Brewing your own hard cider is easy, but it does require a bit of specialized equipment to do it well. You need certain beer-making supplies, readily found at homebrew shops (online or otherwise). I’ll walk you through the essentials.
A simple plastic bucket with tight lid. The lid needs a grommeted hole for an airlock; they are usually sold this way at brewing stores.
Optional: Additional 5-gallon bottling barrel with spigot (as shown)
This is technically a luxury (you could do your bottling with a siphon hose) but I highly recommend getting a bottling barrel in addition to your fermenting barrel. It will reduce spills and make filling bottles much easier. Easier bottling also makes it easier to convince someone to help you, which speeds things up considerably.
Airlocks let gas escape from your brewing barrel through a small water chamber, ensuring that air, bacteria, and dust can’t sneak inside. Some people use distilled or disinfected water for maximum sanitation.
This is a calibrated float that will let you measure the density of your cider relative to water (known as specific gravity or SG). Measuring density before and after fermentation will provide an estimate of your alcohol content — most hydrometers report both SG and potential alcohol, so it’s as simple as subtracting your final potential alcohol reading from your initial reading.
D: Food-grade plastic hose, usually 5/16” diameter
This is vital for moving cider from one container to another without introducing too much air. Remember that siphoning via gravity requires that your destination container be lower than your source container.
If you’re using a siphon starter (see below), your hose must be the right size to fit snugly over the open end of the siphon starter. To help get the hose on, you may want to heat it up with a hair dryer or cut a small slit at the end.
This is the contamination-free way to start siphoning cider from one bucket into another — a few pumps and it’s flowing like magic. Please, after all the sterilizing you’ve done, don’t put your mouth on the hose.
F: Wine thief
The perfect way to take a sample from a barrel or any other brewing apparatus. Sterilize the thief, dip it all the way into the cider, cover the hole on top with a thumb, and you can pull a nice tube of cider out for testing — the thief is the perfect diameter for a hydrometer.
G: Hand capper
This tool costs less than $20 and lets you crimp professional-looking caps onto glass bottles.
Most American bottles use a standard-sized cap. You will need different caps (and likely a different capper) to handle some European bottles or champagne bottles.
Different juices from different sources will have varying levels of acidity, as measured by pH. Since acid inhibits unwanted bacterial growth, less acidic juices will need more sulfite additives to ensure a good fermentation.
J: Camden tablets, 150 ppm each
Camden tablets are a traditional way of keeping unwanted yeast and bacteria from growing in wine or cider by adding sulfites. Commercial brewing yeasts are bred to tolerate sulfites, producing a reliable brew. For five-gallon batches, use one tablet for low-pH juice (3.0 and below), two tablets for slightly higher pH (3.0-3.8), and three tablets for the least acidic juices (3.8 and above). When in doubt, just use two tablets.
You will need up to 660 oz. of airtight storage for your cider — that’s 55 12 oz. bottles. I like having a mix of bottle sizes. Bottles with resealable lids (either plastic bottles or bottles with caged stoppers) are the easiest to use because you don’t need a capper tool to seal them. Still, it’s hard to beat the aesthetics of a crimped cap on a glass bottle. If you’re capping bottles, make sure they’re pry-off tops instead of twist-off ones. Beware of some imported bottles that require larger caps and sometimes a new capping tool.
Don’t waste your money buying too many empty bottles. If you start collecting bottles from your home and get some friends and family to save you their empties, you’ll build up a good supply eventually. Dark bottles are best because they block out light and prevent spoilage, but clear bottles will still work in a pinch. I use a few resealable bottles from Ikea and reused some lemonade bottles in order to get enough storage for my first batch. I am also not above rummaging through my neighbor’s bin on recycling day.
As a crowning touch, I use printable stickers (such as these) to label the caps of each batch; otherwise, it’s easy to get bottles from different batches confused. My labels always include:
- the bottling date;
- a name or code so I know what type of cider it is; and
- a charming logo of some kind.