The 2019 apple crop looks good: Trees across northern Vermont are laden with the fruit.
If you have apple trees on your property, why not turn that overabundance of fruit into homemade apple cider?
That’s just what a few friends and I decided to do on a chilly Sunday this month.
A couple of requirements:
• Find someone with a cider press you can use.
• Bring stainless-steel milk buckets.
• Bring enough jugs.
With the first real feel of fall in the air, we spent the late morning using an antique cider press to turn a truckbed full of apples into gallons of homemade cider.
Here’s a look at how we did it, plus some steps you can add.
Our base of operations was the Jones Farm in Craftsbury, because that’s where our press was located and it’s easier to bring the apples there than it is to move the giant antique contraption. Rumor among the current members of the Jones family is that a certain family patriarch used the press to make applejack moonshine during Prohibition.
Our apples hailed from the back side of Lake Elmore, on land owned by JB and June McKinley. JB and his son Quentin loaded the bed of Quentin’s antique pickup with several varieties of early-season, and some not so early-season, apples to press.
Before pressing, we had to chop up the apples. Rather than doing that by hand, our foreman, Logan Jones, set up the family’s homemade apple-chopper.
Chopping the apples down to a pressable size takes a while, so Quentin and my brother Jason were on chopping duty for the rest of the morning. One person slowly feeds a few apples at a time into the processor’s intake chute; the other uses a poker to keep the apples down on the processor as it churns and chops them into small chunks. Those bits shoot out the bottom of the chopper into stainless-steel milk buckets waiting below.
Once we had our first bucket of chopped apple, we were ready to break out the actual press. We dumped the chopped apple into the removable, bottomless press basket sitting in a slot on the cast-iron pan on the press. Then, it was time to crank down the press plate, making sure it slid smoothly into the basket without fouling anything up.
More cranking brought the press plate squeezing down onto the actual apple pieces.
Once the press plate hit the chopped apple, the cider — which had started leaking out around the slates of the basket as soon as the apple was dumped in — came spewing out of the pan’s spigot into another waiting bucket. We continued to turn the crank, applying more pressure.
The cider had already oxidized and taken on its customary color by that time, so the stream of liquid flowing into the waiting filter and bucket below looked a bit like maple syrup.
Be sure to have that bucket ready below the press, with a filter in place, as soon as the chopped apple bits are dumped into the press. And, make sure someone is watching the filter at all times, because plenty of tiny bits of apple flow out of the press along with the cider. As we discovered by trial and error, the cider and apple-bits can be flowing so fast and heavy that, if you’re not careful, they will carry the filter into the bucket of already-filtered cider.
After that it was time to crank the press plate upward, to reveal the almost perfectly circular cake of pressed, now-dry apple pieces stuck together in the bottom of the press basket.
Our press that day is actually built to take two buckets of chopped apple, so after our first draw we placed a round wooden board atop the dry apple cake and poured another bucket of fresh, juicy pieces on top of it, then squeezed that.
Then it was time to crank the press plate upward and remove the press basket, leaving only two flattened, round dry apple cakes behind.
While two people poured the filtered cider into jugs the McKinleys had brought, one of us cleaned those two cakes out of the pan. If you’re careful, you can slide both out together without breaking them. Then, you need to clean or replace the filter.
By then, more chopped apple was ready to be pressed.
We made 17 gallons of cider in just over three hours. We had a dark amber cider that started smooth but had a good, tart kick at the end, thanks to some apples that were a bit shy of being fully ready when we pressed them.
The McKinleys took the majority home, but each one of us brought our own gallon or half-gallon home to enjoy.
• Safety tip: The McKinleys brought organic apples that day, and were sure to bring only ones that hadn’t fallen off the trees yet. With no pesticides to worry about and the apples spending no time on the ground, we didn’t wash them as thoroughly as we could have. If your apples were sprayed with pesticide or didn’t come straight from the tree, they should be washed thoroughly.
We also picked through the apples one or two at a time when putting them into buckets to drop into the processor, to keep leaves or debris from getting into the buckets of chopped apple and into the press.
And, although we didn’t do it that day, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac you can pasteurize any cider you make simply by heating it to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for between six and eight seconds.
Note: JB McKinley is a former reporter and editor with the News & Citizen.