Cider drinker Paul Gunningham finally got round to attempting to make his own cider at home. Find out how he got on!
Introduction: get yourself some apples!
After drinking the stuff for years, I thought: why not have a go at making some cider myself? According to the instruction books, all I need is some apples! And I had some, having been given them by various friends who had a surplus. Most of the apples I was given were eating apples of unknown variety, which I supplemented with some crab apples I picked from some trees in a local hedgerow.
I started out with about 80 lbs of mixed dessert apples, plus around 12.5 lbs of crabs (pictured right). It took me the best part of two days to wash, sort, mill and press these apples using the fairly basic equipment at my disposal – but this was partly due to my inexperience, as you will see.
Step 1: Sort & Wash the Apples
The first step was to wash the apples. I found this easiest to do out of doors, using the garden hosepipe and an old tin bath we have lying around in the back yard.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
While washing the apples, I removed any bits of branch or leaves attached to them, and discarded a few that had started to rot and turn a brown colour. As a general rule, if you wouldn’t be prepared to eat it, you shouldn’t be prepared to drink it – the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” principle applies as much to cidermaking as to anything else!
Step 2: Mill the Apples
Having washed and sorted the apples, the next stage was to mill them. I don’t have a scratter, but I do have aPulpmaster I’ve used before for crushing fruit for winemaking. It’s simply a rotating blade that attaches to an ordinary electric drill. There’s a special pail for use with it, which has a hole in the lid through which the shaft of the blade passes. The pail is around 2 gallons in capacity, about the same as a normal household bucket.
Crushing the Apples
The crab apples are small enough to crush without any further preparation, but I’ve found that larger apples are easier to crush effectively if they’re first chopped up into smaller chunks – I cut them into eight pieces each, or four for smaller apples. This may not be strictly necessary but I found it helps. It also allowed me to remove a few bad portions where worms or wasps, etc., had eaten the apples.
Now – the crushing itself. I found this to be a messy job. By trial and error I found it best to load the bucket about half full with apples – chopped if necessary – then put the lid with drill attachment in place. Raise the drill to its highest level, switch on, then lower slowly into the apples. Of course you can’t see what’s happening, but you can feel the apples coming into contact with the blade. After slowly raising and lowering the blade (with power still switched on) I found after about 30 seconds I could feel no more resistance, at which point I switched off the drill and removed the lid. The pulp and lumps of apple were distributed around the sides of the bucket – and the lid, demonstrating the need to keep the lid firmly closed while pulping!
At this point I would remove some of the pulp – placing it into a second bucket kept handy for this purpose – then redistribute the apple lumps into the centre of the pulping pail, and repeat the process. I would do this until most of the apples in the original load had been pulped. I would then add more apples and continue pulping in the same way. At the very end of pulping, when all the apples had been used up, I found it more or less impossible to pulp the last few pieces – I just chopped them as small as possible with a knife and added them to the pulp. One point to note is that the pulp very quickly gets oxidised – within seconds it would turn from white to brown, as can be seen in the photo right. This is normal and nothing to worry about – and I doubt there’s anything you can do to prevent it.
A safety warning here: as with all activities involving power tools, it is potentially dangerous. It goes without saying that you should take great care when using the Pulpmaster, or it might be more than just your apples that get pulped!
On the first day of pulping, I pulped all the apples and then moved on to pressing (more on this below). I realised that it would be better to mill and press in parallel, which is what I did on Day Two. So my recommendation is to accumulate enough pulp for your first pressing and then proceed to press, then return to continue milling while you wait for the juice to run out of the press.
Step 3: Pressing
Moving on to more pressing matters – my press is a fairly small one of only around 4 litres capacity. It’s a basket screw press, fairly strong and sturdy, made of steel coated in nylon to prevent the juice coming into contact with the metal, which would ruin the cider (and probably the press too, eventually).
Inside the basket goes a muslin bag to hold the pulp in but allow the juice to run out. By trial and error I found it best not to put too much pulp in at once – in my case a few inches deep seemed best. The reason is that if you put too much in, the juice in the centre of the mass of pulp cannot easily run out through the compressed pulp surrounding it. So, even though it takes longer to do many small pressings rather than one large one, you will end up with more juice – which after all is the object of the exercise. Patience should be your watchword when pressing – more on that later, too.
Now the pressing operation itself: having loaded the pulp into the bag inside the basket, I folded the top over and placed the heavy steel pressing plate over the top, then insert the screw mechanism and start to tighten the screw. As the pulp is pressed, juice runs out fairly fast at first, so before you start, make sure you have an empty container big enough to collect the juice, underneath the press. In my case a kitchen bowl of a few pints’ capacity was big enough.
