If there is one thing that agile software has taught us it is that things tend to work out way better if you do them in small iterations. I think most of us have learned that agile principles extend to more than just software, and home brewing is no exception.
At first look, home brewing sounds like a fairly daunting task. Brewing the kind of beer you want to drink means buying expensive brew pots, sourcing grains and hops, buying carboys, bungs, airlocks, siphons, sanitizing equipment, cleaning equipment, bottles, cappers, and so on. Like a big bad waterfall project things seem large and expensive, but it doesn't have to be. You can take an agile approach to learning to brew.
Getting started with home brewing is pretty damn simple. You can begin with minimal investment building up your skills and equipment over time. Instead of doing tons of up front research and investment as a good waterfallist would advocate, you can break your home brewing experience up into small, manageable iterations. The trick? Start with hard apple cider.
The process of brewing beer can be reduced to a fairly simple and inexpensive endeavor, but it will never be as easy to get started with as cider. A gallon of hard cider can be brewed with about 30 seconds of work and a 2 to 7 dollar investment (depending on the cost of the apple juice/cider you use). If that goes well and you enjoy doing it, you can buy some additional equipment and pick up some additional skills. Slowly you end up buying almost everything needed to brew beer, and have considerable practice with things like cleaning, sanitizing, siphoning, taking ABV readings, bottling, and so on, all of which will prepare you for brewing beer if that is your end game.
I've been brewing my own cider since this last fall, slowly building up my skills and equipment set. I haven't got to brewing my own beer yet, but I fully intend on tackling that project this summer. That being said, I'll share with you the journey I have taken to date. In true agile fashion I'll break it down into a series of iterations you can follow along with. So let's get started!
Iteration 1: Hello World
As a total noob at home brewing, I want to brew my first alcoholic beverage with minimal time and money investment so that I can evaluate if I enjoy it or not.
That's the user story we'll be implementing this iteration. I would suggest reading this entire post and combining iterations based on the time and equipment
I started brewing my own cider after visiting my dad and learning he had begun to do so himself. I was amazed at how easy it was, and wanted to give it a try myself. He pointed me to an article on Mr. Money Mustache's website describing a dead simple way of making hard cider. I would recommend checking out that article. There is a lot of good information in both the article and the comments. Most of it will be repeated here.
Things you'll need:
- 1 gallon of apple juice/cider
- 1 packet of yeast
- 1 balloon
These are the only things you need to get started on this journey. Here's a little more information on each...
Before I get into the heart of this ingredient I want to clarify something. Apparently, outside the U.S. if you make reference to cider it refers to hard cider. Here in the US cider also refers to pressed apple juice or apple juice without any added ingredients like ascorbic acid. I am going to refer to the hard stuff as cider and the raw stuff as juice.
Fermentation is the simple process of yeast eating sugar and pooping out alcohol and CO2. Apple juice will provide the sugar in the equation and will give us the flavor of the final batch. You may use other juices. Pear is another juice that works quite well. Grape is good too. Don't use white grape juice. I did this once, and it was nasty!
The type and quality of juice you use will cause the final product to vary quite a bit. Fresher pressed apple juice from orchard may turn out much better than the processed apple juice you buy at the store, but it will all work. Some may be rich and sweet where others are dry or watery. Regardless, I wouldn't be too picky with sourcing your first gallon of apple juice. I just picked up a gallon of plain old generic apple juice sold at my local supermarket. Experiment as you go and find out what works well for you. However, there are just a few simple rules you will want to follow.
- It must be pasteurized
- It must not contain preservatives
- I should not contain spices or other flavorings.
The juice should be pasteurized as we'll be using the gallon jug it comes in for fermentation. Furthermore, unpasteurized juice may contain bacteria or wild yeast. Brewing cider with wild yeast and unpasteurized apple juice is a thing, but that is hard mode. We want to keep things simple to start.
