Archive for the ‘cider equipment’ Category

Energy Enlightenment and the Better Angels of our Exotherm

January 10, 2020

When I was a kid, my mother always had a shelf of serious popular science books, and among the authors represented was Stephen Pinker, a Harvard professor and linguist.  I’m not the language zealot that she is, but I kept track of Pinker, who has come to prominence in the last 10 years for a pair of books about violence and the well-being of humanity.  In the first, (The Better Angels of our Nature) he argues – with reams of data – that violence has declined drastically in modern times, and explores some causal themes. In the second (Enlightenment Now) he further demonstrates a remarkable, consistent, and progressive improvement in the material, social, and intellectual well-being of humanity, and argues that that the primary cause of this improvement is the rise of Enlightenment values, including science and humanism, which took root in Europe in the 1700s.  

I am basically convinced with respect to the decline of violence and improvement in quality of life.  Two thirds of Enlightenment Now consists of a train of short chapters presenting data to show how longevity, health, wealth, knowledge, freedom, crime, safety, happiness, etc. have improved drastically in the last two hundred years.  It’s not a subtle book, and its triumphal tone is an odd fit to the mood of our times, but there’s a ton of evidence to support the argument that if one was forced to choose a time and place to be dumped – Rawls-fashion – into the world, ‘right about now’ would be a pretty good choice. Pinker does grapple with the existential risks of climate change and nuclear war, and acknowledges they are real.  Unsurprisingly, he argues that reason, science, and humanism are our best tools for overcoming them, and I agree.  

I am less convinced of the Enlightenment as the cause of this dramatic improvement.  I am not a historian, but my amateur sense is that there have been a lot of smart people working out principles of philosophy, logic, and the intricacies of the natural world for at least a few thousand years.  But something else started in the 1700s, accelerated sharply in the 1800s, and then exploded globally in the 20th century: the development of techniques to burn fossil fuel to liberate immense quantities of energy.  This suddenly enabled humans to perform useful tasks at superhuman scale, and I believe it is a much more powerful force than the achievements of any cohort of philosophers.  If this is true, it has serious implications for the future of the benign trends that Pinker celebrates.  

To understand the force of this argument, the reader will need a quantitative sense of energy at the human (and superhuman) scale. This is an essay that I have been meaning to write for some time, both because it ties together many of the themes that captivate my personal and professional interest, and because I believe the average citizen doesn’t understand how profoundly energy fuels and enables every aspect of life, both primitive and modern.

In simple terms, energy is a property that provides the ability to do work.  Work has a specific technical meaning, but for practical purposes it means roughly what blue-collar people think it means – for example, energy must be provided to do the work of hauling water from a well, pushing a vehicle along a road against the resisting force of aerodynamic drag, or driving a flow of electric current through a filament to create light.  Energy comes in a number of forms (kinetic, thermal, chemical, potential, etc.), and humans use it both to do physical work and to perform chemical and industrial processes, heat or cool buildings, cook food, etc. This diversity of uses reflects the fundamental importance of energy, which extends to our physical bodies – like all organisms, we require energy to survive.  Food is the fuel that allows our bodies to do work, and without it we quickly die.

Energy is universal and quantitative.  Universal because it cannot be created or destroyed, and because its various forms can be interconverted, subject to natural laws and practical limitations.  Quantitative because it can be measured, and certain tasks absolutely require a defined amount of it. If it requires 10 units of energy to get my electric car to the top of the hill, and my battery only contains 8, the car will predictably stop short of the summit.  

The proper scientific unit of measure for energy is the Joule (J), which is a tiny amount – about as much as is released when a sandwich falls off a table and hits the floor.  An iphone 5s stores about 20,000 J of electrical energy, an Oreo™ cookie contains about 300,000 J of food energy, and a gallon of gas releases about 120,000,000 J of thermal energy when it burns.  Because the joule is such a tiny amount, we have other practical units of energy that civilians are more familiar with, including the kilowatt-hour (kWh), which is equal to 3.6 million Joules.  

