Note: This article was originally written in early 2012, and I’ve done quite a bit of cider making since then and have learned a lot. I’ve updated this post to reflect that, as well as added a few recipes I’ve tried or developed on my own.
Since my wife and I have officially begun our journey to FI, no expense has been spared. The larger expenses (such as our house and other structural expenses) have been optimized to the fullest, and we have now turned our sights on other things. One of the first was alcohol, and this was mostly me, since my wife doesnt drink that frequently.
About 10 years ago, I used to spend a lot on alcohol (it was college), and since graduating I’ve been able to take that down quite a bit – to about $500/year or $10 per week. Some weeks more, some less but this is where I had settled for a while.
It wasnt until I decided that there had to be a way to get it lower that I looked into DIY-ing my booze. I started in 2012 or so and have not looked back, and the cost of my boozing has been reduced to dimes per bottle and the occasional headache from overindulgence.
Now, I stick to homemade hard cider that costs approximately $20 for 5 gallons, and takes me about 5 minutes to make (and another 30 or so a few weeks later to bottle).
If you buy about a 6 pack per week, you’re consuming 3,600 oz of beer per year, or the equivalent of 5.5 5 Gallon batches. You can bring your spending on booze down from ~500 per year, to just over 100 per year. Lowering your needs and increasing your savings + a fun activity that allows you to experiment and build your own small scale cider operation? Awesome.
To me, this is one of the perfect hobbies. Once you’ve got all of your equipment, the costs are cheap, the benefits are huge, and it gives you something to fill your time. You can get as crazy (or not) with the different juices and add ins and it can supply the boundless curiosity that every human innately has.
So, lets make some cider!
What Is Hard Apple Cider?
Hard cider is a fermented drink, typically made from apples. Since it’s fermented, it does contain alcohol. The amount of alcohol contained varies by the process you use, but typically they come in between 5 and 7%, or about the rate of a standard microbrew. Today, we are going to go over the entire hard cider making process, from brewing to cider fermentation to bottling. You can do this with easy to find ingredients as well as spare bottles laying around the house, but since I already have a home brewing set up, I just use that. Note that this is not the same thing as cider as it does not have alcohol (but is still great to enjoy warm in the winter months).
One of the reasons that I make this is to help me save money. I estimate that the cost for me to produce 5 gallons of cider (now that I have all the equipment) is around $20, which is the price for 12-20 microbrews. Considering my wife and I have a goal of building freedom through saving money, this really helps. Instead of spending $30-40 per month (or night, or weekend) on alcohol (which equates to about 1 6 pack of microbrew beer or hard cider, per week), I spend about $20 for something that will last me 2-3 months and is stronger to boot in most cases. Cider making has become a hobby I enjoy, and as I continue to tinker with recipes and develop new ones the more I get out of it.
Hard Cider Ingredients & Equipment
One of my favorite things about this is that it’s so easy to make and very difficult to screw up. Once you have a beer brewing set up (or just a carboy and an airlock) you’ll be able to make your own cider. Here are the ingredients you’ll need to make a batch:
- Hard Cider Yeast – This is the most important, and will probably be the most difficult to find. You can use a specialized hard cider yeast (like Wyeast Labs 4766), or you can go with a champagne yeast (like Lavlin EC-1118). I would try them both out and see which one you think is the best yeast for hard cider. Each is slightly different, and I use them both (and others as well, but these are the most common). In my opinion, the best place to buy these would be a local homebrewing shop, as they will most certainly carry something this common.
- Apple Cider or Apple Juice. You can choose either one as they are both great for making hard cider but you need to make sure that you get the kind without preservatives. I’m not just being all hippy-dippy here either – the preservatives will kill your yeast and will leave you with gross tasting yeasty apple juice. You need to make sure you watch out for sodium benzoate & potassium sorbate. I’ve never seen them both in the same cider or juice, but you cant have either. When I first started, I just checked the label for potassium or sodium, and if it had either of those, I found something else.
- Honey or Brown Sugar (Optional): These will both increase the alcohol content, and will change the flavor slightly of your cider. My first few batches had brown sugar as I prefer the drier stuff and didnt want to make it too sweet. Since then I’ve tried it both with and without add-ons, and prefer to use them. Not needed at all though. (Use about .4 lbs of sugar or honey per gallon)
These are just the consumable ingredients needed. There are a few different ways that you can make hard cider and those mostly depend on how much money you want to invest in your hobby initially. You can get started for around $15 or less, but as with most hobbies there’s bigger and better equipment (that I happened to own already, so I use that).
Option 1: Homebrew kit & Glass Bottles
This will produce the most volume per batch (5 gallons) but will also cost you some money in set up costs. You can order a kit from an online retailer like northern brewer (this one is a good start up kit) or if you really enjoy this stuff, splurge and get the deluxe model. Either of these will give you everything you need except bottles, but you’ll pay quite a bit more than the other methods below. You can simply save the bottles (pry off only, no twist offs) and have friends save some for you as well and you’ll get enough in no time. You’ll need about 56 12 oz bottles.
You’ll also get a beer recipe ingredient kit, so you can give homebrewing a try as well.
Option 2: Frugal and Sustainable Method
This method is very cost effective, though your yield will be a bit lower because of size constraints. You won’t need to deal with bottling either (unless you really want to) so consider that a win.
To use this method, you’ll need a large glass jug (you can even use the one the juice comes in for added time/money/earth savings) and an airlock. If you cant find your juice in a glass jug, you can always use a spent jug of carlo rosse or other high end wine. Make sure to save the cap for the jug as well.
Option 3: Ultra Frugal Method
This method is the most cost effective (and one I havent done since college). You will need only minimal equipment for this, and it’s super easy to set up. For this, you’ll need whatever vessel your apple cider came in (plastic or glass is fine), a balloon and tape or a rubber band.
The ultra frugal method should cost you about 50 cents above actual ingredients (hence my college tries), and will yield a satisfactory result.
This is something that I’d put in a relatively high traffic area so you can watch it frequently, as sometimes the balloon can pop off with vigorous fermentation.
As many hobbyists may not believe, you can get started into most hobbies for cheap.
My view on hobbies like hard cider making is that if you are starting out, try to get it done as cheaply as possible. Once you’ve got enough time under your belt to decide if you like it, invest further if you do, and if not, then continue using what you have.
How To Make Hard Cider
Finally, on to the actual process used to create the cider. It’s very simple and not time consuming at all to DIY hard cider. There are a few extra (though not necessary) steps you’ll need to run through if you’re using honey or alcohol that will add some time to your process, but they are not significant and can be accomplished with the goods you already have at home.
- Gather your ingredients and your storage vessel(s).
- If you are adding honey or brown sugar heat 1-2 gallons of your cider in a pot on the stove. Make sure this does not boil, as you will cause the pectins to set and make your end product very hazy.
- Stir heated product until sugar or honey is dissolved.
This is where the steps diverge depending on what gear you have decided to use for your homemade hard cider journey. They will all result in the same product, just some will be more time consuming (though produce more) than others.
If you’re using the traditional carboy & bottling method (as I described in the original post) you can get a top of the line product by following the steps below:
- If you’re adding Honey or Brown Sugar, you’ll need your large cooking pot and your cider. What you’ll need to do is put 1-2 gallons of your cider into a pot and heat on medium. Add your honey or brown sugar, and stir over heat until dissolved. Make sure this does not boil.
- While your honey or sugar is dissolving, add the remaining cider to your carboy.
- Once your sugar or honey has dissolved in your heated juice, take that mixture off the heat and add to your carboy.
- The liquid in your carboy should be an appropriate temperature now to add your yeast (below 85 degrees or so). Add your packet of yeast.
- Attach airlock to your carboy and move your carboy into a room away from heat and light.
- Your delicious beverage will ferment (when yeast converts sugar into alcohol) for 2 weeks. You can leave it as long as 3 weeks and be ok as well. Here’s what my cider looks like fermenting away in the basement.
- Once your fermentation has finished, it’s time to get what is now your alcoholic apple cider into your other carboy (or bucket) for secondary fermentation. Though this step is unnecessary, I have found that it really helps clarify the final product and it’s a great time to do add-ins to add other flavors to your cider. You can see my hand model (AKA wife) adding some pomegranate juice to the bucket for some stirring prior to the secondary fermentation below.
- Leave your cider in secondary fermentation for 2-4 weeks, and after that, it’s time for the time-consuming process of bottling.
- I use 22oz bottles (because there are less bottles to fill) but if you get your bottles for free (ie drink what was in them) you’ll need about 56 12 oz bottles.
- Follow the instructions for sanitizing & bottling that came with your brew kit and fill your bottles with your cider. This, by all accounts is the most tedious part, and the reason for the other 2 methods. You dont need to bottle anything with the other 2 methods, just drink it straight from the jug. Bottling is a task, but it’s something that I dont mind considering the output (5 gallons) that I’m getting when I’m finished.
Pro tip: open up your dishwasher, and place all your empty bottles on the dishwasher door. Fill them up while they are there, and if there’s any spillage you can just close the lid! easy clean up.
- Cap your bottles and let rest for a week or 2. Yes, this process is long, but it yields the best product I’ve gotten so far. I’ve also found that the longer you bottle condition the cider, the smoother it gets.
If you dont want to plunk down the cash for a rather expensive brewing kit, you’ve got a few options.
- try finding the brewing kit stuff on craigslist. If you live in a bigger market this could work well for you. Lots of brewers give up their carboys when they move on to larger scale brewing.
- use one of the methods below and make batches a gallon at a time
If I were just getting started, I’d use one of these (probably the frugal & sustainable option).
How To Make Hard Apple Cider with The Frugal & Sustainable Option
- Gather your ingredients and materials, including your glass jug if you’re using one.
- If you’re adding sugar, make sure to remove an equal amount of liquid so it does not overflow.
- Take your apple cider yeast and add 1/2 teaspoon to the liquid. Shake or swirl if you want, though it’s not necessary. Remember to set the jug lid aside, as you’ll need it later.
- Add your airlock to the top of the bottle, and fill with sterile liquid or hard alcohol
- Take your jug and set it aside in a dark place for two weeks while the yeast work their magic.
- After the yeast have done their thing, take off the airlock and put the jug in the fridge. Enjoy whenever you need. No need to worry about over-fermentation, as the cool temperatures in your fridge will slow the activity of the yeast to a crawl.
- Congratulations, you now know how to make hard apple cider.
This is one of the simplest ways to accomplish this, and you can use it for many other types of juices as well. You can download a guide at the bottom of this post that will tell you what other juices work great and other flavors you can add to your cider.
If you’re interested in this, here’s what I’d buy: this one gallon glass jug ($5), this airlock ($1.50), this rubber stopper ($1) and this cap ($1), for a total cost of less than $9 before shipping. Note: If you find a cider you like that comes in a glass jug when you buy it, you’ll only need the stopper & the airlock. You can use the glass jug the cider came in, as well as the screw cap.
Homemade Hard Cider with The Ultra Frugal (College) Method
I was fond of this method in college, so I know it well and I know that it works. I also know that it costs about 1 to 10 cents above consumables costs, so it’s dirt cheap. Obviously, I don’t condone lawbreaking (no matter how senseless I find it) so if you’re residing in the USA and are under 21 don’t try this at home. Since we’ve got many international readers, this is for them. Here’s how it’s done:
- Gather your ingredients and materials. This is your cider, the yeast for your cider, your balloon, rubber band (or tape) and a safety pin.
- Take your saftey pin and poke a few holes (3 or less) in the balloon and set the balloon aside
- Open the cider and add 1/2 teaspoon of yeast in there. If this feels like a small amount dont worry, when yeast get put in favorable conditions like this one, they will reproduce like crazy. Remember to set the jug lid aside, as you’ll need it later.
- Pull your balloon over the lid of the container, and wrap the rubber band or tape around it a few times to make sure that it doesn’t pop off during fermentation. Set aside for 2 weeks (though with this method, check on it a few times per day the first few days to make sure everything is still as it should be) and then take off the balloon.
- Cap the container and place in the fridge to drink. No need to worry about over-fermentation, as the cool temperatures in your fridge will slow the activity of the yeast to a crawl.
Congratulations, with just a bit of ingenuity and some household goods, you can skirt ridiculous (IMHO) government regulations and stick it to the cider companies that are charging 8 bucks (or more) for a 6 pack of of the good stuff. You now know how to brew cider.
This is the ultra cheap method, and all you’ll need to make many batches is a package of yeast and a bag of balloons (as well as the juice). If you’re frugal but still want a nice alcoholic beverage, this is for you.
Mastering this has also saved me a boat load of money over the last 8 or so years. I used to spend an embarrassing amount of money on alcohol. Making my own hooch and cutting back my drinking significantly have helped bring that cost way down, to the point where I spend about $20 per month or less. I’ll only need a cash stash of $6,000 to sustain this particular part of my lifestyle.
If I spent more on alcohol, freedom would be that much further away.
Well, once you’ve mastered the process and feel confident in your skills, feel free to step up your game a notch! I have experimented with many add ins to my cider (like real blackberries & vanilla beans) and have tried making cider out of many different juices. Some of this is easier with a carboy set up, but again it’s not necessary. Download the guide below, where I detail all the other juices I’ve used for hard cider, as well as all the additions to the secondary fermentation that have taken my cider from ho-hum to awesome!