Once the cider is finished, it is now ready for packaging in some sort of container. Traditional farmhouse ciders were often drunk directly from the barrel, one quart at a time. While farm families who went through six or eight (or more) barrels a year may have drained them before the cider went stale, or worse, turned to vinegar, it would be tough today to drink your cider as such. As the cider is poured off from the barrel, air enters the space to replace it, letting in any airborne microorganisms with it. Even if you let sterile air in, the presence of oxygen will make your cider stale, and any Acetobacter which survived the fermentation will be able to act and create vinegar. Furthermore, allowing the cider to rest on its lees, or spent yeast layer at the bottom of the barrel, will allow the yeast to autolyze, or break down and dissolve, creating some peculiar flavors in the glass. For these reasons, cider should always be bottled soon after fermentation or aging.
Bottle choice is up to the cidermaker and is partially dependent on cider style. For any type of carbonated cider a bottle capable of holding pressure is called for. For lightly sparkling ciders crown-capped or flip-top ('Grolsh-style') beer bottles work well, but for highly carbonated Champagne styles only sturdy, preferably new Champagne bottles can be used with special stoppers and wire hoods. These make for a nice presentation but can be expensive and laborious.
Above photo, Bottles for cider, from left to right; "Grolsh"-style flip tops, 22 oz crown-cap 'bomber' (preferred), heavy-duty Champagne bottle, standard 750ml burgundy bottle (preferred), 750 ml slope-shoulder chardonnay bottle, 1.5 l magnum (fewer corks but I have a hard time finishing one this size off), 1/2 gallon 'growler' (nice for a lot of uses).
For uncarbonated, still ciders, my container of choice is the standard 750 ml Bordeaux-style wine bottle, preferably green. These are the standard red-wine bottle. While I can and do use other wine bottle including the slope-shouldered Chardonnay bottle and the 1.5 liter magnums, I find the former too hard to stack on their sides and the latter to big to drink in a sitting. If you're bottling up some cider for a party, however, the bigger bottles mean fewer corks to buy and drive. As for color, I'm not really particular, but It's nice to bottle all of a batch in one color and shape of bottle.
I rarely to never buy bottles. By now I have developed a network of folks who save bottles for me and exchange them, sometimes for some free product. The key to reusing bottles is an efficient cleaning system which I have pulled together in a standard laundry sink in my basement. I can clean, delabel, and sanitize about 50 bottles an hour, and at 500 bottles a year I find this very manageable. Anyone who can provide me with clean 750 ml burgundy bottles or 22 oz bombers, preferably in cases, may be rewarded.
One thing to never reuse are corks. I buy my corks in bulk, usually from MoreBeer.com . I used to buy them in smaller lots from my local brewshop, and still do in a pinch, but the cost savings of $0.10 per cork vs. $0.20 are substantial.
As for driving corks, there are numerous devices for doing so, and I have used them all. The hand-held, lever-type corkers available at brewshops are perfectly adequate for small batches (up to say 15 gallons a year) and are reasonable in cost at around $30. Anyone making more than that would be very smart to skip this step and spend a little more, say $75-100 for a floor-corker which allows for one-handed corking without the need to soak corks to soften them as is needed with a hand corker. I would post a picture of my hand-corkers but after using this Italian floor unit I sold my others on eBay.
As for the mechanics of bottling, it is quite simple, using a racking cane, siphon tube, and bottle filler, all of which might run you $12 or so at the brew shop. The racking cane is a sold plastic tube which goes down into the container and has a small plastic cap on the end to prevent sucking up yeast. The tube then connects to a solid plastic bottle filler, a tube with a spring or gravity-powered valve at the end which allows you to stop the flow when the bottle fills. The spring-loaded fillers are nice when you have an assistant who does nothing but fill bottles and can hold down the filler as needed. The gravity valves are handy when you are filling and bottling yourself, in conjunction with a floor corker, since you can drop the filler in the bottle and it will fill until you pick it up. In this system, you must keep a good eye on things to avoid spillage, but with some practice one person can bottle a five-gallon carboy in about ten minutes.
Finally I should mention a very convenient alternative to bottling, the keg. I have been using stainless, five-gallon 'cornelius' kegs in the cidery for years and find them indispensable. These kegs are used most often to dispense bulk soda in restaurants and bars, and used kegs can be had for only a modest investment. Using either a CO2 or Nitrogen pressure tank (the former are easier to come by but will add some 'spritz' to the cider) you can store and serve cider, beer, and wine without any need for bottles!
Conditions in the storage area for any bottled or kegged cider should be cool without any major swings in temperature as would be found near a heating source (furnace, wood stove). I store my ciders right in the fermenting room, also known in our house as the cider room, which ranges from 35F in winter to just about 60F in summer. The room is simply a walled-off corner of the basement with insulated walls and a sturdy insulated exterior door. There is no cooling system but I can use a north-facing window as needed to regulate temperatures. Planning ahead, I made sure to install the door with a good lock, since my little baby will one day be a teenager.
All material Copyright Terence Bradshaw 2006-2013
terryb at lostmeadowvt dot com