The best part about making apple cider is that it is so easy and fun to make. Granted, there is some equipment that is required such as an apple grinder, press, and a vat to hold all of the cider. But the basic process is simple: get a group of friends together, spend a beautiful autumn day picking apples, turn on the tunes while sorting and thoroughly washing the apples, grind them into mush, let the press squeeze out all the juice, give the apple pulp to the neighbors for their dairy cows, then drink the fresh squeezed cider to your hearts delight.
On our farm, this is our second season of making apple cider. In our first year, we learned a lot about how to set up and run our new cider-making equipment, figuring out efficient ways of harvesting and transporting the apples to the cider house, and refining our pressing and bottling systems. As with any new venture, each year we will learn more about the tricks of the trade, and this year, here are a few of the lessons that I learned.
Lesson #1: Yellow jackets love apples too. This is something I discovered when I was high up on a ladder picking the apples from the trees. It seems to me that for yellow jackets “hanging out at the apple tree” is the same as “hanging out at the water cooler” is for humans. Evidently apple trees are the place where yellow jackets gather to socialize, catch up on the latest buzz, and have some fun playing hide-and-sting the apple pickers. The fun begins when they hide themselves on the back side of an apple out of sight of the picker, then implant their stinger when the apple is grabbed. In this case, that picker was me. Even though I am a beekeeper and am accustomed to getting stung, honeybee stings are minor compared to yellow jacket stings. After five stings I learned that it is a good idea to wear gloves when picking apples.
Lesson #2: The best apples are on the top. No matter how many apples there may be on a given tree, the most beautiful apples are found at the very top of the tree. That is where the biggest, plumpest, unblemished, prettiest apples reside. It doesn’t mean that those beauties taste any better than their less attractive counterparts on the lower branches. In fact, for cider, the pretty apples will be crushed and squeezed with the rest of the apples in the basket so their appearance doesn’t give them any benefit whatsoever. But there is something so rewarding to an apple picker when those gorgeous apples at the top of the tree can be safely retrieved – without falling off of a ladder or dropping off the branch and landing on an unsuspecting nose.
Lesson # 3: Get a grip. After putting so much effort into reaching those beautiful apples at the top of the tree, it is really important to get a solid grip on the fruit so it doesn’t pop out of your hand and land on the ground. Once the apple hits the ground, it cannot be used for unpasteurized cider. The ground is where the animals roam and where, shall we say, they do their business. So eating any apples – raw or pressed – that have hit the ground is unsafe. With that said, dropped apples are just fine if they are cooked for applesauce or baked into pies or apple crisp. But for the cider we make, we will only use apples picked straight from the tree. For this reason, it is important to hang on tight to the fruit as it’s plucked from the tree, unless, of course, you’re getting stung by a yellow jacket.
Lesson #4: Every batch is different and delicious. When we pick apples, we will collect all of the different varieties of apples throughout the orchard and mix them together, filling up a huge bin that holds 22 bushels of apples. For each bin-full of apples we will produce two batches of cider – meaning we will run the apple press two times. Each batch has its own distinct flavor as the mix of apples for each batch will be very different. It doesn’t matter what combination of apples are used in any batch of cider. Every batch is absolutely scrumptious. At the end of the day, we will mix together all of the batches of cider produced creating one large batch of lip-smacking deliciousness.
Lesson #5: crab apples are the secret ingredient. I suppose I should keep this to myself, protecting it as one of those secret family recipes. But since every batch is different and delicious, I’ll just proclaim that our secret family recipe is variety. Crab apples give the cider that extra punch of flavor, changing it from super sweet to tangy, tart, and zingy. To increase the pucker power of cider, just add more crab apples. Like your cider a little sweeter? Then keep the crab apples out of the mix.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned this year is the joy of bringing together family and friends to work in harmony to harvest the fruit and press it into cider. While it makes for a long day of hard work, the effort is worth the rewards – gallons of luscious cider and going to bed at night, happily exhausted.
Debbie Morrison is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. She and her husband Jim own and operate Sapsucker Farms, where their certified organic crops include maple syrup, honey, apples, plums and vegetables. Debbie's last post for SGT was The Inspiring Honeybee Comeback Story. Follow Debbie on Twitter at@sapsuckerfarms