Archive for the ‘apples’ Category

Cider Weekend 11 – Mast Year

October 31, 2015


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.)

buckets of apples

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.

pedal-power grain mill

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.

violet runs the press

holly and millie peel apples

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.

cider and baby on back

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.

shifting carboys

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:


Stroudwater Thanksgiving: year five

November 28, 2014

We joined forces with the Kaufman and Wilkins crews for “another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat,” with a fair measure of local content including potatoes, beets, squash,  kale, and brussels sprouts.

stroudwater thanksgiving dinner 2014

I was hoping my folks could join us, but the big snowstorm put the kibosh on that, with power out in all of Georgetown and lots of work for the plow, chainsaw, and volunteer fire crew.  Maybe next year.  We got off pretty lightly by comparison, a few branches down in the woods and the light deer netting around the garden pulled down by the heavy snow – nothing in there but the last few frozen stalks of kale anyway.

I’m becoming more a fan of galvanized wire cattle panels – might consider permanentizing the garden fence with these come next year. Kelsey has been using them to stake tomatoes for a few years, and this fall she suggested rolling them into rings to protect young apple trees from the deer.  If overlapped by one pitch of the verticals and wired tightly together, they make a nice enclosure that protects a small tree so long as the branches don’t spread too widely; since we are on standard or B118 rootstock I am tending to train the yard trees with the first rung of laterals higher in any case, to keep above the mower and the deer.  The next step would be to create some kind of three-roll type arrangement to form the panels so they naturally hold the circular shape – that way the end could be easily pried open by hand to access the trees, for instance to seek and destroy the evil Round-Headed Apple Borer.


Holly’s report on cider 2014

November 28, 2014

Holly and Becky Gates have been our steady partners in cider madness these ten seasons – here’s Holly, his mom, and eldest daughter Ultraviolet preparing cornbread from freshly hand-ground grain to feed the multitudes:

holly and fam making cornbread

To see Holly’s report and more photos on this year’s cider adventure,  check out – and I highly recommend perusing his blog for reports on his various other adventures.

Cider year 10: 232 gallons in a day

November 2, 2014

Last weekend marked the 10th successive year when Alexis and I have made cider with Holly, Becky, and a steadily growing crew of enthusiastic friends.  I am amazed by how this tradition has taken root, and how ever-increasing quantities of cider are produced and just as rapidly disappear.  Below you will find the annual report; thanks to everyone who sent photos; please send more if you have them, and I’ll link to other peoples’ blog posts if they make them.

Late in the week the weather was cranky, so I borrowed a friend’s box trailer, which was very handy for hauling the large number of cardboard boxes of glass bottles and open tubs of miscellany which always accumulate before cider. Between that and two bins of apples I was heavily laden for the trip to Five Islands.

truck and apples


2014 apple wrangling

October 22, 2014

This weekend Alexis, Dave, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard.  It was a wet day, but we dodged rain showers, and had the place to ourselves.  Proprietor Steve Wood kindly sold us a mixed bin of bittersweets that he had, rather than the usual single-variety bin – thanks to Steve, Brenda, and all the folks at Poverty Lane, well worth the trip.  We also picked a few hundred pounds in their 2 Below apple menagerie, which was a bit sparse this late in the season but we got some bittersharps and yellow newton pippins, plus some yarlingtons for old time’s sake.

poverty lane 2014

Then we hung out with Andy, Emily, and Elsie, and checked out the CSA where he works, Sunrise Farm in White River.  In addition to vegetables they do sheep, pigs, meat hens and layers, and maple syrup – a beautiful and well-tended operation:

sunrise farm

I was tempted to have Andy and Alexis pose with chickens in the classic hipster manner that I so despise, but nobody was wearing skinny jeans, so I had to settle for this:

sunrise chickens

Finally I made a run to Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, where the owner, Ann Harris, set us up with two bins of a very nice mix.  Holly met me there, and together we topped up with some Greenings and Golden Delicious.  He was sporting his classic wooden shoes plus newly-handmade woolen trousers, and looked fabulous:

hg eating an apple

Being a country boy I was not aware of the indignities that city folks routinely endure in order to pick apples (a brief tour of eastern MA orchards in Yelp portends hayrides, candy, petting zoo, popcorn machines) but Ann and Autumn hills are the real deal – just a couple of barns and acres and acres of apples.    I returned heavily loaded and ready to rock this weekend:

truck and apples truckload of apples

Pedal-Powered Cider in Cascadia

October 22, 2014

A fellow named Steve Haeseker in Vancouver WA sent me a note mentioning his very cool experiments with pedal cider equipment, and sending a link to his video:

