DrinkThis Fall, Why Not Make Your Own Cider?
And we’re not talking about the ultra-sweet stuff that tastes like Juicy Juice. Apple devotee Alex Wilson, cofounder of Wayside Cider, shows us how to make hard cider at home.
“The apple is such an amazing fruit—it’s unpretentious yet sophisticated,” says Alex Wilson, the cofounder of Wayside Cider in the Catskill Mountains of New York. “In a way, it’s kind of like America: At its best, it can be exquisitely beautiful, but at the same time it doesn’t need to brag about its own beauty.“
It’s funny to hear Wilson, a genial Brit with a crop of russet hair and a faint chin scruff, offering up a toast to a hardy homestead fruit that’s so closely linked with the founding of his adopted country. After all, in America’s early days, the cider made from apples gave colonists a measure of independence from Europe, providing an easy means to quaff booze when beer meant expensive imports of hops and barley.
But for Wilson, the rugged American appeal of the apple goes hand in hand with his own sense of New World adventure and exploration. Wilson is an avid outdoorsman and hiker who first moved to New York City in 2008, and soon fell in love with the wooded charm of Upstate New York. He teamed up with a business partner, Irene Hussey, to found Wayside in 2013, producing a small collection of ciders that incorporate crates of wild apples they forage and collect on their many ambles through the mountains. “Here you have these historical houses and farmsteads that have been abandoned, but the trees are still there and producing fruit,” he says. “It’s so exciting to me to see apples in an environment that’s been left alone by man.”
Wayside’s ciders are dry, peaty, and aromatic, with a brisk bite—nothing like the syrupy, back-carbonated commercial ciders you find in six-packs at most supermarkets that taste more like fizzy Juicy Juice. The company’s three offerings—the Half-Wild, a mixture of dessert and “feral” apples; the Dry Town, a mildly tannic blend made with crabapples; and the Catskill, with its prickly effervescence and oaky notes imparted via aging in salvaged bourbon barrels—have become something of a grail at some New York City bars and restaurants, and have even been featured at boutiques like Colette in Paris.
Cider, you could say, is having a years-long moment. In 2015, New York City saw the opening of the bar and restaurant Wassail, a veritable cider library for the cider nerd, and this fall Brooklyn will get its own cidery and tasting room from Peter Yi. And about three hours northwest of the city, Wayside is opening a tap room, restaurant, and performance space on October 15, serving up simple plates incorporating the best of Catskills produce, meats, and cheeses.
All of this is to say that it’s easier than ever to find complex artisanal ciders—both at your local bar and in wine shops—but this fall, why not try making your own at home? Across the country, apple-picking season is well under way. If you don’t feel like baking a dozen apple pies or strudels or making applesauce, try your hand at fermentation. The process boils down to a few steps: Grind and press your apples into juice, add sulfites (SO2) to kill off the native yeast, add champagne yeast to start primary fermentation, age the cider, bottle it, and enjoy.
At first, the process may seem intimidating. But once you’ve made an initial investment in some fermenting equipment (the tools below add up to about $850) and get the hang of using it, you’ll find that at its core, it’s one of the easiest ways to make alcohol. (And one of the surest ways to impress your guests at dinner parties over the holidays.)
- Fruit crusher (Weston makes a popular one)
- Fruit press (again, Weston produces a commonly used one, or you could find other models here)
- Cheesecloth (buy several yards)
- Two 5-gallon glass carboys
- Drilled stoppers, size 6.5 (buy a couple to have as backup)
- Airlocks (buy two)
- Solid stoppers (buy two)
- Racking cane
- 5/16” ID tubing (6 feet should do it)
- Tubing clamp
- Potassium metabisulfite
- Citric acid
- Campden tablets
- 24 750 mL bottles with flip-top lids
- Carboy brush
- Cheap vodka
- Hydrometer (optional, but highly recommended)
- 3 bushels of apples (1 bushel = about 45 pounds; this is a rough amount, and should yield about 5 gallons of juice, but it all depends on the juiciness of the apples and the efficiency of your pressing; err on the side of a little more when buying, so you don’t get to the end of pressing and find you are short)
- Champagne yeast such as Lalvin EC-1118 or Red Star Pasteur Champagne (buy a couple packets)
CHOOSING THE APPLES
First, let’s start by saying you can just go to your local orchards and buy their fresh-pressed, unpasteurized juice. This is certainly an inexpensive option if you don’t want the hassle of buying a grinder and press, and putting in some manual labor to work them. That’s all fair enough, but you miss out on the fun of scouting and picking. If you do opt for buying the juice, buy 5 gallons. It should be raw (unpasteurized), without any preservatives (such as sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate), and preferably organic.
