I suppose that most teenagers over the centuries have had an early encounter with alcohol that they remember, albeit hazily, for the rest of their lives. I had two. The first disaster involved me and my mate Derek taking two empty lemonade bottles to our local, over-accommodating, off-licence, having them filled with sweet sherry and drinking the lot at a party that evening. The second was the result of an evening in the George on top of Portsdown Hill ("paws-day-nil" as my properly Pompey sisters would call it).
Five pints of roughish cider do terrible things to weedy teenagers unused to hard drinking and I can recall little of what ensued apart from a long sleep in a telephone box. While early experience gave me a small preference for lager over proper beer, this brush with the demon cider ended my cider-drinking days forever.
But I like making things – even if I don't like the things I make. Often, in my long career as a cabinet-maker, I made furniture of spectacular ghastliness because that was what someone wanted, but I still enjoyed it anyway. Cider-making seems rather exciting, I think it's the tempting new kit you need and maybe the chance to make use of all those apples that would otherwise go to waste. I have three apple trees in my garden – a Bramley, an unknown and a Tom Putt. The last two are largely inedible but I recently found out that Tom Putt is a traditional cider variety and that I have been letting its bounty rot for years.
Even if you are not the proud owner of a suitable apple tree there is no shortage of apples, the result of happy littering, adorning our roadsides, and in this damp autumn they are particularly abundant and juicy. "Wildings", as they are called, are unpredictably variable, so you will need to pick carefully from several trees for a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin level. Crab apples, the original wild form of the tree, do not make good cider on their own, but can be added to other apples if you need extra tannin.
It is said, not without reason, that to make cider you simply squeeze apple juice into a container, cover it and wait. There is a bit more to it than that and I recommend you get hold of a proper book on the subject such as Real Cidermaking on a Small Scale by Pooley and Lomax if you want to make a thorough job of it. What follows is the simplest recipe I know.
Having collected a suitable variety and quantity of apples (10kg will easily produce enough juice to fill a demi-john) you will need to wash them thoroughly, remove any rotten bits and cut them into quarters. You do not need to core them. It is all but impossible to squeeze juice out of quartered apples so they need to be crushed into a coarse pulp first. Usually this is done by pounding them with a large pole in a bucket (food grade plastic or stainless steel) though there are other methods involving extra kit.
I thought that the pounding would be too much like hard work so, with the small amount of apples I was using, I got out my hand-held electric blender. Now comes the process which does require a heavy duty piece of equipment – the pressing. I have a small stainless steel press which cost £125 from a homebrew shop. Alternatively, there are people out there who swear by an old-fashioned electric spin dryer to extract juice.
Pressing, being an extremely messy business, should be done outside - as my kitchen ceiling will testify (occasionally small lumps of apple escape violently upwards). It is best not to rush the process as the juice, after the first flush, will be released slowly, requiring a turn of the screw every five minutes or so. I managed to get about 5 litres of juice from 9 kilos of apples but I know that the professionals can get a considerably higher yield. Collect the juice straight into a demi-john if possible or into a bucket first, transferring without delay. Always make sure all your equipment is sterilised.
Carefully place a wad of cotton wool into the neck of the demi-john. It is likely that fermentation will start from the wild yeast on the apples but to be safe it is well worth adding some white wine yeast to your juice 24 hours later once the Campden tablet has done its work. Leave for a few days until the excitable early fermentation has calmed itself. Remove the cotton wool, clean up any mess and fit a fermentation trap. Leave until the fermentation has all but stopped then rack off into a fresh demi-john.
Once the brew has (mostly) cleared and all fermentation stopped completely, siphon it into heavy duty swing-top bottles or champagne bottles, adding no more than a level teaspoon of sugar to each litre. The result will be a dry, slightly sparkly cider which should be ready for Christmas. I might try just a sip – after all, my mishap was 40 years ago.