Hard Cider 101: History, Brands & How to Make Your Own

Glass of Hard Cider

With the holiday season quickly approaching, many people are starting to drink more and more hard cider. Unfortunately, everyone else may not have a thorough understanding of what exactly this type of beverage is, and how it differs from its non-alcoholic counterpart.

Most commonly made from fermented apple juice, hard cider is a widely popular alcoholic beverage across the world, especially in the United Kingdom. In the United States, however, cider is a noticeable weaker drink and lacks some of the distinct apple flavor that makes it so delicious. It must be noted that while apple is the most common type of cider, it’s also commonly made using other fruits.

Let’s take a closer look at the history of this delicious beverage, how you can make your own and the most popular brands to start you off.

The History of Cider

Hard apple cider has existed for as long as humans have been fermenting fruit juices; that is, at least a couple millennium. Historians aren’t quite sure who actually invented cider, but the first written account of the beverage comes from Roman invaders in Britain in 55 BC. It’s said that Julius Caesar was a big fan of the drink. Because of this, it’s believed that the Romans perfected the art of making cider by introducing advanced cultivation techniques leading to it becoming one of the most popular beverages throughout Europe.

In the United States, cider was once common enough that many families had an apple orchard on their property specifically for the purpose of making cider. In fact, it was so popular in the early colonies, that it wasn’t uncommon for people to pay their debts and taxes with cider. It was also common practice for children to drink a diluted version of it. It’s estimated that the average denizen of apple-growing regions drank at least a pint of cider a day.

By the time the 20th century rolled around, cider began to fall in popularity here in the United States. There were several reasons for this, but it was mainly due to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Many people moved away from their rural farms and into the growing metropolitan areas. As a result, apple orchards were essentially abandoned, leaving the tasty beverage a distant memory for many. Another factor that led to the downfall of cider was the growing popularity of beer. At the time, grain was so cheap that beer was the more economical choice for brewers and drinkers alike.

Prohibition was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Beer breweries were able to survive this era by switching to non-alcoholic beverages like soda, but cider orchards had no such option. Many went out of business. When Prohibition was repealed, breweries quickly resumed producing beer, as barley was easier to harvest, but orchards didn’t bounce back with the same vigor. There were many enthusiasts that started brewing it again, but with a lack of demand and the low-costs of beer ingredients cider struggled to regain its former prominence.

This trend has started to turn around in the last decade or so. Interest in making and drinking hard cider has sky-rocketed, resulting in many American breweries making their own version using different fruits and brewing techniques.

How to Make Your Own Hard Cider

Hard Apple Cider

Cider-making follows a very similar process to brewing beer. It takes a little bit of practice to perfect your recipe, but once you do, you’ll have a tasty beverage to enjoy and share with your friends. Here’s a step-by-step guide to making your own hard cider.

1. Selecting Your Apples

You must first choose the right apples; bittersweet varietals, such as Yarlington Mill and Chisel Jersey make a great choice, as they are high in both sugars and tannins. Bittersharp varietals like Spitzenberg and Wickson are coveted by cider-makers for their high acid content, which makes for easier fermentation and a pungent flavor. It can be somewhat difficult, however, to find these varietals. And if you do find them, they probably won’t be cheap.

The most common apple brewers use to make their own cider is the Golden Delicious varietal, which has the great blend of acid and sugars to create a flavorful finished product. If this is your first time making hard cider, then it is recommended to start off using the Golden Delicious. They’re not terribly expensive and can be found almost anywhere.

2. Extracting the Juice

After you have selected your apples, you must use a cider press to make fresh apple juice. Purchase enough apples to press a gallon of juice. If you’d rather not do that or don’t have access to a cider press, you can skip this step and just buy a gallon of unfermented apple cider. It must be unfermented. It’s also important that there are no preservatives in the store-bought ciders, as this will devastate the fermentation process. I’ve found that the organic, unfermented apple juices work great, but be sure to read each label thoroughly before buying.

3. Create a Starter

The next recommended step is to create a starter for the cider. Pour a small amount of your cider into a sealable container. Half a cup should be sufficient. Add one packet of yeast to the small amount of cider, shake it all together and let it sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. You will notice that it is starting to bubble a little. This is normal and expected. Leave it in the fridge until you see it bubbling. Do not proceed until your starter is complete.

Apple

4. Brew it!

The next step is to pour the rest of your cider in a stainless steel brew-pot and simmer for 45 minutes. This will help kill of the bacteria within the liquid. It’s very important that you do NOT boil it, just let it simmer at a low temperature. Additionally, if you want to experiment with your recipe, this would be the time you can add honey or brown sugar to the mix. Doing this will increase the overall alcohol content in the final product.

5. Fermentation

After it has simmered for approximately 45 minutes, you will pour it into a sterilized glass jug or fermentation bucket, and let it cool down to room temperature. Once it has cooled down, you will add your starter or, if you skipped that step, a packet of yeast. Stir it thoroughly for a couple of minutes. Seal the jug or bucket with a stopper and a special device called an airlock, which allows gases to escape but prevents air and outside contaminants from getting in. Place it in a room that is within 60-75°.

You will soon see it bubbling and releasing carbon dioxide. Congratulations, your apple juice is now fermenting and will soon be a tasty hard cider. You will see it bubble for at least 10-14 days, on average. Once you’ve noticed that the bubbling has stopped, let it sit for another week to allow the yeast to settle at the bottom. Once that is complete, your cider is ready to be bottled.

6a. Bottling Your Cider

Now that it’s been fermented, it’s time to bottle your creation. You want to be careful not to disturb the yeast that has settled at the bottom. Some brewers will pour it directly into the bottles from the first fermentation bucket. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, however, it may lead to a hazy, cloudier cider. Alternatively, it’s recommended that you siphon the now-hard cider from your current fermentation bucket, to a second container. Another fermentation bucket or gallon jugs will work for this. Just make sure they’re clean and sterile, or you risk contaminating your cider. It may also be wise to get a kit that contains an auto-siphon with tubing to help assist with this.

Transferring to a second container will help eliminate any unwanted sediment. From there, you can seal it within individual bottles or let it ferment in the second container for another couple of weeks. Either way, the cider is not ready to be consumed yet. Whichever direction you go, you need to let it sit for at least two more weeks.

6b. Bottling Your (Sparkling) Cider

If you want your hard cider to be “sparkling” or “fizzy,” then you will need to follow the previous step, but also add in a couple of extra ingredients. This is the preferred method for homebrewers, but also an added step that leads to more work.

With your cider in the second container, you will now boil ½ cup of boiled water and add ¼ cup of brown sugar to it. Stir until the brown sugar is dissolved. Mix this into your cider that is in the second container. This gives the yeast more sugars to consume, which helps produces carbon dioxide giving your hard cider the fizz you desire.

Let it sit for a couple of weeks and then bottle it accordingly.

Optional – Kegging Your Hard Cider

It is possible to keg your cider, and then dispense it out of your kegerator. If you choose to go this route, it is recommended that you brew at least five gallons to fill your keg. The overall amount will vary depending on what type of keg you have.

Angry Orchard Hard Cider

Hard cider does not need to be refrigerated, as the fermentation process preserves the beverage. However, cider that is kept at lower temperatures tastes better for longer. Make sure not to lower your kegerator’s temperature too much, as freezing the beverage kills yeast in hard cider and affects the flavor adversely.

The Top 5 Hard Cider Brands

Unfortunately, hard cider isn’t a common staple in pubs across the country, nor is it as widely distributed as other styles of beer. Therefore, stats for the best-selling cider is hard, if not impossible, to come by. As a result, I can’t say with confidence that these five brands are the most popular or best-selling, but they sure are talked about a lot.

In no particular order, here are five of the most popular brands of hard cider, with a link to each of their websites so you can learn more about each. I’d love to hear which brands you’d recommend.

  1. Samuel Smith’s Organic Cider
  2. Angry Orchard Crisp Apple
  3. Crispin American Craft Ciders
  4. Woodchuck Winter Oak Aged Draft Cider
  5. Thistly Cross Scottish Cider

Hard cider does not need to play second fiddle to more popular craft beers, it has the same amount of flavor range and potency as many delicious beers. Unfortunately, history has not dealt this style a good hand. But, it’s starting to bounce back. You can do your part and try a couple of brands if you see it out at a bar. If you do brew your own cider, it would be wise to buy your own brewing equipment and practice a recipe. It will take a couple of rounds to make it perfect, so take notes and keep brewing until it’s perfect.

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Jeff Flowers

Jeff Flowers

Jeff Flowers has been a self-described beer geek for over a decade now. When he's not chasing his daughter around, you can usually find him drinking a fresh brew and wasting tons of his time on both Google+ & Twitter.
Jeff Flowers

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Comments

  1. Not bad – just a couple of comments. First, in the “Extracting The Juice” section, it says you can start with “unfermented” cider – I think you mean “unpasteurized” and also you should mention that is should have no preservatives as well. In section 6b on bottling sparkling cider – your instructions won’t work either – you will have additional fermentation, but unless you bottle and cap the cider right after you add the additional sugar, all the CO2 will escape and you will not have any carbonation in the bottle. Last but not least, this is counter-intuitive, but since all of the sugars are converted to ethanol, you are going to have a very dry beverage unless you add some dort of sweetener, and it will not taste like apples unless you add some concentrated apple extract, to taste. It is fun and I do it every year – do lots of homework and experiment with clarifying agents and other little tricks until you get something you like.

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