Apples grown for consumption are suitable for cider making, though some regional cider-makers prefer to use a mix of eating and cider apples (as in Kent, England), or exclusively cider apples (as in the West Country, England). There are many hundreds of varieties of cultivars developed specifically for cider making.
Once the apples are gathered from trees in orchards they are scatted (ground down) into what is called pomace or pommage. Historically this was done using pressing stones with circular troughs, or by a cider mill. Cider mills were traditionally driven by the hand, water-mill, or horse-power. In modern times they are likely to be powered by electricity. The pulp is then transferred to the cider press and built up in layers known as cheeses into a block.
Traditionally the method for squeezing the juice from the cheese involves placing sweet straw or hair cloths between the layers of pomace. This will alternate with slatted ash-wood racks, until there is a pile of ten or twelve layers. It is important to minimize the time that the pomace is exposed to air in order to keep oxidation to a minimum.
The set is then subjected to increasing degrees of pressure, until all the ‘must’ or juice is squeezed from the pomace. This juice, after being strained in a coarse hair-sieve, is then put into either open vats or closed casks. The pressed pulp is given to farm animals as winter feed, composted or discarded, or used to make liqueurs.
Fermentation is carried out at a temperature of 4–16 °C (40–60 °F). This is low for most kinds of fermentation, but is beneficial for cider as it leads to slower fermentation with less loss of delicate aromas.
Shortly before the fermentation consumes all the sugar, the liquor is racked (siphoned) into new vats. This leaves dead yeast cells and other undesirable material at the bottom of the old vat. At this point it becomes important to exclude airborne acetic bacteria, so vats are filled completely to exclude air. The fermenting of the remaining available sugar generates a small amount of carbon dioxide that forms a protective layer, reducing air contact. This final fermentation creates a small amount of carbonation. Extra sugar may be added specifically for this purpose. Racking is sometimes repeated if the liquor remains too cloudy.
Apple based juices with cranberry also make fine ciders; and many other fruit purées or flavourings can be used, such as grape, cherry, and raspberry.
The cider is ready to drink after a three month fermentation period, though more often it is matured in the vats for up to two or three years.
For larger-scale cider production, ciders from vats produced from different varieties of apple may be blended to accord with market taste. If the cider is to be bottled, usually some extra sugar is added for sparkle. Higher quality ciders can be made using the champagne method, but this is expensive in time and money and requires special corks, bottles, and other equipment. Some home brewers use beer bottles, which work perfectly well, and are inexpensive. This allows the cider to become naturally carbonated.