I have been a brewer and vintner for 8 years or so, working seasonally in a winery and brewery and making my own hooch. I grew up in Seattle, where you can get truckloads of any fruit every year from roadside ditches. Then, I spent 5 years in Colorado, where some years you get no fruit due to frost in June (EFFFFF YOOOOOOOOOO, WEATHER!)
Anyway, despite all of my my high-level projects, I always make holiday cider the easy way. Here's how:
Begin ONE month (or seven weeks) before you intend to drink - yeah, I know, too late for solstice orgy this year. Sorry
*One gallon jug ORGANIC apple cider from Whole Paycheck Foods or similar. Must be organic. You get a cool glass jug! Sometimes on sale for $5...usually $8.
*One envelope dry ale yeast, Pasteur red or any homebrew yeast really. I avoid champagne yeast because it's sulphury.
*Two large drinking glasses
*One Zip-loc (tm) sandwich bag
Bring home the yeast and glass gallon jug of organic apple juice/cider and make sure it is at room temperature before you start.
Bathe the drinking glasses in the hottest water your tap can provide - inside and out - for a 20 seconds or so.
Fill one glass 1/2 full with hot tap water.
Make sure the 1/2 glass of water is wicked hot-tub hot.. about 110 degrees. This is cool enough to keep your finger in, but hot enough that you wish you hadn't.
105-113 deg F, for you scientists.
Empty the packet of yeast into the 1/2 glass of hot water and stir with the clean spoon until no dry parts float on the surface.
Put the Zip-loc (tm) bag over the yeast glass
Wait five to ten minutes. You should see the yeast begin to bloom a little. If not, wait until you see a little bloom.
While you are waiting, open the cider and pour about 1.5 cups into the second glass
Once you see a little bloom in the yeast, pour a dollop of cider from the second glass into the yeast glass - about 25 ml.
Put the cap back on the cider jug and go do something for 15 minutes.
Come back and then add another dollop from the cider glass to the yeast glass. It should be forming a foamy head by now.
If the yeast glass is not forming a foamy head, kill yourself for YOU HAVE FAILED!
Ok, not really. Just wait a little longer - 20 minutes maybe.
Do not proceed until you have a frothy head on the yeast glass.
Once you have a frothy head, stir the yeast culture glass a bit and then pour about 1/4 cup of it into the jug of cider.
You will need head space in the jug, so don't get uppity and pour in the whole glass. You'll be sorry.
You have just done what is called "pitching" - Hooray!
Now, put the cap on the cider jug *loosely* and then put the Zip-loc (tm) bag over that and zip it as tight as you can.
Put the jug in a dark cupboard that will stay room temperature - 72 F or so - for 2 weeks and forget about it.
If the weather is hot and/or you have not left enough head space in the jug, you might want to put the jug inside a pie tin or similar sized receptacle to catch any boil-over.
After two weeks, find something in the house that can hold about a gallon of liquid and clean it really well. You are now ready to "rack" your cider.
This involves pouring the liquid on top off of the goop that will be settling on the bottom - WITHOUT disturbing the goop too much. You will forfeit a bit of cider in the process.
It's best to do this in one smooth motion, tipping the jug. The poured cider will froth a bit, so use a big receptacle and pour slowly. If you stop pouring, the cider will backwash and mix with yeast and you should kill yourself because YOU FAILED!
Yes, really. But, moving along, though; after you have successfully racked the clean-ish cider off of the goop (lees, they call it), you can clean out the jug with tap water and then funnel the clean-ish cider back into the jug. It helps to have a helper helping with this, to hold jugs at the right angle and...help.
Put the cap back on - TIGHT this time - and forget about the jug in a warm place for another week (or two).
After that week, leave the cap tight and transfer the jug to the fridge for one more week (or two).
It has now been a full month and (if you are nuts) you are ready to drink your apple drank, FOO!
If you have a racking cane and tubing (brew shop) you can rack again at this point. It will improve the long-term quality and aging-ability of the cider. I only do this if I have made a big batch or my brother is not in town, because he will drink all of anything that isn't locked up.
Now, this 30-day recipe is the BARE MINIMUM for decent cider that will treat you well. The sooner you drink it and the fewer times you rack, the more GAS GAS GAS you will get in your tummy guts. I'm talking farts that will get you divorced.
Also, the vitamin B in the yeast will keep you awake all night.
So, the best option is to age for two weeks warm after the first racking and then two weeks in the fridge after another racking, and then rack again and wait one more painful week in the fridge (7 weeks total) before drinking. This will give you exceedingly high quality cider with a nice amount of natural fizz and no unpleasant divorce.
At the beginning, you can add 1/2 cup per gallon of unrefined sugar if you want to get closer to 5% ABV. Plain cider will give you about 3.5%.
You can add hops at any time and rack and age as much as you want to get cool new recipes.
If you want natural fizz, however, you will need at least one week of warm ferment time with the cap on tight after one racking. The longer you ferment warm, the drier it will be. The more times you rack, the better it will taste and the less you will get divorced. If you get it REALLY clean and still want some fizz, you can add a tablespoon of raw sugar dissolved in hot water and wait one more week. After all that, two week in the fridge is good, or three months in the basement is better.