“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Michael Sarko
- Capitol Hill Times Magazine -
Perhaps the most beautiful thing about fermentation is that human beings discovered it on accident. That’s certainly how Ambrose Sterr, a passionate home-brewer who began practicing the process in his Capitol Hill home, first tasted small-batch hard cider. While attending Marlboro College in the woods of Vermont, Sterr and his friends simply left a bottle of unpasteurized apple juice in the fridge too long. Ambient yeast did what yeast does and transformed the juice into a potable alcoholic beverage, however crude a rendition of modern hard cider it may have been.
Leaving juice in the fridge too long isn’t how any home-brewer would suggest one make hard cider, and the folks at the Food and Drug Administration would have a bone to pick with any company that tried to sell such a product. Still, the result of that first, unintentional brew was enough to get Sterr interested in what he calls “a fun and very technical art.”
Home-brewing beer and cider, as well as home winemaking, is perfectly legal and, if done correctly, is both safe and highly cost-effective. Making anything stronger, which requires distillation, is another story. While it’s not technically illegal to distill liquor on a small scale, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has a series of requirements, and the federal government institutes a series of taxes on all legal distillery operations that make home distilling highly impractical and often simply impossible. Long story short: Making alcohol at home in the U.S. is strictly a beer-and-wine hobby.
That said, the amount of variation possible in this limited home-brewing menu is enough to keep an enthusiast busy for a lifetime. Sterr has been in the game for only a few years and he already has four different batches of hard cider, as well as two in-progress barrels of mead, a wine-like drink made from honey and spices. The home-brewing hobby is booming in America, which has led many producers of hops, yeast and other brewing supplies to market their goods to individuals both online and in stores.
Sterr started with cider because it’s a relatively simple substance to brew, and living in Seattle gives him access to an ample supply of excellent apples. His first batch started with soft cider made from Golden Russet apples at the Redmond/Woodinville-based Minea Farm. Making soft cider at home requires a cider press, which can be a bit of an investment for first-time brewers. Purchasing top-quality cider directly from the farm may only cost as much as $8 per gallon.
For Sterr’s first batch of hard cider, five gallons of raw cider yielded 50 bottles of the hard stuff. After his initial investment of approximately $100 in reusable brewing materials and less than $10 in other consumables like yeast and sugar, his premium hard cider cost him $3 per bottle. Future batches of the same size will reduce that cost to mere pennies per bottle.
• One large bucket that can hold approximately 1 to 2 gallons of fluid more than the desired final batch. This is called the “primary fermenter.”
• A bucket lid with a hole.
• An airlock stopper for the lid hole, preferably with a thermometer.
• A glass carboy (think water cooler jug) the size of the desired batch.
• A second bucket with a spigot to act as the “bottling bucket.”
• A siphon pump and tubing.
• A racking cane to make siphoning easier.
• Enough bottles with caps or stoppers to contain the final batch.
• Sanitizing solution.
• All consumables (cider, sugar, yeast)
Sterilizing all brewing equipment is the most important part of the process. Aside from health and safety concerns, foreign matter like dirt and bacteria can kill yeast and essentially halt the fermentation process, rendering the cider undrinkable as either a hard or soft beverage. When Ambrose Sterr brews, he prefers to sanitize his equipment using a solution of 1 ounce of phosphoric acid to 5 gallons of water. This solution is common in food production and it is reusable for several cycles.
Once all equipment has been sanitized, the raw cider should go into the primary fermenter. At this point, it’s time to figure out what kind of hard cider is going to go into the bottle. Using the right kind of yeast and controlling the amount of sugar in the brew will yield different results. Yeast consumes sugar and produces alcohol, so adding sugar to raw cider can make a final product with a higher alcohol by volume. But not all yeast is the same.
Champagne Yeast has an especially high tolerance for alcohol and a very high appetite for sugar. Using champagne yeast will produce a very strong, very dry cider with a lot of carbonation.