If you are going to pick, grind, and press yourself, bravo. “As a general rule, choose a variety of apples,” Wilson explains, “because each apple has different characteristics, whether it be high sugar (providing sweetness) or high acid (tartness) or some tannin content (bitterness). There’s very few apples that have all three of those qualities, so you’re trying to balance those aspects with your different apples.” Some fairly common commercial varieties that are good for the novice cider maker to try are Jonagold or Cortland (for their sugar content), McIntosh (for its aroma and sharpness), and Granny Smith (for its acidity).
For your first attempt at cider, Wilson suggests trying a balance of about 50% sweet apples (Jonagolds, Cortlands) and 50% heritage varieties, with a small amount of the more bitter wild and crabapples thrown in (more on that below). You could also consult a book such as Cider Hard & Sweet, by Ben Watson, which gives the following breakdown of apple blends: 30–60% sweet apples (Cortland, Golden Delicious, Mutsu), 10–40% tart apples (Granny Smith, Newtown Pippin, Ashmead’s Kernel), 5–20% bitter or astringent apples (Northern Spy, crabapples), and 10–20% aromatic varieties (Roxbury Russet, McIntosh, Cox’s Orange Pippin).
(Try to keep notes about the blend of apples you use and your exact process so that if you like what you make, you can reproduce it—or adjust accordingly for the next batch.)
A few pointers: When you’re picking from a tree, only choose ripe apples, ones whose stems come off easily from the branch when you twist the apple. You should avoid “drops,” the apples on the ground, lest they be tainted with E. coli from deer. Try your best to use organic apples, which won’t have pesticide residues that could interfere with the fermentation process. (And if you can’t get organic, take care to wash the apples well with something like a castile soap such as Dr. Bronners.) Apple varieties that ripen later in the season, throughout October and November, such as Baldwin, Cortland, Ashmead’s Kernel, and Golden Russet, are said to make for deeper and more complex flavors.
Foraging for Wild Apples
This is for the ambitious cider maker. Go scout for some wild apple trees, whether that be in a park or in nearby woods. Wilson’s great passion is finding crabapples, feral apples, and formerly tamed apples gone wild all over Upstate, and he’s also successfully foraged for apples in New York City in Central Park and Prospect Park. “Bike around, walk around, and just use your eyes,” he says. “You can find old abandoned orchards that people think are useless, and there’ll be the trees that you can actually get the best fruit from. You can follow deer trails, and the deer will have spread those apples throughout the mountainside, and you’ll find spontaneously grown orchards along stream banks.”
Once you have your bushels…
1. “Sweat” your apples for a few days to a week. That is, let them sit in a cool place, like a cellar . This step is not mandatory, but it releases some of the water content and increases the sugar levels in the apples, and also can intensify their flavors.
2. Wash your apples. You can tip them into your (well-cleaned, please) bathtub and fill it. Or you can do it outside with a tub and a garden hose. (Tip: Good apples float, rotten ones sink.) After you drain them, pick through them, discard any rotten ones, and cut off any brown spots.
3. Cleanse one of your carboys. Wash it out with dish detergent and a carboy brush. Sanitize* it and let it dry.
TO SANITIZE: Mix up 1 quart of water with 2 teaspoons of potassium metabisulfite and 2 teaspoons of citric acid, and swirl some around the inside of your carboy (this is a standard solution you should apply to all your equipment shortly before using, including running it through your racking tube and pouring it inside bowls and over spoons). Rinse with fresh water. Let it dry fully, which will take a few hours.
4. While you’re waiting for your carboy to dry, grind your apples up in your fruit crusher (which does not need to be sanitized, just cleaned) to yield what’s called the pomace, and collect it in sanitized buckets or bowls. See this video for an idea of how it works.
5. Press your pomace using your fruit press (sanitizing the press is not necessary here either) to extract 5 gallons of juice (here’s a cheery tutorial on the Weston fruit press). This requires some labor, but perhaps it’s an occasion for friends to come over, sip some fall cocktails, and help out. Using a clean funnel, pour your juice, or “must,” into your carboy. Leave some room near the top to allow for foaming during fermentation.
6. Add the sulfites (the Campden tablets) to kill off the native yeast. This is done because native yeast is unpredictable—it could give you an amazing bouquet, or something truly foul. Crush 5 Campden tablets into a powder, mix with a bit of water, and add to your carboy and stir. Put a regular stopper on (not the stopper with a hole for the airlock). Let sit for at least 24 hours.
