Archive for January, 2019

Cider Weekend 2018

January 1, 2019

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A damp but willing crew including old friends from afar put in a fantastic effort back in October to make the 14th annual Cider Weekend a success.  We produced about 197 gallons of cider with just over 70% yield, and enjoyed great food and great company in the big barn on Saturday, despite a soaking rain.

With other facets of life imposing, preparation for cider was largely on autopilot this year.  Holly arranged the delivery of two bins (about 1200lb) of mixed eating apples from Autumn Hills Orchard, packed in heavy-duty cardboard boxes that previously held ultra-pure silicon from his work.  With the help of the amazingly intrepid Jim Serdy he also picked and shipped a few boxes of Golden Russet for the cider mix.  And I am ever grateful to Steve Wood and the crew at Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Cider, who despite a crummy growing season came through with a bin of Dabinet bittersweet apples for the cider mix.  We combined this with at least a bin of fruit my parents picked from the Five Islands orchard; however this was a shadow of the previous banner-year production.

On the mechanical side, the one area of advancement this year was a pedal-powered chain drive apple conveyor, quickly assembled out of scrap wood and driven by the same bicycle that runs the tumble washer, that served to lift apples out of a receiving tank and deliver them into the washer drum.  The idea was to avoid the laborious handling of individual apples into the washer, previously one of the more annoying tasks. With the new conveyor, clean apples can be dumped directly into the receiving tank without further attention, and the kids found the conveyor absolutely riveting.

I’ve had the chain and sprockets for the project for years, and had been mulling over the design with the help of creative folks including Gene Kaufman.  I finally put it together in a couple of evenings this fall.  It consisted of a loop of 50-pitch chain with 12″ wide oak paddles mounted via special connecting links, running on a wooden frame with sliding facilitated by PEX water pipe.

The weekend kicked off with roll-your-own burritos in the big barn on Friday night; between the October wind, the larger crew, and the build party activities, dinner has migrated to the big barn for the last couple of years.  Some of the kids are old enough to be a real help:

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After dinner, the intrepid team of Rachel Taylor and Steven Tobias executed the final assembly and drive details on Friday night, and the conveyor came together nicely:

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Meanwhile, Eerik and Holly were engaged in an intense effort to hook Eerik’s Erg (“Concept II” professional rowing machine) to the grinder.  The rowing machine project had its origins in the observation last year that when the whole system was running smoothly, the grinder appeared to be the rate-limiting step.  Eerik retains his love of rowing from his collegiate days, and dreamed of boosting the performance of the grinder with a rowing machine in parallel with the two bicycles.  There were several complexities, including the large size and relatively low stature of the rowing machine, the fundamentally pulsating nature of its power flow, the fact that its chain-driven flywheel spins the opposite direction of a bicycle, and the mechanical details of its flywheel, which is surprisingly softly mounted and not designed to deliver power beyond the squirrel-cage fan riveted to it.

Undaunted, it occurred to us that the hydraulic hoses on the pedal-powered cider press do an admirable job of physically decoupling the pedal powerstand (which also grinds grain) from the press, and inspired by the success of the press in general, I secured the necessary components from Surplus Center, and we contrived to couple a log-splitter pump to the flywheel, and deliver the power directly to the grinder using a small hydraulic motor.

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Holly and Eerik executed both sides of the erg-to-apple-grinder powertrain, and with great fanfare we charged the hydraulic loop and Eerik took an inaugural pull on the chain. Unfortunately, while we were able to spin the grinder with the Erg, the losses in the hydraulic system (seemingly primarily in the motor rather than the pump) were such that it was not able to contribute significantly, and we did not end up using it on Saturday.  It appears that human-powered hydraulics are much better suited to high-force applications than high power applications, and in retrospect this is not too surprising.  And realizing how simple the mechanical drive of the Erg is, we resolved next year to figure out how to mechanically couple it to the press and realize Eerik’s long-cherished dream of grinding apples by rowing power.

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Keith Richtman contributed his considerable knowledge of bike hacking all around, including the surprisingly effective technique of using a piece of PEX tube to guide and deliver the slack side of a chain drive directly to the sprocket, avoiding the need for a more precise and sensitive contrivance.