The craftsmanship looks really nice. They use a small wood chipper coupled to a bike to grind the apples, and a pedal-hydraulic press made from a log splitter to do the pressing.  Then they feed the pomace to some cows.  The chipper is a neat idea, though the grind looks a little coarse (similar to our first-year results with the antique cast iron press).  I bet it could be modified to make a finer grind by grinding down the cutters and then tightening up the gap. But, given that a lot of apple grinding equipment (including ours) isn’t self-feeding, he may be on to something with the wood chipper concept, and I can see how fabricating a flat disk and mounting cutters to it could be a lot simpler than the multi-step machining process we used to make our cutter drum.

The press is made out of thick hard maple recovered from a bowling alley – major style points for that.  Unlike our press, they count on the wooden uprights to take the full tension of the press; it looks like they use a smaller cylinder (maybe 2.5″?) so the load will be less, but they still get good pressure by using a smaller cheese.  In watching the video it’s not clear why they need their cheese frame, since they aren’t really packing the cheeses full.  We have some instability in our cheeses that sometimes requires re-stacking the press; I wonder if we could do better by cutting the cheese frame down to 3″ from 3.5″ thick.  Alternatively we could make some shims that enforce a certain minimum cheese thickness until the stack is down to ~1/2 thickness; by that point the viscosity of the pulp will be much higher, and I’d think the stack would be less squirrelly.

Anyway, hats off to Steve for joining the ranks of pedal-cider enthusiasts!

Fruit pics 2014

October 11, 2014

Just 2 weeks until the big event!  Meanwhile, Emily sent me some great pictures she took in the orchard:

Peaches (not sure which kind) – we got a great crop this year.  Lars Anderson, then Reliance, and finally Madison.  It was a cool summer, but even so I think I favor the early ones; seems like peaches should ripen in summer, not fall.


Dabinet (I think):


Virginia Crab (I think):virginia crab

Pail of apples from orchard – poor pollination this year (despite two active hives of bees) – not sure what’s up with that.  But we get more apples every year, and hopefully soon we will be awash in fruit.

bucket o apples 2014

2014 pruning

March 30, 2014

Despite crummy weather and the press of work, I ran up to Five Islands on Saturday to prune the trees in the main orchard.  After a summer’s growth, the trees typically look like this:


pruning example before


There is a lot of advice available in books and online about pruning, and I took an afternoon class a few years back, put on by MOFGA and taught by a professional orchardist, located at one of his customers’ orchards in Waterboro ME.  Some basic principles include:

  • Start with the big picture, looking at the structure of the whole tree, so you don’t end up snipping a bunch of twigs only to remove that entire branch.
  • Eliminate watersprouts (vertical branches that leap off the branches and the trunk), crossovers (i.e. conflicts between two branches vying for the same space) and anything that points back toward the center of the tree.
  • Aim for an open structure that lets sunlight into all parts of the tree; the old timers say you want to be able to throw a cat through the tree.  In a healthy tree that’s growing fast, you might remove half of the new wood or more in the spring.
  • For standard apple trees I aim for central-leader form, with scaffolds of 3-5 branches evenly distributed around the points of the compass, at 1.5-2′ vertical intervals.
  • The scaffold branches should be approximately horizontal, since that induces the tree to produce fruit.
  • You want the angle between the trunk and the scaffold branches to be close to 90 degrees, since shallow angles cause inclusion of bark that leads to weakness and breakage as the tree grows.  I use string (usually) and weights (occasionally) to tie branches down.
  • Different varieties have different habits.  Some shoot straight up and need to be tied down extensively to form a good structure; others spray out aimlessly and need all the help you can give them just to throw up an identifiable leader.