7. Add your champagne yeast to begin primary fermentation. Mix one packet of the yeast (which is meant for a 5-gallon carboy) with warm water, according to the instructions on the packet, and let sit for 15 minutes. Add the mixture to your carboy and stir with a stirrer. Put a drilled rubber stopper in the opening. Fill your airlock (a contraption that lets gas bubbles escape from the carboy, but allows no air to enter) up to the fill line with vodka, and insert into the hole in the stopper. Fermentation will begin anywhere from within a few hours to several days. This is when the yeast consumes the sugar, turning it into alcohol. When you begin to see bubbling and foaming, you’ll know you’re on your way.
8. Keep in a cool, dark place throughout primary fermentation. Ideally, find somewhere such as your garage or basement that stays between 55 and 60 F, away from the sun. If you live in an apartment, find a place such as a cool closet that doesn’t fluctuate in temperature. “You want it to be a slower fermentation at a lower temperature,” says Wilson. After anywhere between two to four weeks—or once you see the cider stop bubbling, with no more gas escaping through the airlock and the foam at the top settled back down to liquid—primary fermentation should be done.
9. Rack your cider into your second carboy using your racking tube. This works through gravity, so you need to lift your first carboy with the ferment onto a table (allow the lees, or the dead yeast and sediment and pulp, to settle before you rack) and place the empty second carboy on the floor next to it. Attach the flexible tubing to the racking cane (the straight, rigid part). Put the racking cane into your ferment, being careful to keep the tip above the lees, and extend the flexible end of the tube to the bottom of your second carboy. Give the cane a few pumps to get the liquid flowing, and fill the second carboy, but take care to leave the lees behind (you can use what little is left in the first carboy for a taste!).
10. Age the cider. Put a drilled rubber stopper on the second carboy (with another airlock filled with vodka). Let the carboy sit in a cool dark place (ideally around 50 F) for about four months, to complete secondary fermentation and maturing. (Note: You could drink it without aging it in the second carboy if you like it as is—it’ll just taste much younger.)
11. Take a reading with a hydrometer, if you have one (recommended). After your secondary fermentation and aging, a hydrometer reading—which measures something called specific gravity, or density—will tell you whether your sugar has been fully converted to alcohol—and therefore whether fermentation is done. You want to see a reading of 1.000. Why is this important? Because if you bottle your cider before the sugars are gone, it could continue fermenting in your wine bottles, and you could end up with a little explosion. To avoid, follow your hydrometer kit's instructions, or watch this handy video.
12. Bottle your cider. At the end of four months or so, what you’ll have is a very dry, still cider. Using your siphon, this time with the clamp attached to the flexible tube, fill each 750 mL bottle (again, washed and sanitized—lids and all), leaving about half an inch of air space between the liquid and the cap. Close the flip-top lids, store upright in a cool place, and enjoy.
Note: If you prefer a champagne-style cider—that is, something with some effervescence to it—there’s an advanced set of steps (adding sugar and yeast to each bottle) to produce carbon dioxide and fizz. You can consult books such as The New Cider Maker’s Handbook, by Claude Jolicoeur, or Cider Hard & Sweet, by Ben Watson, for the details.
Cider is incredibly versatile and is delicious paired with anything from pork and lamb to cheeses to spicy Thai or Indian dishes. But the ideal way to enjoy your cider is with food produced in the same region you found your apples. “I’d go to your local farmer’s market and get cheeses from the area that the apples were picked,” Wilson suggests. “Also, if you have meats from the area, that’s going to be best, because the families of things go together and are produced in similar climates. It’s about creating a culture of regional food.”
Wilson loves cooking with his cider as well (one of his favorite recipes, for a chicken-and-mushroom casserole, is by chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall). He also offers up a recipe below for a stew, devised with his chef, Michelle Owen, that he plans on serving at the Wayside Cider tap room this fall.
Catskill Pork, Cabbage, & Apple
2 boneless pork loin ends, cut in 1" pieces
1 T. Olive oil and 1 T butter
Salt and pepper
1 tart apple, halved and sliced thin
2 onions, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
2 T brown sugar or dark honey
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup Wayside Dry Town cider (our your own cider)
Pinch of cinnamon and cloves
2 pinches cayenne
1 grated carrot
6 cups red cabbage, quartered and thinly sliced
1. Dry pork with paper towel.
2. Put oil and butter in heavy casserole (with lid).
3. Add pork pieces. Stir slightly until some browning appears. Add salt and pepper.
4. Add apple and onion to pot on low heat for 5 minutes, until softened.
5. Add the remaining ingredients. Stir well.
6. Bring to a full simmer. Cover and cook on low for 1 to 1.5 hours, until pork is tender.
7. Optional: Drizzle on some yogurt and mint. Serve with a hearty rye bread and a glass of Wayside Catskill Cider (or your own cider).
If you find yourself up in the Catskills this fall, visit Wayside Cider’s tasting room at 55 Redden Lane, Andes NY.