Archive for December, 2006


December 21, 2006

Tuesday I drove up to Maine to help out with the stumping of the orchard site.  My dad (who is a building contractor) called on Dick Holbrook, his usual dirt contractor, and Dick’s guy Vance brought a big John Deere machine down to do the job.  Vance pulled out a couple dozen stumps, including a couple big maples 2 feet or more in diameter, broke up and moved a mound of rocks, and consolidated all the brush into one big pile.  Here he is at work:


He buried the stumps off in the woods to the southwest, and piled the rocks (probably five or more cubic yards) in a big heap at the north edge of the orchard.  There are plenty of nice ones there, in case Holly ever wants to practice his dry stone laying skills.  The story of the rock pile is a mystery; there was a big grassy mound with rocks and bricks sticking out in the center of the orchard that we assumed was an old foundation, and the area is peppered with old wild apple trees that are presumably descended from the originals that the old timers kept.  But when we got into it, though there were some very nice rectilinear blocks as well as the usual rounded boulders, we saw no glass, metal, or any other signs that there had been a structure there.  There is barbed wire mixed in with the stone wall around the orchard perimeter, so someone was definitely trying to keep something in or out, but I feel that if there had been a significant structure there we would have seen more evidence.  At this point I have to conclude that if there was a structure there it must have been minimal (perhaps a cowshed of log walls) or perhaps it was moved away. 

Anyway, at the end of the day the stumps were gone, the mound was flattened out, and the site is ready for the brush to be burned and the soil prepared for planting.  While Vance was working, I cleared some undergrowth to the east of the orchard, and started thinning an area for the new sugar maples along the stone wall that leads down to the cove.  I’m cutting out all of the trashy fir and most of the red maples and leaving the straight oaks.  I understand that maples are relatively tolerant of partial shade, so I plan to let the oaks grow up a bit more while the maples get their start, to avoid clear-cutting an ugly gash in the hillside.  The maple cuts remarkably quickly with a sharp chain, and the work is pleasant in the cold with the sun out.  Vance says the excavator uses about 10 gallons of diesel in a day, and I probably burned a quart or so of 2 cycle mix in the chainsaw.  The power of petroleum is remarkable; the work that excavator did in a day would probably have taken the old timers a month with two men and a team of oxen, and I’m sure it would have taken me a week to do the amount of cutting that I accomplished in a few hours with the Stihl.

 Next steps: Burn the brushpile; yark out the remaining roots, add lime and goat manure (and possibly seaweed from the cove, or some other goodness), and prepare the soil for a cover crop; perhaps peas/vetch/oat mix, which is said to work well under typical Maine conditions.  Here’s how the site looks now:


Thanksgiving Photos

December 8, 2006

Here are some pictures of progress over Thanksgiving.

Nursery bed plowed:


Orchard Clearing:



Trees Ordered!

December 8, 2006

This evening I placed an online order with Fedco for trees.  I ordered 10 multipurpose apples, 6 cider apples, 4 peaches, and 2 cherries.  The stone fruit will go between the apples, to bring some fruit to the orchard ahead of the slower standard apple trees.  Feels great to have the order placed; saved ~$60 by ordering by this week.  Total with shipping, $414.33.

Reading Material

December 6, 2006

Thought I’d make note of some useful reading material. 

Cider by Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols contains a lot of useful information on a broad range of topics, from selecting varieties and rootstocks to press construction and various fermentation techniques.  It’s the Annie Proulx of The Shipping News and Close Range; I’ve enjoyed her fiction so it’s cool to know that she’s into cider as well.

I got The Apple Grower by Michael Phillips for my birthday last spring.  He’s a guy from up in northern New Hampshire who is creating the beautifully-named organic Lost Nation Orchard in Northumberland, up north of the White Mountains.  In pictures he looks awesome, like some kind of pomological elf, and his writing is compressed and maybe a bit scattered, with a tendency to edge into the supernatural, but the book is packed full of hard-won knowledge about growing organic apples, which is considered the final frontier of organics, especially in wet climates where pests and disease predominate.

The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman has next to nothing to say about apples, but it has a lot of useful basic information about organic growing technique, and an encouraging, innovative attitude.  Maybe even a bit too encouraging – it reminds me a bit of John Gardner, whose Building Classic Small Craft and other books of plans and comentary can leave the unsuspecting reader with a firm sense that building a classic wooden boat is among the most sensible activities possible.  Coleman is at least straightforward about the economics: $8000 per acre per year of gross revenue from intensive vegetable gardening, $2000 per acre per year of expenses not including the cost of land, and a practical maximum of 2.5 acres to be cultivated by one person, or $15,ooo/annum for all that hard work.  This is why I aspire to be a gentleman farmer rather than a real one, and why I am still an engineer.

Final Cider Batch of 06 Racked

December 3, 2006

Yesterday I racked the final carboy of 06 hard cider to a secondary, which brings the year’s cidermaking almost to a close.  (“Racking” just means transferring the cider to a different fermentation vessel, leaving the accumulated sludge of yeast bodies behind on the bottom.)  This year we fermented a total of six 6-gallon carboys of cider, plus a 3-gallon batch of apple-cranberry wine.  That is about double last year’s production, and we’ll see how that quantity holds up; last year by the time we were done with gifts and holiday celebrations there was relatively little left for everyday use.

This particular batch was pressed in early November from a mixture of apples, largely McIntosh, Elstar, Macoun, and Wickson, with a few Golden Russets and some Dabinett that Broc gave me.  The cider tasted great fresh, with a potential alcohol of about 7%, but it acted funny in the carboy at the start, before I pitched the yeast.  Most of the solids flocculated and settled to the bottom, leaving the majority of the carboy almost transparent, more like apple juice than cider.  But once the yeast got to work it looked pretty normal, and it fermented happily enough. 

 I tried a new technique of putting the carboy out in the garage for 24 hours or so to slow the fermentation prior to racking; this reduced the bubbling and allowed the cider to clear a bit more before I racked it.  It seemed to work pretty well, and the raw cider tasted clear, bright, and pleasantly tangy, with a gravity just a point or two heavier than 1.000 and modest tannin.  It was also significantly lighter in color than some of our previous batches, almost a straw color, and I think it will turn out to be nice, light, refreshing stuff. 

Maple Project

December 3, 2006

The maple trees that grow on Georgetown Island are mostly Red Maple (Acer rubrum), cousins to the more famous Sugar Maple (A. saccharum).  We tapped them for syrup when I was a kid, but the sugar content of Red Maple sap is only half that of the Sugar Maple, and it was hard work to get even a few gallons of syrup per year.  I’m planning to change all that, if not for me than for future generations, by planting a swath of sugar maples on the west-facing slope running down to Robinhood Cove.  There is already a single sugar maple at the foot of the southernmost field, planted some years ago by my grandfather and waiting patiently for company.

Last winter I found a website at Cornell describing a Sugar Maple improvement program, in which researchers selected trees with a significantly higher sugar content than their neighbors and propagated them.  As it turns out, the variability in sugar content of maple sap is at least to some extent genetically determined, and the program has seeds and rooted seedlings available on a limited basis.  I corresponded with the researchers at Cornell and got a ziploc bag full of seeds from the “sweet trees” in the spring, and I germinated them in the fridge and transplanted them out in pots in the back yard over the summer.  They are now in the ground in the old pumpkin patch, waiting for me to clear some land for them on the slope west of the orchard.  I also put in a request for a dozen rooted cuttings from Cornell, which will be a surer bet genetically, though carrying an increased risk of disease susceptibility, as with any monoculture.  Hopefully these arrive in the spring and the maple project can begin in earnest.  I plan to do some thinning in the woods this winter where the trees will be going, now that the apple orchard site is clear.

More on Garbage Disposals

December 2, 2006

There is a further discussion of using garbage disposals for grinding apples on the global interweb.  The one we used (“Insinkerator” brand) is definitely galvanized on the interior, and we saw no ill effects.  The most annoying thing about it is having to cool it with compressed air.  I think a medium-sized muffin fan would be as effective and much more efficient; porting it up will be a project for next year.

Selecting the Trees

December 2, 2006

I’m planning to get the trees from Fedco Seeds, a local supplier in Maine.  They sell standard size trees and have a good selection on sturdy seedling rootstock.  I like the idea of Maine-grown trees, and there is something romantic about full-size trees that dwarfing rootstocks lack.  They have a volume discount that ends December 8, so it’s time to get the order figured out.

 The way I figure it, a quarter acre should have about enough room for 16 trees, if they are spaced 25~30 feet apart.  Following in my grandfather’s tradition, I’d like to plant a bunch of different varieties rather than a whole block of all the same thing.  Here are some preliminary choices, from the 07 Fedco catalog:

Baldwin: This is a sturdy old apple with a flavor I like, a good keeper that was once a commercial mainstay.  

 Calville Blanc d’Hiver: This is an old European green apple that’s lumpy, grainy, and not particularly pleasant for fresh eating, but it has a really nice flavor when cooked.  We made a really good pie for Thanksgiving this year that was mostly Calvilles.

Cortland: My favorite in Pops’ orchard when I was a kid; mild flavor but classic, big meaty apples related to McIntosh but with a more normal skin.

Cox’s Orange Pippin: I’ve never eaten one, but I’ve been inspired ever since reading about them as a kid, maybe in Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.  Michael Phillips says that this British classic does best in ocean- or lake-moderated climates, which we have certainly got.

Esopus Spitzenburg: This old apple was apparently Thomas Jefferson’s favorite.  Beautiful red-orange conical apples with a powerful flavor.

Golden Russet: This is a classic New England apple and a good source of acid for hard cider.  I like them fresh as well, and they are apparently good keepers.

Honeycrisp: Apparently one of the best of the new varieties out of Minnesota, sweet and very crisp.  I figure we should branch out from heirlooms at least a bit…

McIntosh: Not a good keeper and I’m not particularly partial to their thin, plastic-like skin, but Macs are an absolute New England classic and they make good mild sweet cider.

Opalescent: I’ve never tried one, but this big red apple sounds too good to miss, so maybe we’ll give it a shot.

Roxbury Russet: Another classic New England cider apple; we have used it in our blends the last couple of years.

The following are full-on cider varieties, not particularly good eating but used to supply tannin for hard cider.

Dabinett: English, the preferred bittersweet at Farnum Hill.  Mangy-looking, terrible taste, but quite effective.  Alexis’ classmate Broc pressed a bunch from Poverty Lane for his cider this year.

Foxwhelp: We were really impressed by Foxwhelp in last year’s cidermaking; the tree at Poverty lane was absolutely plastered with these big green bittersharps and they gave a ton of juice;  this year the crop was not so plentiful but the apples were just as big.

Yarlington Mill: Medium bittersweet, I remember this apple as singularly unpleasant fresh but making a very smooth, rich, sweet cider.

Somerset Redstreak: An early British bittersweet.  We have not used it but it has a good reputation.

Kingston Black: Bittersharp, apparently makes a good single-variety hard cider.

 Ashton Bitter: Early bittersweet, apparently reasonably popular lately.

That makes 16 trees; there are a number of others that are worth considering, but they aren’t in the Fedco Likeup this year:

Ashmead’s Kearnel: A very flavorful old eating apple that’s also well regarded for cider.  We planted one last spring that was a gift to my mother from my uncle in Mt. Vernon, Maine.

Wickson: This is an awesome bright red apple that is about the size of an apricot.  I love the look and the flavor but I can’t imagine picking a whole tree.  Wickson will be an early grafting project.

Rhode Island Greening: A big, sturdy old green variety; my grandfather had one that produced well but was a low dwarfed tree and the deer browsed it nearly to death.

Medaille d’Or: A nice bittersweet that went into this year’s cider, beautiful golden color.  I’d like to get one at some point.

Granny Smith: My dad’s favorite, so I’ll get one at some point.  I heard that they are hard to grow in New England.

Macoun: A nice fresh eating apple, not much of a keeper but good flavor.

Winesap: Pops had one when I was a kid; I like the name but don’t remember much about the apples

Red Delicious: Be sure to try this much-maligned variety right off the tree; the west-coast storage versions are a travesty of mealy sawdust, but the variety itself is actually pretty good.

… The list goes on.  There are more apple varieties than I will ever have time to describe, let alone plant.  Check out the descriptions from Fedco.

Cider Making Back In October

December 2, 2006

[This is from an email that I sent on October 2, describing the first pressing of the season, and the first with the new cider press that we built this year.  I’m sticking it in to give a flavor of the year’s press-making and cider-making activities.]

Lots of apple action to report this weekend.  I’ve had about 80 lbs of apples mellowing for the last two weeks, approximately equal quantities of:
Stoke Red
Brown’s Apple
Kingston Black
False Chisel
(all early- to mid-season English Bittersharp, from Poverty Lane orchard)

With all of these apples being bittersharp, this should make quite an assertive cider; perhaps we will want to blend it with gentler stuff.  Anyway, last week they were getting pretty mellow so I switched into expedience mode.  The press was pretty much done but I busted out a base grate and four stacking grates out of leftover maple flooring that I got from my dad in Maine, spread paraffin on them and cooked it in in the oven.  I got 5 yards of heavy muslin (“drill”) at the fabric store, and washed it in hot water and cut it up for press cloth.  I had some blocks of wood left over from the press making that served to distribute the pressure from the screw.  I hacked a ½” hole in one end of Holly’s stainless service tray; we’ll have to put a fitting in it sometime but it’s fine for now.

For the grinder I bought a new ¾ hp garbage disposal at the Home Despot, and mounted it in a piece of scrap countertop I had lying around.  Placed over two sawhorses with a clean 5 gallon pail, and I was ready to go:


I started with the small apples, and I had half a bucket of very finely ground, juicy pulp in about five minutes, at which point the internal breaker tripped on the disposal.  This was attributable to a couple of things.  First, the disposal was not designed for continuous heavy load.  Second, there was an undesirable mode in which the apples would catch on the spinning disk and whiz around the perimeter of the disposal, generating copious quantities of apple-flavored steam and bogging the motor.  The first problem was solved by tapping a ¼” NPT pneumatic fitting into the electric access plate on the bottom of the disposal and sending a steady blast of air from a compressor directly onto the stator windings.  The second problem was solved by holding a wooden stick in the plenum of the disposal to stop the apples from spinning whenever they got going.  The larger apples were actually more annoying than the small ones, since I had to cut them in quarters to get them through the hole.  Even then they went plenty quickly.  The result was a system that ground apples almost as fast as I could feed them:

Then came loading the press, which went smoothly with the help of a 3.5” thick wooden form.  With four layers of pulp, I estimate that the press has a capacity of about 3 gallons per go:

I had planned to use a pneumatic impact wrench to drive the screw, but I only have one air hose and it was busy cooling the disposal motor.  So I lubed the screw with a bit of canola oil and used a ¾” box end wrench with a ~2 foot cheater, and that seemed to be quite enough force to drive the juice out, and avoided the racket of the impact wrench.  Best of all, the yield was an amazing 70%!  This compares to about 40% last year with the antique press.

I also had about 8~10 lbs of utility grade Clapp’s Favorite pears from Poverty Lane that were perfectly ripe, and just for fun I ran them through the disposal, which absolutely liquefied them, faster than I could push them through the hole.  They pressed out into about ¾ gallon of very nice sweet pear cider.  I had previously thought to ferment a small carboy of perry with the utility pears that Poverty Lane sells at $9 per half-bushel, but Steve Wood (the owner) said that he has never had any luck getting decent perry from dessert pears; the juice is not that sweet and lacks acid and tannin.  He has planted some perry pears from England, but they are not producing much yet.  There might be some hope of making a good apple-pear blend using the sweet pears and a healthy minority of crabapples.  As it was, I turned the majority of the pears I bought into a couple of transcendant pear-blueberry crisps with berries from my grandfather’s bushes.

