Apple growing regions of the world have long traditions of pressing the juice of the harvest, and storing it for later use. We in America have been calling it cider straight out of the fruit for as long as I can remember. In Europe though, cider is the term for that juice once it has fermented. Cider has never lost its popularity in France, Great Britain, and other apple growing areas. Fermented fruit drinks are popular worldwide; the drink of regional choice depends on just which fruit grows well in the area. Italians savor wine, for example, while other people enjoy their cider.
Cider used to be wildly popular in America as well. Early colonists grew apples and made cider, simply applying skills and equipment they carried from Britain and France. Cider of any quality sure beat the boredom, and occasional intestinal turmoil, of a steady "diet" of local water. But cider fell on hard times in the late 1800s in America. Whether it was the availability of beer, the temperance movement, or some vague social trend away from the rural lifestyle, fermented cider became nearly extinct by the early 20th century here.
Fads and social trends always swing. Hard cider is 21st century America's new darling. Sales of commercial hard cider have soared, and all the big beer makers are jumping into the cider fray along with microbrewers and artisanal beverage makers. Cider even fits nicely with the current interest in gluten-free foods.
Lucky for us gardeners, the "growing" of a crop of hard cider is really not much different in concept than growing other edible crops. You're growing a crop of yeast by giving it the conditions it needs to thrive. Cider, just like wine, is fermented by yeast in the absence of oxygen. The process takes place in a bottle sealed with a special stopper that will let out carbon dioxide made by the yeast, while not letting in any new air. Any homebrew equipment supplier* can sell you this equipment and add expert advice; it's really simpler than it sounds. There are many instructional guides posted on the web. I'll give you the basics, and let you visit your local supplier of "all things homebrew" to fill in the gaps:
Basic Steps in Fermenting Cider
- Use fresh, flash-pasteurized cider (potassium sorbate will prevent your yeast from growing well). Or make your own fresh cider with plenty of apples and a press or juicer. Start with about twenty pounds of apples to start a gallon of cider brewing.
- Prepare a sterilized fermenting set up: a gallon glass jug and a special stopper with a vapor lock, just as is used for wine.
- Kill the wild yeasts and bacteria if you made your own juice. You'll most likely get better results when you control the yeast. Then again, you can be adventurous and let fly with whatever wild yeasts it may have already accumulated. In this case your end result will either be totally unique, or possibly just horrible.
- Add tame yeast of choice. Wine making yeast is widely recommended.
- Let it ferment for about two weeks, in a dark place that stays around 70 degrees F. Then siphon off the now alcoholic brew into a clean container. Discard the sediment (gardener's tip: I bet that stuff is great in the compost.) Wash the glass bottle. Put the cider back into it for another week or so of final ferment.
- When fermentation is done, remove the airlock and stopper the bottle. Let the cider age for better flavor.
That was a quick run-through, so you can decide whether to pursue this project. There are variables and refinements to the process, such as adding sugar or yeast nutrient. Even the chosen starter cider or varieties of apples will change the flavor of the end result. You can find many articles about how to make cider on the internet. I liked "Home Brew Hard Cider From Scratch" at instructables.com. It was clear and concise, with great pictures and seemingly well informed commenters to add to the discussion.
And always drink responsibly!