Archive for the ‘Cider brewing’ Category

T-shirts make perfect carboy covers

11 May

Carboys wearing t-shirtsCarboys are large bottles typically used for one or more stages of fermentation for homebrewing cider or beer. Some people prefer glass carboys, and other people prefer plastic ones.

The unavoidable issue is that both types of carboys are typically transparent. Ultraviolet radiation can pass right through the clear walls of a carboy and ruin the brew inside.

My solution: put a t-shirt on your carboys. An old undershirt or two can give your brew a more consistent flavor and a longer shelflife.

Here comes the science: ultraviolet radiation has a shorter wavelength than visible light, and its higher energy content allows it to break chemical bonds in all kinds of substances, from beverages to DNA (this is why it gives people sunburns and/or skin cancer). “Skunked” beer is caused by sunlight, and any other source of ultraviolet light will also affect the flavor of any brew, usually for the worse. This why brown bottles are the best for the long-term storage of homebrew: the dark color blocks most of the ultraviolet light from reaching the liquid inside. For this reason, I keep my more transparent glass containers (green, blue, and clear bottles) inside another opaque container, such as a cardboard box. Putting one or more t-shirts over a carboy will reduce the amount of light that reaches the brew inside. A white shirt will reflect the most light. However, a thick shirt of any color will still absorb the light and protect the contents of the carboy.

As for the choice between glass and plastic carboys, there is good reason for the debate between these two options. Glass does not absorb colors or odor and will last indefinitely with proper care, but the glass bottles are heavy and expensive, which increases the cost and risk of dropping one and breaking it. Plastic carboys are lightweight and convenient, not to mention cheaper. Of course, colors and odors may linger in a plastic container, and the plastic will weaken with age and may split easily after over a long period of time. Neither type is a perfect solution for everyone. I use both without preference and have not observed any differences in flavor or consistency between the two bottles.


Cider Recipe – Pumpkinhead Cider

02 Aug

Pumpkinhead Cider capSeasonal brews can become great annual traditions: fruit-filled drinks for the summer, spiced drinks for the winter, and so forth. The catch is that you have to plan ahead. If you want a good Octoberfest brew, you need to start making it no later than August! If you start one now, it will be ready to drink well before Halloween.

With that in mind, I present a new seasonal cider for your enjoyment: Pumpkinhead Cider. I made a test batch last year and am starting a new batch now. This recipe combines standard cider ingredients with most of the ingredients for a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie filling is a great shortcut for a pumpkin-based brew because it includes the spices needed to make the pumpkin flavor stand out.

Remember, you can tweak my recipes to your own liking. I included a few options in the recipe below. For example, to keep the dark, rich flavor and color associated with most breweries’ Octoberfest varieties, I recommend using either brown sugar (medium darkness) or molasses (very dark) instead of white sugar. I have tried molasses in the standard Panda Beer with great success. I am also trying out different acid blends, which bring out different aspects of the apple flavor.


  • 6 gallons apple juice
  • 1 cup brown sugar or molasses (your choice)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 30-oz. canned pumpkin (one large can)
  • 60-oz. pumpkin pie filling (two large cans)
  • 2 Tbs. malic acid or an acid blend (try 2 tsp. each of malic, tartaric, and citric acid for a sharper flavor)
  • 2 Tbs. vanilla extract
  • 2 Camden tablets (150 ppm)
  • Champagne yeast (such as Lalvin EC-118 or Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast)
  • Dissolved in two cups of warm water and added right before bottling:
    • 3/4 cup priming sugar
    • 3/4 cup lactose
    • 3/4 cup maltodextrin
  • Follow standard brewing procedureswith a slight variation:
    • When starting the batch, pour all of your pumpkin into a mesh bag (nylon or muslin), tie it shut, and simmer it for 20 minutes in apple juice. Put the bag of pumpkin in your brewing bucket for the first stage and then dispose of it when you rack the cider into a clean carboy.
    • If you don’t have an appropriate bag, you can add the pumpkin straight to the juice; the only drawback is that you will probably end up with more pumpkin sediment left in the cider.

Magnetic bottlecap rings are like wine charms for bottles

19 Apr

Labeled magnet, ring, and finished bottle cap holderI often pour one glass of cider and recork the larger bottle for later. This has one drawback: no longer do I know what type of cider inside the bottle. Without caps, my blank bottles are impossible to tell apart.

My solution? With a magnet and a steel ring, I can attach the cap to the neck of the bottle. These things are require no tools to make, and they are infinitely reusable. I keep several stuck to the fridge in case I have a bottle-labeling emergency of some kind.

How to make one: Stick the magnet on the ring, and drop the ring around the neck of the bottle. The magnet will hold the cap there as long as you like. Magnetic or ring-based charms could also help people identify their bottles at a party.

Magnetic cap holder on bottleMagnetic bottle cap holder

Where to get the parts: I used magnets from hard drives because they’re powerful and semi-elegant, but any magnet that keeps the cap from flying away under normal drinking conditions should be fine. As for the rings, large ones work best — they need an internal diameter of at least 1.1″ (28 cm) to fit past the flared mouths of most bottles. Split rings (a.k.a. key rings) are fine if they’re large enough. Hardware stores also have a number of cheap plumbing fittings that would work as long as they’re ferromagnetic (made of metals like iron or steel) and will attract to a magnet.


Wire baskets make great drying and/or painting racks

28 Jun

Wire basketYou have probably seen lowly wire baskets hanging out at the laundromat (assuming that the laundromat is still where all the cool kids hang out). You may even have one lurking somewhere in your home. We did not buy our wire basket; it appeared in our basement several moves ago, and it has become an ever-present fact of life. We never use it for laundry, but still it remains.

Flip a wire basket upside-down and you will find a whole host of new uses. The square holes in “laundry-style” wire baskets are a perfect fit for the necks of most glass bottles, making an upside-down basket makes a great drying rack for home brewing.  You can get similar baskets at Ikea for $2.50, so these are good, economical solutions for anyone with a lot of bottles to wash or to paint. By comparison, brewing catalogs charge $40 and up for single-purpose drying racks.

If you need to paint your bottles (which you might do for decoration or to block unwanted light), the wire basket makes an excellent painting station. It’s easy to stand up a few dozen bottles at a time, with enough space between them that spray-painting is a breeze. The space between the bottles ensures quick drying times and minimizes wasted paint.

Wire basket and drying bottlesWire basket and painted bottles

The bottles will usually lean to one side rather than standing straight up, but they don’t fall over. That lean makes it hard to hit every surface of the bottle in one painting session, so I suggest turning each bottle 180 degrees after the first coat of paint has dried so you can cover any missed spots. Also, you may want to protect your basket with a sheet of newspaper to avoid painting the basket along with the bottles.


Cider Recipe – Shane Summer

18 Apr
Lemon cider recipeBefore I went gluten-free, the arrival of Sam Adam’s seasonal brew on tap at the local pub was a cause for celebration. Fights would break out over the relative merits of Summer Ale versus the Octoberfest variety. The limited timeframe for these flavors made each pint seem precious. When the end of a season came around, finding an untouched case of a seasonal brew was like unearthing buried treasure. Rarity always has a positive effect on value. I was embarrassingly excited recently when I found one last bottle of Mega Man Milk Stout.

In my quest to overtake Sam Adams (which may require going back in time to murder him), I’ve been working seasonal recipes into my repertoire. Today, we hail my answer to the Samuel Adams Summer Ale: the Shane Summer. The simple addition of fresh lemons into the standard Shane Classic recipe makes a world of difference. The resulting concoction is light and refreshing, with a distinctive flavor similar to a lemon drop. This would make a great brew at any time of year, but the association between lemonade and the hot days of summer.

To make a good seasonal cider, you have to plan ahead. After all, it takes several months for a cider to mature fully and achieve its full potential. If you wait to start a summer cider until June, you may end up drinking it in the fall instead. I started this cider at the beginning of March so it would be ready by Memorial Day and barbecue season. Stay tuned for future seasonal recipes; I have a fall pumpkin cider and a winter spiced cider up my sleeve.

Note: I have started using a larger barrel and making six-gallon batches of cider. You can adjust the recipe one of two ways: either reduce all the ingredients proportionally or subtract a gallon of juice and hope for the best (you’ll get slightly different but totally tasty results).


  • 6 gallons apple juice
  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 3 lemons, juiced and sliced into quarters
  • 2 Tbs. malic acid
  • 1 tsp. wine tannin
  • 2 Camden tablets (150 ppm)
  • Champagne yeast (such as Lalvin EC-118 or Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast)
  • 2/3 cup priming sugar (added at bottling dissolved in 1 cup of water)
  • Follow standard brewing procedures


Premium cider is on its way

10 Oct

Empty jugsIn simpler times, fall was when apples were finally ripe, making it the only season to brew cider. Now, we can make do the rest of the year with shelf-stable, pasteurized juice or by buying imported apples and pressing them, but fall is still the time to capitalize on the temporary availability of fresh apple cider from local orchards. Fresh, sweet cider makes a great raw ingredient for hard cider and creates a richer, more flavorful final product than cider made from simple juice. Most fresh cider is flash-pasteurized and contains no preservatives, which makes it perfect for home brewing. However, the lack of preservatives gives it a limited shelf life; you must keep it refrigerated or start brewing with it before some undesirable natural yeast takes over.

Having honed several good cider recipes during the year, I went to Weber’s Cider Mill Farm yesterday to pick up some fresh apple cider from the pros to make some premium-grade hard cider before winter comes. Fresh cider is typically around $6 per gallon, which is about 50% more expensive than the unfiltered Kirkland apple juice I use the rest of the year. The high-quality results are worth the extra cost, but don’t be afraid to negotiate. Most orchards (including Weber’s) will be happy to give you a discount if you’re buying large quantities. The friendly folks at Weber’s were quite helpful, and their cider is fantastic — highly recommended for anyone in the Baltimore area.

I dragged a heavy wagon with 12 gallons of fresh cider out of Weber’s. That’s enough to start two premium batches and still have some fresh cider left for drinking. One batch follows the Panda Beer model, with just brown sugar, raisins, and honey, while the other is a spiced winter cider with cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. When it’s ready for tasting, I’ll be sure to share the recipe for the Winter Warmer.


Cider Recipe – Panda Beer

07 Sep

Panda beer in bottles

Time for a darker, richer cider! The Panda Beer has a more well-rounded flavor than the Shane Classic, owing mostly to the use of brown sugar and honey as sweeteners instead of white sugar. This basic recipe has repeatedly been the favorite at every cider tasting I’ve run, despite the fact that it has little relation to beer and even less to do with pandas. Try it out for yourself.

(If you’ve never brewed before, you may want to start with the equipment review, the review of possible ingredients, or the basic brewing procedures described here.)


  • 5 gallons Kirkland apple juice
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups honey
  • 2 Camden tablets (150 ppm)
  • 1 packet wine yeast (I like Lalvin D-47)
  • 2 Tbs. malic acid
  • 1 tsp. wine tannins
  • Dissolved in two cups of warm water and added right before bottling:
    • 2/3 cup priming sugar
    • ½ cup lactose
    • ½ cup maltodextrin
  • Honey is reluctant to dissolve in cold water, so I suggest heating up a couple of quarts of cider on the stove and stirring in the honey until it is a smooth mixture. Otherwise, follow standard brewing procedures.

Specific gravity and alcohol content calculator for hard cider

07 Jul

Screenshot of cider templateHere’s the best tool you can have for planning a cider recipe. Usually, you need to use a hydrometer to determine the density (specific gravity or SG) of your cider before and after brewing in order to calculate its alcohol content. This spreadsheet does the work for you, calculating the blended SG and estimating your final alcohol content based on the sugar content of your ingredients. Fill in your own combination of juice, sugar, and additives and find out how strong the resulting cider will be. I’ve included some typical values for certain ingredients (Kirkland apple juice, white sugar, brown sugar, honey, etc.), and you can add your own if you have the nutritional information. While the calculator assumes you are letting your cider age and ferment to extreme dryness (SG = 1.000), you also determine the final alcohol content at any SG value you enter.

I rely on this spreadsheet so much that I barely take hydrometer readings anymore. Make copies of it in order to save a record of each cider batch that you make. I can flip through every batch I’ve made this year and determine what recipes are working and what ones need to be retooled. Keeping records is invaluable in good science. Did you realize you were conducting science by brewing cider?

Cider recipe template with specific gravity/alcohol calculator


Cider Recipe – Mega Man Milk Stout

20 Jun

Mega Man capsThe Holy Grail I’m seeking is an easy, gluten-free homebrew recipe that tastes like actual beer. Someday, I may make a beer with gluten-free grains like sorghum or rice. However, cider is so much easier to make (fewer variables, readily-available ingredients, no cooking involved) that I’d rather make a cider that tastes like beer than start over with a new, more complicated process.

The Mega Man Milk Stout is roughly 7.5% alcohol and shows some real progress towards faking beer. With a blend of coffee, honey, and vanilla, it lands somewhere on the taste spectrum between a traditional milk stout and an espresso porter. The coffee flavor jumps out at you, and the addition of lactose and maltodextrin give it some sweetness and extra body. If not for the light color of the finished product, most people would never realize this was apple cider at all.

Read the rest of this entry »


Cider Recipe – Mr. Pink, a hard cranberry-raspberry cider

05 Jun

Glass of red/pink ciderThis cider came out sweet, fruity, and full of bubbles, earning it the name Mr. Pink. With both cranberry and raspberry flavors plus some extra sweetness, it works great as a replacement for your hard lemonades and the like (can I use the charming Britishy term alcopops?).

You could use almost any juice or fruit combination for different flavors. In this case, the red juice gives it a dramatic look. Read the rest of this entry »