How to Make Hard Cider

Do you want a beginner's guide or the ultimate guide?

How to make hard cider

Simply put, you make hard cider by adding yeast to apple cider under sanitized conditions, until the yeast converts the sugars into alcohol.  

It’s simple to understand the basics but you’ll need some information to be able to get the most from your cider making experience.   

What is this Guide?

The beginner’s version of the guide explains the process of how to make hard cider in simple terms that everyone can understand.  It gives enough detail to help a first-timer successfully make their first batch of cider, when used with the beginner’s recipe.  

If you already know the basics, consider switching to the ultimate version for more detail.

The ultimate version of the guide explains the process of how to make hard cider in detailed terms and assumes the reader has a basic understanding of cidermaking terms and processes.  

The ultimate guide is about helping experienced cidermakers fully understand the process so they can make their next batch better.  I recommend you use the ultimate guide with the advanced recipe.

If you find yourself needing a more basic explanation, read through the beginner’s guide first, then come back!

Who is this Guide for?

The primary audience for the beginner’s guide is: 

  • Anyone interested in learning how to make hard cider for the first time, and not sure where to start.
  • Those that have made some homemade hard cider before, but might need a refresher about the basic processes and concepts.

This primary audience for the ultimate guide is: 

  • Those that have made some homemade hard cider before, but would like to make it better.
  • Anyone who may want to learn about each component of the hard cider making process.  

1. Introduction and High-Level Overview

As mentioned above, the basic process of making hard cider is straightforward.  To start, combine apple juice with yeast to start a process called fermentation.  During fermentation, the yeast converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol and gas.

Once the fermentation process is complete (in about 1-3 weeks), you have hard cider.  Typically, you move the cider into another container (called ‘racking’) for secondary fermentation where it ages and can be combined with additional flavor components, such as fruit or cinnamon sticks.

After secondary fermentation, you can make adjustments for sweetness or carbonation.  Next, you rack the hard cider into bottles, where it continues to age.  Finally, you drink!  🙂

Sweet or Dry?

You can make your hard cider sweet or dry.  After fermentation, the hard cider is very dry (fermentation converts all the sugar to alcohol, and there is little or no sugar remaining).  If you prefer a dry cider, you are done!  If you’d like a sweeter cider, you need to make some adjustments.  The details of this page cover the specifics, but there is one important thing to know: adding sugar does not add sweetness!  That yeast converts the sugar by the yeast into more alcohol.

Carbonated or Still?

You can make hard cider carbonated or still.  After fermentation, the hard cider is still because all the gas generated during fermentation has escaped.  If you prefer still cider, you are done!  If you want carbonation, you’ll need to trap some gas with the cider (read below for details).

2. Gather and Prepare Ingredients

The ingredients you need to make hard cider will depend on the specific batch you are making.  It is possible to include quite a few ingredients in a batch, but there are only 2 that are required.

First Required Ingredient: Apple Cider or Juice

Sometimes referred to as ‘raw’ or ‘soft’ cider, the non-alcoholic juice or cider is the first of the main ingredients and plays a key role (more information on the difference between apple juice and apple cider).

Elements such as the sweetness and acidity of the juice play a vital role in the outcome.  It is best to use a blend of different apple varieties, some with high sugar levels, and others to give acids and tannins.

Check out this page for a good overview of the blend of sharps, sweets, and sharp-sweets varieties.

A key decision is whether you are going to make your raw cider or buy it.

MAKE YOUR OWN CIDER

This is the best option when it comes to quality and taste of the final product. However, it is a big undertaking to make more than a gallon or so of cider without specialized tools. 

For smaller amounts, you can simply quarter apples, put them in a blender (or juicer) and strain through a cheesecloth. For larger quantities, you will need special tools for grinding and pressing the apples.

BUY CIDER THAT HAS BEEN MINIMALLY PROCESSED

If you’ve decided that making cider isn’t for you, you’ll have to buy it.  Although not as common as it used to be, you can still find raw apple cider at fruit stands or farmers markets. 

The product may be pasteurized or not (be sure to ask!). The community of those making hard cider is split on the topic of pasteurization. Some say it’s totally fine to use unpasteurized cider (even preferred) while others think using anything that hasn’t been pasteurized is unsafe. Make your own decision and act accordingly. 

If you are uncomfortable using unpasteurized cider, it is possible (but difficult) to pasteurize it yourself.  Personally, I wouldn’t use purchased unpasteurized cider, However, I don’t pasteurize cider when I press it myself (maybe that doesn’t make complete sense, but that’s what I do).

