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Cider is the new frontier for adult drinks, with small-batch producers making boutique concoctions that run the gamut from fruity to dry. It's also something you can make at home, just like home-brewed beer, but maybe even easier.
When Dale Penrose was 19 and away to college, he realized that if he wanted to drink alcohol, he was going to have to get creative. So he went to the store for a gallon of apple juice, added some yeast and let it sit. Soon enough, he had hard cider.
"It was pretty tasty,” says Penrose, 60, who has since honed his craft and earned a wall of trophies for his efforts. “My friends and I would drink it as fast as we were brewing it.”
The ABCs of cider brewing
Like the craft beer industry, which has exploded in recent decades, hard cider is having a similar moment. The American Cider Association reports that consumers ages 23 to 40 and 53 to 71 drink more cider than other demographics. More than 13 million cases of hard cider are being sold by retailers annually, racking up $516 million in sales.
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Home brewers are experimenting with their own hard cider versions, tweaking flavors, carbonation levels and alcohol content, and experimenting with pasteurization.
The basic process shouldn't scare anyone off. Alex Lewin, 51, of the San Francisco Bay Area, started making hard cider in college and wanted to demystify the process. His short Instagram video showing how to make hard cider in one minute or less has racked up more than 1,700 views.
But first, a little vocabulary: In the U.S., there's apple juice, which is the bright, clear juice sold in stores. And then there's apple cider, the unfiltered, browner version found at fall farmers markets, health food stores and in some grocery stores.
Either of those can be fermented and turned into hard cider. At its core (get it?), the process of turning juice into cider is simple, with limited potential for disaster. The worst-case scenario is that it tastes bad or ends up as vinegar.
The secret's in the bubbles
To begin your cider journey, start with a jug, a plastic stopper (also called a bung) and an air lock, which can be purchased at brewery supply stores or online, says Emma Christensen, author of Modern Cider.
"Don't get hung up on gear,” notes Lewin, who puts his brew in old kombucha bottles. Sanitize your equipment — many experts recommend Star San sanitizer — to ensure there are no errant bacteria or mold spores lurking on your equipment that would interfere with the fermentation process.
The base of your recipe should be a gallon of what Penrose describes as “quality apple juice,” either home-pressed or store-bought with no preservatives, which inhibit the fermentation process. Add wine or cider yeast (not beer yeast), which is available to purchase at a brewery supply store or online. Put the juice in the sanitized jug and add the yeast, according to package directions. Mix well. Top with the stopper and air lock, and leave in a cool place.
Bubbles form as the yeast feasts on the sugar in the apple juice — creating alcohol, which stays in the cider, and carbon dioxide, which bubbles out the air lock. From there it's a question of time as the sediment settles and the bubbles, which are the hallmark of the fermentation process, slow down.
"When the bubbles get down to one every five to 10 seconds, that seems to be the right moment,” Lewin says. That can take a few weeks, but the best way to know if your cider is good, is to taste it. From there, you can refrigerate it, or bottle the cider and age it to improve the taste.
The same process can be applied to almost any juice — cherry, pear or peach are all good options, according to Christensen. “Just start playing around with different kinds of juices and make your own special variety of hard cider,” she suggests.
One thing that all three experts agree on is that when you finish making your cider, share it. Just maybe don't tell your college-age kids or grandkids how easy it is to make.
Want more at-home cocktail projects? Try these:
Make simple syrup. This sweet syrup is a staple of many cocktails, including whiskey sours, mint juleps and mojitos. Combine equal parts water and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until the sugar melts. Remove from the heat and let cool. It can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several weeks.
Make limoncello. Wash, dry and peel the yellow outer skin of 10 to 12 organic lemons. Put in a 2-quart jar and cover with one 750-milliliter bottle of vodka (though some prefer the stronger grain alcohol). Let sit for at least a week and up to a month in a cool, dark place. Strain the vodka into a bowl. Add 1 cup simple syrup or more to taste. Bottle and store in the fridge or freezer.
Make infused vodka. Wash, dry and chop 2 cups of any fruit, discarding stems, cores and seeds, and peeling if you want (berries can be left whole). Put fruit in a 1-quart jar, cover with 2 to 3 cups of vodka. Let sit for three to five days, tasting after three days. When it has reached your desired flavor, strain and transfer to bottles. Store indefinitely.