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Common cider making questions!

The process of cider making is relatively straight forward, but if you’re new to cider making it can be a quite daunting. The unexpected can happen and the expected may not have happened, so what do you do? We've taken some of the common questions we get asked and provided answers below to help you with your cider making.

"I’ve read that initial fermentation can be quite violent and that you should leave the lid of the fermenter on loosely at this point. Is this right?"

It is quite likely that there will be a fairly vigorous foaming start to the fermentation. This can lift the lid so we advise that if the fermenter is indoors, place it on some newspaper to soak up any spillage. Put the bung and airlock (primed with water) into the lid – this will prevent insects from getting into the juice. At this stage the lid can be applied loosely – it does not have to be sealed against air. Once the fermentation quietens top up with more juice or water to exclude air, screw the lid back on tightly with the bung and (primed) airlock in place.

"Do I need to add campden tablets?"

Campden tablets (sodium metabisulphite) are sometimes added to apple juice before fermentation to subdue some of the wild yeasts and bacteria present in the juice, reducing the likelihood of the cider spoiling. Dosage depends on the acidity of the juice: a low acid juice (pH of 3.7 to 3.8) will require 3 campden tablets per gallon of juice; average acid juice (pH of 3.4 to 3.6) will require 2 tablets per gallon; high acid juice (pH below 3) does not require campden tablets.

To add campden tablets, crush them in a little warm juice or water and add to the juice in the fermenter. After 24 hours add a cultured cider yeast or a cultured wine yeast, and prime the airlock.

"Why can't I add yeast at the same time as my campden tablets?"

Andrew Lea, author of Craft Cider Making, explains that adding Campden tablets at the same time as the yeast is likely to inhibit the yeast 'too strongly' and so will adversely affect fermentation. Adding the Campden tablets to the juice at least 24 hours before the yeast not only gives the Campden tablets sufficient time to kill off spoilage organisms, it allows time for the free sulphur dioxide to disappear before the yeast is added so as not to inhibit the yeast.

"How does a hydrometer work and what is it used for?"

Hydrometers measure the specific gravity or density of a liquid. With apple juice they give a good indication of the sugar content, which in turn will give a good indication of the potential alcohol of the fermented cider.

To use a hydrometer, place your sample of juice/cider in the hydrometer jar (also called a ‘trial jar’) and lower the hydrometer carefully until it floats freely. Spin the hydrometer to remove clinging bubbles. When it is steady and not touching the jar sides, take the specific gravity reading at the level of the bottom of the liquid surface. You may need to adjust the reading depending on the temperature of your sample, as outlined in the hydrometer instructions. In addition to a specific gravity scale, our hydrometers have a potential alcohol scale, so you can look up the equivalent potential alcohol reading on the scale. Make a note of this reading. The potential alcohol will be produced if all the sugar is fermented. The specific gravity of the juice is likely to be somewhere between 1040 (potential alcohol of 5%) and 1065 (potential alcohol of 9%).

After fermentation, to work out the actual alcohol level, take a new specific gravity reading, read the equivalent ‘potential alcohol’ from the scale, and subtract this reading from the potential alcohol reading taken before fermentation. The result will give you the alcohol level of your cider.

Hydrometers also determine when the cider is ready for racking (syphoning off) the cider from the yeast deposit (lees). The specific gravity drops during fermentation. If you are fermenting the cider to natural dryness, when the specific gravity is below 1005 then it is time to rack the cider from the yeast deposit (lees) – this helps to stabilise and clear the cider. This racking process may need repeating if more sediment forms over the next few weeks or months, before you store your cider.

"The specific gravity of my juice indicates that the potential alcohol in my cider will be very low. I want a strong cider. How do achieve this?"

If the specific gravity of the juice is below 1040 or a strong cider is preferred, then sugar can be added to raise the specific gravity. Andrew Lea, author of Craft Cider Making, explains that adding sugar in this scenario (SG of less than 1040) is wise because sufficient alcohol is needed to protect the final cider during storage. Each 5° of specific gravity is equivalent to about 1% Alcohol (ABV). To raise the gravity by 5° add about 10 g of sugar per litre of juice. i.e. 10g of sugar in one litre of juice will give a potential alcohol increase of 1%. Once you have added your sugar, re-test the juice with the hydrometer until the desired specific gravity is reached.

"What's the ideal temperature for fermenting cider?"