Preservatives will kill yeast. Most 100% apple juices contain no preservatives. Ascorbic acid is okay. You just want to avoid anything containing things like potassium sorbate or other minerals or chemicals you aren't familiar with or have 'to preserve freshness' next to them.
Do not buy anything that claims to be spiced. My dad and a friend both made the mistake of buying Mussulman's Spiced Apple Cider. Once the sugar was converted to alcohol the spices made it taste like kerosene. Avoid this altogether.
Yeast is the magic little organism that turns sweet sugar into dry alcohol. There are a variety of different kinds of yeasts, and they all produce different tastes and bubble consistency. It honestly doesn't matter all that much what you use to make your first batch of cider. Hell, you could use bread yeast if you have some sitting around and don't want to go out and buy special brewing yeast. They do also make yeast specific for brewing cider. Don't get too hung up on this. Pick one and go with it. Yeast is cheap.
I ended up buying some champagne yeast off Amazon, Red Star Pasteur Blanc Champagne Yeast. If you let champagne yeast run it will consume all of the sugar in a bottle of juice. You'll end up with a very dry cider in the end, but the bubbles can be very nice once you get into bottling. If you like sweeter cider, I would recommend starting with an ale yeast. Again, don't fret over this. Pick something and go with it.
It is worth noting that you can actually capture wild yeast or use the yeast found in the peel of the apple if you go with organic, unpasteurized apple cider. This method can produce some of the best cider, but it is also the most risky, inconsistent, and hard. Save this until you are an expert.
As the yeast consumes the sugars it spits out alcohol and CO2. That CO2 needs to escape the fermentation vessel without allowing bacteria to get back in. A bung and airlock set is fairly inexpensive if you find using a balloon too weird, but it is the simplest and cheapest way to get started.
All you need to do to prep the balloon is to poke a pin hole in the top of it for the CO2 to escape and sanitize it the best you can. I simple put it in some extremely hot water I heated in the microwave.
After you've picked your apple juice and yeast and have prepped your balloon there isn't really much else to do. Follow these easy steps:
- Open apple juice
- Add 1/2 teaspoon yeast
- Close apple juice with cap and shake (make sure you keep cap in a sanitary place)
- Remove cap and cover opening with balloon
- Leave it out and wait 2 weeks (or longer)
- Remove balloon and put the cap back on
- Put in the fridge for a few days
- Open and enjoy!
Really that is all there is to it. Adding the yeast and attaching the balloon takes all of about 30 seconds. Shaking the apple juice makes sure that the yeast is dispersed and there is some air for it to breathe. If you skip this step it is no big deal. I didn't do it the first time.
Since the bottle of juice comes pasteurized you have a perfectly sanitized vessel for fermentation. In later iterations you can switch over to using a carboy or other glass jugs. Ultimately this is the simplest thing that works, and that is good for the agile home brewer!
Supposedly, the longer you let the cider sit the better it will taste. I read something about bitter acids breaking down into sweeter acids. After the 2 weeks pour some off and see if you like the taste. If it is too bitter, let to go longer. It can sit for quite a long time before spoiling.
Putting the final product in the fridge serves the dual purpose of getting it nice and cold for drinking and to stop fermentation. This doesn't always stop the yeast from fermenting, but it should slow it down. Also, if you wait a few days with the cap tight it will get a bit carbonated, and that is pleasant.
Here is a picture of my first couple of jugs...
The gallon jug on the left turned out okay. I really enjoyed the Indian summer on the right as it came out clear and dry. I did buy an airlock and bung, but the larger gallon's mouth was too large for it to work. It did work well on the 1/2 gallon one on the right though.
Trub, or, What's That Stuff On The Bottom?
You'll notice a layer of sediment on the bottom of your jug when you are done. This is called the trub and is what is left after the yeast has done its job. It should stay pretty firm to the bottom and isn't all that harmful. You probably don't want to drink much of it unless you want some digestive issues, but it shouldn't kill you. As you pour off your brew some of this may kick up, don't worry about it. When you get near the bottom just dump out the rest of jug. There will be a little waste, but that is okay. In the next iteration we'll look at mitigating this a bit by transferring things to a different vessel.