BUY JUICE OR CIDER FORM A GROCERY STORE

The other option, and by far the easiest, is to buy apple juice or cider from a grocery store. While this is the least preferred option in terms of quality, there are some tricks to keep in mind to still get a great homemade hard cider in the end. 

In general, you’ll want to pick the least filtered product you can find. It will either be very cloudy (little bits of apple in suspension in the juice) or have lots of sediment at the bottom (apple bits are not suspended). These types of juices and ciders are often more expensive than the totally clear ones, so balance your available budget with how badly you want a high quality product.  

Other good signs are juices that state they are from a blend of apple varieties.  Stay away from anything with preservatives in it, or isn’t 100% juice.  Frozen juice concentrate as well as juice labelled “from concentrate” is also not preferred, as some think the concentration process removes some of the apple flavor.

Second Required Ingredient: Yeast

The yeast’s primary role is to convert sugar to alcohol, but it also influences the flavors and body of the final product.  Being such a critical component, there is lots of discussion in the cider making circles around which yeasts are best, and how to properly use each one.

As a beginner, understand you should use a type of brewers yeast, and not wild yeast or bread yeast.

Many kits and resources will instruct new cider makers to use a yeast cultivated for making wine or campaign.  This is generally a good choice as it’s a very ‘safe’ option in that it will ferment completely under a wide range of conditions. 

I have researched and experimented with many types of yeasts.  I recommend that beginners start with the most commonly used yeasts and move on from there.  These include: Safale S-04, Nottingham Ale Yeast, Safcider, and Lalvin 71C-1122

See my full overview of the best brands and types of hard cider yeast to make hard cider (as well as my recommendations).

Wild Yeast

Although yeast is a required ingredient, you may not have to add it.  If you make your own apple cider, or are using unpasteurized cider that you purchased, you can let the natural yeast on the apples do the work.  

Although this is the ‘most natural’ way of making hard cider, it’s very challenging as it’s sometimes unpredictable which yeasts are on the apples, and how they may interact with each other throughout the process.  That being said, many advanced cider makers use wild yeast with great success.

If you are using pasteurized apple cider (including anything purchased from a grocery store), the wild yeast was killed in the pasteurization process, so you can’t use the wild yeast.

Brewers yeast

Many kits and resources will instruct new cider makers to use a yeast cultivated for making wine or campaign.  This is generally a good choice as it’s a very ‘safe’ option in that it will ferment completely under a wide range of conditions.  Many people complain about wine yeasts being too aggressive and destroying too much of the apple flavor in the final product.

I have researched and experimented with many types of yeasts.  I recommend that beginners start with the most commonly used yeasts and move on from there.  These include: Safale S-04, Nottingham Ale Yeast, Safcider, and Lalvin 71C-1122

See my full overview of the best brands and types of hard cider yeast to make hard cider (as well as my recommendations).

Bread yeast

You could use bread yeasts to make hard cider.  However, brewer’s yeasts have specifically been cultivated for desirable characteristics, such as producing specific flavors and aromas.  Bread yeasts do not produce those desirable characteristics, and will indeed produce a homemade hard cider that does not taste good at all.

Optional Ingredients

  • Sugar to increase alcohol content – Any sugar added prior to fermentation is converted into alcohol during fermentation, creating a higher alcohol content of the final product.  Common types of sugar used are frozen apple juice concentrate, honey, brown sugar, and dextrose.
  • Sugar for carbonation – One way to get carbonation is to add more sugar prior to bottling (more on this later).  This is also referred to as ‘priming sugar’.  You can use any type of sugar for this, but dextrose and frozen apple juice concentrate are favored by many cider makers.
  • Sugar substitute – A common way to make a sweet hard cider is to use a sweetening agent that won’t be consumed by the yeast (called non-fermentables).  The most commonly used hard cider sweeteners are sugar alcohols, natural sweeteners, and artificial sweeteners.

Advanced Ingredients

The Ingredients page has much more information on these advanced ingredients:
  • Pectin Enzyme (liquid or powder) to reduce the haze.
  • Acids (malic, tartaric, tannic, or blend) to increase the overall flavor profile by reducing the pH.
  • Wine Tannins/Tannic Acid to add ‘body’ to the hard cider.
  • Yeast Nutrient or Yeast Energizer to give the yeast the proper nutrients to carry out fermentation.

3. Gather and Prepare Equipment

As is the case with ingredients, the specific equipment you need will vary according to the recipe and techniques you are using (you can find more information on the equipment page or the kits page).  The size of the batch and techniques used play direct roles in which supplies you need for a given batch.

Required Equipment

  • Sanitizing solution – You’ll use this to ensure that all equipment is free of unseen bacteria (I recommend Star San).
  • Fermentation containers – You use these to hold the cider while it’s undergoing the fermentation process. Some of the most commonly used containers for fermentation are:
    • Carboy – Also called demijohns or fermenters, carboys are plastic or glass containers specifically made for fermenting alcohol.  The most common sizes are 1-gallon, and 5-gallon.
    • Plastic bucket – Food-grade buckets called ‘fermenting buckets’ or ‘bottling buckets’ are used for fermentation.
    • Container store-bought cider came in – If the cider or juice you buy from the store comes in a glass bottle, you can use it as a fermentation container.
  • Rubber stopper and air lock – You place these on top of the fermentation container in order to allow gas to escape, while keeping air and contaminants out.
  • Bottles and caps – Either standard beer bottles, growlers, or hinge-top bottles.  You can reuse bottles from beer, cider, etc, so long as it is not the twist off style, and has been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.
  • Bottle Capper – If you plan on using standard beer bottles and attaching single-use caps, you will need a bottle capper.  This device attaches the bottle cap onto the bottle.  See Section 9: Bottling for more information.

Optional Equipment

  • Cleaning solution – You can use standard cleaning methods and tools such as dish washing soap and sponges, however, there are specialized cleaners available as well.
  • Brushes – Brushes are very helpful when cleaning your equipment.
  • Hydrometer and test jar – A hydrometer measures how much sugar is in the cider and is important at different times when making hard cider.  An initial test indicates the total possible alcohol content of the final product, testing throughout the process gives updates on progress on fermentation, and testing at the end determines that fermentation is complete and final alcohol content.  This video from NorthernBrewer gives a great overview of using a hydrometer.  It focuses on brewing beer, but it’s very applicable to cider.
  • Funnel – A funnel is very handy for moving cider between containers.
  • Auto-siphon (or racking cane) and food-grade tubing – These are devices for moving cider between containers in a much more efficient way.  See Section 6: Racking for more information.
  • Bottle filler – A bottle filler makes moving cider into bottles much easier.  It attaches to the end of the tubing (on the side opposite of the auto-siphon) and allows you to start and stop the flow of cider quickly, cleanly, and without losing the siphon.  See Section 9: Bottling for more information. 

Advanced Equipment

  • pH strips and acid testing kit – These give you the information needed to make adjustments to the pH or acids in your cider.  
Now, let’s move to one of the most important aspects of learning how to make hard cider, cleaning and sanitizing.

4. Cleaning and Sanitizing

It’s very important to clean and sanitize anything that will touch the cider throughout the process of making homemade hard cider.  This includes standard equipment such as the carboy, stopper, air lock, funnel, etc.  But it also includes things you might not think about, like spoons, measuring cups, measuring spoons, etc.

You must clean and sanitize several times throughout the process, it’s not something that’s only done at the beginning.

When learning how to make hard cider, it’s important to note that cleaning and sanitizing are not the same thing. 

Cleaning vs Sanitizing

Cleaning

Cleaning removes the contaminants you can see (dirt, grime, etc).  Clean with standard washing techniques: hand washing or putting items in the dishwasher, using dish soaps, etc.  Be careful not to scratch anything plastic as the scratches can harbor bacteria in future batches.

Sanitizing

Sanitizing is the process of removing the unseen contaminants, such as bacteria.  Use a liquid or powder sanitizing product and follow the instructions on the package.  Place all sanitized equipment on clean paper towels on a table or counter.

Using Tap Water After Sanitizing

There is some debate in the brewing community about rinsing a piece of equipment with tap water after sanitizing it.  Some say you should not do that as the tap water can reintroduce contaminant that were just removed.  Others say they would rather have some tap water on their equipment than the foam and solution sometimes left from sanitation.  

I try to reduce foaming of the sanitizing solution, and do not rinse with tap water after sanitizing.  It is important to note that a small amount of sanitizing solution in the final product is not dangerous.

After an item has been sanitized, I set it on a clean paper towel on the counter or table until it’s ready to use.  I also set an item back down on the paper towel after I use it (in case I need to use it again, I don’t want to have to sanitize it again).

Minimizing Foam

As mentioned earlier, sanitizing solution tends to foam, which is rather annoying.  Two things you can do to minimize foaming is:

  • Don’t fill water containers quickly with water.
  • Don’t dump sanitizing solution from containers quickly.  Often, this will result in a ‘glug, glug, glug’ that will produce a lot of foam.