White Wine Yeast has lower tolerances than its champagne cousin. It will produce a sweeter, more fruity cider with moderate ABV.
Ale or Cider Yeast, which are used to make beer and commercial cider, have some of the lowest tolerances for alcohol and the lowest appetite for sugar. This will make a relatively soft, very flavorful cider.
It’s important to note that yeast has a hard time breaking down sucrose, the variety of sugar that comes granulated in a grocery store bag. Boiling sucrose in a small amount of water with a little bit of lemon juice will break it into fructose and glucose, making the yeast’s task easier. For stronger, sweeter cider, this broken sugar solution should be added at room temperature to the raw cider prior to introducing yeast.
Once the yeast has steeped in the cider and optional sugar syrup, it’s time to place the airlock on the lid of the primary fermenter. With the barrel closed and airlocked, the fermentation process can begin. Brewers should check the temperature and pressure (the preferred levels of which should come in instructions with the yeast) on the airlock daily. Keeping the primary fermenter in a cool, dry space like a basement should prevent the cider from getting too hot, but if it gets too cold it’s as simple as wrapping a towel or blanket around the fermenter until the cider’s temperature rises.
Bubbles should start to form in the airlock after a few days. When the airlock bubbles once every 20 to 30 seconds (which may take weeks or months), the cider should be moved to the glass carboy, known as the secondary fermenter, and the airlock should go on the carboy as well. It’s important to use the siphon in this process to avoid exposing the cider to air.
Once all of the liquid has been transferred, the bottom of the barrel will have a yeasty sludge. This is called a yeast flocculation and it shouldn’t go into the secondary fermenter. Yeast flocculation may not taste very good but it makes an excellent compost once it dries.
After at least one week in the carboy, the cider is ready to be bottled. Using the siphon, the cider should be moved from the secondary fermenter into the sanitized barrel that has the spigot. From there, the bottles can be filled straight from the spigot and sealed immediately. Flip-top stoppers are the most cost-effective and reusable bottle stops. Once in the bottle, the cider will have to rest for at least a month to let the unpleasant sulfur notes dissipate in the mixture. The bottled cider will continue to mature for several months.
The beer-brewing process is very similar, but also more complex. Instead of using the juice of fruit like apples or pears, beer is made with extractions of barley that require a more labor-intensive process.
Beer begins by creating a mash, malted barley steeped in hot water. Raw grain needs to be milled, or lightly crushed, to expose its starches to the water. This can be done with something as simple as a rolling pin, but many homebrew equipment suppliers will mill grain for their customers. The milled grain is then steeped in warm water at a proportion of roughly 1.5 quarts of water for every pound of grain. The cooler the water, the more simple sugar will result and the dryer the beer will be.
After steeping, the particulate matter in the resulting solution needs to be filtered out. This is called lautering. Following that, many brewers choose to sparge, or rinse excess sugars that have condensed on the grain. This can be as simple as adding more hot water to the grain post-lauter and repeating the process, though the water should be added slowly and the temperature tightly controlled to avoid accidentally washing off bitter chaff.
The amber solution resulting from steeping, lautering and sparging is called a wort and this is where the yeast will get its sugar. The wort is boiled with hops for flavor. The earlier the hops are added, the more bitter the beer will be. The wort-and-hops mixture should be cooled as quickly as possible, and then added to the primary fermenter with enough water to fill any remaining space where it is introduced to yeast.
The rest of the process is identical, though the bottle-maturing time for beer is generally shorter than it is for cider.
The benefit of home-brewing is simply a matter of cost and quality. Hand-crafted beer and cider allow the brewer to have incredible control over the final product, creating the exact flavor and ABV of his or her preference. Experimentation with new flavors is easy and a brewer can develop a decent degree of expertise after only a year of brewing. Most batches will match up in quality to premium microbrews at a fraction of the cost and with functionally zero waste.