Hopefully your first batch was a success! At this point you can experiment a while with different juices or mixed juices or by upping the alcohol content by adding sugar or apple juice concentrate. I really enjoyed a batch where I mixed apple juice with tart cherry juice. It made for a beautiful color and taste. Here is a picture of some of my experimental jugs:
I added a cup of sugar to the one in the middle. It turned out very strong. The one of the far right was the same juice without sugar. That turned out smooth and sweet.
I am told that if you mess this up and things do get contaminated then it will be disgusting enough that you won't want to drink it. I haven't messed one up yet and so I am yet to see what it looks like. When it doubt, throw it out. There should be a yeasty scent/flavor to the final product, but if it smells foul or has mold chuck it.
Iteration 2: Debugging
As a home brewing novice, I would like to refine my home brewing technique so that I can have a clearer, refined product without as much trub.
For iteration 2 we'll tackle this user story. You may have done a fair amount of experimentation with fermenting juice in the bottle it came in, but you want to get a better, clearer final product and reduce the trub. In this step you'll be learning how to rack your cider for a second fermentation. This was the next step I took on my journey and requires minimal investment. The result is a much better product.
The equipment you need to take this step isn't all that expensive. Here is what you'll need:
- Everything from Iteration 1
- 1 gallon glass jug
- a siphon
- Optional: an auto-siphon
- 1 bottle of Star San or some other no-rinse sanitizer
Here is a little more information on each of these...
I purchased a nice glass jug with a cap off of Amazon for this, but you should be able to use just about any glass gallon jug. However, if you plan on trying to get some bubbles going you're going to want to be wary of glass jugs. Unlike the plastic that most juices come in, glass does not expand and may explode if you tighten the cap and there is considerable fermentation left to do. I haven't run into this problem yet but it is worth noting.
Siphon and Auto-Siphon
You could presumably pour your cider from its original vessel into your glass jug, but you're going to end up bringing along more sediment than you want. This is why you'll want to invest in a siphon. A siphon will transfer the cider without sucking up the trub so long as you keep it elevated above the bottom during transfer.
Optionally you can buy an auto-siphon to help with this process. Learning to siphon without an auto-siphon is hard mode, and it is well worth the 6 dollars or so to save you the hassle. An auto-siphon works as a pump to prime the siphon. It also has a cap on the bottom that keeps you off the bottom of the jug so less sediment is sucked up. You really don't have any excuse for not buying this, but if you are a cheap skate feel free to try hard mode.
If you opt not to get an auto siphon there is a way to prime it by pinching the hose and moving it along. This is not all that easy to do. You may be tempted to just use the sucking method of priming your siphon. This is the most likely way to cause a mess and contaminate your cider. If you are ready to throw caution to the wind feel free to do this, but I wouldn't recommend it. If you do, at least rinse your mouth with some vodka or something else to kill as many germs as possible.
When we were doing everything in the pasteurized jug the juice came in we didn't need to worry about sanitizing things (except the balloon) because they were sanitary out of the box. Since we'll be transferring the cider to another vessel we now need to worry about keeping things sanitized. To do that you'll want to pick up a bottle of Star San or some other no-rinse sanitizer.
I opted for a bottle of Star San. It seems to be one of the most popular. You can use the solution more than once, and one bottle goes a long way.
Don't skip out on keeping things sanitary. Any brewer will tell you that cleaning and sanitizing things is the most important part of brewing. If you are planning on advancing to beer brewing, developing this skill is important.
Follow the same process as Iteration 1 up until the point where you would refrigerate it. That is, ferment the apple juice in the same jug as it came in for a couple of weeks or longer, and when fermentation slows down (but not completely) follow these steps:
- Clean and rinse the jug, siphon, and auto-siphon with clean, soapy water. Use unscented soap if possible. They do make special cleaning chemicals for brewing equipment, but this should be sufficient to get started with.
- Fill the glass jug with clean water and add the no-rinse sanitizer. Put the cap on and swish the mixture around a bit to ensure contact with the entire inside. Do not shake it or you'll get a ton of bubbles. Let it sit for a few minutes.
- Use the siphon and auto-siphon to transfer the sanitizer to a bucket, bowl, or into another clean jug for storage. If there is some bubbles or additional sanitizer in the jug don't worry (unless maybe you are using something other than Star San). The sanitizer is a no-rinse solution and I've found that the bubbles or residue doesn't really harm the final batch.
- Remove the balloon from the original vessel and siphon the cider into the sanitized glass jug.
- Clean and sanitize the balloon or airlock/bung (using some of the Star San) and attach this on your new jug.
- Clean your siphon and auto-siphon! Throw out the jug the juice came in.
- Let it ferment for a few more weeks.
- Remove the balloon or airlock/bung, cap it, put it in the fridge and enjoy!
Alternatively, you could skip leaving it out for additional fermentation and just send it right to the fridge. Most of this is experimentation. Consider keeping a journal of your experiments.You should see considerably less trub after this is done. You'll most likely always have some, even if you opt for additional rackings, but the product should ultimately be much nicer.
You might also consider back charging the cider by adding some straight apple juice to it right before it goes into the fridge. If you've allowed the brew to ferment for some time it may not have any sugar left and it won't get any level of carbonation. I haven't had much success with carbonating larger jugs, but others have. Again, you'll just want to be careful with glass so things don't explode. If you are worried, leave the cap a bit loose.
You should now have a nicer product. Your friends may be less timid about trying your brew when you bring it out in a nice looking glass jug.
To the right there is a picture of an apple/cherry mix I did after transferring it for a secondary fermentation. The bubbles you see at the top were partially caused by the Star San. Again, a little bit of this isn't going to harm anything...
Below is another jug of finished apple juice. That was probably one of the best tasting I have made.
You may want to get some bubbles going in your brew. It is possible to do so with the gallon jugs we have been using, but it is much easier if you bottle things up. That will be your next iteration.
Iteration 3: Container Deployments
As a budding home-brew enthusiast, I would like to bottle my hard cider so that I can keep it longer, share it, and get some good bubbles!
Bottling is the user story for this iteration as it is the next logical step. This will allow you to store it away for months and drink it in smaller quantities. Furthermore, you can get some really nice bubbles going. As with jugs, you need to be careful as bottles can explode. I haven't had this happen to me yet, and I've been really happy with the almost champagne like quality I've got out of my bottled cider.
We'll need a few more things for this iteration. Here they are...
- Everything from Iteration 1 and 2
- Grolsch style EZ Cap Beer Bottles
- A funnel or bottle filler
- Optional: Sugar
Here's a breakdown of these items...
Grolsch style EZ Cap Beer Bottles
It is totally possible to go ahead and buy beer bottles and a capper. A friend of mine did this and it seemed to work okay. I opted for buying the bottles linked too above because the caps are reusable and I didn't need to buy a capper. I bought my dad a kit that comes with a slightly lower quality bottle, but it also comes with a funnel and brush.
A Funnel or Bottle Filler
Brewing with gallon jugs means you can tip your jug and fill the bottles using nothing but a funnel. If you want to try to reduce the amount of sediment that makes it into your final bottles then you may want to consider using a bottle filler, and if you have a large 5 gallon batch you may not have a choice.
A bottle filler works with your siphon. As you siphon the cider into a bottle it has the ability to stop the flow once the bottle is full. This means you can go from bottle to bottle without much of a mess.
Depending on how long you let your cider ferment it may have gone completely still, meaning there is no sugar left in the juice itself for the yeast to eat, and if you get to this point you may have something that closely resembles apple wine and not cider. That's not all that big of deal, but it is if you want a carbonated beverage.
