screws. The Lady Fahma to the rescue! For bench-mounting, it even comes with two robust C-clamps. We attached it to a granite counter in the wood shop room of the barn, and it never moved or slipped during the entire crushing operation.

The press needs no assembly beyond threading the ratchet assembly onto the jack screw and clamping together the two halves of the pressing tub. It uses a Jenga-like stack of hardwood blocks that you gradually add above the pressing plates (also hardwood) to keep the ratchet handle from contacting the top of the tub as you crank it down. Seemed pretty simple. One cheap-out is it comes bolted to a cardboard-like floor plate. We will probably change that to something more robust next year.

You could do a lot more homework than we did, and maybe find something perfect. Actually, revisiting the WhizBang Cider site, I see there are links to other sites that offer interesting press configurations. One of them shows the press that I bought, but apparently under a different name—who knows?

The second stage is “gather apples.” Here you could trot off to the local orchard or farm stand if you lack your own trees. I’ve already described our sad trees and fruit. Saturday morning, September 10, we began to pick. We were not shy about utilizing salvageable ‘drops’ either—there is some controversy about this, because of the threat of bacteria. We knew we were going to heat the cider to kill off or discourage the wild yeasts, so we figured that would take care of bacteria too, and what was left, alcohol would stifle. Campden tablets, which add sulphur dioxide to the mix, could also have been used, and we might try that next year. Only one of our younger trees has its variety labeled, and it is good old red McIntosh—my favorite. The other younger tree has tart hard green apples, and the ancient tree looks like the old variety called Pippin—they are green. The neighbor’s apples also look to be McIntosh. We worked around the trees, using the picker for higher fruit. Even then, there were a number we couldn’t reach. By the time a few hours passed I had developed a good case of Aircraft Spotter’s Neck. We picked 4 bushels by noon, then spent a good amount of time washing them (just plain water). We had read that a bushel of applies can yield 2 or more gallons of cider. With our 4 bushels, we thought we might have as much as 10 gallons, so we quickly bought another fermentation tank, carboy, and airlock.

The third stage is “press apples.” This is the hardest part of the process. On Sunday morning, the next day, we began to cut up the apples for the crusher. We learned right away that the pieces have to be small, very small. Otherwise the crusher barely touched them as they passed through, and the press couldn’t do much with them. So we began a routine. The Lady Fahma did the cutting, I ran them through the crusher, and we tossed the crush into the press as soon as we thought we had enough for a full pressing basket. No doubt about it, the press, or this particular one anyway, is a two-person job. Keeping the blocks straight while turning the ratchet assembly is the main trick. And once you crank down to where the ratchets engage you really have to apply force, which means the press has to be steadied. But there’s a wonderful feeling when the juice starts to run out. As the day went on, we learned how to get more and more juice from each press. We learned to keep some of the last pressing’s pomace in the basket when adding fresh crush—I don’t know why, but it seemed to work better. So we kept cutting, crushing, pressing, pouring through a sieve into the heating vat, and dumping the pomace into the compost pile, for the better part of a day. Miraculously no injuries were reported. Speaking of pomace, next year I’d like to save it and distill it into apple grappa (grapple?), for industrial purposes only of course.

I found something I did not like about the press: the ratchets are removable plated wedges that fit into holes in the wheel of the ratchet assembly. I think we applied so much force that they began to wear—sending a tiny amount of metal dust onto the blocks. Probably very little to none got through to the pressings, but to be sure I had to wipe off the plates after each press.

What were our results? We yielded just 5 gallons of dark, rich, tangy sweet cider. Not very impressive, and half what we expected. It had to be the quality of the apples. But we were still proud. Since we had anticipated 10 gallons and had the extra equipment, The Lady Fahma ran to the farm stand and procured 5 gallons of their unpasteurized cider. The cost was about $30. Now if you think the 2 days labor for 2 people it took to make our own 5 gallons should be worth more than $30, you are not in the preparedness mindset! We prefer to think we are skill-building, like spending money on firearms training or a wilderness survival course.

Cleanup of the crusher and press was fairly easy; just rinsing with water from a garden nozzle. Obviously let the parts dry before putting away. After drying, I applied mineral oil to the parts I thought might rust in storage. The barn floor was a disaster from spills, but in the end was not that difficult to clean.

If you are just making sweet cider, stop here. The result is wonderful, but will not keep very long without preservatives, and even then not for much longer. Enjoy it while you can.

Conversely, if you have bought sweet cider and want to make hard, start here!

Stage four extends over weeks but is not difficult—turn the sweet cider into hard. Starting as we did in mid-September, our goal is to begin drinking it by Thanksgiving, meaning we want it to age a fair amount. There are many sources of information on hard cider-making, and many conflicting opinions, particularly when chemists weigh in. I found what I think are the easiest beginner’s instructions online at Mother Earth News (http://www.motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2007-10-01/How-to-Make-Hard-Cider.aspx ). Really, the process is simple and basically comes down to “add yeast and let it sit.” Just remember all equipment has to be sanitized.

On pressing day we heated the cider to about 170 degrees F— do not let it boil! While doing this we added 2 pounds of brown sugar to our own cider. This became “Batch A.” The bought cider seemed sweeter so we let it be. This became “Batch B.”  Then we let them cool to about room temperature. This can take longer than you expect, but can be greatly speeded up by putting the kettles in baths of ice and water.

We had two varieties of yeast to try. Batch A received a granulated champagne yeast that is supposed to make a drier-tasting cider. Batch B received a liquid cider yeast that also produces a dry product but supposedly lets the fruit show through. The liquid yeast is about 3 times more expensive, by the way.

We knew we were introducing too many variables—different cider sources, sugar amounts, and different yeasts–but that’s part of the fun.

Once cool, we poured the two batches into their own fermentation tanks and stirred in the yeasts. We secured the lids and placed the airlocks. That was the end of a long but satisfying day.

Our huge amateur mistake: neglecting to get a base measurement of specific gravity with the hydrometer. We thus cannot determine what the alcohol content is in the finished product. We’ll have to do it the old fashioned way, by drinking it and seeing the results!

End of Week 1. The airlocks are happily bubbling, meaning the yeasts are active, converting sugars to alcohol as they have done for millennia, noble companions to mankind as they are. It smells heavenly. Batch B was so active it actually bubbled up into the airlock. Being in the uninsulated barn it is hard to maintain constant temperature, though it never was especially hot or cold. But temperature is obviously another variable that would be good to control if you can.

End of Week 2. Bubbling has slowed down considerably. Using a sanitized “thief” (another handy gadget), we taste-test both tanks. Batch A is already quite dry and pleasant, and has paled somewhat. Batch B is extremely tart—lemony, almost. I find it pleasant, but The Lady Fahma is afraid we are on our way to apple cider vinegar—not a bad thing to have, though 5 gallons is probably a lot. I am hoping her fears are unfounded. Time will tell! They both seem to taste of alcohol. We replace the lids and wait.

End of Week 3. It’s now October 1. Still some bubbling. It is “racking” time. Racking is nothing more than siphoning the cider from the primary plastic fermentation tanks to the secondary glass carboys. This really is just for aging and allowing the yeast gunk to further settle out. Washing and sanitizing the carboys was pretty easy thanks to the sprayer wand that attaches to the clothes washing machine faucet. The siphon’s start is greatly assisted with the adding of a little water to the tube.

The difference in appearance between the two batches is striking—Batch A is a rich orange brown. Batch B is like homemade chicken broth. As the weather is cooling we should be fine leaving the carboys in the barn. After placing the airlocks, we poked holes in the bottoms of two black plastic trash bags and draped them over the carboys, leaving the airlocks free to vent. This is our solution to keeping them in the dark.

Of course, we left a little out of each to taste. Batch B, which was so lemony last week, has really toned down. I think it will be fine. Batch A is a little more complex. We’re really curious how 7 or 8 weeks of aging (in both carboy and bottle) will change them.

During the intervening weeks, and before, we have been busy “accumulating” empty beer bottles, if you know what I mean. Having made 10 gallons of cider, we figured we needed around 106 twelve-ounce bottles and probably less. You need the long neck kind with pry-off caps—no screw tops. The brewmaking shop guy told me that Samuel Adams brand beer bottles were the best to use: they are heavier and the labels come off more easily. Not a problem—Sam Adams is my favorite commercial brew. Note you can also buy empty bottles from the brewmaking shop—though they cost only slightly less per case than bottled beer! Another tip from the shop—soaking the empty bottles in a solution of OxiClean will get the labels off even easier.

The bottles were rinsed and stored as we (well, I) consumed the beer. When we had accumulated enough we soaked them as recommended, and I peeled off the labels while The Lady Fahma, with her patient hands, scrubbed off any remaining stickum. Wear gloves. Here’s another tip—an empty, sanitized dishwasher makes an excellent draining/drying rack for bottles.

End of Week 8. It’s now November 6—bottling day! The previous day we moved the carboys into the kitchen, so they could settle back down overnight from any sloshing. Today we sanitized everything in C-Brite: the (original) plastic fermentation bucket with spout, bottles, siphon, caps. Then everything was rinsed and drained. We wore “examination” gloves during the whole process. We wanted sparkling cider, so continuing the above recipe, we planned to add a little sugar. This is supposed to revive the yeasts while in the bottle. Starting with Batch A, we put ¾ cup brown sugar into solution, poured it into the bucket, then siphoned the carboy. You unfortunately must leave an inch or so in the carboy because of sedimentation. Next we filled the bottles from the bucket’s spout. It was made easier as a two-person job—one working the spout, one handling the bottles. There was very little spillage; in fact, the whole process went amazingly smoothly. After the bottles were filled, we capped them using the capping tool supplied in the True Brew kit, which worked very well. After wiping down the bottles, we put them into cases. Batch A yielded 45 bottles—slightly less than two cases. Taking a break, we started Batch B using the same process. It yielded 46 bottles. With clean-up, the whole bottling procedure took less than 4 hours. The “residue” in the carboys was strained through cheesecloth and chilled so we could sample our creations today. Batch A was sweeter and seemed more “apple-y.” Batch B was tart. Both were extremely pleasant. The next step is to wait a few weeks for carbonation (hopefully) to occur; but if it does not, we should at least have pleasant still cider.

End of Week 10. It’s now November 20. We sample a bottle from each batch. Batch A has little carbonation. Batch B is fully sparkling. The Lady Fahma, with her discriminating palette, made tasting notes. “Batch A is still dark like fresh cider, with a slightly yeasty, fresh apple nose. There is a clean apple-lemon, slightly floral finish, with crisp acidity. Despite its color, it is dry. Batch B is light and clear in color with a tangy apple nose, in a champagne style. There are light apple and pear flavors that are complex and slightly bitter. It too has a clean finish and is dry.” My tasting notes, demonstrating the sophistication of my palette, are “they both taste pretty durn good.” I would say that Batch B tastes more like the commercially-produced hard cider I’ve had.

Again, not measuring the alcohol content was a major mistake. I get the feeling, though, that both batches have some potency.

Just for fun, we created bottle labels on the computer and printed them on an inkjet printer. A package of 150 Avery 8164 shipping labels (6 on a sheet) cost about $8 and fit the bottles perfectly. This is a totally optional step but gives you a chance to personalize and show off your creation.

Thanksgiving Day. We proudly served both batches to our guests. When asked to choose, they were about equally divided. Even The Lady Fahma and I disagree, she preferring ‘B’ while I prefer ‘A.’ While demonstrating that overall our project is a success, it does make it difficult to decide which yeast to use next year.

Perhaps as we continue to drink our cider one will emerge a clear winner.

True SHTF Considerations

Some supplies may not be readily available if things get bad. You may have to stock up now, or workarounds will be necessary.

  • Bottle caps: if caps are not available, the handy 12 ounce bottle will be useless, but jugs or barrels can be employed. One beer-making book states that plastic 2-liter soda bottles can be filled with beer and capped with the original plastic cap; if so, you could certainly use them for even sparkling cider. Undoubtedly there will always be zillions of them around
  • Sanitizer: packages of C-Brite and/or bleach can be stocked up. When that runs out I am not sure what to use, other than boiling water
  • Yeast: yeast is such an essential part of our food supply it is difficult to imagine life without it. Since it is perishable, stocking up in large quantities is not really practical For apple cider, it is possible to let wild yeasts naturally present do the job, but the results will be unpredictable at best
  • Sugar: honey could be used for extra yeast activation, or just ensure that the apples you use are as sweet as can be. It may be difficult to make sparkling hard cider without extra sugars

As I finish this piece it is a snowy evening in late winter, six months from the start of the project. I permit myself a sample of each batch from our still-plentiful supply. Batch “A” has gained more sparkle, proving that it is a living thing—amazing! Batch “B’ hasn’t changed much. The “glow” I feel may be more than the warm feelings of the positive aspects of preparing.