Last weekend marked the 11th year we have made cider with Holly, Becky, and an ever-expanding group of pedal-powered cider enthusiasts. We’ll remember this year for the record cider production and the massive apple crop that fueled it. With help from Holly, Andy, and Emily we gathered the usual two bins of mixed sweet apples from Autumn Hills, plus a bin of Dabinet and mixed sharp and bittersweet apples from Poverty Lane, totaling a bit over 2000 lb. And the orchard finally started to kick into gear, producing perhaps 3 bushels from a number of the trees. But what made this year special was the massive influx of semi-cultivated and wild apples harvested all over Georgetown by my parents, and all over southern Maine by the folks who came to help us make the cider. I’m told this was what the botanists call a ‘mast year’ – a year when trees deliver fruit in reckless profusion, and we took full advantage. (Thanks to Eerik Hantsoo for the photos in this post – if you have good pics please send along or post on your own site.)
I managed to get up to Five Islands the weekend before the big event, and with Dave’s help I got the equipment down from the loft of the barn, hooked it up, and got the basic functionality tested. Already by then he had dozens of buckets full of apples from around the property and around the island – at least a bin’s worth (about 600lb). The gear came together smoothly, and I attribute this to our liberal use in recent years of ‘Fluid Film’ aerosol lubricant, a WD-40-like product that goes on with a satisfying fizz of bubbles and leaves a cosmoline-like film on everything to prevent rust.
The big event started early afternoon Friday when I arrived with a truckload of apples and a trailer of random gear; I cleaned and provisioned the cabins, set up the water system, and organized apples. Holly and Becky, Holly’s mom, and the kids arrived well before dark and set up camp in the lower cabin, then he, Dave, and Ben Wilkins worked to assemble the latest addition to the pedal equipment collection, a cast aluminum hand-cranked grain mill adapted for pedal power. Holly and I had coordinated beforehand, and we had pulleys, 5/8″ shaft and pillowblocks, bike chain, and adapters that go from shaft to the fine-pitch thread that accepts a bike freewheel. With these parts they soon had the rig set up and working smoothly.
A cold front had come through and a cold wind was blowing straight off the water, so we elected not to do dinner at the shore, but rather serve out of the barn, and we refried a big bucket of black beans and folks made burritos followed by Emily’s chocolate chip cookies and smores around a campfire.
In the morning we ate delicious baked goods and breakfast wraps provided by the Kaufman/Wilkins/Kneen clan, then we got to work. We set up the usual wash station to clean the apples going into the process, but many of the feral apples in the mix were really small, so for expedience we set up a parallel processing step to clean them using a pressure washer. Even the ones that got pressure washed got individually inspected and bad spots cut out – I think this attention to detail is an important part of why the cider ends up tasting so good.
The grinder worked smoothly all day with the exception of the chain coming off the starboard bike once, and the derailleur on that same bike lost a sprocket once, but we were able to pilfer the missing part from another derailleur and get back online within a couple of minutes. The press ran smoothly, thanks in part to new press cloths that were properly cut to size and thick enough to do the job (mostly) with a single layer. Now that Holly has discovered the joy of sewing pants from used press cloth, we are going to cycle new canvas and muslin through the process each year to keep him and his family in trousers, since he refuses to buy pants. All through the weekend he was wearing the first pair he made, which look awesome, and the construction process is detailed on his blog.
Meanwhile we set up the carbonation and bottling system, washed 750ml glass bottles, and set to work bottling the 2014 vintage. We ended up bottling 7.5 tanks of cider; there was half a tank left over when the capper broke just before dinner, so we left the remaining cider in the root cellar. The bottling rig could definitely use some streamlining; the janky linear guides I made out of copper pipe and scrap mahogany don’t work that smoothly, and a foot-actuated spring- or gravity-balanced system using 80-20 linear guides could make a big difference. And the failure of the capper was a wake-up call; now that we are processing this much cider it makes sense to keep some redundant equipment around.
My folks made up the usual Nebraska Cream Can Dinner for lunch, along with random tasty food that folks brought. We paused the process briefly to eat, then got back to grinding and pressing. We filled the 100 gallon bulk tank with sweet cider, washed and filled plastic jugs, then started on the hard cider mix, using a combination of Dabinet, Bramtot, Wickson, etc. from Povlane, mixed sweets from Autumn Hills, and a wide variety of feral apples. We filled the tank again with hard cider mix, filled all the carboys from it, and still the cider kept flowing – and more people kept showing up with more apples. By the end we were searching everywhere for clean jugs, and even resorted to using a few of the 2.5 gallon jugs that my folks use to collect maple sap.
Holly brought some whole kernel corn and wheat to grind for cornbread for dinner, and it went through the grinder fine in two passes (even though we didn’t have the special large-grains auger for the mill). In the afternoon we experimented with grinding the buckwheat that we grew this summer between two rows of trees in the orchard. We succeeded in winnowing and sifting the grain, but it still had thin black hulls on the groats. After some experimentation we determined that we could grind the grain extremely coarsely, which would crack off most of the hulls while leaving the groats mostly intact. We then winnowed a couple of times using a box fan, which drove off most of the hulls, then we ground finer and passed through a mesh strainer which pulled out still more hulls. Finally we ran the material through with the grinding plates quite close together, yielding a satisfyingly fine flour. There was still a fair amount of dark hull material in the flour, but we figured this would be good for our digestion. Later someone looked online and read that the trick is to size the grain using a series of graduated sieves, then crack the hulls off each size of grain separately, so as to get more of them off without breaking up the grain too fine. If we grow buckwheat again next year maybe we’ll get some better sieves, instead of just using the hardware-cloth versions I made for this year.
Dinner was served just as we finished the last of the pressing, and it was delicious as we have come to expect, with chili, cornbread, and apple crisp made entirely with apples from the orchard. Then more sitting around the campfire, and more cleanup as light rain was predicted in the morning. All day and all evening the ragtag tribe of kids ran around with spears and bicycles; Bodhi faceplanted at one point and banged up his face a little, but it’s a miracle there wasn’t more carnage. We got most of the equipment put away and a rough squeegee-ing of the floor, then folks retired to the cabins.
Saturday night was warmer, and a light drizzle set in around breakfast time. We made pancakes with 100% Five Islands buckwheat flour topped with Five Islands maple syrup, and some had Five Islands blueberries as well. Plus home-fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, etc. We did some more cleanup, including breaking down the water system and pressure-washing the barn, then said goodbye to most of the crew who headed home mid-morning. We transferred 9 carboys of cider to the root cellar, sulfited, and set 2 gallons of starter going to pitch on Monday. Holly and family stayed through leftovers for lunch, then got on the road in a zipcar minivan heavily-laden with cider.
All in all we produced a massive 292 gallons of cider from 3448 pounds of apples on Saturday, with a calculated 71% yield. This smashes the 2014 record of about 230 gallons, and it was such a prodigious amount of cider that I don’t feel the need to exceed it next year; rather we can make however much comes natural from year to year depending on the crew and the crop. Thanks to everyone who pitched in and made Cider Year 11 such an amazing success! Here is the final tally sheet: