Making your own hard apple cider is a cheap and quick way to drink, with the satisfaction of doing it yourself. Although home brewing is often presented as a mystical process, making your own hooch from juice is pretty much fail proof.
If you have an orchard, and want to use your own fruit, or can glean fruit from other sources, that ensures a great, live juice base, but you have to figure in the time to pick and press the fruit. You can use basically any fruit juice and ferment it, and can experiment with mixing flavors. We recommend starting with apple juice to get the hang of things.
Glass gallon jars or glass carboy if you have it
Unpasteurized, preservative-free apple juice. Use organic unpasteurized apple juice that comes right in the gallon glass jars for the easiest route.
Airlock (these can be purchased at a local brew store or online).
Wine yeast. There is now cider yeast available as well. Just make sure you are using brewing specific yeast and not baking yeast. Best purchased at homebrew store since it needs to stay refrigerated. This comes in cheap, individual packets, good for one gallon each, or in bigger jars if you plan on making a lot of cider.
A hydrometer can come in handy for measuring specific gravity, but you can do without one if you are able to check on your batch daily and willing to do a sip test to determine how you want the final product to taste.
Start by sterilizing any equipment used. If you are using store-bought apple juice in the glass jug, you will only need to sterilize the airlock. This can be done by boiling for just a minute, or soaking in a mild bleach solution. No need to get the fancy sterilization powder from the brew store.
If using the gallon juice, pour out just a few inches of juice to allow room for bubbling, or if you are filling a sterilized container, make sure to leave a few inches at the top.
Activate the yeast according to package directions, typically you dissolve it in a small amount of warm, not boiling, water. When the yeast is foamy, add it to your juice.
Replace the cap and give the jar a few gentle, not rigorous shakes, just enough to distribute the yeast mixture.
Take the cap off and fit the airlock into the top of the jug.
The airlock should have water in its line that will react to the fermentation and bubble within a few days.
Most reactions will start within 24 hours.
Place the jar in a cool dark place that is easily accessible so you will remember to check it daily, and make sure it is easily cleanable in the very likely event that some of the liquid bubbles out the top of the lock.
After 72 hours, you can pour out a tiny sample to measure either by taste or hydrometer. A specific gravity of 1.050-1.060 range is ideal.
This is the point where the yeasts have produced at least a small alcohol percentage, and it is drinkable, but if you have the time and patience, waiting until at least 5 days gives the cider a smoother, drier finish and the yeasts will no longer be active. The longer you leave your cider, the drier it will be, as the yeast eats the sugars out of the juice. You don’t want to wait too long though, or it will start tasting vinegary.
At this point, refrigerate the cider so remaining live yeast does not continue to grow. I prefer to pour it into smaller jars at this point, leaving the 1 to 2-inch layer of bottom sludge out of the final drink. This is dead yeast, not great tasting and also not so easy on the guts.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor.