A Slick Cider-Making Setup

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Photograph by Carmen Troesser

To make cider, you only really need a few key pieces of equipment: a container with a lid to contain the fermenting sweet cider, and bottles with caps to store it once it’s fermented. Everything else helps with the process, either by making it safer or by making it easier on the cider-maker (you). We’ll suggest three setups, from the simplest, to get you started cheaply, to the sublime, in case you want to take your production to the next level.

Apples to Pomace to Juice

If you’re going to press apples, you may not need any special equipment — depending on how much cider you want to make. Six gallons of fresh­-pressed apple cider requires about 80 pounds of apples, or around two common apple boxes. You can pick a couple of boxes’ worth of apples pretty quickly, especially if the trees are on dwarf rootstock and easy to reach. You can also purchase a couple of boxes of different organic apple varieties. At this scale, you really don’t need any special picking equipment. Before investing in juicing equipment, check your local brew shop to see if you can rent a grinder (sometimes called a “mill”) and press, and then invite your friends over to help.

Photograph by Carmen Troesser

There are many options for grinders and presses. Usually they’re paired, meaning a press will include a hopper that feeds the apples through the grinder/mill and into the basket or racks. The biggest thing to consider is the size of the chop of the pomace (how coarsely the apples are ground) — it should match the ideal size for your press. If the chop is too big, you won’t get as much juice as you should; if the chop is too fine, it can gunk up your press, leading to frustration and lots of extra cleaning of the cloths between loads. If you’re handy in the shop and are looking for a project, you can find a whole host of instructions out there for building your own mill and press, though we believe the most complete reference is Claude Jolicoeur’s excellent The New Cider Maker’s Handbook, which devotes a chapter each to mill and press designs.

If you want to make more than 6 gallons of cider, you’re going to want to pick your own apples, and you’ll need to borrow the mill and press — or, you may become addicted to the fun, in which case it’ll be time to think about purchasing one of your own. Apples don’t all ripen at once, so if you’re lucky, this part of the process will be more manageable as a series of afternoon pressings as the apples ripen.

Fermentation Setups

Turning fresh, sweet cider into its naturally occurring alcoholic phase requires yeasts, time, and containers. There’s also a choose-your­-own-­adventure aspect to cider-making, depending on how deeply you want to dive in. The three levels of setup described in “Equipping Your Cider House” range from minimal to majestic, and are described in detail in the following pages. You may wish to start at the minimal setup level, and then add more equipment as your familiarity with the process grows.

Equipping Your Cider House

Level 1: Minimal Setup

  • Food­-grade bucket with lid
  • Airlock (optional)
  • Funnel
  • Bail­top bottles (new or used)
  • Commercial yeast (optional)

Level 2: Simple Setup

  • All of the Minimal Setup items
  • No-­rinse brewing sanitizer
  • Hydrometer
  • Wine thief (basically a glorified turkey baster)
  • Plastic graduated cylinder to hold hydrometer (optional)
  • Racking cane (auto-siphon models are easier to use, and more sanitary)
  • 6 to 8 feet food-grade vinyl tubing
  • Glass or plastic carboys
  • Thermometer

Level 3: One Fine Setup

  • All of the Simple Setup items
  • Floating thermometer
  • pH strips or handheld pH meter
  • Brass, V-shaped carboy-and-bottle washer
  • Bottle-drying tree
  • Hand capper or corker
  • New caps and corks
  • 6­-gallon plastic carboy
  • Conical fermenter
  • Pectic enzyme powder
  • Campden tablets (optional)
  • Oak chips, spirals, or sticks
  • Recycled or new food-grade barrels

Level 1: Minimal Setup

Starting at the most basic — and cheapest — level, you’ll need a food-­grade container to hold the juice as it ferments, a lid (or, better, an airlock) to keep air away from your fermenting cider, a funnel, and bottles. Everything should be washed with dish soap and warm water, and rinsed and dried completely. Lastly, unless you’re making a wild-yeast cider, you’ll need a commercial yeast to get things going. That’s honestly it.

Photograph by Carmen Troesser

With this setup, you won’t be transferring the cider from the primary to secondary fermentation (racking), but rather letting it ferment to the desired sweetness or dryness level in one container, and then bottling. An inexpensive bottle option is to reuse quality beer, cider, and wine bottles. If you reuse bail­top bottles, you won’t need anything else. For all other bottles, you’ll need either a hand capper or a hand corker, depending on which style you’re filling. New bottle caps and corks are available in different colors and sizes, so make sure you match your bottles to the right size cap or cork.

Bottling will be a bit trickier without a racking cane and hose siphon to control where you pull off the cider. You’ll need to tip the bucket and carefully pour off the cider above the lees into the funnel and bottles. You’ll need a steady hand and a lot of patience to pull this off well. This setup will work, but probably not every time. Adding a little more equipment can improve your bottling odds.

Level 2: Simple Setup

By adding a couple of pieces of equipment to the Minimal Setup, you can make your life easier and improve the hygiene of your cider-making. Starting with hygiene, improve your chances of removing any unwanted bacteria from your equipment by using a no-rinse brewing sanitizer. You’ll simply mix the sanitizer according to the manufacturer’s instructions, and then either submerge your equipment into the sanitizing solution or rinse your equipment with it. The racking cane and tube will need to have the sanitizing solution run through them and be allowed to dry. As the name suggests, you won’t even need to rinse off the sanitizer afterward.

A cider mill and press make quick work of processing apples.. Photograph by Carmen Troesser

To make your life simpler, we recommend adding a hydrometer, a racking cane attached to a 6-to-8-foot length of food­-grade vinyl tubing, and a wine thief to your setup. With the hydrometer, you can measure the amount of sugars in your cider, or the specific gravity, which is helpful to know when you’re aiming for a specific alcohol content and sweetness. You might also spring for a plastic graduated cylinder, which holds the juice or cider in a vertical tube so you can clearly see the readings when floating your hydrometer. We broke our first one right away and tried — unsuccessfully — to use a number of other glass jars as substitutes, so it’s best to get one early, and treat the hydrometer and cylinder gently. Along with measuring specific gravity, it’s also useful to measure the temperature of both the cider and the proofing liquid of the yeast. It’s important to know these temperatures, because too much of a difference may cause the yeast to go into shock and die off prematurely. In that same vein, it’s helpful to have a thermometer in your fermenting space to monitor the fermentation; this is especially important in processes that require a cold fermentation to retain sugars, such as ice cider and keeving. Inexpensive stick­-on strip thermometers can be affixed to your fermentation vessels and will give a rough idea of the ambient temperature the ferment is experiencing.

If you’ve been making your cider in food­-grade buckets, we recommend moving up to glass or plastic carboys for two reasons. First, you can see what’s going on in your cider without having to open it up and draw out a sample. Second, carboys have necks, and buckets don’t, which means your cider’s surface area is wide in a bucket but narrow in a carboy. A smaller surface area is a good thing, because it’s much easier to manage it to keep unwanted aerobic microbes out. To move cider between buckets, carboys, and bottles, nothing beats a racking cane and hose. The simplest models depend on you to create the suction, while self­-siphoning models only take a couple of quick pumps to get the siphon going.

Photograph by Carmen Troesser

Finally, a wine thief is a groovy tool to have. It’ll allow you to sneak out a bit of cider to check specific gravity and taste what’s happening without disturbing the main vessel much. As we’ve grown as cider-makers, we’ve used our wine thief more and more to taste and learn how things are developing.

