Freedom of the press: Do-it-yourself apple cider

Peter Pfister (left) scavenges apples from trees in local parking lots to make his own apple cider at home. Photo by Jake Frankel.

After sampling the offerings of  16 regional cider makers at the second annual CiderFest on Sunday, Nov. 2, and with an abundance of fresh, local apples available this season, cider lovers may be inspired to venture into the increasingly popular world of do-it-yourself fermentation. 

There are a variety of techniques for making homebrewed hard cider, from using pasteurized apple juice to pressing your own apples, but Asheville resident Peter Pfister chooses the latter method.

Pfister grew up learning the ins and outs of home cider-making with his family in New Hampshire and developed his own method, which he continues to use today. Pfister scavenges his apples from wherever he can find them — including trees in both public and private spaces — but always in a polite, ecofriendly and legal manner.

One advantage of scavenging apples is that it puts to use fruit that would otherwise go unused. Pfister says he knows of around 200 apple trees in the Asheville area and claims to have never once used store-bought fruit for his cider — a fact that points to another advantage of scavenging apples: “They’re free,” he says.

Pfister is still particular about the fruit he uses though. It becomes a quest to find trees with apples specific to the cider he wants to make. “I just drive around until I find the ones that are good,” he says.

As for advice for beginning cider makers, Pfister doesn’t explore complicated techniques. “Just get as many apples as you can, and smush them all together,” he says. “Oh, and throw in peaches if you can too.”

While he has been utilizing the same scavenging method since his time in New Hampshire, Pfister says there is one notable difference to doing it in Asheville, and that’s the weather. “I don’t freeze anymore,” he explains.

To follow Pfister’s lead and create hard cider from pressed apples, the first step is finding a press. Since not everyone has the resources or commitment to buy their own apple press, an alternative is to rent one. Villagers, a retail store in West Asheville that promotes sustainable and healthy lifestyles, has an apple press which it rents to the public at a rate of $25 for 48 hours. All proceeds from rentals benefit the Buncombe Fruit and Nut Club, a community group that aims to sustain and support growth of fruit and nut trees in both private and public sectors of Buncombe County.

Now could be the ideal time for those interested in brewing their own cider at home to begin honing recipes. “Next year there will be a hard cider homebrewers competition [at CiderFest],” says Nina Zinn,the WNC Green Building Council’s development and outreach coordinator and CiderFest organizer.

In this short hyperlapse video, Peter Pfister and friends demonstrate how to make apple cider at home. Video by Jake Frankel

Cider recipes from Black Mountain Ciderworks

Black Mountain Ciderworks owners Jessica Puzzo and David Hall Bowman shared the following instructions and recipes for making hard apple cider at home. Supplies can be bought from local brewing supply stores such as Asheville Brewers Supply and Hops and Vines.


For this offering, we are going to provide a pair of basic home-brew recipes for the aspirant beginning ciderist. Recipe # 1 is a basic bottled cider recipe.  It will yield Five (5) gallons of semi-dry sparkling cider.  One can make cider as simple or elaborate as one likes based on one’s level of interest and how much of an investment one wants to make.  We will include a list of basic supplies you will need to purchase from your friendly neighborhood brewing supply store to make five (5) gallons of cider.  For the most basic, bare-bones recipes you will need the following:

— 2 food grade plastic buckets—five (5) gallon capacity (if you proceed further with you zymurgical interests you can get these for free from you local deli, but getting the pickle smell out will take some effort).

— At least one (1) air tight bucket lid with a hole and grommet for an air lock.

— One (1) bubbler-type air lock.

— At least five (5) gallons preservative-free apple juice (ascorbic acid is okay if you are buying juice from a store; any type of sorbate is not), or accompanying amount of apples.

— 1-2 packets of white wine yeast (Ale yeast will also work).

— yeast nutrient (like DAP).

— 2 lbs of sugar.

— large spoon (probably not wooden since it is harder to sterilize than plastic or stainless steel).

— Around fifty (50) 12 oz bottles, or twenty-five (25) bombers (22 oz).

— Bottle caps and capper

For your first batch of cider, we’d recommend not worrying overly about what kind of apples and what kind of juice.  Acquiring five gallons of preservative-free juice is an accomplishment on its own. If you want to up your game and exercise a little more control and replicable results, you will want to pick up:

— One (1) glass carboy – Five (5) gallons.

— One (1) hydrometer.

— Testing jar for hydrometer.

— One (1) thermometer (some hydrometers have thermometers on them).

–Ph strips measuring between three (3) and four (4) Ph units.

–Potassium or Sodium metabisulphate.

–Winemaker’s tannin or strong, breakfast-style tea.

–No-rinse cleaning solution.

–Star-San or equivalent phosphoric acid-based sterilizer.

–Potassium sorbate.

–Wine thief (a plastic tube for taking out samples of juice or cider to measure.

–Squirt bottles (for cleanser and sterilizer).

–plastic racking cane and tubing (a racking cane creates a siphon without putting the tube in your filthy, bacteria-laden mouth.  Sorry. It’s true.)

Recipe #1 :

Primary Fermentation: If you have bought pasteurized apple juice from a store, you need not worry about adding the potassium metabisulphate. If you have bought juice from an orchard or have pressed your own, you will want to treat the juice (now called ‘must’) with metabisulphate to kill off extraneous yeasts and bacteria. Let the metabisulphate work for twenty-four (24) hours.

–Add your sugar, yeast nutrient, and yeast.

–Stir vigorously (yeast need an oxygenated  environment to reproduce).

–Place air-tight lid on bucket and insert air-lock into lid with small amount of water, or even better, cheap vodka (you will probably feel compelled to explain to the clerk at the ABC store that you are buying the cheapest vodka they sell because you use it in airlocks for fermentation, not drinking—he/she won’t care).

–Place your bucket in a quiet area that will be inaccessible to your cats. Resist the urge to check on it five times a day.

Congratulations, you are a ciderist.  Feel free to begin offering advice and sneering at commercial ciders.

For a more advanced and consistent cider, you will want to measure your must before you ferment and your cider afterward.

Pour enough must in your testing jar to float your hydrometer.  It should read between 1.046 and 1.050 at sixty (60) degrees Fahrenheit. This is your Original Gravity (OG). Hydrometers are calibrated to be measured at sixty (60) degrees fahrenheit.  You may not be fermenting in a cave, however, so there will be an adjustment.  This seems more complicated than it is.  Just write your numbers down and and find and online gravity chart.

Tannin is a bit harder to measure to the home ciderist, but is important to provide mouthfeel (the chewing and inhalation that wine snobs ostentatiously perform), and also aids in the preservation of your cider.  You can forgo tannin if you wish, but the resultant cider may lack body. Again, for your first cider, we wouldn’t worry about it.  Steep a couple of breakfast tea bags and pour the tea in your must.

At this point you can also check your Ph level using your Ph strips. It should read between 3.4 and 3.8.  Remember that the higher your Ph, the lower your acid.  If you use juice or must from North Carolina apples, you will probably not need malic acid as our apples are quite high in acid. If you are using NC apples (and why would you not ?) make sure to get a blend of sweet, acidic, and tannic.  Heirloom apples are better than newer in most cases, but don’t over-think it. The important thing is strive for balance.

If you have used ale yeast, your airlock should begin bubbling in a couple of days.  For white wine yeast, a week.  Ale yeast will finish up rather quickly, four to five days.  White wine yeast will take about ten days.  Fermentation continues after the eye can no longer detect the bubbling in your airlock, so give it another two weeks.  Your cider is technically drinkable now, but assuming you are not a convict or high-school student, you will want to transfer your cider to another container, or secondary fermenter for clarifying and aging. Proceed to the directions for secondary fermentation below.

Recipe #2: Scrumpy

Scrumpy is a style specific to the West Country of England.  It is cider fermented on the apple skins, which yields more tanin in the must.

Aditional materials required:

–One (1) clean 2 x 4 board.

Place your apples in a bucket. Pound them with the end of your 2 x 4 until the apples are a pulpy mess.  Place in more apples.  Repeat pounding.  When you have bludgeoned all you apples.  Divide pulp into a couple of buckets. The fermentation of the sugars in the apples will cause the pulp to expand so only fill the buckets up 2/3 of the way. Sprinkle in your yeast and nutrient. Cover with lid and affix your air lock.

Scrumpy may ferment more enthusiastically than all-juice cider so we would advise not placing the bucket in your closet.  In most cases, wearing clothes covered in fermented apple bits will not improve one’s chances of advancement at work.  So try a basement or garage.  After three weeks, use you racking cane and transfer your scrumpy to a secondary bucket or carboy (the pulp will now be floating on top of the scrumpy will separate from it rather easily) and proceed as with Recipe # 1.

Secondary Fermentation

Take enough cider out with your wine thief to float your hydrometer.  This time it should read around 1.000.  This is you final gravity (FG).  Using  your racking cane, transfer cider to another clean, sanitized bucket or carboy. The benefit of a carboy is that glass is completely impermeable to gas where plastic is only practically impermeable.

You will notice about half an inch of sludge at the bottom of your primary fermenter. This is called the lees. Lees are yeast residue and proteins. You want them out of your cider. That is why you transfer to a secondary fermenter.

Give it another three weeks to a month in the secondary fermenter and you can either bottle or keg your now clear and dry cider.

The cider at this stage will be very dry—think sauvignon blanc—but still.  Meaning no bubbles.  Not flat.  Still.  This is a fine way to drink cider.  But you probably want some carbonation.  That is nothing to be ashamed of.

You can carbonate your cider in an old soda keg (called a cornelius or corny keg) with a small CO2 tank.  You will need to terminate the yeast with potassium sorbate. This will provide stability for you to back-sweeten with juice or sugar to your taste.  A home brew store can help with this.

The simplest way to get sparking cider is to add half a teaspoon of sugar to your bottles (whole teaspoon for bombers) and cap them. Give it two weeks then open a bottle.  If it hisses when you open it, drink up.  If not, give it another week and try another bottle.  And call some friends.


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