Depending on your cider recipe, you may be using three ingredients or you may have a dozen — you can get great results both ways. There are a lot of juices, flavorings, and additives that you might want to include in a batch of cider, but it helps to know how much to use. I’m going to focus on ingredients from two sources: grocery stores and brewing stores (you can order online if you don’t have one nearby). After you’ve tried a simple batch, use your knowledge of ingredients to experiment with your own recipes for subsequent brews.
Apple juice or apple cider
Your main ingredient is the most important one, so the simpler, the better. You want juice or cider that is not from concentrate and has the fewest additives. Pasteurization is not a problem, but preservatives are. If your juice or cider contains preservatives such as potassium benzoate (and most ciders found in the grocery store do), you can’t brew with it — the preservatives will stop your yeast from growing.
Apple cider is the best, but it’s always more expensive ($5 – $6 dollars per gallon), whether farm-fresh or from the grocery store. Try a few recipes first before you make a big (and therefore expensive) batch using fresh cider — it’ll be worth it for a fantastic single-batch, high-quality product. Of course, a true obsessive would grow (or at least press) his own apples and would use very different juice than what you can buy in the store (there are types of apples used exclusively for cider that are otherwise nearly inedible), but normal apple juice really does work fine. I recommend Costco’s excellent fresh-pressed Kirkland apple juice — it has no additives, and it’s cheaper than cider (currently about $3.70 per gallon).
Consider replacing one gallon of apple juice with a gallon of cranberry-raspberry juice or something similar — the sugar content is usually identical, and you’ll get an entirely new flavor and color in your cider. A gallon of pear juice would also make an excellent substitute for a gallon of cider; expect dramatic changes. True pear cider (“perry”) is its own type of drink that I have yet to make. Substituting more than one gallon of cider takes you into strange territory where the apple juice no longer dominates the flavor. I’ll scout ahead and report back.
The yeast is perhaps even more important than the juice; commercial yeast packets intended for brewing are a must. $1 per packet at a brewing store is the best money you’ll spend. I chose gluten-free yeasts because of my requirements, but that still left a lot of choices. I’ve used these four with similar success each time:
- Lalvin yeasts: D-47 (white wine) or EC-118 (champagne)
- Red Star yeasts: Côte des Blancs or Pasteur Champagne
If there’s sugar on the nutrition label, it’ll probably ferment. Adding sugar will increase the ultimate alcohol content – four cups of sugar added to five gallons of apple juice will produce a cider that’s about 8% alcohol. There are a number of sugars you could consider.
Most natural sugars increase the alcohol potential of cider. White sugar adds alcohol potential without otherwise affecting taste or color. Brown sugar provides a darker flavor like molasses; honey will, too, but the flavor will depend on the type of honey used (clover, wildflower, etc.). Darker honeys have more intense flavors.
Raisins add tannins, natural yeasts, and fermentable sugar. This is a typical component of New England-style cider and an easy way to make simple juice more interesting.
Flavored sugar sources (fresh fruit, preserves, jam, etc.)
Many inexpensive fruit preserves from the grocery store contain as much sugar per ounce as granulated sugar while adding a nice flavor and color to your cider. Replace one or two cups of sugar with raspberry preserves for a slightly red color and a warm flavor.
Priming sugar is added to the cider mixture just before bottling; in the bottle, the yeast will consume the sugar and produce carbon dioxide, which will be trapped in the bottle and will eventually carbonate the cider. Normal sugar will work fine, too, but priming sugar dissolves easily and makes consistent bubbly results.
You can mix these in at bottling time. They increase the cider’s specific gravity and affect your your hydrometer readings, but they won’t actually ferment. Strange ingredients like maltodextrin and lactose can be found at brewing stores.
Hardly a sugar at all, maltodextrin won’t add much sweetness, but it will thicken your brew — try half a cup in a five-gallon batch. If you’re sensitive to gluten, make sure you find corn maltodextrin just to be sure.
Lactose is sugar derived from milk, commonly used in “milk stouts.” It will add heft and sweetness to your brew; try ½ – 1 cup in a five-gallon batch. Skip it if you’re sensitive to dairy.
These will make your final product sweet and cannot ferment, so sweeten to your taste. For Splenda (or any sweetener that is interchangeable with sugar by volume), try two tablespoons in a five-gallon batch your first time.
These are specialty products that you’ll only find at brewing stores.
These tablets add sulfites to the cider, which inhibit the growth of undesirable yeast. The commercial yeast we use in the cider is designed to tolerate sulfites, so Camden tablets help ensure that the proper yeast strain dominates during fermentation. The amount of Camden tablets you should add varies with the pH of your juice before fermentation. Unless your juice tastes tart and acidic, two 150-ppm Camden tablets make a good standard dose.
A common additive in grocery-store cider, malic acid will give plain juice a sharper flavor and should result in a more well-rounded cider after fermentation. Try two tablespoons of malic acid powder in a five-gallon batch.
Tannins (aka wine tannins)
Red wines get their color from grape skins, and cider stands to benefit from a dose, too. Wine tannin adds flavor, body, and color. One teaspoon of powdered tannins per five-gallon batch should do it.
Now, that’s just crazy
There are beers made with coffee and vanilla, and I don’t see why cider can’t play, too. Also, consider a winter cider with cinnamon and spices.