Once the initial flow of juice had slowed down to a trickle, I would tighten the screw further and the juice would flow again. After repeating this a few times I found that the screw would become difficult to turn any further. I discovered that after leaving it alone for a while, I could then turn it tighter again fairly easily. By tightening, waiting, and then retightening, waiting again, tightening again, I was able to extract more juice. Patience pays off again! It was to take advantage of the “waiting periods” that I decided to mill and press in parallel – while waiting for the press I could continue milling, making use of the idle time in the pressing operation. I did this on the second day and not only speeded up the overall operation, but I got more juice as well.
I found that after repeating the tightening/waiting sequence a number of times, the law of dimishing returns kicked in. Once I found I was getting little juice and I could not turn the screw without difficulty I decided that I’d got all I could usefully get out of that batch of pulp. Slackening off the screw, I was able to empty out the cylindrical cake of pulp and start again with a fresh load. I had originally intended to soak the pulp and go for a second pressing, but in the end I decided it seemed too much like hard work and just threw it on my compost heap.
Step 4: Fermentation
As I collected the juice from each pressing, I poured it into demijohns (1 gallon glass jars). At some stage I would take a sample and measure the OG of each, and note it down (more on this later). When a jar was nearly full I mixed in a crushed Campden tablet with each gallon, to sulphite the juice. This is not strictly necessary and I was in two minds whether to do it. However, the advice I had been given suggested that sulphiting reduces the risk of contamination of the cider by undesirable bacterial action. The down side is that it inhibits the yeast activity and slows the start of fermentation. This is nothing to worry about, as if the worst comes to the worst, you can add a wine yeast to get it going. I intended to leave it a while and wait and see what happens – I was in no hurry…
The picture above right shows two partially filled demijohns illustrating the different appearance of the crab apple juice and the other apple juice. As can be seen, the crab juice was a lot clearer than the murky-looking juice from the dessert apples. However it all cleared during fermentation.
Having filled each demijohn I added a bung with a fermentation lock, the lock being filled with sodium metabisulphite solution. I always put a small plug of cotton wool in the top of the lock, to keep flies from drowning in the solution, in their attempts to swim, Shelley Winters style, through the lock to get at the scrumpy! On the subject of sodium metabisulphite, I should mention that I previously made sure all the equipment I used was clean, and I sterilised it using more of the same solution, which I then rinsed off.
Returning for a moment to the subject of Original Gravity (OG): this is a measure of the strength of the juice with regard to the fermentable material. The higher the OG, the stronger the resulting cider is likely to be in alcohol. My cider came out at around 1054 to 1060, which is acceptable, being at the lower end of the desired scale. If the OG had been much lower I could have increased it by adding the appropriate amount of sugar. I’m glad I didn’t have to do this as I was keen to make cider from juice which is as pure as possible (notwithstanding the addition of Campden tablets which I saw as a necessary evil). I was fortunate that the acidity of the juice was about right – probably a fluke as I had no idea what type of apples they were! Many thanks to Andrew Lea for his expert advice on this.
Step 5: Maturation
Having filled the demijohns and fitted them with airlocks, I left them in a warm cupboard for a few days. After this time, the juice was showing signs of fermentation, getting vigorous after another few days. I then moved the jars to a cooler room. The fermentation continued, but more slowly. The rate of fermentation varied between individual batches, but after a while they more or less looked the same.
After about two months I racked the cider off the lees, which had many bits of crushed apple in them. The cider was clearing nicely by this time. I left it for another couple of months by which time the fermentation had more or less stopped (as I could tell by the levels and movement in the fermentation locks). I then racked the cider into bottles (I used my favourite old beer/cider bottles with internal screw stoppers).
Step 6: Wassail!
The final result? Judge for yourself!
Conclusions and lessons learned
In the interests of clarity I’ve simplified the description above, to more or less say what I would do now if I was doing it all over again. There were a few things that I haven’t mentioned. For example, I did try fermenting a couple of gallons without adding sulphite. These samples started to grow a kind of mould on the top after a few days, so I syphoned the juice off and sulphited again. In these cases I later added wine yeast as the fermentation didn’t seem to be working. So I concluded that it’s safer to sulphite the juice if you want to avoid problems.
I also discovered that in my case the cider dropped beautifully clear without any need to filter it (not that I would have done anyway). This shows that real cider does not have to be cloudy. You can see this in the picture above.
The Bottom Line
Yes, yes, you’re probably saying – but what does it taste like? Very good, actually! I was most surprised that the cider I made was very palatable, contrary to my expectations, given my total lack of experience at making it. Maybe this was beginners’ luck, but it’s encouraged me to have a go again. So go on, give it a try yourself!