A Simple Cider That Everyone Can Homebrew
Cider is a very fun and very easy fermentation, and this week I wanted to wax eloquent on one of my favorite cider base recipes, and talk a little about how you can expand on this base recipe to make whatever kind of cider you want!
Show Me the Honey
Honey makes a big difference in your cider. It boosts your gravity, adds complex flavor and aroma characteristics, and helps with the perception of body and sweetness in the finished product. It also has an amazing way of helping cider age and become more complex as it ages, pushing forward apple and fruit flavors, as well as those of the honey.
The trick here is to have at least 2 pounds of your favorite honey in 5 gallons of cider. This seems to be the ‘sweet spot’ as a minimum, gives you plenty of the characteristics you want from the honey, and only boosts your gravity 14 - ish points. Usually, this puts your finished product in the 7.5% range, which is a pretty good balance.
All of that being said, I always love to try more! Adding honey in at a pound per gallon of apple juice is a VERY fun experiment! Just make sure that you choose a yeast that can perform well enough to eat all of the extra sugars and still produce an awesome flavor profile, and that you have plenty of Fermaid K or Fermaid O on hand, because you’ll need it at those gravities!
The Juice Is Loose
Ok everyone, I’m just going to come out and say it: Cider should be made year round, with all kinds of different juices, whatever you have access to, and on a regular basis. Of course your own harvest apples are going to be incredible, especially because of all of the work that goes into processing them, but you have to look at apple harvest season like the Super Bowl! That means lots of practice the rest of the year so you know exactly what you want when it comes time to do the heavy lifting with your own homegrown ingredients.
Once you use a few different juices that are easy to get, you’ll find the ones that are your favorite. Use this recipe (it’s coming, I swear!) as a baseline for all of your juices, then choose your favorite. This way, you know exactly what you’re working with before you decide to get crazy and add Fruit Purees or try different yeast strains. The important things you need to look for when choosing your juice are that they are only pasteurized and have NO preservatives. I even go as far as looking through the ingredients on the bottle to make sure that Potassium Sorbate is not on the list.
My personal year round favorite: Tree Top. It’s available at a great price from a giant buy-in-bulk box store, it’s high quality, and it makes good cider. I can easily head down to the store, get 10 gallons of this stuff, and be ready to try whatever new yeast or fruit that I have planned.
Does Yeast Make a Difference?
To the resounding surprise of nobody, yeast makes a HUGE difference! I have had ciders fermented with enough different yeasts to make your head spin, and they are all different and unique in their own way. The important part is to have a couple of ‘House Strains’ that you enjoy using and that are somewhat predictable. This makes it easier to design your next fun cider project because you don’t have as many wildcards in your hand, and makes your cider success rate go way up!
One thing to remember when choosing a yeast for your cider is that just about every strain is going to finish at or below 1.000. This is because we are fermenting a must that is 100% simple sugar, even with the honey involved. The only way to really control post fermentation is by back-sweetening (click HERE for a more depth look into the back-sweetening process) or adding enough sugar from the get go to overpower the yeasts capabilities to ferment it. Think of this process like this: My yeast can only ferment to 10% abv, so I’m going to put enough sugar in for 12% abv, and when it stops, I’ll have 2% abv’s worth of residual sugar for flavor. We use this method a lot when making mead, but it’s obviously more for high gravity fermentations.
But because all that fructose and glucose is going to be eaten up because they're simple sugars, it’s important to choose the right strain for the flavor profile that you want, and let’s be honest, trial and error may be the best possible solution here! Below are a few common yeast strains that we have used and our customers and friends have used extensively enough to predict their overall character.
Many people, after they decide to make their first cider and do some light online due diligence, choose the Champagne strain, EC-1118 or Premier Cuvee, which is highly recommended in many cider articles online. These strains are very dry, very neutral, and can be very acidic in the finished product. The bright side is that they are also almost invincible, and total workhorses capable of 18% plus fermentations, which is a pretty big deal in the yeast world. The most common flavor description that I get from Champagne Strain cider fermentations is ‘distinct green apple’, which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your taste.
Another very common yeast strain is an ‘English Ale Strain’, which is one of my more favorite strain types for ciders, especially incarnations of the Fullers Brewery Strain, such as WLP002, Wyeast 1968, and Imperial Pub. This strain is forward and fruity, enhancing the varietal characters of the juice and honey, while not producing a ton of acid and dry character, even though it will finish at 1.000 or 10 - ish percent alcohol, whichever comes first. Rule of thumb, though, is that most English Ale strains are this to one degree or another, and are almost always a great place to start.
The Narbonne strain, also known as 71B is a great way to go if you prefer a more wine-like characteristic to your cider. It has a very distinct ester profile, is easy and fast to ferment with, and creates a distinct and fruity finished product without too much acid. One thing to look out for with this strain is that it can take a little longer to mature, which works well with the honey, but not so well if you’re impatient like I am!
Last but not least, we come to Safcider. This strain is actually quite brilliant, and quickly becoming one of my favorites. It is definitely a varietal of the champagne strain, but with less acid production and a more, fruit forward finished product. On top of that, it’s an absolute tank! This is the strain I use for any baseline ciders.
So with those examples, remember that there are literally hundreds of yeast strains, and it’s fun to try them all! One of the best ciders I ever had was fermented with WLP775 English Cider Yeast and another with WLP644 Saccharomyces Trois! This is why it’s important to have a baseline - so you can practice with it and blow it out of the water!!
Just Add Nutrients
Nutrients are an absolute must (pun intended)! Fermaid K or Fermaid O can make or break a fermentation. With cider, there really isn’t a lot to hide behind, so nasty yeast off flavors are definitely taboo! With one or two easy installments, you can save your cider before you know it needs saving.
Both Fermaids are spectacular products, with the only really difference being what kind of nitrogen, which the yeast use for replication, is sourced for each and how that nitrogen effects fermentation. Fermaid K uses Diammonium Phosphate, while Fermaid O, which is certified organic by OMRI, uses organic amino acids in the form of inactivated yeast. Fermaid O also produces lower levels of negative sulfur compounds.
By the book, you would add your favorite Fermaid product at 33% sugar depletion. To simplify this, I usually just add it in 12 to 24 hours after pitching yeast, and if I do go as high as 1 pound of honey per gallon, I’ll add Fermaid again at day 4, just to make sure that the yeast have what they need to finish out such a beastly cider.
The Bee’s Knees
- 5 Gallons of your chosen Apple juice
- 2 lbs of your favorite honey (don’t skimp, but don’t break the bank, either)
- Your chosen yeast strain
I know that was a lot of build up to something pretty easy, but that’s what it’s about! Keep your baseline simple and elegant, and then you have a lot of room to play with and expand on, especially when the base product is awesome!
The biggest part of brewing this recipe the right way is getting your honey dissolved in a small amount of water first, say about a half of a gallon. When dissolving the honey, don’t let your water get above 110° F. Just enough to get the honey in solution, but not enough to break down the flavor and aromatic compounds in it, because you’ll need those later.
This makes it easy to get a proper initial gravity reading, and ensures that all of that wonderful and delicious sugar is in solution. If for some reason you’re in a hurry, or try to dissolve the honey directly into the juice (as I did the first few times!), add about 7 gravity points per 5 gallons of must to your initial reading.
Another thing to be conscious of is overall volume. I'll usually start with 4 gallons of cider, add in my 1/2 - ish gallon of honey water, then top up to 5.5 gallons with the cider that's left. I always try to keep the volume at 5.5 gallons in the fermentor so that I can pull 5 full gallons for when it's kegging time!
Other than that, this recipe really is as easy as it looks, and takes about 20 minutes from start to when yeast is pitched. That's not to say you can't play around with it some more, though!
Can Perfect Really Get Better?
You bet it can! The beauty of this recipe is that it’s versatile! Add in a can of your favorite Vintner’s Harvest Puree, Winebase, or even just a fruit flavor! Throw in a Nelson Sauvin dry hop and watch everyone you let taste it lose their minds at the complex flavor! These are just a few of my favorite tricks to make ciders fun, different and delicious, but the point is that it’s easy enough to do and versatile enough that you can really do whatever you can come up with.
For those of you that prefer a sweet cider, get your kegs together and plan on back-sweetening with the same honey you used in the initial fermentation, or maybe with some maple syrup or a cranberry compote you made up. The important thing is that, even with the best yeast strain, this recipe will be too dry for your taste. Try back-sweetening with different sugars and concoctions to bring out your favorite flavors! Maybe brown sugar and vanilla?
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