Brew Bucket!

As my cider-making experience grows, so does my cider volume.  I’m thinking about moving to a slightly bigger operation, but wasn’t quite sure of the exact logistics.  I know that a 6.5 gallon carboy for primary and a 5 gallon carboy for secondary is a common setup.  However I’ve actually found a cheaper and (hopefully) more effective options.

A Brew Bucket!  Or an Ale Pail?  Technically I’m not brewing or making ale, so I need a more accurate name.  Theres only so many synonyms for a bucket, and I have yet to find one that works with cider or apples or something.  Anyways its basically a food-grade (BPA-free) bucket that has a couple of unique additions.  First is the hole in the lid, fitted with a rubber grommet that is the proper size for an airlock!  Second is a spigot on the side of the bucket, about 2 inches from the bottom – so you can bottle directly from the spigot, which is pulling cider from above the yeast sediment (lees)!

I ran into this idea and I just couldn’t get it out of my head.  I looked into making it, however I wasn’t quite sure what the actual dimensions would be or what tools I would need.  It wouldn’t be hard to find the bucket, grommets, and spigot and your local hardware superstore – and it’d probably be around $15.  Since I didn’t have the tools or a design, I ended up purchasing this bucket from amazon for about ~$20.  Depending on how it works, I can make my own in the future if I want a second one or have an idea on how to make mine work better than this one.

 

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So how does a bucket work from a brewing perspective?  Is it better or worse than a carboy?  Lets take a look.

There are (in my opinion) three main reasons to use a glass carboy when fermenting cider or brewing beer.  First is that the narrow neck of a carboy reduces the amount of liquid exposed to the air.  Second is that flavors don’t stick to glass, so you can reuse them without worrying about how your jalapeno beer might affect future batches.  Third is that glass is a much harder surface, so it won’t scratch on the inside and create footholds for things to cling to and grow.  So why am I excited about a brew bucket?  Because for cider, we can get past these things.

The first reason is a bigger concern for beer, but is something to consider for cider as well.  We would prefer our cider being exposed to as little oxygen as possible.  The good news is that primary fermentation creates more than enough carbon dioxide to push any oxygen out of the bucket.  Our airlock will keep oxygen out – so it doesn’t matter how much surface area is exposed.  Note that this only applies to primary.  For secondary, fermentation is more or less done (depending on what we add to the cider), so there won’t be enough carbon dioxide being created to protect our cider.  So as long as we only use the bucket for primary, we don’t have to worry about the first reason!

The second reason isn’t a huge concern for us either.  We already know that we can only use the brew bucket for primary fermentation.  Basically any flavor we add is going to be in secondary.  So we won’t have any strange or crazy flavors in our brew bucket – just an apple juice flavor.  Oh no!  Our apple cider got influenced by a slight hint of…apples?  Oh wait.  As long as we only use our bucket for cider and keep flavor additions to secondary, then we should be fine here too.

The third reason isn’t a huge deal for the most part either.  We’re always going to sanitize our bucket before use, and I’m going to always have pasteurized cider going into the bucket.  Its really hard to get unpasteurized cider unless you are juicing the apples yourself, and then you can pasteurize it on your own.  For now, I don’t have an orchard or anything – so I’ll be purchasing local cider if in season, or store-bought juice/cider if not.  Both of which are going to be pasteurized.  So we don’t really have to worry about anything growing.

So given those reasons, I can use my 6.5 gallon brew bucket for primary.  I’ll probably have about 5 gallons of ciders or so for secondary.  While I could easily go find a 5 gallon carboy at my local homebrew store, I actually have a ton of 1 gallon carboys from my store-bought juice.  This means I can do a primary in the bucket, and then fill five 1 gallon carboys for secondary.  I can also directly bottle anything left over.  This means I can take one batch and actually try 5 different flavors in secondary.  I’m so excited for the potential.  I can’t wait to fill this thing up with local cider and see how it turns out!  I’m gonna need a lot more bottles…

So yay!  Heres some pros and cons to the brew bucket.  I’ll add more if I find any while using it.

