From Bushels to Bottles: How to Make Apple Cider

Home brewing is a joy, but home cidering? It’s an investment.

My wife and I have been making cider since we moved onto our farm in 2013, and each year we’re reminded that it isn’t worth doing unless you actually enjoy the process and really love the end product.

When we moved onto the farm five years ago, we did so in the middle of February when all the plants on the farm were fairly dormant. We knew there were two apple trees in front of the barn, but we didn’t know what kind of apples they were or what they’d be good for. We just knew that the previous year had produced a lot of them, and that a pile of them left behind the barn by the previous owners made nice treats for both our goats and the local deer.

When the apple trees began producing fruit in early fall, I remembered a name from a story I’d written about apple breeding a few years before, and decided to give him a call. James Luby, a fruit-breeding specialist from the University of Minnesota, asked me to send him a picture of our apples and, upon receiving them, determined they were Lodi apples – a tart, juicy cultivar that appears on the tree early (around July or August) but has a shelf life of roughly a week.

Attempts to bake pie with the Lodi apples left us with a mushy dessert. Suggestions about making apple sauce with Lodi apples were met with disgust by my wife and I, who abhor the texture of the stuff. The last, best option for all of these apples was cider.

I had been brewing beer at home off and on for more than a decade, and knew that our local home brewing store – MainBrew in Hillsboro, Ore. – had cider presses and other equipment. For $40, we rented a crusher and a mid-range press for a day and got to work. We pressed about six 64-ounce growlers’ worth of cider before calling it a day. We worked in a downpour and the the physical portion of the cidering experience – cranking the crusher all day and pressing batches by hand – was far more labor-intensive than we’d imagined.

We enjoyed the cider we’d made, but producing roughly three gallons of cider for $40 wasn’t cost-effective at all. Sure, if you shop at Whole Foods, organic apple cider (the nearest equivalent to what we were making) costs roughly 12 cents to 19 cents per ounce – which was more than the 10 cents per ounce we averaged – but organic, unfiltered cider could be purchased at our local Safeway for as little as nine cents per ounce.

But the trees weren’t going anywhere, and we knew we wanted to make the most of what they were producing. In 2014, we purchased a Weston apple press for $277 (I can’t help but notice it’s $40 cheaper now). We also purchased an apple crusher for $158. Considering I’d purchased my entire 5-gallon homebrewing kit for less than $100, nearly tripling that for a press was a bit much to take.

However, in our first pressing, we’d managed to produce about 20 gallons of cider that we’d pressed, jarred, and pasteurized. What we didn’t store, we turned into five gallons of sparkling cider using the recipes in “Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider” by journalist and “Brokeback Mountain” writer Annie Proulx and Vermont cidermaker Lew Nichols.

Proulx and Nichols set rigid parameters for their hard cider, but with IRI Worldwide putting cider prices at roughly $37 per case last year – and with a recipe making two and a half cases – they gave us the equivalent of roughly $92 worth of hard cider. That would easily pay off a day’s press-and-crusher rental, but it’s a small dent if you’ve actually bought equipment.

In the years that followed our first pressing, my wife planted three more apple trees – a Mutsu, a Jonagold, and a Northern Spy – at $35 apiece. Only the Mutsu and Northern Spy survived, but the output from all of them has been enough to keep us stocked with unfermented cider blends and with various hard ciders.

How to Make Apple Cider

apple crusher how to make apple cider
First, crush the apples into mash.

Once you’ve made your investment, it’s fairly easy to get cidering. The first step is to find yourself a whole bunch of apples. While our first trees were pre-existing, we consulted both cideries and Proulx’s book to find the right varieties of apples to plant for our second group of trees. While some sources suggest specially bred varietals that aren’t easily found at nurseries, farmers markets, or grocery stores, even cider makers admit that more common varieties like Northern Spy make great cider apples, depending on what characteristics you’re looking for.

Rinse: Once your apples are picked or purchased, fill a 5-gallon bucket with water and get to rinsing. Whatever’s on the peels is going to end up in the cider, so make sure they’re well cleaned before crushing.

Crush: When you feel your apples are ready, place them in the crusher and get cranking. If you’re using a hand-cranked crusher, make sure to fish out all of the apple pulp and skins with a stick or brush between crushings to prevent backup. Also, if you can, try to crush apples right into the press so you don’t waste time or juice transferring them over.

