Hard cider, wine, beer. Delicious beverages that you can make at home to save money, consume better ingredients and enjoy as a fun hobby.
I started making wine to save money. I also feel a lot less guilty using a homemade wine for a marinade.
I then started making apple cider because commercial ciders are too light bodied and sugary. Homemade cider can be completely different because you can use pure apple juice concentrate for a full body and you can make it as dry as you like by adding more sugar (and therefore more alcohol). The alcohol content will be similar to that of wine instead of beer, altering the taste.
I find that beer can be uncomfortably filling at times but apple cider is always refreshing (what you’d call a “session” drink – in that you can drink a few in one session – responsibly of course). It’s also a great choice for people avoiding gluten.
I still started making beer for the fun and the challenge. I won’t deal with beer in this post because it’s more complicated and requires additional equipment, but stay tuned.
My goal in this post is to lay the groundwork for the process and list some equipment that can get you making drinks in no time. Later, I’ll progressively build up the complexity so you can get as involved as you like in making alcoholic beverages.
A Very Brief Explanation of Fermentation
Alcohols are made by yeast microorganisms. The primary alcohol in the above mentioned beverages is ethanol. If you add yeast to a favourable environment (the right temperature, the right ph-level, the right nutrients), the yeast will metabolize (eat) sugar and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide (and a host of other byproducts, like esters, that affect the aroma and flavour).
The carbon dioxide is how beer and sparking wine traditionally get their carbonation before the advent of artificial gas injection (and sometimes still do like Champagne in France or traditional abbey-style beers ‘on lees’).
That might be a lot to wrap your head around and there’s a lot more going on than that. The easiest way to put it is that yeast will turn sugar into alcohol so long as the conditions are right.
The Equipment and Supplies
Most cities will have home brew stores so you can go visit one of them and they can get all the necessary equipment together for you.
If you want to shop online, here’s a list of necessary equipment and supplies and a brief explanation of each component.
There are different kinds of sanitizer. An old reliable way is with diluted bleach.
The chlorine-based sanitizers (e.g. Diversol) are appropriate for beer and sodium metabisulfite with citric acid is better for wine (which is quite caustic – so don’t breathe it in!). The sulfites in wine will prevent oxidization and inhibit unwanted microbial growth (mold, yeast, bacteria). I usually just use chlorine (in the form of diversol) for either and I haven’t noticed a big difference. I got this sanitizer at the home brew store.
Wash away the Diversol thoroughly to prevent any off-flavours or harm to the yeast (which is a living organism remember). No need to wash off the sodium metabisulfite because of its added preservative benefits.
Hose & tube
A flexible siphon hose made of food-grade plastic and a hard racking tube made of food-grade plastic. You can connect these together with either a rubber bung with a hole through the middle (also available at the brew shop) or by heating the tube with warm water until it’s larger than the hose. Optionally, you can also get an auto-siphon tube instead of a regular racking tube to make “racking” easier (racking is just a fancy word for siphoning from one container to another).
Food-grade plastic pail with lid
Your brew shop should offer a 29L (7+ US gallons) pail. This large pail is your primary fermentor where you add the yeast to your liquid. The pail is not air tight, but that doesn’t matter in the first stage because the carbon dioxide excreted from the yeast forms a protective gas seal to prevent bacterial growth and the yeast is outcompeting the other microorganisms for resources.
Glass or food-grade plastic carboy
Your brew shop should offer 23L (6 US gallons) carboys. A carboy is like a large bottle. The carboy is the secondary fermentor where an air seal prevents bacterial contamination while the wine/cider/beer is able to clarify (the yeast hibernates when there is no food left and sinks to the bottom) and carbon dioxide gas expels through the air seal. Wine kits will come with various additives to accomplish these tasks in the carboy.
Airlock with a stopper (for the carboy)
This airlock and stopper prevent bacteria from entering your carboy. You can also monitor the carbonation level by watching the air bubbles leaving the water airlock. When there are no more bubbles, you know your wine is de-gassed.
In wine-making, the stirring stick stirs up the additives mentioned above at various stages of the brewing process. Try to avoid stirring the yeast sediment that forms at the bottom of the carboy.
Temperature control is important because yeast thrives in a certain range. Too low and the yeast will hibernate. Too high and the yeast will die. Either case may allow unwanted bacteria to thrive.
Hydrometer with a test jar
The hydrometer measures the displacement of the liquid. If you record at least two readings, you can judge the change in density and calculate the amount of alcohol that was produced. Basically, you measure the “gravity” of your wine at different points during the brew process to then calculate the % using a formula or online calculator. You can skip this step if you just care about making wine rather than tracking the alcohol content.
Buying bottles isn’t cheap so I saved mine over the years. If you don’t purchase wine very often, you can consider asking friends and relatives to save their empties for you. Ask them to rinse the wine bottles out so that no mold grows inside the bottles.
Corks (and the corker)
There are different kinds of corks for different periods of storage. I use agglomerated cork, which are the cheapest and formed of cork bits pressed together. These corks last for a few years, which is likely beyond the time frame you had planned to store your wine or cider anyway.
A wine thief allows you to simply extract a small amount of wine to put into your test jar and measure the gravity of the wine with your hydrometer.
Sometimes a funnel is handy for pouring contents.
Useful for removing any stains that develop on your fermentors.
Red and White Wines
You can buy wine kits from your local brew store that contains all the ingredients you need. These include:
You will get a bag of grape juice usually from 7.5-10L. The more concentrate, the stronger the flavour but the more expensive. I usually lean towards the lower volume for cost purposes and because it still leads to a nice house wine.
Different kinds of yeast perform different. Your kit will come with the appropriate yeast.
Your wine kits may come with additives or you can buy your own to add flavour. Common additives are oak and juniper berries for red wine and elderflower and elderberries for white wine.
Clarifying and stabilizing agents
These take care of all yeast floating around the wine.
Apple juice concentrate: Get 23 cans of apple juice concentrate. I use McIntosh apple juice, that hearty Canadian cold-resistant varietal.
Ask the brew shop what they recommend. I use a champagne yeast.
If you buy a wine kit, follow the instructions. I’ll walk you through the basics of making a cider. Wine will be marginally more complicated because of the steps for clarifying and stabilizing (very marginal differences).
- Sanitize your equipment (the food-grade plastic pail with lid, stirring stick, thermometer, hydrometer with a test jar)
- Pour apple juice (your “must”) into the primary fermentor
- Add yeast (you can either rehydrate the yeast in warm water for 15 minutes or simply sprinkle the dry yeast on top of the must)
- Add 500g – 1lb of regular table (cane) sugar if you want a drier, higher alcohol cider
- Take your hydrometer reading
- Wait 4-5 days
- Sanitize all of your equipment (thermometer, hydrometer with a test jar, hose & tube, carboy)
- Rack cider to your secondary fermentor, leaving the yeast sediment behind
- Attach air-lock
- Wait 1 – 3 weeks for the rest of the yeast to convert the remaining sugars, enter into hibernation and settle to the bottom of the carboy.
- Sanitize all of your equipment (thermometer, hydrometer with a test jar, hose & tube, bottles, plastic pail, stir stick)
- If you want a carbonated cider, you will need to add sugar. I find that about 100g is good for 23L of cider, but experiment to figure out your desired amount of carbonation. Air on the side of caution when it comes to this secondary fermentation! Pressure will built in the bottle. If there is too much carbonation, the corks could pop, or worst, the bottles could explode.
- Add the sugar to the plastic pail and siphon the cider into it. Mix the sugar with the stir stick.
- Bottle cider
- Cork cider
- Age: the cider’s flavour will change overtime, especially if there is residual yeast in the bottle to continue minor fermentation. If you cleaned your equipment well and you keep the cider in a cool, dark place, it can last for years in the bottle. I’ve had ciders aging for over a year that taste delicious.
You can substitute the 1kg of refined sugar for 1kg of brown sugar for added molasses flavour and a darker amber colour.
Applejack is another cider option, which is made by freezing cider and skimming off the water, leaving a stronger liquid behind.
You want champagne or wine yeast because it’s evolved to consume fruit-based nutrients. If you use beer yeast, you’ll need to add some yeast nutrients for sufficient nitrogen and potassium for cell production. Wine yeast is also tolerant of high-alcohol environments whereas some beer yeasts will go dormant when the environment becomes too alcoholic.
In beer making we avoid white sugar because it produces a cider flavour after being consumed by the yeast. This, of course, is not a problem when making actual cider.
Try adding about 1-2 cups of pear, cranberry or raspberry juice before you start to ferment. Just be sure the juice doesn’t have any preservatives.
Get pure apple juice. Preservatives will inhibit yeast growth (nitrates, sulfides).
You can use peels for wild yeast but with unpredictable results.
You can keep a starter of the yeast sediment for future brews.
You can add adjuncts like a few cinnamon sticks and/or cloves for spice or a cup of raisins for body. You can sterilize these adjuncts in a small amount of hot water and add it along with the sugar.