Is a kWh a large amount of energy, or a small amount?  The fascinating answer is: both, and this starts to get at the point I’m trying to make.  

On one hand, it’s a relatively piddling amount in modern terms, equivalent to the thermal energy in a few tablespoons of gasoline.  In a few minutes I can tap a kWh effortlessly from the outlet under my desk, and the most amazing thing is that Central Maine Power will only charge me fifteen cents for it.  

On the other hand, on the scale of a human body, one kilowatt-hour is a formidable quantity.  Imagine pushing a car up a steep grade for over a mile – that’s a kWh. I could pedal an apple grinder bike all day and struggle to deliver a single kWh worth of energy.  In fact, our entire pedal-powered cider operation with four bikes may only be delivering around 1-2kWh over the course of a Saturday – that’s less than 50 cents worth of energy at electric utility rates.  

To bulk up our intuition about energy at the human scale, it’s helpful to understand a related concept, Power.  While it is common in the civilian world to mix up Energy and Power, the concepts are related but distinct in an important way.  Specifically, Power (in the engineering sense), is simply the rate at which energy is delivered. If one joule is delivered per second, this is described as a 1 watt flow of power. So an old-fashioned 100W lightbulb consumes 100J of electric power per second, most of which is wasted as heat; a modern LED bulb might deliver the same amount of light while consuming only 15 J per second.  If the old-fashioned bulb is operated for one hour (3600 seconds), in total it will use 360,000 Joules, or 0.1kWh.  

It turns out that if you ask the average healthy non-athlete to pedal a bicycle (or climb a ladder, or some other efficient means of producing power at a sustained pace), you find that a human body can only deliver useful work at a rate of about 100W over a period of hours, and significantly less on average, since we require hours of rest and sleep.  And for hundreds of thousands of years, that was pretty much all the energy we had.  The Bible says “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” and back in the day that was pretty much the size of it.  The great majority of people foraged or toiled in fields to grow crops, and they did it pretty much their entire lives.  

Naturally the proximal source of that energy was the food they ate, but its ultimate source was the sun, which powered the photosynthesis that stockpiled that energy in the crops and livestock in the form of sugars, fats, starches, and the like. This was a serious limitation, because photosynthesis is relatively inefficient at turning sunlight into stored energy.  According to Wikipedia, typical crops are only about 1% efficient in turning the sunlight that strikes a field or forest into biomass, so it takes a lot of land (or a lot of time) to produce a given amount of usable plant energy. In many climates (e.g. deserts) the conversion is many orders of magnitude less efficient.

As a result, for millennia our ancestors were fundamentally limited by the strength of their bodies and the relatively modest efficiency with which crops could turn sunlight into food and fuel.  What about beasts of burden? The more fortunate among our ancestors had access to an ox or perhaps a horse, which can deliver a modest multiple on the power of the human body. But like humans, draft animals were solar-powered, and their calorie needs were likewise multiplied – a horse or cow required the output of several acres of land for its fodder, and this land could not be used to grow food for humans.  

Of course beasts can be eaten as well as worked, but here again, the amount of land required to feed a person on meat is far more than the cropland required to feed them directly on plant-based foods, which is why meat was (and probably still should be) considered a luxury.  

Worse, the most productive staple crops require cooking (more energy) to be readily digestible, and cooking was likewise done using wood, which required still more land.  Firewood supply was limited in the more populated areas – google ‘coppicing’ or ‘pollarding’ to get a sense for how the supply of precious renewably-grown combustibles was husbanded in those times.  Using land to grow fuelwood traded off against using the same land to grow food crops.  