Press: You’re going to want to make sure your cider press is packed with apples before you start grinding, so don’t be afraid if the apple mash starts rising above the rim a bit. When you’re satisfied with the amount of apple in the press, place a saucepan or stock pot near the press’ drain spout, take the first two pressing blocks (typically semicircles that fit around the press handle’s axle), and push down to produce the first juice.

using a cider press - how to make apple cider
Then, squeeze the juice out with an apple press.

Add more blocks and start using the handle to press the mash. If possible, have a second person around to do some of the twisting or to tilt the press and drain off excess juice. When you’ve finished pressing — and you’ll know when your yield dwindles to a trickle — grab a funnel and transfer the juice directly to a container.

Store: If you plan to store your cider, use mason jars and boil them to create a tight, pressurized seal. If you want some fresh cider, anything from a resealable pitcher to a beer growler to a cleaned-out milk jug will do. Just get it into the refrigerator quickly.

Or ferment: If you want to try making a fizzy, boozy, hard cider, the rest of the process (and required equipment) is similar to that of home brewing beer. Boil your cider first to kill off any bacteria, and when it cools down, pour it into your sanitized fermenter (with airlock) with your choice of yeast. Let the mixture ferment at room temperature for about two weeks. When you’re ready to bottle, add some sugar dissolved in warm water for carbonation (about 2 Tbsp of sugar per gallon, or half a teaspoon per 12-ounce bottle), bottle it up, and let it sit another two weeks.

What do you do with the mashed-up apple — known as pomace  — you ask? Well, we feed it to our goats, who are more than happy to eat it down to nothing. Without this option, however, it can get a little tricky. Wildlife will eat it, but unless you’re cool with squirrels and raccoons (and other rodents) getting into it, we can’t recommend just putting out bowls of pomace. Composting is another great use for pomace, and you can balance out the acidity by adding more pulp (lawn cuttings, cardboard, paper) to your compost heap. You can also use it to make either apple sauce or pectin, but we’ve also found that spreading a little of it on thistles and dandelions helps us keep away unwanted weeds.

Is Homemade Apple Cider Cost Effective?

While I’d like to say that we’re making back all we’d put into this, I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true. We both liked hard cider before we began cidering on our own, but we weren’t exactly blowing big bucks on farmstand or Whole Foods cider each year. We produce about 10 gallons of cider a year, total. If we were conservative and said our cider was replacing a cider that cost 10 cents an ounce, we’d be saving roughly $128 a year. If we split that evenly between regular and hard cider, as we often do, that would come out to about $156 a year.

Four years in, we may have paid off the cost of the equipment. In a year or so, we might have paid off the cost of the brewers’ yeast, bottles, and new trees. But this isn’t home brewing: You aren’t going to cut costs right off of the bat. In fact, as I discovered writing a column about it last year and speaking with Brewers Association economist Bart Watson, if you factor in the cost of labor, bad batches, and down years – like we had with our apples last summer – it’s incredibly hard to break even making beer, wine, or even cider at home.

But that isn’t really the point, is it? My wife and I could feed apples to the goats and donate the windfall apples to local cideries without spending a dime. The reason we paid for the equipment is that we actually like cidering. Sure, it feels like a full workout after a day of crushing and pressing, but you end up with a cellar full of cider and a winter’s worth of hard cider.

You end up with cider for cakes and pies, for holiday gift baskets (they go well with our house-made blackberry wine and with the jarred pickles from our garden), for mulled cider during the winter, and for light, fizzy hard cider during the summer. You end up with a story to tell when a friend or family member bravely accepts a hazy glass of your hand-pressed cider, and you breathe a deep sigh of relief when they ask you for some more.

More importantly, you cut out some middlemen: You get to see where some of your food comes from, how it’s made, and how much effort it takes to bring it to your table. You could pay upwards of $1,000 for more mechanized crushers that require less labor, or you could pay $40 for a one-gallon cider kit that lets you use apples from the local farmers’ market. In the end, the price you pay is only a deal if you love what you make and enjoy the process that makes it.

Cidermaking, like any other craft, is an investment in yourself. If you have the time and energy for it and genuinely enjoy it, the payoff will arrive more quickly than you think.

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Jason Notte

Contributor for The Simple Dollar

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications.