English ciders are often more dry than American versions, especially commercial versions that are sweetened to all get out. Good cider is very much like winemaking. You have to carefully pick your fruit for flavor, sugar content, etc. and contemplate things like tannins, etc. because at the end of the day it's the fruit that makes or breaks the product. Cider can be oak aged. It can be still or carbonated.
It is possible to make good cider out of store brand apple juice. Granted, it's not going to be as good as cider made from the varieties normally used in cider (which tend to have more tannins, more complex flavors, etc.) but you can get in the ballpark of a tasty beverage. The biggest problem in making this very amateur cider (although it applies to better quality cidermaking) is balancing dry vs. sweet and carbonation vs. still. You can let the yeast ferment the cider completely dry and either bottle it still or add priming sugar and carbonate it. You can ferment partially and stop fermentation and either leave it alone or backsweeten it. However, if you leave fermentable sugars behind you can't bottle condition because the yeast will continue to chew up sugars and dry it out, so it has to be still. (Although some smart brewers figured out a stovetop bottle pasteurizing process that allows you to bottle condition for a few days to carbonate and then heat it up enough to kill the yeast and stop further fermentation.) You can dry it out and add unfermentable sugar, like lactose, and then add priming sugar and bottle condition.
I like a very dry cider. Maybe even a little too dry. I also like it carbonated. For these reasons, I like to ferment it down to complete dryness and then add a little more sugar to carbonate it in the bottle. It's the easiest way to get what I like. I'm not talented enough to add lots of additional stuff to enhance the flavor as better cidermakers, winemakers and meadmakers do.
So here is my super-easy, store-bought ingredient cider. This will make about 2.25-2.5 gallons of cider, depending on how much lees (trub, in beer terminology) is left behind. Ingredient list:
*1 gallon of apple juice (you can buy generic apple juice, as I did, or you can buy premium apple juice or apple juice made with better quality apples; just make sure the apple juice is only apple juice, water and maybe ascerbic acid -- vitamin C -- avoid apple juice with preservatives because they will prevent fermentation)
*1 gallon water (I used distilled water but you can use any other source of water)
*4 12oz cans of frozen apple juice concentrate
*1 earl grey tea bag
Dump the water, apple juice, concentrate and tea bag in a kettle and bring up to 170F. This will pasteurize the cider without brining it to a boil, which can set pectin and produce haze. The tea bag will help add tannins to the cider, which will improve mouthfeel and balance the flavor with some acidity. I remove 16oz of cider to use as priming sugar that I freeze until fermentation is complete and then thaw, pasteurize and add to the bottling bucket to prime. You can use corn sugar or honey for carbonation if you prefer. Once your cider has reached 170F, cool and add to the fermenter with 1 tsp of yeast nutrient per gallon.
I split the cider into two batches. One batch is fermented with 1338, a neutral ale strain. The other batch is fermented with WLP575, a Belgian yeast strain. The two will be blended during bottling. I have never had cider made with Belgian yeast but I am hoping the esters will add some fruity complexity to the cider to make up for using such generic apple juice.
Cider needs to stay in the fermenter for at least 2-3 weeks and bottle condition another 2-3 weeks. Any time before about five weeks it will have what is refered to as the "rhino fart" smell. You don't want to smell that while you are drinking it. It will go away on it's own. Some people will move the cider off the lees once fermentation ends. I don't because I'm lazy. Once you are ready to bottle you will bottle just like beer with priming sugar (or no priming sugar if you want it still). Let it sit in the bottle and once the cider is 5-6 weeks old the rhino farts should be gone and it's time to enjoy your cider.