Know the cider you like and find the recipe for it
There is a vast range of sources and ideas on how to make cider. And most of these sources unless they’re penned by fanatics will tell you to go with the recipe most likely to produce the taste you enjoy. Some prefer the traditional scrumpy of still, cloudy and naturally fermented cider apples. Personally, as a fifteen year old on a camping trip to dorset, I experienced all I ever needed to of farmhouse scrumpy (although Cider with Rosie still has a certain resonance with me!).
Both my wife and I prefer the Breton and Norman style of bottle conditioned ciders that are clear, dry (brut) and have a natural sparkle. We don’t (can’t) yet use the champagne method but with careful use of sugar and fermentation stage we can make some beatifully sparkling ciders. So first of all know your cider, know the style and taste of the cider you are looking for and let this be your guide.
Picking your apples
It is easier and more forgiving if you can make your cider from a wide variety of apple types. The final taste of your cider will be based upon a mixture of acidity, sweetness and astringency. Your apples will have varying levels of sugar, tannin and acid in them. If you have access to a wide range of apples go for a balanced mix; for instance some cooking apples, some dessert apples. A handful of crab apples can help add tannin (although we’ll talk about adding wine tannin later. The more sugar in the apples to start with the more fuel your yeast will have to work with. The more fuel your yeast has and the stronger your cider will be. Use a hydrometer to test the apple juice. A specific gravity of 1050-55 is a good starting point to make a dry cider of around 8-9% alcohol.
Milling the apples
Getting juice from an apple is not as simple as sticking it in a cider press and crushing it. Apples need to be milled or chopped up into small pieces before being put into the cider press. For large quantities of apples (anything over a couple gallons) a cider press and device for milling the apples will be needed.
Using a juicer
If you are making relatively small quantities of cider you could use a juicer but it will need to be robust and capable of being on for some time. Most kitchen juicers will not be able to cope. You should have something like this juicer to cope with a few gallons. Be aware that the juice you get will be more cloudy than from a cider press and you might want to consider using pectolase to help produce a clearer cider. More on that later but if you do use a juicer to produce your juice you can skip to the next section on fermentation. On the other hand, if you have a large quantity of apples you’ll want to consider and apple press and a shredder.
Getting juice from the apples
So before you can press your apples you need to shred or mill them. And before you start milling, you should wash your apples and chop them into quarters. Discard any brown bits and any apples that are off. Work to the maxim that “if you wouldn’t eat it you wouldn’t drink it” and you should be fine. You can buy proprietary manual apple millers (like the one in the picture below) but they are, in my opinion, not worth the money. For a third of the price you can buy a cheap garden shredder that will do the job faster and more effectively. If, on the other hand, you fancy your last name is Bulmers you can buy a dedicated electric apple miller for about £800.
I bought a B&Q performance shredder for £70. The only drawback is the size of the whole into which you put your apple pieces. Apart from that it works very well. A few words though. Always clean your equipment straight after use. I found that (after unplugging the device) I could open it up and hose it down inside. Once it was dry I would wipe all surfaces with vegetable oil, pour a bit more on the bearings and then close it up and turn it on for a few seconds. That spreads the oil into inaccessible parts and keeps it nice and clean for next year. Position your apple shredder above a plastic bucket and keep going until the bucket is full. You can always sprinkle the apple shreds with lemon juice to prevent browning. Once you have your apple’s shredded it’s time to fill up your press and get out the juice. I find the pressing bit particularly satisfying as it is surprising how much juice you can get out of a small amount of apples. How much juice you’ll get from your apples depends on the variety, the weather and the size and ripeness of the fuit. The longer you leave your apples on the tree the more chance you’ll have for them to ripen and produce their sugars.