All that being accomplished or not, we reconvened Saturday morning to enjoy Kelsey’s delicious breakfast burritos, and set to work grinding and pressing apples.   As usual we got rolling between 9 and 10AM, and work proceeded with minimal mechanical issues.  A steady rain that started mid-morning limited the typical influx of day-trippers to the most hardy and dedicated souls, but the large population of overnighters carried the day – at most we had probably 50-60 people, who fit pretty comfortably in the barn, whereas recently on a sunny Cider Saturday we probably have close to 100 – the event seems to be nicely self-regulating in that way, so long as there isn’t too much fruit to process.  Still, the cold and rain this year suggests that we work to move the event closer to the middle of October than the end.

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This year, all of the apples could be rolled around, either with a pallet jack or on the increasing assortment of wheeled dollys that Dave has built – this made handling much simpler, and we made ample use of forks on the tractor for moving apples and equipment before and after the main event.  Once we got rolling, the kids loved pushing the apples into the elevator/conveyor with paddles that Dave improvised for the purpose:

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The pressing process was streamlined by the addition of specialized press cloth squares purchased by Holly from a cider supply company, which both flowed more freely and seemed much more tear-resistant than the muslin we’d used over the previous thirteen years.  Instead of depositing pomace directly into the loader bucket of a tractor outside the window, we used a large reclaimed plastic bin outside the window, which limited the tractor trips to the compost pile that were needed in the rain.

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The manual diaphragm bilge pump that conveys the cider from the press into the 100-gallon conical bulk tank was also a big hit with the kids as always (though a brief scare at setup made it clear that getting a spare from Hamilton Marine would be valuable insurance), and the tank filled quickly.  As we broke for lunch, headlined by the traditional Nebraska Cream Can Dinner, more than half of the apples were ground, and we quickly spun up the sweet cider bottling operation to empty the bulk tank.  Thanks to Dave and Emily’s foresight and the help of intrepid recycler Jim Coombs, a large array of clean plastic jugs with matching lids were at the ready, and there was only a brief delay before switching over to the hard cider apples in the afternoon.  About mid-day, the sun being over the yardarm, we got the bottling of 2017 cider underway, substantially streamlined by Eerik’s innovation last year in counterweighting the filler heads:

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Things were wrapping up by 4PM, and the crew hosed down the equipment and hoisted it into the loft, while Holly and Becky prepared the usual delicious chili/cornbread/apple crisp dinner.  As usual, the grain was ground using the big aluminum grain mill on the hydraulic pedal stand:

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Lots of folks including three generations of the Jones/Joukovski family pitched in to help:

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After dinner, folks with young kids retired to the cabins early, while others sat up talking by the fire in the red barn.

Sunday morning dawned dry, and with blueberry pancakes and armloads of cider we bid the cider crew farewell by about mid-day.  The rest of the day was spent in unhurried cleanup that somehow always seems to take until sundown, when I loaded the truck and trailer for the return trip to Gorham, said goodbye to the orchard, and headed south.  It was a great year with lots of old friends and an increasing flock of kids, and no shortage of potential for further innovations:

  • The major remaining annoyance of the process is the manual cutting out of bad spots; this mostly applies to the wild and home-grown apples which are not sprayed as assiduously as the professionally-grown apples.  Last year I did pretty well on the organic spray routine with Surround, BT, etc., but with a lighter fruit set and frequent rain I didn’t stay on top of the pests as much as I could have.  We’ll see how I do next year, given everything else that will be going on.
  • Agricultural nozzles from Tractor Supply replaced the finicky improvised garden hose sprayer in the apple washer; Joshua and Gene recommended a more thoughtful arrangement of these nozzles to better rinse the apples after the emerge from the tumbler.
  • The large cast iron frying pan remains a key piece of equipment, but it could use some kind of diffuser to spread the heat more evenly – a valuable junk-scrounging/minor welding project.

The biggest difference next year will by that my folks have built a new maple syrup/cider barn between the house and the current barn, so they can kick the pesky cider operation out and finally bring in the livestock that was its original purpose.  The new barn is not quite as large overall, but it will have a larger open space, and also a large wood-burning firebox that could even be used for boiled cider.  There are other exciting changes in the works as well – always so much to look forward to!

Thanks to Holly and Eerik for photos, and to everyone, near and far, who continue to make this tradition so much fun. Happy New Year, and much love to all!

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