I'm pretty new to brewing, and so far have only done ales. Before moving on to my first cider I wanted to ask the community if there was anything I need to be careful about, or even just any general tips for brewing cider as opposed to an ale.
Having done a fair amount of both, I've outlined some differences below. First, a note on terminology: since there is no steeping of ingredients in cider making, you don't actually "brew" cider. I don't know if there is a cider specific term; I simply say, "I made a batch of cider" (versus I brewed a batch of beer).
- Making cider is easier. Even if you source and press your own apples, I'd argue the absence of a mash, extended boil, and the need to fiddle with chillers makes cider making a simpler exercise.
- Yeast is optional. I've successfully made a few batches of cider and light cider (ciderkin) both accidentally and intentionally letting wild yeast do the work.
- Carbonation is optional. Beer tastes wrong without bubbles, but flat cider is fine. I always add sugar to bottle carbonate, but it's not necessary.
- Hops and other additives are optional. Unless you want to sweeten your cider or do other things like oaking or adding fruit, it's just apples.
- Sanitation isn't as important. People can argue with me on this one, but experience has proven to me that cider is very forgiving. I still santitize, but I've used mills and presses that have merely been sprayed down, and have had zero issues with off flavors or fermentation.
- Your final gravity is pretty constant. Ciders finish very clean. I've made several ciders, and they always finish at or slightly below 1.000. It is therefore very easy to tell when cider is finished fermenting. With beer, the final FG depends on the recipe.
Things to Consider When Making Cider
- Juice is Everything. You can easily go to the store and get some unpasteurized apple juice, but that's only excusable, IMO, if you are looking to make cider out of season. The quality of your juice will be much better if you get apples and press them yourself. The real art of making cider comes from picking the right varietals and blending them to create a complex juice that has the right balance of tannins and sweetness. Making a cider with just one varietal is probably going to yield a pretty dull final product. I've used no fewer than four apple varieties in my ciders; you want a nice balance of flavors.
- Culinary apples do not make the best cider. Store bought varieties like Red Delicious and Granny Smith are not going to be the best options, but they still make good cider. To be fair, Granny Smith is a good substitute for traditional cider apples, since it's the most widely available tart varietal most people can find. If you can, get cider apples (unlikely if you're in the U.S.). A good fallback, and one that I've employed with success, is to use a blend of culinary apples in your base juice, then add some crabapple juice to taste. You're going for a good blend of sweet and tart.
- Your cider will finish dry. Unless you backsweeten (add sugar after fermentation) or stop fermentation, your cider will ferment out completely, leaving you a very dry finished product. Personally, I prefer this "old world" style of cider, but many people like it sweeter.
- Cider should ferment cool. I've read that 58-60 degrees is ideal, and I'm sure some cider people would argue for a little cooler than that. Low and slow is one of the keys to success.
- Cider takes time. In my experience, cider takes about 3x longer than your typical beer to finish primary fermentation. I've traditionally made cider in October, then let it sit in our cellar over winter and bottled in spring. You don't have to wait this long, but I've found that cider takes time to come into its own. The ciders I've made really start hitting their stride after about 6 months.
- Cider won't ever be that bubbly. Two things are working against bubbles in cider: (1) very little residual sugar in the fermented must and (2) a complete absence of malt proteins and hop acids, which contribute to head retention in beer. Be content with some effervescence, but don't expect a foamy head.
Good luck and have fun with your first cider!
Cider has its share of differences from Ales.
Very little yeast nutrients in juices, use a supplement and oxygen.
Backsweetening is common. For those ciders that plunge to 0.999 SG. Unlike wort with some unfermentables the sugars in Apple juice are all fermentable.
Generally no need to boil, just sanitize well.
If using store bought juice beware of preservatives. Most will make fermentation impossible.
Yeast, can be tricky. Especially if you don't want to backsweeten. You have to use a strain that will give up before all sugar is consumed.
- Don't add sugar or then it's called Apple Wine. ;-)
Edit: To add to Ryan's answer something to try. What I've adopted for my ciders is to make malted ciders (graff) using 20-50% of the fermentables / volume from second running from brews. What this brings to the cider is an end product that doesn't need backsweetened or a fermentation halt. Also they carbonate really well and will often even give a head.