Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Making Cider - Apples, Apples Everywhere!

There was a triple convergence this year, enabling us to produce our first cider ever (over 30 gallons!): we had lots of apples; we had people who picked apples for us; and our daughter's boyfriend installed a new motor on our old cider press, even knowing enough to reverse the direction of the spin so the chopper would work properly. I think the enthusiasm of our neighbors, Karen and Allen, also helped.

Okay, it wasn't exactly our first attempt at making cider, since last year we set up and ran through about ten apples before the motor froze solid. Greg had bought the press off a message board at the local college where he works. "Cider press in good condition. No time to use anymore." I think these things get passed around when interest (or energy) wanes, and community colleges are great places for both (e.g. curious faculty in their fifties). We would be considered teenagers in the realm of cider making: excited to see any liquid at all come out, while wondering what it takes to make hard cider!

There were several other parts that added to the success of our first year:

Besides their enthusiasm, Karen and Allen brought serious physical labor to the process, helping with all steps of the washing, chopping, and pressing. They are younger than we are.

Although Karen and I thought we could handle the cider making ourselves, since we are both proficient at jams and apple sauce, the boys had a more realistic view of the process. It takes at least three, if not four people. It also helps if at least two of these people have good upper-body strength!

We discovered if you make cider in the freezing cold you don't have to worry about getting stung by yellow jackets. But, you do need to wear ski socks and a ski hat because standing on cold cement and getting splashed with sticky apple juice can chill you to the bone!

It helps to have small apples because then there is no quartering involved. You just roll the little puppies down the slide and they get mushed by the chopping wheel, worms and all. Apparently, this is how they do it in the large cider houses that provide apple juice for your local super market. Think about it!

Washing the apples in a large livestock bucket, using water from the garden hose that originates out of a mountain spring, makes the hands bright red so they sting. Heating water on the stove to dump into the livestock bucket only helps a little bit, but is better than nothing.

Allen had an eye for finding apples trees, often the last remaining trees of an orchard planted years ago that had ceased to exist in any formal way. The extra apples led to a second go at pressing cider for three of us. Karen put her foot down after this, not only because our freezers were full, but because standing in a cold, damp carport for hours in November is an ugly thing.

Why did we wait until November to make cider? It was partly a priority issue with farm projects always getting in the way; at least farm projects that needed to be completed before the rains started. Soon enough, the perishability of the apples became a factor and we scheduled a press time. I thought I had covered most of the details, from tables to knives, but like all new projects there were plenty of go-fer runs to the kitchen and the shop before we ever pressed our first gallon. First it was a wooden spoon, then a strainer, then a funnel, then a bucket, then more buckets, finally a sledge hammer!

Okay, the spoon was to push the apples down over the spinning chopper, keeping fingers and hands out of danger. The 5-gallon bucket, and replacement buckets, were necessary to catch the stream of liquid flowing from the bottom of the press as Greg and Allen took turns screwing the wood plate down tighter and tighter over the crushed apples. The strainer was necessary when we poured the cider from the 5-gallon bucket into the gallon milk containers because there seemed to be a fair amount of pulp in our first batches of juice.

The funnel was needed to capture the juice from the 5-gallon bucket, held high off the ground by one of the guys, in the narrow neck of the plastic container, watched carefully by Karen or myself, ready in an instant to yell, "Okay, stop, stop now!!" or "A little more, just a little more. Stop. Stop now!!" The sledge hammer was the only way to knock the pressed mash out the bottom of the wooden, cylindrical cage and into buckets for the sheep's dinner. The tricky part here was not to bang the frozen, red knuckles of the person holding the cage in the air as he tried to absorb the shocks from the sledge hammer being pounded down and again, down. I did manage to miss once with the sledge hammer, and Allen yelped.

It's quite amazing the liquid pressed from apples. When I speak of liquid gold, we all simultaneously had the same image and called it this. The golden, brown juice flowed into our salvaged plastic containers reading 2% milk, cranberry juice, even quart canning jars, and we stacked them triumphantly on our tables. "Hey, look what we made!" Was there bonding going on? Sure. In a shared experience sort of way; also in a first-time experience kind of way. And the first sip all around was like...liquid gold.

So, maybe we weren't sitting in the middle of the orchard with the buzz of bees in the background, the smell of fall upon us, the picnic table laden with pies and potato salad, but, in that cold, dingy carport with mud on the cement, we made something to remind us of the end of summer when the nights start to cool off and the grass is brown and autumn and winter are coming.

I now have about 14 gallons of cider left in the freezer. I think this should be just enough to see us through some special occasions and still allow for the casual glass of juice. Until next November and we think to start the process over!

Top: Greg and Allen taking turns at cranking the press. Bottom: couldn't hold the camera still enough to get a good photo, but this is our group at work.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones

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