Developing a delicious hard cider is no easy feat. From farmer to scientist to master blender, aspiring cidermakers take on a variety of roles through their cider's long journey from fruit to glass. While there are as many methods to cider production as there are apple varieties, here's a general idea of how cider is made.
The story of cider begins on the farm: great cider starts with great apples. This is by far the longest and least controllable part of the process. First, a farmer must decide which apple varietals to plant. Apple seeds do not produce fruit that is "true" to their ancestors; a farmers can not simply put a Harrison apple seed in the ground and expect Harrison apples to grow. Instead, they use the process of grafting; inserting budding stems into the newly-planted tree stock to ensure that they'll get the fruit they want. Since most apple trees do not show fruit for seven years, a long waiting period ensues, and young trees must be protected from disease, frost, and any number of natural perils. Seven years later, and every year that follows, the fruit is ready to be harvested and pressed.
The second step in cidermaking is the most mechanical; the fresh apples must be converted into juice. Typically, harvested apples rest outdoors for a week after harvest so that they soften slightly. An agricultural wash removes any foreign matter, and a quick rinse identifies any...yes..."bad apples." The good apples are ground up, creating what's called pomace or pommage, which is then loaded onto the apple press between porous sheets of cloth. These layers of pomace can be up to five inches thick, and over a dozen pomace/fabric/pomace layers—occasionally with wooden boards in between—can fit in a single press. Once the fruit pulp is in place, the cider press is "racked" to squeeze out and collect the available juice. The pomace is repeatedly broken up by hand and repressed until no more liquid can be extracted.
At this point, the collected juice undergoes fermentation. Cider makers can ferment the juice naturally using the existing wild yeast or use chemicals to remove the wild yeast and apply their own yeast strain for more control. The sugars in the juice convert into alcohol within the air-locked containers for several weeks at low temperatures. It is during this primary fermentation that cider as we know it begins to take form.
After the cider reaches its ideal sugar conversion, the cidermaker halts fermentation and begins to blend the ciders made from various apples to achieve a desired flavor balance. Apples you've heard of, like Macintosh, Liberty, or Northern Spy, often provide the principal flavors. Lesser known heirloom apples contribute subtle layers of flavor, acidity, and tannins.
The final blended and bottled cider is carbonated, either synthetically with carbon dioxide or naturally with the addition of a small amount of sugar to each bottle. Cider is a beverage best drunk young. The final bottles will age for a few weeks and are best drunk within a year, just in time for the next harvest to arrive.