The cider-making process

Hard cider was once the drink of choice for Americans, falling out of favor as beer rose with increased grain production and marketing in the western states. In the early American Republic, however, apple cider was a primary produce of orchards. Describing the "old colonial drinks" in 1893, Alice Morse Earle writes, "Cider soon became the common drink of the people, and it was made in vast quantities. In 1671 five hundred hogsheads were made of one orchard's produce. One village of forty families made three thousand barrels in 1721." She also notes, "Charles Francis Adams says that, 'to the end of John Adams's life a large tankard of hard cider was his morning draught before breakfast."

Below are the steps for how to make hard apple cider as it was produced in the early 19th century. The historic cider processes on this page are taken from an 1822 publication, The American Orchardist, by James Thacher. The supporting scientific facts explain why the process works as it does and source modern scientific publications (cited below).

Step 1 Picking your Apples

Cider Process - Step 1


Hand-pick thoroughly ripe and unblemished apples in dry weather to avoid bruising and moisture. Sweat heaps of apples for a number of days to weeks, depending on ripeness and variety. Sweating apples means to store harvested apples in a dry place in order to allow them to ripen and to lose excess water. Whether to sweat the apples outside or indoors is also a disputed topic. After sweating, the apples should be wiped of residual moisture.   


Not just any apple will do to make THE best cider! Different apples fall into the different categories seen in Table 1 based on their tannin and acidity content (Peck et al. 2014). Tannins fall into the polyphenol category, which are organic molecules in cider that are metabolites in the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations that provide cider with aroma and are inhibitors of microbiological growth which controls fermentations rates and cider spoilage (Alonso-Salces et al. 2004). Polyphenols are also involved in colloidal stability, which is how the insoluble particles in the cider remaining suspended and evenly dispersed (Alonso-Salces et al. 2004). Cider apples contain the same polyphenols as table apples, but in much higher quantities (Guyot et al. 2003; Renard et al. 2007). European ciders are usually made with bittersweet and bittersharp varieties, which have high tannin or polyphenolic content, but in the US a lack of commercial sources for bittersweet or bittersharp apples leads US cider producers to rely on other sources for tannins and acid, such as oak (Peck et al. 2014).

Classification Percent tannin (w/v) Percent malic acid (w/v)
Bittersweets > 0.2 < 0.45
Bittersharps > 0.2 > 0.45
Sharps < 0.2 > 0.45
Sharps < 0.2 < 0.45
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Step 2 Mashing your Apples

Cider Process - Step 2


The apples should then be ground until well bruised. The pumice should then be allowed to sit until it browns, but not to ferment. This enriches the flavor and produces a fine amber color in the cider.   


When cell walls in the fruit are ruptured by pressing, their contents are then able to react with oxygen. Polyphenols, such as tannins, are an organic molecule in apples that contribute to bitterness, astringency, and the dry puckery feeling in the mouth (Alonso-Salces et al. 2004). Polyphenols, with the aid of polyphenol oxidase (PPO) -- an enzyme that speeds a reaction -- reacts with oxygen to produce melanin, a dark pigment. This oxidation phenomena deeply modifies the color and aroma of the cider (Sanoner et al. 1999; Guyot et al. 2003).

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Step 3 Pressing the Pumice

Cider Process - Step 3


Wrap the pumice between several cloths (not burlap or straw) to form a “cheese”, press it, strain the juice through sieves, and collect into a large open vat.    

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Step 4 Primary Fermentation

Cider Process - Step 4


Move the cider from the vat to clean casks which are either placed in a cool room or the free air with their bung holes open.


The fermentation of cider requires a complex microbial community of yeast and bacteria originating on the fruit and cider making equipment (Valles et al. 2007). Different yeast species develop during fermentation and contribute to taste and flavor (Valles et al. 2007). Geographic location, climatic conditions, apple varieties and the cider making technology can all influence the diversity of yeasts present in the cider (Valles et al. 2007). During the primary fermentation the yeast works to turn sugar into alcohol.

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Step 5 Secondary Fermentation

Cider Process - Step 5


When the cider drops fine, meaning the fermentation process causes the liquid to clear and used matter drops to the bottom which is called the lees, it is to be immediately racked off from the lees into other vessels. Good cider will generally fine without artificial means; but sometimes it is necessary to fine after the last racking. Isinglass, egg whites, and even blood (although not advised) can be used to fine cider.   


It is usually during this secondary fermentation where alcoholic fermentation has already taken place and malolactic fermentation takes place. Malic acid, the main organic acid found in apple juices, is sour and can create an undesirable flavor in a finished hard cider product (Reuss et al. 2010). One way to get rid of this flavor is to have the cider undergo malolactic fermentation. During malolactic fermentation, malic acid is converted to lactic acid by lactic acid bacteria, primarily Oenococcus oeni (Valles et al. 2007; Reuss et al. 2010). Lactic acid has a softer, more mellow flavor than malic acid (Reuss et al. 2010). Since malic acid varies in apple cultivars and their ripening state, the concentration of lactic acid also depends on apple cultivars and their ripening state (Valles et al. 2007).

Step 6

Cider Process - Step 6


To prevent continued fermentation which could result in vinegar, a handful of powdered clay or a burning sulfur match in the cask can be used. To preserve the cider one quart of apple brandy can be added to each barrel. Every cask must be filled up and closely bunged. If the cider is to be bottled, fill the bottles within two inches of the top, letting them stand twelve hours open before corking. Use strong porter bottles, and the best velvet corks. The bottling should be done in clear weather.   


Cider naturally results in an ABV between four and nine percent (Peck et al. 2014). This means that cider does not keep quite as well as a wine with a higher ABV. By adding a liquor or more sugar to begin with, a cider with a high ABV would result.

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Historical Process Resources

Thacher, James, MD. The American Orchardist: Or a Practical Treatise on the Culture and Management of Apple and Other Fruit Trees: With Observations on the Diseases to Which They Are Liable, and Their Remedies: To Which Is Added the Most Approved Method of Manufacturing and Preserving Cider. Boston: Joseph W. Ingraham., 1822. Print.

Scientific Resources

Alonso-Salces RM, Barranco A, Abad B, Berrueta LA, Gallo B, Vicente F. 2004. "Polyphenolic Profiles of Basque Cider Apple Cultivars and Their Technological Properties." J. Agric. Food Chem. 52:2938–2952.

Guyot S, Marnet N, Sanoner P, Drilleau JF. 2003. "Variability of the Polyphenolic Composition of Cider Apple ( Malus domestica)." Fruits and Juices. 51:6240–6247.

Renard CMGC, Dupont N, Guillermin P. 2007. "Concentrations and characteristics of procyanidins and other phenolics in apples during fruit growth." Phytochemistry 68:1128–1138.

Reuss RM, Stratton JE, Smith DA, Read PE, Cuppett SL, Parkhurst AM. 2010. "Malolactic fermentation as a technique for the deacidification of hard apple cider." J. Food Sci. 75.

Sanoner P, Guyot S, Marnet N, Molle D, Drilleau JF. 1999. "Polyphenol profiles of French cider apple varieties (Malus domestica sp.)." J. Agric. Food Chem. 47:4847–4853.

Valles BS, Bedriñana RP, Tascón NF, Simón AQ, Madrera RR. 2007. "Yeast species associated with the spontaneous fermentation of cider." Food Microbiol. 24:25–31.

Additional Resources

Peck, Greg, Carol Miles, Jacky King, Tarence Bradshaw, Nikki Rothwell, and Ian Merwin. An Introduction to Hard Cider in theU.S.. eXtension. Cooperative Extension System, 16 June 2014. Web.27 Jan.