About a month ago, I had the pleasure of attending a literal yearly cider pressing. It seemed like something I should write about on this blog.
In terms of equipment, this cider pressing was very different than the last one I’d attended. That one was back in fall 2016, when I was adventuring in the woods of North Carolina. I was visiting some friends at Wild Roots, an off-the-grid community with no electricity or indoor plumbing. They get their food from hunting, foraging, and gardening; they also dumpster-dive, and collect food and materials that the rest of society is throwing away.
On the day of the cider pressing, we all climbed into the back of Todd’s truck and drove to a nearby organic apple farm. (Todd is the person who’s been at Wild Roots the longest; you’ll see him in the video at that link.) Wild Roots had an arrangement with the apple farm, where after the season was over, they’d come and clean up the apples that had fallen on the ground, taking home as many as they wanted. So we spent the morning salvaging apples, and then drove over to a friend’s house to use his big wooden cider press. We sorted through apples, cutting out the especially rotten or wormy bits, and cutting them into chunks so we could press them more easily. Then we threw them into the wooden press and crushed them into juice.
The cider pressing I attended this year, in Longmont, Colorado, had much more modern machinery, but a similar sense of community. People drove in from nearby towns, bringing crates of apples that they had picked. Some had gotten them from trees in their own yards; others had gone out to public spaces and collected apples there. One woman told me about a volunteer organization that picked apples in order to save the bears. Apparently, there’s a lot of apples trees in town, and many of the people who own the properties don’t care about harvesting the apples. So they just ripen and fall on the ground, and the bears come into town to eat them. Apparently, if a bear is sighted a certain number of times in town (I think it was three), then the bear gets shot. So these volunteers drive around, picking the unwanted apples in hopes of keeping the bears away.
So everyone arrived, and we finished cleaning the equipment, and then the cider pressing began. Everyone who was there pitched in to help. People seemed to settle into jobs. Someone needed to load the apples into the washer, and then someone else needed to help guide them into the grinder after they were washed. And once they were ground, someone needed to carry the buckets of ground apples over to the tables where people were filling them in to the pressing cloths. I ended up working with two boys who were putting buckets under the grinder, and making sure that, when one bucket got filled up, a new bucket could be efficiently slid into place. The younger boy, who was maybe eight years old, seemed like a future engineer. He designed an assembly line process for getting the buckets slid into place, and then stayed there for hours, making sure that everyone was doing the exact job they were supposed to. But he wasn’t strong enough to slide the full buckets himself, so I helped with that part.
Here’s some pictures of the process. These are some of the apples that people brought to be pressed:
This is the apple washer and grinder. The part on the left spins the apples and sprays water on them, in order to rinse them. (The water drips down into the bathtub and then recirculates.) Then a chute opens and the apples spill out into the red part, which is the apple grinder.
The second picture shows the inside of the apple spinner, so you can get a sense for how it works. It wasn’t spinning, so the two gentlemen in the photo had opened it to fix it. They’re the ones own and built the cider press; they used to host this cider pressing every year, until a fire destroyed their barn and all of their equipment. They’ve spent the last few years rebuilding, and this year was the first cider pressing with their new equipment. The concrete slab we were standing on was the place where the old barn used to be.
Here’s some photos of the grinding process. The first two show the apples rolling into the grinder. The last photo shows the grinder itself; that cylinder spins, and the bits of metal (maybe pieces of nails?) shred the apples.
Once the apples were ground, they were put in cloths to be pressed. The wood frames were used to get the filled cloths to be the right size. A cloth was placed in the frame, and then filled with apples, and then the cloth was folded over the top, and the wood frame was removed.
The finished cloths full of apples were stacked in between sheets of plastic to press them in this hydraulic press.
Here’s the cider coming out of the press! It was filtered through a mesh bag to remove any solids, and then it flowed down a pipe (the cider-colored one) to a refrigerated tank.
When the cider pressing was finished, my friend Trevor and I took about 12 gallons home to brew into alcoholic beverages. (Trevor is the one who invited me to the cider pressing; he’s also been teaching me, over the last year or so, how to brew various things.)
So the next day, I went over to Trevor’s house to actually do the brewing. Trevor wanted to make a cyzer (which is a combination of cider and mead), while I wanted to see what the cider would taste like if fermented with its natural yeasts. So we did both.
It turns out it’s extremely easy to make hard cider. In fact, it practically makes itself. If you’ve ever picked a wild apple, you’ll know that it’s not shiny; instead, it looks kind of matte, because it’s covered in a thin white film. That film is the yeasts. The yeasts want to eat the apple, but they can’t, because they can’t get through its skin. (That’s the whole point of the apple skin — to protect the fruit from microorganisms that might want to eat it.) But even though the yeasts can’t eat the apple yet, they stay on the skin anyway, waiting for the day when the apple will fall off the tree and the skin will get broken open.
So when you take a whole apple, skin and all, and you crush it for cider, you’re doing exactly what the yeasts were waiting for: you’re giving them access to the delicious apple flesh within. And the cider you press will be full of yeasts as well. So basically, all you need to do in order to make wild cider (that is, cider made with wild yeasts) is to put the freshly-pressed cider in a nice clean container, and let the yeasts do their work. (The alcohol they produce will keep any other microorganisms from growing in the beverage.)
Here’s some pictures of that process.
The first (and most time-consuming) step in any brewing project is cleaning and santizing all the equipment. For cleaning, we just wash stuff. For sanitizing, we use something called StarSan, which sanitizes the equipment without affecting the flavor of the beverage. Here’s a picture of Trevor washing the equipment, and me spraying the fermenting bucket with StarSan.
We then poured some cider from the tank where we were storing it, into the bucket. At this point, the cider had been sitting in the tank for almost 24 hours, and it had already started to ferment. It was slightly fizzy.
Once the cider was in the bucket, we aerated it. Aerating introduces oxygen, which makes the yeasts extra excited about fermenting. We used Trevor’s immersion blender for this step.
Then we transferred the cider from the bucket to the carboy, and left it to ferment. (We could have fermented the cider in the bucket, but we wanted to use the bucket for the cyzer project. So we moved the cider to the carboy. The reason we didn’t just pour it into the carboy to begin with is that you can’t aerate it when it’s in the carboy.)
Then Trevor took a specific gravity reading. I don’t quite understand how this works, but somehow it measures the amount of sugar in the cider, which gives a sense for how much alcohol it might eventually produce.
The last step was putting the airlock on the carboy and then leaving it to ferment. The airlock solves the following problem: Fermentation produces a lot of carbon dioxide, and you need to let the carbon dioxide out of the carboy, or else it will explode. But if you just leave the carboy open, then all sorts of bugs and microorganisms can get in. So you use an airlock, which lets air out but not in (at least assuming that the pressure inside the carboy is higher than the pressure outside it).
So we put on the airlock, and we filled it with liquid (we used StarSan, but water would have worked), and then we left it there for nature to take its course.
So that’s our cider! It’s been sitting there for about a month now. It’s probably done fermenting, or almost done, but Trevor and I have both been busy (including with other homebrewing projects), and haven’t had time to rack or bottle it. (Racking is when you transfer it from one fermenting vessel to another. That stirs up the cider, which causes it to start fermenting more; it also helps get rid of some of the sediment, which is the solid gunk that sinks to the bottom of the carboy.)
So I can’t tell you how the cider tastes yet; I’ll have to report back later. But I can tell you that I’m looking forward to tasting some real Colorado cider, made from apples that we picked and pressed ourselves, and using the yeasts that grow naturally in this part of the world.