Saturday, 20 July 2013

DIY guide to becoming a back yard Cider Master - Part 1

I commonly get emails asking me how to make home brew cider. It seems many amateur home brewers or general cider lovers want to get their hands dirty and make their own. This inspired me to write an article describing the process from fruit to bottle......

So you are aspiring to be a back yard Cider Master? You’ve got the equipment, bought some apples and you’ve found a tiny bit of free space in the garage. But it’s at this stage where you go “crap, now what?” Well I am here to give you a very basic run down on how to make your own special brew with added hints, tips, procedures and technical mumbo jumbo. It’s actually very easy and if done right, you’ll be boasting to your buddies with a beautifully home made cider. What I will discuss is my methods, and these may vary to others you have seen. But with a 100 per cent strike rate of making killer back yard cider, I think I am pretty qualified!! All pictures shown are from my own experiences of home brew cider making over the past five years.

Besides actual fruit, the first thing you need to do is acquire some equipment. Buy it yourself or borrow off a mate, up to you. This stuff is easily available from hardware stores or home brew shops. Here’s a little check list:
My electrified mill and hydropress 
- Fermenter x 2 with airlock, tap and thermometer strip
- A Mill: Kitchen processor, juicer, DIY apple scratter, electric mill
- Press
- Hydrometer
- Scales
- Clear plastic hose (around 1.5 to 2 meters)
- Yeast
- Yeast Nutrient
- Potassium Metabisulphite: powder or tablet
- Bottles
- Crown seals and capper (champagne crown seals are 28mm,   therefore need a larger bell)

A mini sample press
When you bring the fruit home to process, it’s paramount you are organised and have all your equipment laid out ready to go. It would no make sense to mill your fruit and forget the press! Also, it’s essential all the equipment is clean and food grade. My first ever batch of home brew cider was made by chopping up 50kg’s of apples using a kitchen processor!! But as long as you can scratter the apples efficiently ready for pressing, then you’re on your way.

This is the important one. A few decisions/considerations you need to make are: What varieties you would like to use? Single varietal or blend? Availability? Apple, pear or apple/pear? 

Apples ready to go
Remember, blending will give you options to shape and refine your final cider. Have a think about what you want to see in your cider? For the more readily available commercial apples, a rule of thumb for me is: Pink Lady adds crisp acidity and attractive apple characters, Granny Smith adds sharp residual acidity, Sundowner adds richness, Fuji adds sugar with no acidity, Jonathon’s add up front apple sweetness and Pears add lovely earthiness with some residual sugar. I personally style my ciders to have fifteen per cent pear in the blend, to add an extra element of flavour, delicacy and sweetness.
NOTE: Many different apples ripen at different stages; therefore it’s prudent to do your research. For example, Jonathon ripens much earlier than Pink Lady, therefore the two varieties may not be commercially available at the same time. Apple growers do cold store their apples, so you may be lucky to be able to pick and choose from many varieties.   

But with fruit, sometimes it’s a case of what ever you can get your hands on. This is the beauty of cider making, you never know what hidden gems you will come across. I remember my first batch being a blend of Jonathon, Red Delicious, Rome Beatuy and Granny Smith. From this exercise, I concluded for my own tastes, Red Delicious and Rome Beauty were very poor varieties for cider. As you get more experienced, you start to develop an understanding of what varieties perform well and others which don’t.

NOTE: Eating apples are the easiest source of fruit. Unfortunately there is little to no cider apples available in small quantities for home brewers – unless you grow your own tress. 


The fruit is ready, the equipment is plugged in and you’ve roped in a couple mates to help. It’s time to get busy!

Firstly, it’s a wise move to wash the fruit in water to remove any dirt, stickers or residual chemicals off the surface. Once complete, what ever you have found to crush up your apple’s, fire it up and start slicing and dicing. The milled apple (and/or pear) which is produced is a thick, paste like mush called ‘pulp’. This is to be pressed in the next step and contains the juice, tannins and chopped up seeds.
Pulp ready to be pressed
NOTE:  You will notice that the pulp will go brown very quickly! This is caused by oxidation carried out by the enzyme Polyphenoloxidase. Don’t worry; I have had juice go almost black. Trust me; it’s completely safe and fine.
Depending on how much fruit you have got (usually 50kg’s is more than enough), it will take time to crush them up. Hence, get your mates involved, cook them a barbie and share a few beers. It will make the whole experience more exciting and fun.