Level 3: One Fine Setup

The Simple Setup will get you there, but adding more equipment can make the process even easier and allow you even more flexibility in terms of what you’re making and how you’re bottling it. A floating thermometer will allow you to directly monitor your cider’s temperature, which is important when introducing commercial yeasts and during the fermentation stages. Adding pH paper strips or a pH meter will allow you to quickly check the pH of your cider as it ferments. Pectic enzyme powder will help reduce haziness in your final product. Campden tablets (potassium metabisulfite) can be used to sanitize equipment, to remove chlorine and chloramine from tap water, to kill wild yeast and bacteria for more predictable fermentations, and to kill an off fermentation and salvage the homebrew.

Using recycled bottles is a great idea, and new bail­top bottles can get expensive, so you’ll want to reuse them, but this does require good cleaning. One of our favorite, yet simplest, pieces of equipment is a brass, V­-shaped carboy-and-bottle washer that screws onto the threaded end of a kitchen sink faucet. You simply invert the bottle or carboy, and ease it down onto the upwardly protruding end of the washer. A stream of water is shot upward into the carboy or bottle and does a great job of swishing everything out.

Photograph by Carmen Troesser

After cleaning, you’ll need a place for your bottles to air­-dry upside down. Bottle-drying trees look a little like the trunk of Christopher’s family’s plastic Christmas tree from the 1970s, with short nibs sprouting out in rings upward. However silly they may look, they do work, and can safely hold a surprising number of bottles.

In terms of fermenters, we love two additions to our glass carboys: a 6-gallon FerMonster plastic carboy and a Blichmann Cornical fermenter. The plastic carboy is much lighter than the glass and has a wide lid, which is the bomb when you’re fermenting with fruit mashes or whole hops — they go into the narrow glass carboy necks much better than they come out.

Our biggest splurge in the cider cave has been a stainless steel conical fermenter. After reading for months about the virtues of conical fermentation devices, and after Christopher convinced himself he couldn’t call himself a proper cider-maker without at least one corny keg lying about, we bought a Blichmann Cornical fermenter in a moment of weakness. Basically, it’s a corny keg with legs and a conical attachment, so that you can ferment and serve in one keg. We’ve found the conical design to be great for removing lees without racking. And the keg component is great when you find yourself in a situation where, because of your cider reputation, you’ve been designated chief cider supplier for a tailgate party.

To ramp up your cider-making quantities, you’ll need to move to larger containers, and one of the most economical ways to do that is with recycled food­-grade barrels made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). These are commonly sold in 40-gallon (150-liter) sizes and are known to many wine-, beer-, and cider-makers as “blue oak,” because they function like oak barrels without the weight or cost of real wood.

Photograph by Carmen Troesser

Lastly, to get the barrel-aged taste that none of the above will provide, you’ll need some wood. In the past, this likely meant fermenting in a used wooden barrel from a distillery or winery, but the size of those barrels can be daunting for a home cider-maker. Smaller, new barrels are available online, made from various woods. They’re definitely cute, but they can be expensive. Realistically, anything smaller than 2 1/2 gallons (10 liters) can be difficult, as we’ve found that in our drier climate they tend to dehydrate quickly. There are great alternatives now in the form of oak chips, spirals, and sticks, and even something called “inner staves” — wine­-soaked stave pieces from previous working barrels that you can submerge in the cider as it ages, which will impart varying levels of barrel-aged oak taste.

Kirsten K. and Christopher Shockey are coauthors of many bestselling fermentation books, including The Big Book of Cidermaking. They teach fermentation classes worldwide and host workshops on their homestead in southern Oregon. Follow the Shockeys on Instagram @Ferment.Works, or find them online at Ferment Works.

Fermenting and Flavoring Hard Cider

The Big Book of Cidermaking equips readers with the skills they need to make the cider they want (whether sweet, dry, fruity, farmhouse-style, hopped, barrel-aged, or fortified). Readers explore in-depth the different phases of fermentation and the entire spectrum of complex flavor and style possibilities, with cider recipes ranging from cornelian cherry to ginger, and styles including New England, Spanish, and late-season ciders. This title is available for pre-order at our store or by calling 800-978-7464, and will ship September 2020. Mention promo code MFRPAKZ5. Item #10149.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.