Andrew Lea, author of Craft Cider Making, explains that a cool fermentation (15°C or even below) is 'generally preferred for cider in order to retain the fruity flavours developed by the yeast'. He does warn, however, that cultured yeasts [as opposed to the wild yeasts naturally present in apples] may struggle or stop fermenting if the temperature is below 10°C - if in doubt about the minimum fermentation temperature for your yeast, check the instructions supplied. You can ferment at higher temperatures, for example, Michael Pooley & John Lomax, authors of Real Cidermaking on Small Scale explain that fermentation up to 21°C is permissible if you want to the cider to be ready sooner (at Christmas or New Year), but they warn that fermenting beyond 21°C may result in the cider tasting of 'pear drops' and needing to be thrown away. Andrew seconds this by stating, 'Above 20°C is not a good idea for craft cider.' When fermenting between 15°C and 20°C, it is important to try to protect the cider from sharp fluctuations in temperature; a sudden change in temperature may stop the fermentation for a while.

"My cider doesn’t seem to be fermenting. What do I do?"

Be patient. If you are relying on the wild yeasts which naturally occur in apples, it may take one or two weeks for the fermentation to get under way. If there is still no fermentation after 2 weeks, add a cultured yeast, such as Vigo cider yeast, which is a high quality cider yeast widely used by commercial producers. For extra ‘belt and braces’ you can also add yeast nutrients, which provides the perfect balance of vitamins and minerals for healthy yeast growth.

If you added a cultured yeast and fermentation has not started within 2 weeks, you might need to add yeast nutrients to kick-start the yeast back into healthy growth.

If the weather is cold, move the juice to a warmer place. Andrew Lea explains that cultured yeasts may struggle or stop fermenting if the temperature is below 10°C, however, a fermentation temperature above 20 °C is not good for craft cider. Ideally your cider should be kept at around 15°C for smooth fermentation and to retain fruity flavours. Try to protect the cider from sharp fluctuations in temperature; a sudden change in temperature may stop the fermentation for a while.

"I forgot to put water in my airlock. Have I ruined my cider?"

If your cider is still fermenting you should be OK. If fermentation has finished, taste the cider and, if the taste is OK add water to the airlock.

"I’ve racked off my cider into a clean fermenter but the fermenter is only 90% full. Will this be a problem?"

Air contact will ruin the cider, so top up to eliminate any air space. Use water if no cider is available.

"How can I be sure that my cider has stopped fermenting?"

Observe the airlock. If the bubbles have stopped passing through the airlock, your cider may have finished fermenting. Use a hydrometer to measure the Specific Gravity – if the specific gravity is 1.000 or below the fermentation will have finished.

"I’ve racked off my cider a couple of times and have left it to settle but it’s still quite cloudy. Is this normal?"

If the cider has finished fermenting it will usually settle out reasonably clear. Moving to a cold place can help settling. Taste the cider – there is no need to worry about the clarity if the flavour is good.

"My cider is really acidic. Is there anything I can to mellow it?"

It is difficult to remove acid. Sweetening with sugar syrup may make the cider more palatable – but only do this at the time of consumption.

In future avoid really sharp apples.

"My cider needs sweetening. Can I add sugar to it?"

Yes, sugar can be added. Dissolve the sugar in hot water to make a concentrated syrup. Either, only add the sugar at the time of consumption, or else pasteurise the sweetened cider for long term storage otherwise it will re-ferment.

Our pasteurisers are ideal for pasteurising sweetened cider, allowing you to pasteurise with confidence.

"My cider tastes like vinegar. What can I do?"

It is too late to save the cider. Expose the cider to air and allow the vinegar process to proceed until you have cider vinegar. Andrew Lea’s book, Craft Cider Making, goes into more detail about cider vinegar making.

In future consider using campden tablets, which will reduce the likelihood of the cider spoiling, and store the cider in brim-full containers to avoid all air contact.

"Is it okay to store my cider in glass bottles and do I need to sterilise them?"

Yes, you can store cider in glass bottles, but they must be really clean.

If your cider is dry (i.e., it has a specific gravity of less than 1.003) it can be bottled without pasteurisation.

If your cider contains residual or added sugar it must be pasteurised in the bottle - our pasteurisers are ideal for this, allowing you to pasteurise with confidence.

Bottles can be sterilized by heating in a warm oven – around 80° and cooled with the caps on, before filling with dry cider that will not be pasteurised.

For pasteurised cider the bottles just need to be clean.

For more information about cider making, including trouble-shooting information, we highly recommend Andrew Lea’s book, Craft Cider Making. Andrew's website, The Wittenham Hill Cider Portal is also an excellent resource for cider making.

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