September and October is Cider time in Central Vermont.
Towards the end of September we get ready to collect the apples that weigh down the branches of the trees in our neighborhood.
The first task is check out the trees to see how they have produced over the spring and summer. To make a really good flavorful cider we combine apples from about 30 different trees.
For the most part, the specific varieties growing on these trees are unknown. Some trees were intentionally planted many years ago while others are clearly wild.
Though there are often significant differences in the size and color of the apples on the trees the most important distinction is the taste, and to assess that, apples must be sampled.
Once we determine that the apples from a particular tree belong in our cider we get to work on collection by spreading large tarps under the tree so we can be sure that none of the apples that make it through the scratter and press have touched the ground. To get the apples off the tree and onto the tarp we climb into the upper branches of the tree and shake the boughs that have fruit. For those working below a bike helmet comes in handy.
The apples fall to the tarp where they can be quickly gathered up and put into apple storage boxes and transported back to a shed for sweating.
Forks on the front of the tractor make it easy to maneuver the boxes in a shed where they will sit for 10 days to 2 weeks so “sweat.” This sweating causes the apples to develop the sugars that make delicious cider. Boxes full of apples weigh a lot and though the chances of someone coming to take the apples is non-existent, sometimes it is helpful to have a guard.
Things really get busy when it is time to press. The first step is to make sure that all the equipment we use in the process is cleaned and sanitized. Once that is done, the apples are mixed together in a washing tank.
From there, they go into a “scratter” that chops them into relatively small pieces which are then put through a grinder which creates a “pomace” ready for the presses.
We used to cut the apples by hand before putting them through a grinder but found it too risky.
Our cider presses are all home-made out of white oak, a wood known for its strength and durability. The press consists of top and bottom plates made of oak. A wooden box sits on the bottom plate,. The wooden box has a hole in the front through which the cider can flow.
The next step in the process is to create a “cheese” or stack of pomace. A wooden press plate is placed in the box and a special press cloth is put on top of it. The pomace is poured onto it the press cloth, which is then folded over to cover the pomace. Another wooden press plate is put on top, and the process is repeated over and over until there are about 5 layers making up a “cheese.” A head press plate is put on top, and on top of that plate goes an 8 ton hydraulic bottle jack.
When the jack is engaged the top presses up on a steel plate that is screwed onto the bottom of the top piece of white oak. Raising and lowering the jack’s handle exerts the pressure that causes the juice to flow from the cheese, into the box, out of the hole and into 5 gallon pails.
When a 5 gallon pail is full it is emptied into a bottling bucket which is used to put the cider into 1 gallon or 1/2 gallon jugs. From there, the jugs go into the refrigerator for immediate sale or into the freezer where they will keep their flavor for about a year.
Boiled Cider or Cider Syrup
We turn some of our cider into a traditional New England product called “Boiled Cider” also known as apple cider syrup. This is done by putting our fresh cider through the same process we use to make maple syrup in the late winter and early spring.
Boiling cider can be a bit tricky as the sugar content is so much higher to start with and there is a large amount of particulate matter.
Despite the problems it is worth the effort. It utilizes equipment that would otherwise be idle and there is something very pleasant about boiling during the height of the beautiful Vermont foliage season.
The result is a syrup that has the same sugar content as maple syrup but has a very strong apple flavor. It is perfect for marinades, sauces and dressings. It can also be used to boost the apple flavor of an apple pie.