Once you have bottled it you want the little yeast remaining in the cider to ferment just enough to carbonate your beverage without causing the bottle to explode. If your cider is pretty dry (taste it) you may want to add a little sugar to the bottle before you fill it with the cider.
If you don't want to use sugar you can also use a little apple juice or apple juice concentrate. You just want to make sure the yeast has something to eat.
Follow the same steps as Iteration 2 up until the point where you would put the jug into the refrigerator. Then follow these steps:
- Clean the bottles, funnel, siphon, and any other equipment you plan on using in the same way you would clean a gallon jug.
- Submerge each bottle, including the cap, in a no-rinse sanitizer like Star San. Feel free to let them dry if you want, but a little residue isn't going to harm anything. Do the same with the funnel, siphon, auto-siphon, bottle filler, and any other equipment you plan on using.
- Grab a bottle and add a little sugar or fresh apple juice to it. Only a little bit, maybe 1/2 teaspoon. Unless your cider is still fermenting and is somewhat sweet. In that case skip this step.
- Pour cider into the bottle or siphon it in using the bottle filler. You can technically siphon into the bottle without a bottle filler, but be prepared for a mess.
- Position the EZ Cap and close it tight.
- Repeat until you are done bottling. If you have a good amount of sediment on the bottom of your jug you may not want to push to get that one extra bottle. It will either turn out kind of nasty or cause the bottle to explode. When you get near the bottom of the jug throw the rest out.
- Clean all the equipment you used.
- Leave the bottles out for a couple of days or longer.
- Put them in the refrigerator and enjoy!
Depending on the sugar level and the yeast you use you may get bubbles that are like champagne or similar to a bottle of beer. Experiment and see what works.
If you go through a second fermentation and are careful about not kicking up the trub you may end up with a pretty clear result.
Here are some pictures of some of the cider I have bottled. The apple cherry mix you see on the right was the result of the jug I showed at the end of iteration 2. Some turned out extremely carbonated. Others were just lightly. I really enjoyed the taste of this one. Below is some straight apple juice that I bottled without a second fermentation. The bubbles were good, but there ended up being considerable sediment and it wasn't nearly as clear in the end.
Here you can see how bubbly some of the cherry/apple mixture got. I was really happy when a popped a bottle and got this:
Ok, time for quantity.
Iteration 4: Scaling and Metrics
As someone who has had good luck with small batches of cider, I would like to make a large batch of cider so that I have a good supply of it when I need it.
As someone who has brewed a few different batches of cider, I would like to know what the approximate alcohol by volume (ABV) is so I can know what I am getting into and adjust things for sweetness or dryness.
This is the final iteration that I am going to walk you though because this is as far as I have got myself. I've successfully made multiple gallon and 1/2 gallon batches with different juices and mixtures of juices, and was ready to make a big batch. Also, I wanted to know what the ABV. Some of the cider I have made has hit me hard after a couple of small glasses. Other times, I don't feel much but a little warmth in my belly. It turns out this isn't all that difficult.
I am still in the middle of this so I'll cover what I have done to this point...
Things you'll need:
- 5 gallons of juice (try mixing a variety)
- A 6 gallon carboy
- An airlock/bung
- PBW or some other cleaner used for brewing
- Star San or another no-rinse sanitizer
- Hydrometer and Test Jar
- Optional: 5 gallon food grade buckets
- More? As I have said, I am not done yet!
Here's a break down of these items...
5 Gallons of Juice
I would recommend using a variety of different brand and types of apple juice. Mix other fruit juices, cherry or pear, to alter the flavor or add color. Use apple juice concentrate to up the alcohol content if you want. Again, experimentation is key!
6 Gallon Carboy
Up until this point our initial fermentation period has been done in the pasteurized bottle that the juice came in. This time, we are going to put the juice into a large container to ferment. Carboys can be glass or PET (plastic). There are also plastic pales you could use in place of a carboy. You may want to research if this is a good idea or not. I've heard mixed opinions on fermenting in plastic pales.
