One of the nice things about home winemaking (including cider-making) is that you can do it on a very limited budget and still get enjoyable results. For example, if you're making cider, you can make it right in the apple juice bottle if need be. Same for wine-making. The process and ingredients are simple enough you don't have to get elaborate unless you want and can afford to.
Over time, though, you'll find that having some essential, basic gear that you can reuse many times will be helpful. This article and its companions focus in on a basic set of equipment that you can buy a bit at a time for reasonable prices. Over the course of a few months, you can have your setup completed, and the investment will pay for itself in very little time.
I prefer using glass containers for fermenting and bottling because they stand up to pressure well. That said, there are also some good-quality plastic products like the Better Bottle line that are a great value for your money. Choose the ones you'll be happiest with.
For fermentation, I've settled on two types of containers: a large, glass carboy for primary (first) fermentation and 1-gallon glass jugs (also called "demijohns") for secondary fermenters, small batches, and experiments.
I have a 6.5 gallon glass carboy I use for large-quantity recipes. One accessory I've found very helpful with this large carboy is an add-on handle. Why is this handy? Simple: A carboy requires careful handling, and when you've added 5 or 6 gallons of liquid, it's really heavy. At about 8.5 pounds per gallon, a carboy containing 6 gallons of fluid will be 51 pounds plus the weight of the glass. The fluid also moves around inside the carboy when you're transferring it, which can throw you off-balance if you're not careful. The handle adds an element of safety to the whole process.
A low-cost alternative to carboys are food-grade plastic pails. If your budget is super-tight, check with a bakery. All of the icing, fillings, and other ingredients sold in commercial quantities generally come in heavy plastic pails that make great primary fermentation containers. A bakery in my community sells 3-gallon pails with lid for $2.99. Make sure the pail comes with a lid, as you'll want to seal the fermentation away from possible invasion by bacteria (or other stuff) that could spoil your wine or cider. You'll need to make a hole in the lid to accommodate the airlock and bung. If you have a drill, you can use a spade bit just a little smaller (like 1/16" smaller) than the diameter of the bung to make a hole that precisely fits the bung. Even allowing for extreme caution and measuring twice, this will only take a few minutes to do. Please be safe with your power tools, and learn from my example - shallow holes in the kitchen table are not appreciated by one's better half!
A good cleaning for the pail and lid, and it'll be ready to go. Just remember, don't clean with soap, it'll affect the flavor of your must. Soak well in a light bleach solution, or use an oxy-type cleaner for the solution.
"Racking" is the process of transferring the wine or cider from one container to another. For example, after the primary fermentation is finished, the cider will be racked to secondary vessels for clarifying, and then racked once more at bottling time.
For racking, there are two very handy tools that can make it go easily and quickly:
- Food-grade tubing for siphoning.
- If you're not into siphoning the old-fashioned way ;), an auto-siphon will do the trick quite nicely. Word to the wise: when selecting an auto-siphon make sure the siphon's diameter is the right size for your tubing, as they need to match up for the siphon to work properly.
When you're ready to bottle, nothing is more helpful than a good bottling bucket with spigot. You can do this with your siphon and hose, but it moves fast enough you'll end up with a lot on the counter and not in the bottle. The bucket with spigot gives you far better control over the process.
This is another occasion when a food-grade plastic pail from your local bakery can come in handy. Go get one from the bakery, and then do the rest "DIY" and save a few dollars. You can buy the spigot separately, so all you'll need is your handy drill, a spade bit of the proper size and a little time.
Again, please take the time to be safe with your power tools. Spade bits, assuming they're well-maintained, are very sharp on their cutting edge. Drilling on a curved, slippery surface (such as the side of a pail) creates a situation where a slip could mean serious injury. I strongly advise drilling a pilot hole at the point you're installing the spigot before creating the opening for the spigot. It's an extra minute or two spent for safety that will pay off handsomely.
Once you've assembled your bottling bucket, you're good to go. Have fun fermenting, racking, and bottling! It's all part of living well through living simply.
There's a wonderful community of people on the internet who enjoy making their own wine, cider, beer, and more. I want to take a moment and give a shout-out to one of those communities, Home Brew Talk. They're a great bunch of people who are generous with their time and advice. You'll find lots of how-to's, recipes, and a place where you can learn about the art of home brewing with others who love it as much as you do. I've learned a lot from them, and you will too.