Fall is off to an amazing start this year. Well, maybe a little too early for some of you, but I'm ready for it. Like a lot of you, one of my favorite things to do in the Fall is visit the orchard. Fresh donuts, hot cider, apple butter and more. As the colors change we bring back the tastes that remind us of years past spent with family and good friends.
This year I was looking for a slightly more 'hands-on' experience that I could learn some skills from and still create great memories. That opportunity presented itself this week. I was invited out to a family farm by a close friend and her parents to observe and participate as they made home-pressed apple cider. Yes!
When you enjoy something, the only way to make it better is to enjoy it with someone and make it yourself. And that first sip of cider straight from the press was worth every drop of sweat involved.
We started our day out in the orchard. You don't have to be too choosy when picking cider apples and this farm grows a variety from Jonathan to Red Calville. My friend and I spent several hours pulling apples from the branches and also managed to introduce ourselves to a decent amount of indigenous insect species (note to self -- spider-proof armor next year). We had gathered apples previously from the ground, but the woman that had passed this cider press on to my friends had advised them that apples from the tree make the best cider, and I was pretty excited about that. (It's SO much easier to gather from the trees.)
We used apple crates for our gathering, which according to what I was told, each hold slightly more than a bushel.
We picked 10 crates of apples over the course of a few hours and loaded them on the tractor. The next step was pulling out the equipment and cleaning it. Contrary to the title image, they actually use a small motorized press with a conveyor. Cleaning all the dust and bugs from the machine not only produces a better taste, it also prevents unwelcome arachnids from joining you for a drink (seriously, spiders must love apple trees). The initial step involves the conveyor system, into which you load the apples a few handfuls at a time. When the apples reach the top of the conveyor they are tossed into a grinder which was fun to operate, due mostly to the unexpected face-fulls of apple chunks you would get once in awhile.
The grinder could process a pretty large amount of apples but sometimes we got a little enthusiastic in our loading and whole apples would come flying out like bombs dropping on our heads. Thankfully, they were mostly small and the resulting brain damaged was limited.
The ground apple fell from the press through a cloth funnel into a cloth covered catch basin below. As the apple chunks piled up, we took turns forming them into basic squares. After one brick (apple cube?) was formed, the sides of the cloth were folded up to allow for pressing while keeping the pulp from making it into the final product. About 7 of these were stacked at a time, depending on thickness. The resulting stack was then slid down to the hydraulic press.
Watching the resulting rivulets of cider pour from the cloth was one of the more interesting processes. It was amazing to see just how much juice was squeezed from the apples we had gathered. And my friends father informed me that we were actually on the low end of productivity, gathering about 4 gallons per bushel.
One interesting problem we ran into was the residual taste of the cloth in the cider. From a large container of cloths, we had chosen the ones we thought had the least odor. However, when the cider was pressed and we took a drink from the tray, there was a noticeable aftertaste. In all actuality, this probably would have gone completely unnoticed by someone who wasn't familiar with the smell of the cloths. It wasn't an unpleasant smell, just not cider. We solved this by switching to newer, less aromatic cloths for the remainder of the pressing and the odor completely disappeared.
I can honestly say that the pride and pleasure of drinking cider, made from apples free of pesticides, and pressed free of any chemical process was amazing. It was a great day and I relished the first cup of homemade cider when I got home. I was extremely grateful to my friends for allowing me to participate in the process. They mostly just looked at my funny for wanting to do so much farm work and being so excited about it. Happy to help and excited to add one more homesteading process to my knowledge base. Looking forward to many more learning experiences out on the farm.
Jonathan Parker is an EMT-Paramedic and Preparedness Instructor with a love for emergency medicine, self-sufficiency and homesteading. His goal is to empower people towards a natural and sustainable lifestyle.