5: Primary Fermentation

Now that you’ve gathered the supplies and sanitized the equipment, it’s time to start fermenting.
Fermentation is the process of yeast converting the natural sugars in the cider into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.

The amount of sugar in the cider directly relates to how much alcohol gets produced.  If you want more alcohol in your hard cider than is produced using the sugar in the raw apple juice, you will need to add additional sugar prior to fermentation.  

Decision Point: How much sugar to add prior to fermentation?

If you don’t add any sugar to the cider, it will yield hard cider that is approximately 6.0 – 6.5% ABV, which is already a bit higher than most store-bought hard cider.  If you want to increase the alcohol content, you will need to add sugar prior to fermentation.

A higher alcohol content can reduce the apple taste in the final product and cause other complications.  I would recommend that a beginner not adding any sugar prior to fermentation.

If you insist on adding sugar for a higher alcohol content (as many do), know that frozen apple juice concentrate is a popular choice of sugar, and select ‘ultimate’ at the top of this page for more information in the ultimate guide.

Decision Point: How much sugar to add prior to fermentation?

If you don’t add any sugar to the cider, it will yield hard cider that is approximately 6.0 – 6.5% ABV, which is already a bit higher than most store-bought hard cider.  If you want to increase the alcohol content, you will need to add sugar prior to fermentation.  

A very common choice of sugar to add to homemade hard cider is frozen apple juice concentrate (after thawing it in the refrigerator, on the counter, or in the microwave, depending on how much forethought you have).

You will increase the outcome by .5% ABV for every half cup of concentrate you add per gallon.  For a 1-gallon batch, adding a full container of concentrate (1.5 cups) will produce a batch at 7.5% – 8.0% ABV, which is the highest I would recommend.  A higher alcohol content can reduce the apple taste in the final product (even when using apple juice concentrate as the sugar).  I would recommend not adding any sugar to your first batch.

When using a hydrometer, you don’t have to guess (or trust me)!  You will use your hydrometer to measure and adjust the sugar content in the cider, thereby controlling the alcohol content in the finished product.  First, measure the specific gravity of the raw cider by pouring (or siphoning) some into your test jar (if you are using a combination of juices or ciders, pour them all in your fermentation container, stir/shake them up, and siphon some into the test jar).  It’s likely your reading will be around 1.048 – 1.052 (6.0 – 6.5% ABV). If you don’t add any sugar to the cider, this will be the final alcohol content after primary fermentation is complete.

If you want to increase the alcohol content, you will need to add sugar prior to fermentation as described above.

You will want to recheck the cider with the hydrometer after you add the sugar.  To do this, just add the concentrate to the juice, stir/shake it up, and retest.

Final Note: Write down the starting specific gravity!  It will seem easy to remember… it is not.  You will forget (it’ll be ~2 months until you drink it).  Knowing the starting specific gravity is vital to knowing the actual final alcohol content.

Primary Fermentation

You have your apple juice in the primary fermentation container, with any sugar you added.  The next step in making your own cider is to add the yeast (called ‘pitching’ in brew-speak).  Simply add the appropriate amount of yeast directly into the carboy.

Finally, attach the stopper and airlock.  Start by adding sanitizing solution to the airlock up to the max line indicated.  Then put the airlock into the rubber stopper.  Lastly, put the rubber stopper into the opening on the lid (if you are using a bucket) or carboy opening.  Make sure there isn’t any liquid on the stopper or the carboy to get a good seal).

You have your apple juice in the primary fermentation container, with any sugar you added.  The next step in making your own cider is to add the yeast (called ‘pitching’ in brew-speak).  Simply add the appropriate amount of yeast directly into the carboy.

The instructions on the yeast will likely tell you to add the yeast to lukewarm water prior to pitching (a process called ‘rehydrating the yeast’).  The intent is to get the yeast ready for fermentation and prevent the yeast from having a negative reaction to being put directly into sugar (sugar shock).  Personally, I don’t ever rehydrate the yeast as I have found it causes a bigger headache (more equipment to sanitize, using thermometer on small amount of water, waiting) than it’s worth.

The yeast packet will likely contain enough yeast for a 5-gallon batch, so use the whole packet if you are making a 5-gallon batch.  If you are making a smaller amount, use only a portion of the packet.  Using more yeast won’t cause problems unless you use tremendously too much (multiple packets).

Finally, attach the stopper and airlock.  Start by adding sanitizing solution to the airlock up to the max line indicated.  Then put the airlock into the rubber stopper.  Lastly, put the rubber stopper into the opening on the lid (if you are using a bucket) or carboy opening.  Make sure there isn’t any liquid on the stopper or the carboy to get a good seal).

A look into the fermentation process:

Fermentation is all about creating the alcohol and carbon dioxide from the yeast interacting with the sugars.

  • Alcohol: Ahh… what makes the Hard Cider ‘Hard’!  When you add yeast to the cider, it starts to ‘eat’ the sugar in the cider.  One of the byproducts is alcohol.  More sugar in the raw cider means more alcohol in the hard cider.
  • Carbon Dioxide: Carbon dioxide creates carbonation during the bottling process and in the finished product. 

Two factors to keep in mind during primary fermentation are:

  • Temperature:  Different yeasts will have different acceptable temperature ranges listed in their instructions.  If you are patient, stay on the lower end of that range.  During the fermentation process, the colder the temperature of the cider, the slower the fermentation (which is good for flavor).  If you aren’t patient, aim for the high side.  Since the cider will take on the temperature of its surroundings, controlling the temperature of the cider is as simple as putting it in a location with the appropriate temperature.
  • Light: Some say that direct sunlight can negatively affect the cider, and others disagree.  You can either read up on the science and come to your own conclusion or be like me and keep it out of direct sunlight just to be safe.

A look into the fermentation process:

Fermentation is all about creating the alcohol and carbon dioxide from the yeast interacting with the sugars.

  • Alcohol: Ahh… what makes the Hard Cider ‘Hard’!  When you add yeast to the cider, it starts to ‘eat’ the sugar in the cider.  One of the byproducts is alcohol.  More sugar in the raw cider means more alcohol in the hard cider.
  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2): While carbon dioxide is a distant second in terms of fermentation byproducts (alcohol being the first), it does provide a few benefits.  First, it gives the satisfying look and sound of tiny bubbles in the cider during fermentation, making their way to the top of the liquid, ending in a satisfying ‘glug’ sound as it escapes the air lock.  Second, it gives a visual indication of the process of fermentation (since the formation of alcohol can’t be seen).  Lastly, it creates carbonation during the bottling process and in the finished product.  During primary fermentation, you will let the carbon dioxide escape through the air lock.

Two factors to keep in mind during primary fermentation are:

  • Temperature:  Different yeasts will have different acceptable temperature ranges listed in their instructions.  If you are patient, stay on the lower end of that range.  During the fermentation process, the colder the temperature of the cider, the slower the fermentation (which is good for flavor).  If you aren’t patient, aim for the high side.  Since the cider will take on the temperature of its surroundings, controlling the temperature of the cider is as simple as putting it in a location with the appropriate temperature.
  • Light: Some say that direct sunlight can negatively affect the cider, and others disagree.  You can either read up on the science and come to your own conclusion or be like me and keep it out of direct sunlight just to be safe.

And Now We Wait

Put the container in a room temperature environment (or closer to 60 degrees if you can) and wait for the magic to start.  Within a few hours or days, you should start seeing and hearing CO2 gas escaping through the air lock.  You may also notice a very distinct smell (sulfur).

Patience is a key ingredient when learning how to make hard cider.  Fermentation will take about 1-2 weeks.  You’ll know when it’s done when it’s been several days since you’ve seen bubbles escape the airlock.  

In the first half of fermentation, you can shake and swirl the bucket to help release the gas.  In the last half, move the bucket onto a table or counter if you can (to prepare for racking), and don’t move or bump the container to let all the sediment settle to the bottom.

6. Racking

Primary fermentation results in a buildup of sediment at the bottom of the container called ‘lees’.  You need to separate the cider from the lees, as it can produce off-flavors if the cider sits on it for too long.  It’s important to keep the container very still to allow the lees to fall to the bottom and stay there.  

This process is called racking, which is simply transferring the cider from one container to another, while attempting to leave less behind and limit oxygen exposure.  Racking is also done in bottling. 

How to Rack by Hard

The simplest way to rack the cider is simply by pouring it by hand and using a funnel.  

Pour by hand

For small batches, you can simply pour the cider from one container to another.  In almost all cases, it is wise to use a funnel in order to prevent spilling.  When pouring by hand, it can be very hard to keep all the lees from coming with the cider. 

How to Rack Using a Siphon

Using a siphon is the preferred approach when making homemade hard cider, as it’s easier and cleaner to transferring by hand.

Siphoning is the process of using gravity to move liquid between containers.  A siphon is created when 2 sources of liquid of different heights are connected with a tube.  

To initiate the siphon, liquid must be forced into the tube.  Once initiated the liquid will flow from the higher container to the lower container without any ongoing force applied.  In homebrewing, you can use a racking cane or auto-siphon to create the siphon.