Spent pomace
Depending on the size of your press, you may have to press in batches. Mill the fruit, then press, mill the fruit then press and so on. When pressing, make sure you get a good ‘squash’ happening. The more pressure exerted on the pulp, the more juice and tannins you will yield. Once the juice is extracted, what you are left with is a dry, solid marc called ‘pomace’. The pomace can been thrown into the bin, or fed to the chooks.

NOTE: Through my experience, apples yield around 50 to 55% extraction. Meaning: for 50kg’s of apples, you will yield around 25L’s of pure juice. Perfect for a small home brew fermenter.

The juice which comes out of the press is beautifully rich, dark and sweet. Don’t drink too much of it, or you will be running to the toilet!!  Acidity levels should be sufficient at this stage, if using higher acid varieties. Blending different varieties at this stage can help regulate acidity levels. Also note, you will lose a little in volume in the next step of racking.

Ok, so you have processed all your fruit, it’s all pressed out and sitting pretty in your fermenter. At this stage I thoroughly recommend adding a preservative to your juice. This ensures all the nasties, bacteria etc. is destroyed and won’t make anyone sick. Campden tablets are very common in home brew. These contain the active ingredient Potassium Metabisulphite (PMS), which is a preservative. This preservative is very commonly added to wine and cider to minimise oxidation and act as a preservative to maintain freshness.

My makeshift lab
CRITICAL ADDITIONS: At this stage, I recommend either adding 2 campden tablets, or adding 100ppm PMS in powder form. 100ppm = 100mg/L. This addition rate is very high but this ensures that again all bugs and bacteria are destroyed. SO2 additions are dependent on the pH of the juice, therefore a larger addition of sulphur is needed for effectiveness as the pH of apple juice is much higher than wine. So to add 100ppm to your juice, you first need to know your volume. Once you know how much juice you have, plug it into this 50L example.

50L’s x 100ppm x 2 / 1000 = 10g’s PMS. All you need to do is change the 50L figure , for your volume!

I would also recommend adding a fining agent like pectinolytic enzymes to help settle and clear your juice. You can either add a store bought commercial pack of ‘finings’, or if you can get your hands on some, industrial enzymes. Just add these at the specific rates, for example 3g/100kg’s.

So we are now at that point where your juice has been mixed thoroughly with the sulphur and settling enzyme additions. Here’s the disappointing part – your job is done for the day. Let this sit over night to let the enzymes to do their thing, and settle all the solids to the bottom. Don’t disturb it!

Taking a gravity reading
NOTE: At this point, take an original gravity (OG) reading with your hydrometer. For ripe apples, an OG can be anywhere from 1.060 to 1.070. This determines initial sugar levels and potential alcohol. 

I bet you’re thinking “What about yeast?” Don’t add this until the morning!

Typical racking set up
Morning sunshine - Time to go out to the shed and see how the juice is travelling. What you should have is nice clearer juice on the top, with thick solids on the bottom. If not, leave it for another six to twelve hours. But if there is good separation, what needs to be done now is a process called racking. Get your juice up to higher ground than your second fermenter – be careful not to disturb the juice fractions. You need to gravity feed (with your clear hose), the clear juice off the solids. The solids go down the drain! Once complete, you are ready for pitching the yeast.
Wyeast 4766
CRITICAL ADDITION: If this is your first batch, use commercially available cultured yeast. Only try wild fermentation when you are a little more experienced.  I recommend Wyeast Cider 4766 as it’s a liquid, is rich in nutrients and doesn’t need rehydration. It produces a very consistent ferment with no off flavours. You can use other commercial yeasts such as EC1118 which is Champagne yeast. For addition rates, follow the producers instructions. Try to pitch yeast in the range of 15 to 20 degrees for best results.  

Yay! You have inoculated apple or pear juice! With 100ppm SO2, your ferment will take a little time to begin, as the yeast are in shock. Don’t worry; it will begin in a day or so.  Any longer than this and there is the slight chance of spoilage from acetobacter or white mould, which is not good!
TIPS FOR FERMENTATION: You want a nice slow and coolish ferment for cider - that is the aim of the game. Too hot, and you will lose the delicate apple aromas. Optimum fermentation temperature is between 12 to 15 degrees, but anywhere up to 20 is fine. Over that, and your ferment will finish super fast and will taste very unpleasant!! Take gravities every few days and track the progress of your ferment. At this cooler and slower rate, expect the fermentation to go for at least two to three weeks. This is perfectly normal! DO NOT let any air into the fermenter!

During mid fermentation, if a very unpleasant smell of rotten eggs overwhelms the confines of your house, then you know this is a sign of your yeast not loving life. I have had my wife ring me once before saying the house stinks like a fart! This is hydrogen sulfide (H2S), which is more commonly known as rotten egg gas. It is the direct result of the yeast running low on a nitrogen source, so they begin metabolising other compounds. I personally find many of my ferments not succumbing to the lower levels of nitrogen, and hence not reeking out the garage. I put this down to the apples themselves having sufficient nitrogen sources stemming from the fertile orchards from which they came. But a yeast food like diammonium phosphate (DAP) is a perfect addition to replenish the nitrogen stores. This must be used with caution, as if it’s added too late and all is not consumed, you will run into issues of spoilage down the track.

CRITICAL ADDITION:  Many homebrew shops sell yeast nutrient which is prefect to keep the yeast healthy and happy. Add around 200ppm of the sachet to your ferment and all should be fine. For example with 50L’s: 50L’s x 200ppm x 2 / 1000 = 20g’s. The smell will dissipate, especially with a little splash of the ferment. Don’t add too much of it, as the yeast will start fermenting like wild fire and the ferment will finish too fast.

Once your ferment gets around to the 1.020 mark, I would rack again to the empty fermenter. This helps clear up the cider, and slows down the ferment. I would even give it another rack at the 1.010 stage. Don’t worry, due to the carbon dioxide which is produced during the ferment, your cider won’t oxidise and go off. This is due to carbon dioxide (CO2) being an inert gas. But to rack at least two more times during ferment will ensure you have a much clearer end product, free of solids.

A common home brew fermenter
To determine if your ferment is finished, you need to observe a gravity reading which is the same for two days straight. This could be anywhere from 1.005 to under 1.000. It will produce a dry cider, so no sweetness what so ever. To make a sweet cider, you need to be a little more experienced and I am not going to describe my pasteurisation technique – way too long and technical. This is why adding pear is an option, as pears contain unfermentable sugars like sorbitol.  

Hurray! You have successfully, milled, pressed and fermented a clean and 'real' cider. Watch this space for Part 2, where I will discuss bulk priming, malo lactic fermentation, bottling and carbonation.  


  1. Perfect - thankyou! I made my first cider last year (and it is quite drinkable). However, I cannot tell you how many books and articles I read and internet hours wasted trying to get a simple explanation like this (with Australian conditions as well!). I used apples from 3 trees at my house that are old and unnamed but ripened at different times. They're all good eating. As the apples ripened I picked them and juiced them, then froze the juice. When I was ready and had collected enough, I defrosted it to make the cider. Seemed to not affect the end product thankfully, but I couldn't find any info about this process and risked it. Your thoughts would be appreciated ...

  2. Great to hear! I hope it helps. In regards to freezing juice, there is no real risks. I have used frozen grape juice to make wine and there was never an issue. I like to freeze pressed apple juice to naturally back sweeten my home brew ciders. As long as the separated denser sugar is mixed thoroughly on defrosting, then you should be all set. It's a clever way to do it - as long as you don't take up too much freezer space!! Cheers.