The gravity of the pear and the apple cider were both about 1.045, which should come in just under 6% ABV.  I sulfited the juice with ½ tsp of Potassium Metabisulfite, and I have a 1.5 pint starter bubbling with 2.5 Tbs of corn sugar and 2 thief-fuls of sulfited cider and a Pasteur champagne yeast (the stuff that Steve uses at Farnum Hill); I plan to pitch in the morning when the sulfite has been going for about 32 hours:


Inspired, I went back to Poverty Lane and bought another 130 lbs of colorful cider apples, arrayed as follows in the picture below:
Esopus Spitzenberg/Chisel Jersey/Medaille d’Or
Ashmead’s Kernel/Wickson


M d’Or and Chisel Jersey are quite bitter, and the other three have a strong acid character, so they should also make an assertive blend, or we can mellow them out with some dessert apples.  I don’t know if they will make it to early November, but we can play it by ear and I’ll grind them if they seem to be getting dodgy.  I am going to need some more 6 gallon carboys…

Cranberry Apple Wine

December 1, 2006

This evening I bottled about 2 gallons of an experimental apple wine that I made just for fun this fall.  It all started when Weezy, Emily, and I discovered a small patch of wild cranberries growing in a soggy spot in the pasture west of the new orchard site.  I realized that cranberries have both a powerful acid component and a strong puckery tannic element, and I wondered if they might be good for perking up relatively bland cider.  A couple weeks later in October I had a surplus of relatively mild apples left over (mac, cortland, red delicious), so I pressed them along with 2 pounds of storebought cranberries and filled a 3 gallon carboy, added 3 campden tabs.  The cranberry didn’t seem that assertive, so I poured in another half-pint of 100% cranberry.  Just for the heck of it, I added 3 pounds of corn sugar as a thick syrup to kick it up to wine strength, and while boiling the syrup I stuck in a couple of cinnamon sticks, which I removed before adding it to the carboy.  Potential alcohol of the final mix was about 12%.

While the campden was doing its thing I got a starter going in a quart bottle with a pint of boiled water, 2/3 packet of Pasteur Champagne yeast, a couple tablespoons of corn sugar, and a few grains of yeast nutrient.  After it started ticking I added a half cup or so of boiled fresh cider to get it used to the acid.  (Not sure if the cider makes any difference, but that sequence hasn’t failed me yet so I’ll probably keep doing it.)  I pitched the starter about a day and a half after the campden went in, and it was off after just a few hours. 

 After a couple of weeks it was still cloudy but pretty quiet, so I racked it and checked the gravity, which was within a couple points of 1.000.  A couple weeks later it was late November so I thiefed out a pint or so and took it home for Thanksgiving dinner, where it was well received despite still being fairly cloudy.  I’m not a wine person, but I found it reasonably good; dry with a strong-but-not-brutal zing from the cranberries.  The cinnamon didn’t come through particularly strongly, but someone with a better nose than me could probably find it in there.  I stuck the carboy in a cold corner of the office, and by the last couple of days it was pretty clear so I bottled it up; clear bottles from Modern Brewer in Porter Square and synthetic corks. 

 It’s a beautiful golden peach color and quite clear.  Here’s how it looks:

apple wine 2006

I’d rate it a sufficient success to do it again next year, perhaps with honey instead of corn sugar and skip the cinnamon.  (Which reminds me, one of these days I have to look into bees; supposedly they are hard to keep these days because of an outbreak of parasitic mites.) But, for everyday drinking I think I still prefer the plain cider.  Just one carboy is still fermenting now, plus the three that are still in secondary in Holly’s basement.  Cider season is coming to a close.  Next step: order Fedco trees before December 8th, to get the 10% discount.