I bought a 6 gallon carboy from a local shop. They also come in 5 and 3 gallon varieties if you want to make smaller quantities that are larger than a gallon. While the carboy is 6 gallons we only use 5 gallons of that for our cider. The rest is used to give it space in case it bubbles. This is a common thing with beer. I didn't see all that much with the cider yet.
Up until this point we've used a balloon, but I've mentioned that an airlock/bung is the more standard way for ensuring gas can escape without letting bacteria in. The mouth of a carboy is too big for most balloons, and so it is time to graduate. Airlocks require a liquid in them to create a malleable seal that allows the gas to escape. I've used both the Star San mixture and vodka to keep things sanitary. I haven't run into any troubles.
This is a cleaner that will ensure you are getting your equipment clean. You don't necessarily need this to start, but after a uses your siphon, auto-siphon, and other equipment my have residue that is hard to clean. Using an industrial cleaner designed for brewing like PBW will ensure things don't go funky in your home brewing experiments.
PBW should be rinsed off! Unlike the sanitizer Star San, PBW is a cleaner and residue is a bad thing.
Hydrometer and Test Jar
This tool is used to give you the approximate ABV of your cider. After you've created your mix you take a sample and drop in the reader. You get a reading of specific gravity that will tell you what ABV to expect. When you are done fermenting you take another reading and you'll have a pretty good idea of how potent your brew is.
5 Gallon Food Grade Buckets
These are optional, but I would get some. You can store gallons of the Star San mixture and use them for cleaning equipment with PBW. Presumably they would also work as an intermediary vessel if you don't want to buy a second carboy to rack for a secondary fermentation. Siphon the mix to the 5 gallon bucket, clean and sanitize the carboy, and siphon it back. They also make excellent containers for storing some of the equipment.
Once you have all the new equipment and are ready to scale up then follow these instructions to get started:
- Clean and rinse the carboy and airlock/bung and any other equipment you plan on using. I would suggest having a funnel handy.
- Fill the carboy with 5 gallons of water and add Star San. Swish it around so that the entire inside of the carboy has been exposed to the sanitizer. Pour or siphon the sanitizer into a 5 gallon bucket for future use, or just dispose of it.
- Fill the carboy with 5 gallons of juice. Consider dipping the jugs of juice into sanitizer before you open them to prevent and surface bacteria from accidentally slipping into the carboy.
- If you are using a variety of juices, swish it around in the carboy until it is well mixed.
- Pour some of the juice into the test jar that comes with the hydrometer. Alternatively, you can use a clean and sanitized baster or siphon to get this sample. Spin the hydrometer as you drop it in and take a reading. This should tell you what ABV to expect if the thing goes completely dry. When fermentation is over you'll take another reading that will give you the actual approximate ABV.
- Add an entire package of yeast.
- Attach the airlock/bung.
- Clean anything you used.
- Wait a couple of weeks.
This is as far as I have gotten. I trust that you have enough skill and know-how to finish up your large-scale batch.
Hopefully at the end of this you'll have 4 to 5 gallons of great tasting cider. For my big batch I tried switching up my yeast and went with Nottingham Ale Yeast. We'll see how that turns out. I also decided on mixing in cherry juice again because I really like the color and slight flavor it adds. Here is a picture of my big boy...
I may transfer this to a bucket, clean the carboy, and set it up for a second fermentation this weekend. Fermentation has almost come to a complete stop so I need to do something with it.
Where To Go Next?
Where do you go from here? There are a lot of places you can go with hard apple cider. You could try getting some fresh pressed unpasteurized from an orchard or buy some apples and juice them yourself.
If you follow this path you have almost everything to need to do some serious beer brewing as well. You just need some pots, grains, and hops! All the cleaning, siphoning, bottling, and vessels should transfer over nicely.
Alright I've been spending way too long on this. Yay for finishing up my 3rd blog post this week!