That same tree above, after I attacked it with the felcos:


pruning example after

Cider year nine – roundup

October 26, 2013

After nine years, thanks to the accumulated contributions of ideas, time, and equipment-building effort, and especially to the wonderfully useful and flexible barn that my folks built, the cider operation is getting to where it runs in a well-worn groove.  And it’s a good thing, since the great majority of my attention has been devoted to Pika Energy, and building affordable, high-quality home wind turbines.  

truckload of apples

Two weeks ago I visited Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, and picked up two 600lb  bins of mixed cider apples – Kendall, Spencer, and Cox Orange among them.  The owner, Ann Harris, also kindly let me do some sanitation and gather a few hundred pounds of RI Greening drops, so the truck was quite heavily loaded down with apples for the ride home.  The going rate for cider apples this year is apparently $50/bin – illustrating the importance of top-quality fruit and value-added products to the economics of small orchard operations.  That same weekend I also needed to build and test a new wind turbine tower, as well as moving some cidering equipment up to Five Islands, so by the time I was fully loaded with dogs and bikes etc., the rig looked like some kind of Tom Joad/Johnny Appleseed chimera:

2013 big load of turbines and tower parts


The tower test was successful, and my folks and I unloaded the bins using a four-fall block-and-tackle that my dad inherited from a local gentleman, Don Spurr.  Don lives on in our memories every time one of his carefully-maintained tools proves to be just the ticket for solving some mechanical challenge:

emily lowers apples

The following Wednesday afternoon, Dave, Alexis, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard/Farnum Hill for cider apples.  I called ahead a couple of weeks, but for the first time in several years, we were disappointed that they couldn’t sell us a bin of bittersweets – they were too booked up with demand for cider fruit from as far away as Michigan and Oregon.  Brenda made it up to us by giving us a nice discount on the ~700lb or so of mixed cider fruit we collected.  We hauled the load with Alexis’ little Suzuki wagon, and it really drank the gas on the way home, but still burned far less than it would have taken to drive the big red monster all the way to the other side of NH.  When we got home, Fern got right into the action:

fern munches an apple

I managed to get up to Five Islands by mid-day on Friday, and on the way up I picked up the only big innovation in on the equipment front this year.  I bought a 100 gallon HDPE bulk tank from US Plastics, together with a hand-operated diaphragm pump rated for 15gpm.  Together, these made a huge difference in the management of finished cider during the big event.  Dave whipped up a wooden stand for the metal stand that I bought to go with the tank, so we could gravity feed into bottles and carboys.  Working the pump was a big hit with the kids:

Kate pumps the cider


Compared to commercial operations, we keep a very high standard for fruit quality going into the grinder; since we have plenty of labor and it’s a sociable activity, each apple is washed and inspected by hand, and any brown spots or other flaws are cut out.  But washing has always been an afterthought from a process standpoint, and in past years (especially when it’s cold) the washing itself hasn’t always been super-pleasant.  This year I grabbed some plastic bristle brushes at the Despot, and Holly and Ben whipped up a much more ergonomic washing station using an old washtub my dad found at the Georgetown Mall:

washing station


We started the festivities Friday evening with pot-luck Mexican at the shore cabin, followed by a black-powder demonstration (no bullets) by Jake, and revival of an old tradition, Viking Funeral Ships – in which small barges made of wood planks piled high with birch bark, pinecones, and kindling are set afloat after dark, and rocks are thrown from on shore at a sporting distance to smash them – if anybody has a photo of this, I’d love to post it.  

Breakfast Saturday was amazing as usual, with with Kelsey and Beth’s breakfast burritos and assorted pastry.  Cidering got fired up between 9 and 10AM, and continued on with a brief intermission for lunch, which was headlined by my folks with ‘Nebraska Cream Can Dinner’, a tradition they picked up out west.  As usual, we also fired up the bottling operation, kegging, carbonating, and bottling about 5 kegs worth of cider (minus ‘operational losses’ in the bottling step).  Here Tony and Rita prepare Cornelius kegs for transfer:

sanitizing kegs


Holly, Becky, and Heli took the lead on dinner, producing soups and amazing fresh baguettes. Here’s Holly working the dough:

holly makes bread


Dinner for 30-40 people was served in the barn this year, followed by Holly’s usual transcendent apple pies.  MomJones couldn’t make it to cider this year, but she sent us four large folding tables that made for a very convivial setup.  All told we produced approximately 207 gallons of cider, per the tally sheet, with an estimated yield of 69-70%:

2013 cider tally

Thanks again to everyone who participated this year. Next year is the 10th anniversary – I don’t know what we’re going to do, but it’s going to be big!



Pics of 2013 planting

May 3, 2013






Here are some photos that Emily took a few days after we planted.

ring of goodness around tree




redfield leafing out old tree, newground, fence


new pear tree new fence new peach tree


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