Cider is incredibly simple to make in theory: take apple juice and wait. In reality, it can be a lot more complicated and many beginning cider-makers have trouble with batches that go bad (here at Ela Cider Co. we dumped over 50 test batches down the drain before we hit on our finished product!). There are lots of good resources out there that can give you the basics on making hard cider. Here are four tips that we'd add to those basics that will hopefully help you make a delicious cider the first time.
1. Use Good Juice
This is the simplest thing you can do to make a good hard cider: buy the best-quality apple juice you can. Good apples make good juice makes good cider. It's as simple as that. Don't get that bland clear stuff from a grocery store. Find an orchard nearby with nice fresh cider, preferably unpasteurized so the native yeasts can get to work and add complexity to your cider (we, of course, believe the finest juice comes from Ela Orchard).
2. Add Yeast Nutrient
Apple juice has plenty of sugar, but is notoriously low in the micro-nutrients that yeasts need to thrive. For this reason, many fermenting ciders stall out before they're finished (imagine if your diet was exclusively sugar!). Yeast nutrients are available at any homebrew or wine-making store. Most are added at the beginning of fermentation, though some you add partway through to boost the yeast through to the finish line. It's a cheap way to ensure your cider finishes fermenting.
3. Don't Use Champagne Yeast
Most cider-making handbooks recommend using champagne yeast, because it ferments quickly, cleanly, and reliably. However, in our experience, we've found the end result too clean, and actually rather bland.
A fruity white wine yeast (e.g. 71B) will add fruit flavors and make a more interesting cider. And if you follow tip #2, it should ferment strongly enough to finish.
Or, if you didn't follow tip #1, use something like a Belgian ale yeast to add a whole lot of complexity to a bland juice. I had a rather nice commercial West-coast cider made this way using exclusively Granny Smith apples, something I never would have thought could possibly make a nice finished cider.
4. Sweeten and Pasteurize
Ok, this one's maybe too complicated for your first batch, but if you've got the basics down, and find your cider ends up too sour, we recommend back-sweetening after fermentation is finished to balance the acidity and make a more palatable finished product. You can use any sweetener you fancy--honey, maple syrup, white or brown sugar. We back-sweeten our Stone Silo with fresh apple juice to add some fresh apple flavor.
You'll need to pasteurize the bottles to keep the cider from re-fermenting and your bottles from exploding, but it's actually quite easy to do at home-- a good guide is here.
Anyone can make good cider (yes, that includes you!) Good luck!