Siphon with Racking Cane

A racking cane is a long rigid tube that is designed to extend down into the bottom of a fermentation container, then has a sharp bend just outside the container.  Attach food grade tubing to create a continuous tube.  A racking cane requires manually starting the siphon by priming the tubing (starting with liquid in it).  

One way to do that is using the ‘traditional’ method of sucking on the end of the hose until it’s mostly filled with the liquid, or filling it with cider or sanitizing solution to prime it.

Siphon with an Auto-Siphon

An auto-siphon looks very similar to a racking cane, but an auto-siphon is much easier to make hard cider .  An auto-siphon has a manual pump built into it allowing you to quickly and easily get liquid into the tubing to start the siphon.  I strongly recommend getting an auto-siphon and not a racking cane.

7. Secondary Fermentation

Unlike primary fermentation, secondary fermentation is not about yeast activity.  Secondary fermentation is about improving the taste by letting the cider age.  During the aging process, the flavors condition and mellow.  

Hard cider is more like wine than beer; it will benefit from aging in secondary fermentation and after bottling.  After 2-3 additional weeks, check the hard cider with a hydrometer.  If the specific gravity is between, .998 and 1.004, you are ready to bottle.

Secondary fermentation is also where various flavorings can be added.  Some of the most common of these are fruits such as blueberries or peaches (see the recipe page or this article for much more about fruit additions).  Cinnamon sticks are also a very common additions, but be very careful not to add too much.  Start by adding a few and tasting after a week or 2, then adjust from there.

8. Finishing Adjustments (and the Great Cider Conundrum)

The next step involves determining what kind of cider you want in regards to sweet/dry and still/carbonated.

If you prefer still and dry, than you can proceed directly to Section 9: Bottling.  If you want it carbonation and/or sweet, you’ll need to understand and overcome the Great Cider Conundrum.

While most aspects of cider making are pretty straight-forward, there is one huge conundrum.  Sugar won’t add sweetness to the cider.

Let me explain, as this is a major sticking point in learning to make hard cider.

The Great Cider Conundrum

While the ultimate guide has a detailed explanation, the beginner only needs to understand the basics of this issue.

The fundamental issue is that adding more sugar doesn’t add sweetness to the hard cider, because the yeast continues to eat the sugar and convert it to alcohol.  This poses a problem if you want a sweet cider.

After primary and secondary fermentation are complete, the yeast has consumed all the sugar in the juice.  The result is a very dry, still (non-carbonated) hard cider.  If that’s the way you prefer it, you can drink up and not worry about this issue.  However, most people prefer at least a little sweetness, and at least a little carbonation.

So how do you add sweetness and carbonation?  Let’s start with sweetness.  You would think adding more sugar (or honey/brown sugar/apple juice concentrate/etc.) would result in a sweeter hard cider.  In the very short term (several hours or less), you would be right.  So, if you plan on drinking the hard cider immediately, you can add sugar and drink it.  However, there is still active yeast in the hard cider which will continue to convert that added sugar to alcohol and CO2.  You could keep adding and adding sugar (expecting and wanting added sweetness) and the yeast would keep preventing the hard cider from getting any sweeter (at some point the yeast can’t convert any more sugar, but in almost all cases, you’ll want to stop well before that threshold).

Ok, if sweetness is a challenge, how about carbonation?  That one is easy.  The easiest way to add carbonation to hard cider is bottling with sugar (or honey/brown sugar/apple juice concentrate/etc.), a process called ‘bottle conditioning’.  You can do this by adding sugar prior to bottling (called back sweetening).  The yeast will eat the extra sugar while sealed in the bottle and convert it into alcohol and CO2.  However, unlike the fermentation process, the bottle cap prevents the gas from escaping.  The result is the CO2 is forced into the hard cider, causing carbonation.

Back to the sweetness issue.  One other way to get sweetness is to kill the yeast and add sugar.  This means the sugar doesn’t get converted and will add sweetness to the hard cider.  While that works for sweetness, now we can’t create carbonation using the bottle conditioning method.

And therein lies the rub… how can we make our cider sweet and carbonated?

Overcoming the Conundrum

Again, the ultimate guide details several advanced techniques for overcoming this issue.  Honestly, I hope you can start exploring some of those techniques because that is where it really gets interesting.  

Bottle Condition and Use a Sugar Substitute

This is the easiest technique, and the one most often used by beginners.  You’ll need to add sugar to create carbonation, a process called bottle conditioning.  The sweetness comes from non-sugar sweetener for sweetness. 

Sweetness: Add a sugar substitute 

Since you can’t use sugar to add sweetness, you need to use a sugar substitute (see the page on sugar substitutes for much more detail).  A standard amount (and good baseline to use) is to add the equivalent to 1 cup of sugar sweetness for your 5-gallon batch.  Read the package carefully.  If the sweetener measures cup-for-cup to sugar, simply add 1 cup of sweetener.  If the sweetener doesn’t measure cup-for-cup to sugar, use the conversion provided on the package.

Example: A packet of Splenda® says it is as sweet as 2 tsp sugar.  Since there are 48 tsp in a cup, you’ll want to add 24 packets of Splenda®.  Note: that this is far less than 1 cup.  If you add one cup of Splenda®, it will taste disgustingly sweet (ask me how I know).  If you aren’t sure how much to use, add some, mix it in, and then taste it.

Carbonation: Bottle Conditioning

To create carbonation, you will add more sugar.  The residual yeast will eat this new sugar (called ‘priming sugar’), and create more alcohol and CO2 gas.  

This time, instead of the gas escaping the container through an airlock, it is trapped inside the bottle and carbonate the beverage.  Since this gas is trapped in a glass container, it is very, very important to add the right amount of sugar, as adding too much will make the glass explode under high pressure.

This technique is called ‘Bottle Conditioning’

A common rule of thumb for priming sugar is to use 1 ounce per gallon (which is just under 30 grams of sugar per gallon).

There are three approaches to address this issue:

  • Keep the yeast
  • Kill the yeast
  • Keep the yeast to create carbonation, then kill the yeast to keep some sweetness

Keep the yeast – Bottle Condition and Use a Sugar Substitute

This is the easiest technique, and the one most often used by beginners.  You’ll need to add sugar to create carbonation, a process called bottle conditioning.  The sweetness comes from non-sugar sweetener for sweetness. 

Sweetness: Add a sugar substitute 

Since you can’t use sugar to add sweetness, you need to use a sugar substitute (see the page on sugar substitutes for much more detail).  A standard amount (and good baseline to use) is to add the equivalent to 1 cup of sugar sweetness for your 5-gallon batch.  Read the package carefully.  If the sweetener measures cup-for-cup to sugar, simply add 1 cup of sweetener.  If the sweetener doesn’t measure cup-for-cup to sugar, use the conversion provided on the package.

Example: A packet of Splenda® says it is as sweet as 2 tsp sugar.  Since there are 48 tsp in a cup, you’ll want to add 24 packets of Splenda®.  Note: that this is far less than 1 cup.  If you add one cup of Splenda®, it will taste disgustingly sweet (ask me how I know).  If you aren’t sure how much to use, add some, mix it in, and then taste it.

Carbonation: Bottle Conditioning

To create carbonation, you will add more sugar.  The residual yeast will eat this new sugar (called ‘priming sugar’), and create more alcohol and CO2 gas.  

This time, instead of the gas escaping the container through an airlock, it is trapped inside the bottle and carbonate the beverage.  Since this gas is trapped in a glass container, it is very, very important to add the right amount of sugar, as adding too much will make the glass explode under high pressure.

This technique is called ‘Bottle Conditioning’

You will use your hydrometer to determine how much sugar to add.  Start by taking a specific gravity measurement prior to adding extra sugars.  You want to add enough sugar to increase the specific gravity by .005 before bottling.  A common rule of thumb for priming sugar is to use 1 ounce per gallon (which is just under 30 grams of sugar per gallon).  

I like to add sugar in the form of apple juice concentrate, because I like the additional apple flavor.  Most frozen apple juice concentrates have 30 grams of sugar in 1/4 cup.  So for a 5-gallon batch, you’ll want to use 1 1/4 cup (there are 1 1/2 cups in a container, so if you like a little extra carbonation, go ahead and use the whole thing).  However, many folks use dextrose with great results as well.

Kill the yeast

For this technique, you kill the yeast so it doesn’t continue converting the sugar to alcohol.  The huge benefit of this is that you can use sugar to sweeten it.  The big drawback is that you can’t use fermentation to carbonate it, so you’ll have to force carbonate if you want carbonation.

When to kill the yeast?

The two best options for when to kill the yeast are:

  • After fermentation is completely over.  This means there is no sweetness.  You can kill the yeast, then add as much sugar as you’d like to be in the final product (a process called ‘backsweetening’).  This option is easiest to control as timing is not critical.
  • Before fermentation finishes – The other option is to kill the yeast towards the end of fermentation, when there is just the right amount of sugar remaining in the cider that you want in the finished product.  This option is harder to do, since you have to check it often for the right sugar content.  However, many say this is a good technique because it retains the original sugars from the cider.

How to kill the yeast?

For this approach, there are 2 different ways to do this.  Side Note: You are not technically ‘killing’ the yeast, just weakening it severely and not allowing it to multiply further.

  • Sulfates: You can use Potassium Metabisulfite (Campden Tablets) and Potassium Sorbate to weaken the yeast so fermentation stops.  Some cider makers don’t like using the additives because of a taste they add or because they want their ciders to be free of additives.
  • Cold Crashing: Cold crashing the cider is reducing the temperature below the limit that the yeast can remain active.  This also makes the yeast slow down and settle to the bottom.  To do this, simply put the entire fermentation container into a refrigerator.  The space requirement makes this tough.  To keep the yeast inactive, you’ll need to keep the cider cold indefinitely.  Another option is to carefully rack the cider into another container after it’s been cold crashed, leaving the yeast behind., which would allow you to keep the cider at room temperature (since the yeast is gone).

What is force carbonation?

Unlike using the fermentation process to carbonate the cider, force carbonation involves forcing CO2 into it.  You can use a keg system or soda stream to manually force carbonation into the hard cider.  This is a common method among veteran cider makers, due to simplicity and consistency.

Keep the yeast to create carbonation, then kill the yeast to keep some sweetness.

This is an advanced technique, and involves bottling the cider with sugar in it to use the yeast to create carbonation, but then killing it to retain some of the sweetness.  This technique involves very good timing, and could be dangerous for inexperienced cider makers.  Please only attempt this if you understand it well.

When to bottle?

Using this technique, you will bottle when there is enough sugar in the cider to create the amount of carbonation you want, and the amount of sweetness you want.  This could be sugar you have added after fermentation is complete, or at the right time during the later parts of fermentation.  It will vary, but a specific gravity of 1.015 is a good place to start (.005 for carbonation, .01 for sweetness).

When to kill the yeast?

This is the tough part.  The obvious answer is that you want to kill the yeast when you’ve reached the point that the cider is as carbonated as you’d like it, and as sweet as you’d like it.  But it’s very difficult to know when that is.  Some people attempt to use pressure gauges on a bottle, or use one plastic bottle (so they can feel how much pressure is created).  The safest way is to wait a few days, then open a bottle to see if the carbonation is good.  Open a bottle every day until its right.  If you wait too long, the bottles will explode, because the yeast has lots of sugar to eat, and it will create enough pressure to explode the bottles if you give it enough time.

How to kill the yeast?

Using this technique, you can either use cold crashing or bottle pasteurization.

  • Cold crashing: As described earlier, this is the process of cooling the bottled cider so that the yeast is no longer active.  You’ll need to keep the cider cold indefinitely, as letting it come back to room temperature will cause the yeast to start consuming the sugar again.
  • Bottle pasteurization: Bottle pasteurization is the process of heating the bottles of hard cider enough to kill the yeast.  This can be a difficult and dangerous task, so take plenty of precautions.  The best resource to refer to for this process is this post on homebrewtalk.  The post also discusses the dangers of exploding bottles.

9. Bottling

Unless you plan on drinking the cider immediately after fermentation, you will need to transfer it to bottles.

Sanitizing

You will need to sanitize all the equipment you are using in this step, including the bottles, funnel, and anything you might use to scoop or measure sugars or sweeteners.

Bottling

You will bottle your hard cider using the auto-siphon, tubing, and bottle filler.  Start the siphon and fill each bottle by pressing the spring-loaded bottle filler into the bottom of the bottle.  

You don’t have to use a bottle filler, but it could be complicated or messy to move from one bottle to the next.  

After you finish several bottles, place a cap loosely on them and let it sit as you continue filling.  The goal is for the CO2 gas to fill the head-space (and not air).  Then crimp on the cap with your bottle capper.

Aging

Hard cider is more like wine than it is like beer, and can benefit from aging.  Some cider makers age their ciders for a year or more.  The 2 most common ways to age cider is:

  • Extended secondary fermentation
  • Extended time after bottling

10. Drinking

You are well on your way to learning how to make hard cider, but there is one last step: Drinking!  While drinking may need no explanation, tasting may.  A big part of making cider is learning to taste specific characteristics to make adjustments in future batches.  In particular, some things to note are:

  • Appearance
  • Smell
  • Amount of carbonation
  • Sweetness
  • How prominent the taste of alcohol
  • Finish/aftertaste
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