Pros:

  • Good for primary
  • Cheap to buy or build
  • Built in protection from the sun
  • Don’t need a bung, just the airlock
  • Spigot greatly simplifies bottling/racking process
  • Can make star san mix in this bucket to sanitize, and then dump into smaller bucket to sanitize other things
  • Great place for stickers

Cons:

  • Can’t see exact levels of cider and yeast sediment
  • Can’t use for secondary
  • Bucket lid may be harder to get an airtight seal than a carboy and stopper (may need to look into standard lids that have a rubber sealing ring)
  • Still haven’t thought of a cider-specific equivalent to brew bucket or ale pail.  How about “The Cider Provider”?  Or “Theres Cider Inside ‘er”?  Bleh.

How to remove labels from glass containers

So while not directly related to cider making, its really nice for homebrew operations to be able to remove labels on their glassware that is being reused.  My go-to juice base comes in a nice 1 gallon glass carboy, which comes with its own label on it.  You can find beers and wine in pop-top containers that can be emptied (yum) and reused.  Likewise, if you are using a capper – almost every  beer becomes a potential cider container!  But how do you remove the label?

Googling for instructions shows a ton of different ways.  How well those strategies work depends on the type of glue that the bottle has.  After trying a couple different ways, I’ve found that washing soda works best.  You’ll need a container that is larger than your bottle, washing powder, and a sponge with a rough side.  I use a 3 gallon paint bucket that I found at my local grocery store for ~$3.

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Mix a few tablespoons of washing soda in some water.  Fill your bottle with enough water so that it sits nicely on the bottom of the bucket and let it soak for at least 30 mins or so, and then see how the label is doing.  Use the rough side of a sponge to try and take the label off.  If it isn’t coming, let it soak for longer.  I often just let things soak overnight – no harm for letting it soak too long.

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This has worked really well for me.  Its much cheaper and easier than a lot of other methods.  Its worked for everything for me so far except one rum bottle, which took a few rounds of soaking and elbow grease to get clean.

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Batch 4 – Primary

With batch 3 done, I’ve got nothing going at the moment.  Time to get another couple of gallons going!  This time, I want to experiment with adding a bit of sugar to the primary to increase the original gravity (and therefore, alcohol of the final product).  Since I’m doing two gallons, I’m going to try brown sugar (4.1) and maple syrup (4.2) for my sugar – and compare them at the end!  To that end, I’m going to use Nottingham Ale yeast for both so that the only thing different is the sweetener.

 

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I’m using generic brown sugar and Grade A maple syrup.  Note that while these sweeteners will probably affect the flavor, its not going to taste like brown sugar or maple syrup.  Most of the flavor will be eaten by the yeast.  I’m expecting a woody flavor from the maple syrup.  I plan to later try a regular batch of cider where I add maple syrup in secondary – which should actually give it a maple taste.

The process is only slightly different.  I poured out some cider to take a gravity reading (both carboys are at 1.050).  I then took that cider and heated it up a bit to add the respective sugar source in.  I didn’t quite boil the cider, but heating it up allows for a supersaturated solution (thank you high school chemistry), so that I can mix all the sugar I need into this small amount of liquid.  I used ~1.5 tablespoons of brown sugar, and ~2 tablespoons of maple syrup in their respective solutions.

I then added the solution back into the carboys and let it sit for a while to let the sugar spread out and reach equilibrium.  I then took the gravity again to see what I was working with.  The brown sugar mix had reached 1.053 and the maple syrup mix had reached 1.052.  Not bad.  That should increase the default ABV from ~6.5% to over 7%.

The process from there is the same as always.  Pitch the yeast and pop an airlock on there.  Time to wait.  We’ll have to see if the additional sugar causes the yeast to get too excited and bubble over.

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I’m also thinking about bottling this batch with a bit of sugar in the bottom of the individual bottles to give it some carbonization and sweetness.  We’ll see how I’m feeling when I bottle it though.