If energy is universal and quantitative, and energy for humans comes in the form of food, it should be possible to relate the amount of food we eat to the amount of work we can do.  The typical human diet contains about 2000 Calories per day; the Calorie is an archaic unit of energy equal to 4180 Joules. So 2000 Calories is about 8,400,000 Joules or 2.3 kWh. To put our diets in Power terms, I am delighted to discover that typing “2000 Calories per day in watts” into Google yields the following:

2000 (kilocalories per day) =

96.8518519 watts

That is, we eat food energy at an average rate of about 100 watts, and this sets an absolute limit on the amount of physical work we can do; in actuality we’d be lucky to deliver 100W of work for 8 hours per day, with the other ⅔ of the calories given over to the business of living.  And because food is fuel, serious endurance athletes need much more – up to 8000 Calories per day.

To sum it up, in pre-industrial times our ancestors lived ‘land to mouth’. Life went along this way for hundreds of thousands of years, and though it changed in appearance and intensity with the invention of agriculture, the same fundamental limitations were in place. At best, people carefully husbanded a limited ‘working capital’ of stored foods, livestock, and standing timber; however, despite primitive tools it was all too easy to over-exploit the productive ecological base and get in an ugly situation, as Jared Diamond details in cases including Easter Island, Greenland, and others.  Life was nasty, brutish, and short in the myriad ways described in the ‘before’ section of Pinker’s books.

But things started to change in a serious way when people discovered that they could tap ancient energy reservoirs of stored sunlight.   For a fascinating early example, I recommend an online article called “Medieval Smokestacks: fossil fuels in pre-industrial times”, on the subject of peat as an energy source.  Peat is the remnants of plant matter that accumulates over millennia in wetland areas, protected from decay by the lack of oxygen – this is actually the first step in the much longer process that forms coal. Peat can be cut, dried, and burned to liberate thermal energy, and the author, Kris de Decker explores in detail how unique circumstances enabled the people of the area that is now the Netherlands to mine and burn massive prehistoric reserves of it, and thus to liberate themselves from the limitations of their annual allotment of sunlight.  The Dutch also mastered the craft of building windmills, which provided mechanical energy to complement the thermal energy from the peat. As a result, they were able to power an impressive array of proto-industrial activity, including glass, brick, ceramics, ships, sugar, salt, soap, spirits, and textiles. 

The ability to mine and burn fossilized plants changed the game for the inhabitants of the Low Countries in a material way.  By the 1600s, the per-capita annual consumption of peat amounted to about 16 gigajoules per person per year, or about 500W of continuous thermal power, compared with the 50W or less of labor they could manage on average from their own bodies.    And soon this region became far wealthier than neighboring regions, with 60% urbanization compared to the 10% urbanization of the surrounding areas less favorably endowed with peat. Sadly, the peat reserves were eventually depleted, and this combined with competitive coal-fired industrial production from the UK knocked the Netherlands from their perch – by 1820 the country was down to 38% urban population.  

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the real fossil-fired revolution was spinning up.  Natural deposits of coal had been in limited regional use for hundreds or thousands of years for metalworking and local heating in coal-bearing regions.  But starting around 1700, a sequence of tinkerers, blacksmiths, and engineers invented and refined the steam engine – a machine that used energy liberated by burning fuel to create hot, pressurized steam.  That steam could be used to do work – initially to pump water, which was of great value in draining mineshafts and enabling more coal and other minerals to be extracted. But by around 1780 the engines were coupled to flywheels and rotary shafts to drive mechanized equipment that had previously been confined to locations with available water power.  The most prominent steam engine inventor was James Watt, who produced a uniquely efficient engine; the scientific unit of power was appropriately named for him. (Watt also devised the unit ‘horsepower,’ equal to 746W, as a product rating tool.  He sandbagged a bit so his customers wouldn’t be disappointed; the average horse could deliver somewhat less than 1hp on an ongoing basis).

To say that the invention of the coal-fueled steam engine was a runaway success is a vast understatement. By tapping an immense store of fossilized sunlight, it removed the limitations of plant-fueled musclepower and the vagaries of wind and water power, and catalyzed a chain reaction of growth, wealth, and innovation.  Pumping water from mines greatly increased the availability of fossil fuel and minerals. Engines ran blowers for blast furnaces, rolling mills, and a blossoming array of machinery that advanced manufacturing on every axis. In the early 1800s steam engines were adapted to power ships and to transform the rudimentary railways used in mining operations, making fast, convenient transport of people and goods possible.  In the following century, convenient liquid petroleum fuels replaced coal, compact internal combustion replaced bulkier steam engines, and mechanization spread to agriculture, with displaced farm workers taking jobs in manufacturing. An immense fossil-powered chemical industry sprang up, devising among other miracles the Promethean ability to turn air and water into nitrogen fertilizer, solving a major problem in agriculture (thanks to Holly for the book recommendation). And steam power found new life in giant turbines used to generate electricity, literally bringing light and entirely new axes of wealth and convenience – and eventually the information technology that allows me to write and publish this post.  

The power that fossil fuels deliver is amazing in both qualitative and quantitative terms.  For the reasons described above, in medieval times the average person’s access to mechanical power averaged scarcely 100W from the combined efforts of humans, beasts, and a scattering of weak water-powered mills, and perhaps a couple hundred watts of carefully-husbanded firewood.  (see discussion at  By the dawn of the enlightenment, the leading economy of Europe had access to an average 500W of thermal power per capita from burning peat alone.  By 1900, citizens of the UK consumed on average over 2500W from burning coal alone. And in 2016 the average American consumes a whopping 10,000W of primary energy continuously.  This continual torrent of energy enables the amazing material abundance and variety that most of us enjoy, and the everyday superhuman miracles of modern life: I wrote the first draft of this essay in an airplane seven miles above the surface of the earth, blasting effortlessly across the continent at nearly the speed of a thunderclap. 

Is the amazing global surge in quality of life primarily due to philosophical advances, or is it primarily the result of discovering a singular lode of stored energy? It’s not that enlightenment values are irrelevant to the amazing advances in quality and quantity of life that humans have enjoyed over the last 200 years.  I am a huge fan of science, reason, and humanism, and I’m convinced that they have contributed in a central way to the technological progression outlined above – although it seems that early on a surprising number of advances were made by trial and error rather than systematic study and application of scientific principles.  But any discussion of improvements in quality of life over this period that doesn’t recognize the immense increase in available per-capita energy that fueled and enabled those advances is missing a critical insight.  

 I think the answer to this question really matters.  If Enlightenment philosophy really is the driving force, then it could be reasonable to expect that challenges around the sustainability and environmental impact of burning fossil fuels will look like minor matters when viewed from the future. In that case, energy historians of the future will conclude that while we used these fuels because they were available and convenient, had they not been there, we would have readily developed other sources of energy nearly as good, and industrial civilization would have developed more or less at the same pace.  According to this view, fossil fuel depletion and malign climatic influence are technocratic issues that can be expected to sort themselves out in due course. There may be some minor changes related to the transition to other sources of energy, but the transition can be expected to happen naturally as a result of market forces, and doesn’t pose a fundamental danger to the modern quality of life.   

But if, on the other hand, the quality-of-life advances are primarily the result of massive increases in per-capita availability of useful energy, then there is a real danger that the peace, prosperity, and broad-based human flourishing of the last 200 years are highly contingent results of a temporary windfall.  If so, their depletion could easily reverse those advances – just as the black rock desert goes back to the lizards and ants after the Burning Man festival. If benign progressive trends are primarily a result of a one-time windfall, a bonanza of nearly-free energy unleashed over the last 200 years, then an unwind over a similar span of time is likely to be less than congenial to those who think the arc of history bends inevitably toward justice.  If it taps out significantly faster, then all bets are off. Archaeologists point us to civilizations that have fallen; elaborate complex cultures that have disbanded, with their advanced knowledge lost to the nomads who camp in the ruins.

It doesn’t take much of a disruption of the material and economic flows of modern life to deflate the progressive instincts, long-term thinking, and warm-hearted embrace of diversity that Pinker celebrates in his book.  The 2008 financial crisis was mild by historic standards, but it severely blunted the flow of capital toward forward-looking clean technologies, and unleashed an ugly undercurrent of intolerance in the body public.  For those of us working in the clean energy industry this was strikingly clear, with strong popular and investor interest washed away in a torrent of underwater houses and ‘pocketbook issues’.  

The previous, more severe economic crisis of the 1930s came in an energetic time of plenty, yet it concluded in a global nightmare of genocide that ended in a nuclear arms race.  If fossil fuel depletion starts to bite faster than clean technologies can comfortably replace them, or if the global impact of carbon emissions relentlessly drives millions of refugees from major coastal cities, I have a hard time believing that the advances Pinker credits to enlightened principles will be secure.  

If this is the path we are on, then successfully executing a rapid, global transition to clean sources of energy is of supreme importance.  The growth of solar, wind, and other scalable clean technologies must continue and accelerate consistently. Energy storage and load shifting/management must both advance without a hiccup, and the electrification of transport must displace fossil fuel as quickly as clean capacity can be added to the grid.  Liquid fuels should be reserved to particularly thorny technical challenges like air travel, which may need to be curtailed until significant advances can be made in renewable fuels or the volume- and mass-efficiency of clean energy storage. With political leaders abdicating responsibility in the face of the greatest civic challenge in generations, it appears to be up to engineers and Swedish highschool students to lead the way to an enlightened future.

Cider Year 15: Fair Winds

December 14, 2019


2019 was a milestone year in many ways for the Five Islands pedal-powered cider tradition.  At the 2018 cider weekend we spread the word that we were expecting a baby in early May of 2019.  In the fall we prepared the ground for a handful of new peach trees that my parents were keen to plant in the open northwest corner of the orchard, placed an order with Fedco, and planned Orchard Weekend for late April.  As luck would have it, Z arrived a couple weeks early, and my parents planted the peach trees by themselves.

More and more over the past 10 years, the orchard has taken a back seat to the pressures of building Pika Energy, a power electronics company focused on clean energy storage and management.  Hours before Z was born, we completed a transaction to sell the company to Wisconsin-based Generac, and now we continue and accelerate our work as a cornerstone of Generac Clean Energy Systems.  All told it was an intense and joyful spring.

In another fortunate turn, while my attention was elsewhere, a stretch of cold, damp weather decimated the population of overwintering Browntail moths that had done such damage in 2018, and by early summer it was clear we had a good fruit set in the orchard, so I scrambled to get a few doses of Surround and BT on the trees amid the changing of diapers and the demands of work. I also bought a used 7′ sicklebar mower to cut down on the time and labor involved in string trimming around the trees in the orchard, and it worked pretty well.

In June we gathered for a 100th birthday celebration for my grandmother Emily Rand Herman (‘Ummy’), and a month later she died peacefully, having overlapped on this earth with Z for just a few weeks.  In September the family gathered for a celebration of her life, and her four children scattered her ashes by the blueberry patch on the shores of Robinhood cove, together with her husband Bill (‘Poppy’). 

The season raced by, the fruit sized up on the trees, and it became clear that we would have enough apples to make the cider without buying any from off the island.  Time being short I did not plan any major equipment upgrades; the main focus was a second attempt to couple Eerik’s ‘Concept II’ professional rowing trainer to the grinder.  To that end I beefed up the jackshaft that accepts power from the two bicycles to 3/4″ steel from 5/8″ aluminum, and sprung for a piece of t-slot extrusion to simplify the assembly.  I also switched the drive between the jackshaft and the grinder shafts from bike chain to v-belt, in an effort to make the whole unit quieter. (Thanks to Eerik and Holly for the photos in this post.)



Another major change this year was the addition by my parents of a large sugarhouse/cider barn, between the house and the older barn we’ve used for the last several years.  It’s a handsome building, and they built it remarkably quickly in the dead of winter, commissioning the arch in time for sugaring season.  We had originally planned to set up cider in the new barn this year, but between the baby and other pressures we decided it was too much work and risk, and there’s not yet any livestock, so we set up as usual in the big barn.  Still, it was fantastic to have the sugarhouse available for meals; the open framing and high ceiling gives it a nice feel, and if it were cold we could lay a fire in the arch.


Alexis, Z and I did a bit of apple picking, but my parents did the vast majority of the work, filling a sea of Tidy Cat buckets (which they get from the Transfer Station) and carefully labeling the varieties with sharpie.  In the end they picked about a ton from our orchard, plus several hundred pounds that they gleaned from neighbors’ yards and wild trees around town.  We’ve increased our standards for wild fruit since one year when we put a bunch of scrumped apples in the mix and the cider came out more tart than we like.


I made one or two weekend trips to set up the gear in the barn ahead of the appointed weekend, enough to have reasonable confidence of pulling off the cidering.  Then, days before the party, a fierce storm blew down the coast of Maine, knocking trees over and blocking roads.  Power was out to the entirety of Arrowsic, Georgetown, and much of Woolwich, and (fittingly) we ran 2019 Cider Weekend on a propane-fired Automatic Home Standby Generator.

With a number of errands on the way, it was mid-day Friday before I made it up to Five Islands, where I continued assembly as A&Z, Holly and family, Eerik, and others arrived throughout the afternoon.  It being on the cold and windy side, we once again decided to eat dinner up the hill rather than down by the water. Buster helped with the refried beans:IMG_0083

After dinner the build party continued; Eerik had fabricated a very classy adapter in California and brought it with him; the idea was that we would lead a small (#25) chain forward from the rowing machine and connect it to a sprocket mounted to a freewheel on the extreme left end of the jackshaft.  That part worked well, however we found that the chain skipped on the sprocket, and the extreme force of the rower’s stroke tended to skid the entire assembly across the floor.  We made some brief attempts to fix the problems, then decided that the rowing machine would once again need to wait another year.


The next morning we continued various setup, fueled as usual by Kelsey’s fantastic breakfast burritos, and and as day trippers started arriving we kicked off the cidering process.  This year we had a nice plank set up on a slight incline that allowed several people to inspect apples and cut out bad spots at a comfortable working height.



Similar to last year, the pedal-powered washer/elevator was a hit with kids and adults alike.  We added some ag spray nozzles on locline positioners on the recommendation of the Kaufmans, who noted last year that the washer could be improved by rinsing the fruit as it emerges from the tumble scrubber drum:


We had previously included flimsy plexiglass guards to keep apple bits from flying in the faces of the pedalers, and to keep small kid fingers out of the gearing, but my dad scored some motorcycle windscreens from the Transfer Station, which were both effective and visually cool:



Generally speaking the equipment ran well; the one exception was that the belt drive on the grinder was not as positive as the old chain drive, such that if pulp didn’t feed cleanly from the primary grinder drum into the nip between the post-crusher drums, it could back up and clog the works, causing the belt to slip on the post-crusher drive shaft, further gumming up the grinder and necessitating a quick teardown for manual cleaning. We added more belt tension at lunch, but it still happened maybe a half-dozen times, and while it wasn’t a big deal, it was definitely annoying enough that I’ll consider using timing belt or some other positive drive method next year.

The press worked smoothly, and ground corn and rye steadily for dinner as it squeezed the juice from the cheeses:




We were as lucky with weather this year as we were unlucky last year.  It was beautiful and sunny, and warmed up nicely When folks weren’t making cider they basked on the lawn and ate Nebraska Cream Can Dinner:


We were even graced by the presence of a couple of Taiko drummers, who set up on the driveway and made an impressive spectacle.


This year we were joined by Jen Coyle, formerly of GreenMountain Engineering but presently running a mobile beverage canning company in the SF Bay area, and she brought fantastic expertise to help with setting up and running our counterpressure bottling system:




Despite a false alarm where we found a misplaced tote with a hundred pounds or so of apples after thinking we were through, things wound up by 5PM.  We did some cleanup, then we ate Holly and Becky’s delicious chili, cornbread, and apple crisp in the new sugarhouse:


We continued cleaning up and hung out by the fire, but turned in pretty soon after a long day.  The next morning we ate blueberry pancakes, cleared out the sugarhouse, and packed the cidering equipment in a corner to be out of the way until next year.

For the most part Z hung out with Alexis while I was running around with my fingers in the mechanisms, but he did help with mixing and dispensing the finished cider blend:



Cider year 15 was great, and I look forward to Z growing up to run in the pack of kids, which seems to get bigger every year.  I am grateful to everyone who pitched in to make the weekend a success, and particularly to the Gates family for partnering with us all these years, to Alexis for tolerating the increasing madness, to my parents for embracing the event, building the barns, and picking the apples, to Jonah for designing the Fair Winds graphic, and to the Jones family for generously funding the t-shirts.  Here’s to a good crop in 2020!



Cider Weekend 2018

January 1, 2019


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:


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:


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.




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.


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.


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:




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.


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:


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:


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


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!



Holly’s Cider Year 13 writeup

November 9, 2017

Holly did a super nice writeup of the recent Cider Weekend at his blog – see here:

Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.


Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind


From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing


All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.


Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!


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:


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


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!

5IO process for pitching yeast on cider

December 23, 2013

Reuben asked in a comment about how I pitch yeast, and since the process has never failed us I thought I’d make a post of it.

Usually I add 1/2tsp of potassium metabisulfite to each 5-7 gal carboy the morning after we press (I think sometimes I do it in the evening).  This year we actually added it to the carboys ahead of time, so the rush of cider from the bulk tank did a good job of mixing it in.  That starts the clock, and I aim to pitch between 24 and 36 hours after sulfiting.  I am not at all an expert on sulfite, and would appreciate a link to detailed info on what the chemistry is, how long it is active, etc.  We lug the jugs down to the root cellar (which is probably in the fifties or low sixties that time of year) and that’s where they stay.

Anyway, our goal is usually to pitch on 5-6 carboys.  I mix a half-gallon of sugar solution with 5-7% potential alcohol in a stainless pot.  I used to use dextrose, but then I ran out, so I’ve been using plain cane sugar ever since.  I throw in a few crumbs of nutrient, probably around 1/4 tsp. (I’m also not an expert on yeast nutrient, but again, I stick with what’s worked.)  I let it boil briefly, then cover and let it cool.  Meanwhile I’ve sanitized a 1 gallon glass jug and a funnel, and when the sugar water is lukewarm I pour it in the jug and pitch 1 packet of Red Star Pasteur Champagne yeast (the packet is yellow, not red).  I shake it gently to dissolve, then let it sit until it starts ticking (in a few hours).  Meanwhile, I bring a quart or more of cider to a simmering boil, cool it covered, and when cool I add it to the (already working) gallon jug of starter.  My theory is that this gets the yeast accustomed to the acid environment and characteristics of the cider before it is set loose at much lower concentration in the carboys, but again I don’t really know what I’m doing, other than that it works.

At that point I usually have to go back to work, and my mom pitches the yeast sometime on Monday or Tuesday.  She uses a sharpie to divide the liquid contents of the jug into roughly equal volumes, pours a measure into each carboy, and recaps with an airlock.  That’s all there is to it – we’ve never taken pains to keep the carboys at a certain temperature, to aerate, or any other tricks.  I think this will basically always work as long as the starter is actively working when you dump it in the carboy.