How to use a Hydrometer

A hydrometer is a device thats used to measure the gravity (density) of a liquid compared to water (which has a gravity of 1).  The more dense a liquid is, the more the hydrometer will float.  Knowing the gravity of our cider means we can approximate how much sugar is in our cider.  Hydrometers are calibrated at a certain temperature, so you may need to use a calculator to figure out your actual gravity if your cider is at a different temperature.  Mine is calibrated for 60 degrees F, but my brew area is 71 degrees.  So I’ll be using a hydrometer temperature calculator to adjust my gravity.

Usually, our final product will end up with a density of 1.000.  Knowing the starting and finishing density can help us calculate the percent alcohol of our cider!

I grabbed this hydrometer for about $5.

So how do we actually use it?  Its a ~10 inch long glass tube with a weight at one end.  The weighted end will sink, and the other end will point upwards, so we need a container with enough depth to allow the hydrometer to float.

Some hydrometers come with a container that holds liquid and can be used to take a reading.  Mine didn’t.  So I also picked up a 250ml graduated cylinder.  The graduated cylinder is ~14 inches tall, which ensures that we have enough room to allow the hydrometer to float.  There are similar glass tubes, however a polypropylene tube is going to be much harder to break/crack.

 

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Like always, the first step is going to be to sanitize everything.  Throw your hydrometer, tube, and funnel into the star san to get ready.  You may want to do this some time in advance to allow things to air dry.

 

We’re then going to pour enough cider into the graduated cylinder to mostly fill it up to allow for a reading.  Stick your hydrometer in the tube, weight side down, and wait for it to settle.  Then think back to your high school chemistry class to try and remember how to take a measurement.  Put your eyes level with the cider and find where the surface of the cider meets the hydrometer.

 

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The angle of the camera is a bit off from where you want your eyes to be, but you can see that it is approximately at the first line below 1.050, so the reading here is 1.052.  But remember that I’m using a different temperature!  Plugging my info into the calculator from before gives me an actual original gravity of 1.053.  We can then either pour the cider back into the carboy (especially if you let your graduated cylinder air dry the sanitizer), or you can leave it out to give your cider a little more headspace.

You can continue to take the gravity of the cider throughout the fermenting process.  When you have the same reading for a few days in a row, then fermentation has stopped and you’re good to move onto the next stage.  Alternatively, you can stop it at a specific gravity if you’re aiming to bottle it at a certain % alcohol or sweetness.  If you don’t want to measure every day, then you can simply wait a few weeks to ensure it finishes fermenting, and then take 1 measurement at the end to check.

 

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Your final gravity is likely going to be pretty close to 1.000.  Again, my picture isn’t the greatest, but its right about 1.000 – perhaps 0.999.  Going back to our temperature calculator, the actual final gravity is going to be 1.000 – exactly what we expected!

So now we have our two gravity readings.  My hydrometer has approximate % alcohol on it for the starting gravities, so I’ve got an idea of what my final product has, but lets plug it into an ABV calculator to make sure.  Looks like my cider is going to have a 7.22% ABV content, wooh!  A standard 1.050 (which is what my starting juice with no added sugar comes out to be) ends up right around 6.5%, which is like a typical beer.

Now you should be good to use a hydrometer – and have a much more accurate picture of how alcoholic your cider actually is!

As a final note, it may seem like a good idea to skip the graduated cylinder and simply pop the hydrometer into the carboy itself.  While the carboy is certainly deep enough, getting the hydrometer out can be quite difficult.  If you do want to try this, grab some unflavored dental floss and tie it to the top of the non-weighted end.  This should hopefully let you pull it back up when you’re done.

 

 

Batch 3.1 – Bottling

After a very exciting experience with the cherries and orange peels, v3.1 is rather plain.  I let the fermentation go a bit long, and opted to bottle straight from primary.

 

 

Bottling is a pretty smooth process now.

 

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This batch already tests better than the first batch of EC-1118 yeast.  Can’t wait to see how it turns out.  I’ll probably going back to the Nottingham Ale yeast for a bit, but I think the EC-1118 would pair quite well with some berries.  I’m thinking a blueberry-infused cider might be something I try soon.