Cider Making Basics

We live out in the country, about 80 miles from Portland, Oregon.  The nearest town of any size is about 10 miles away.  We have two apple trees on our property, and another next to our driveway easement on the neighbors property.  Other nearby neighbors have many other apple and pear trees.  Many of these are different, unknown (to us) varieties.  Additionally, many fruit trees grow along farm fields and are completely ignored.  In past years we have simply stopped and picked fruit from some of these trees.  We tend to avoid them now if they are near an active farm field due to all of the nasty chemicals used in “green revolution” monoculture farming.

Some of these trees are certainly grown from seed, which makes them truly unique.  I’m pretty sure one of our apple trees is seed-grown.  Apples are extremely genetically diverse, so growing apples from seed is likely to produce fruit that is wildly different from the parent.  All of the named variety apples are propagated by grafting, which basically makes them all genetically identical clones.

What follows is a step by step guide to how we make cider.  This process was strongly influenced by the love of my life, Amber, who possesses a large dose of common sense and an equally large belief that not everything that is written is true.  She grew up on a farm and has personal experience with making fruit wines under the bed as a teenager and even pre-teen, taught to her by her older siblings.

Equipment

There are really only two big-ticket items in this list; the grinder and the press.  Both can be had for well under $1000.  Both are durable items which, if properly cared for, should last decades.

  • A fruit press.  We have a size 40 Italian-made ratchet press which we are quite happy with.  We found ours locally but I have seen the same press and its smaller siblings available from a variety of sites online.  Note that nobody keeps a lot of these in stock.  Don’t just expect to find one available in mid-September.  Order it earlier in the year so you have it on hand when the fruit is ripe.
  • An apple grinder.  Ours is hand cranked and made from cast iron, with an 18 lb. flywheel for a handle.  We got ours from Happy Valley Ranch.
  • A variety of buckets and/or bags for picking fruit.  We use a combination of plastic 5 gallon buckets and some heavy canvas shopping-style bags that I found online at Camping World.  You need at least a couple of 5 gallon buckets, or something similar, during the pressing process.  You will use them to transport the ground fruit bits to the press.
  • Two or more glass carboys.  The size and quantity depend on how much cider you plan to make.  We have four 6 gallon, two 3 gallon and three 1 gallon carboys.  You should have at least one more carboy in each size than you plan to use for racking purposes.  (Racking is the process of siphoning the juice from one carboy to another.  More about that later.)  I recommend always using glass or stainless steel containers, not plastic.  Plastic is known to provide a safe harbor for all sorts of microbes that we would rather not expose our fruit juice to.  It’s fine if you want to use a lot of nasty chemicals to truly sterilize them before each time you use them, I suppose.  I’d rather just avoid that whole plastic/chemical mess myself.
  • Bungs for the carboys.  I try to have one with a hole and one without for each carboy.
  • An airlock for each carboy plus a spare or two.  They are somewhat fragile and are especially prone to breakage when being removed from the bung.
  • A siphon and hose for racking.
  • A large funnel.  We use one with a removable screen to catch debris and the stray yellow jacket.
  • Sulfite powder (like potassium metabisulfite) for sanitizing.  We are sparing with it and we have probably used less than two ounces in five years.

The Italian fruit press is relatively new to us.  Before this press, we had a smaller all-in-one press that had a wooden frame, wooden pressing floor and a small grinder attached to the top of the frame.  It also had a top-mounted T-handle directly attached to the screw.  We found this device had a myriad of problems.  The wooden bottom tended to warp and degrade quickly from the constant moisture of pressing.  The T-handle screw press provided poor leverage for the later stages of pressing.  The screw itself was gradually eating away the steel plate on top of the press head and was also wearing the metal fitting where it threaded through the top of the frame.  The smallish grinder had wooden sides made of plywood which started delaminating.  The grinder was small enough that we had to slice some large apples in half to feed them in and that added a lot of extra work to the process.  The frame was heavy and difficult for one person to move around.  The press got us through about four years of cider making with an average of about 30 gallons of juice per year before it really started falling apart.  When the whole thing started needing more maintenance than it was worth, we sold it to a friend for $20 and bought the Italian press.

The Italian press has a steel pressing floor, a two-speed ratchet mechanism that makes pressing easier and it easily disassembles into smaller pieces for moving.  It is a better and more durable design all around.  The grinder we bought is larger and better built than the old one and it happily consumes every fruit we can throw into it whole.  It has an 18 lb. flywheel that is a serious help in the grinding process.  The really sad thing is that the Italian press and the grinder cost us a total of $650 vs. the old press/grinder combo that was $550.  We paid a fraction more for vastly better equipment.

Picking the Fruit

We always pick the fruit that we press.  We never pick it up off the ground.  Once the fruit hits the ground it is exposed to a whole variety of microbes that live in or on the ground.  These microbes include things that we really don’t want introduced to our cider.  We also can’t know how long the fruit has been sitting on the ground.  The odds of collecting rotten fruit off the ground are much higher.  We don’t normally use sulfites and we prefer to do natural fermentation using the yeast that is already on the fruit.  Even if that wasn’t the case, we would still be leery of fruit that has touched the ground.  (Need I point out that deer love to eat apples, and deer tend to deposit fecal matter under the trees?)

Early apples and pears usually start to mature in mid to late September here in Oregon.  These varieties include Gravenstein and Clapp’s Favourite Pear.  Other varieties mature through September, October and possibly even into November.  Our goal is to always make ciders from more than one fruit variety, preferably at least three in a batch.  This adds complexity and depth of flavor to the fruit.  We also like to pick at least some of the fruit before they are fully ripe in order to get additional acidity in the final product.  (A lot of “recipes” online include adding “acid blend” or citric acid to the cider.  This is completely unnecessary if the fruit is picked at the right stage.)

Note that there are many, many apple varieties, as well as the seed-grown “wild” apples.  (I put “wild” in parentheses because some would argue that there is no such thing as a wild apple on this continent.  Apples are native to the Kazakistan region.)  Some of these varieties will maintain a good acid balance and flavor even when fully ripe.  Other varieties lose a lot of their flavor characteristics or acidity, or both, if allowed to fully ripen.  In addition, the flavor profiles may vary greatly from year to year.  2011 produced particularly good apples.  I wish now that I had made a lot more cider that year.  The main point of this particular ramble, however, is to taste the apples.  In your first year, you may not know what to look for, but you need to taste them anyway.  In following years you will get a better feel for how the taste and acidity of the apple influences the finished cider.  It is also a good idea to taste the fruit over several weeks as it matures to get a feel for when the fruit is best picked.  All of that being said, remember that none of this is rocket science.  If you have time to pick fruit on a particular day, then by all means, pick the fruit.  Even if it isn’t fully ripe, it can be allowed to ripen for a week or so before pressing.  This is recommended for pears, in fact.  It is also recommended in general because you will get fewer insects in the fruit if it is picked early and allowed to ripen after picking.

Cleaning the Work Area

I can’t stress cleanliness enough.  You must clean the equipment and the work area thoroughly before you start the pressing process.  This process is all about natural fermentation with natural yeast.  We don’t use sulfites or anything else to kill the microbes in the juice.  That means we need to minimize the chances of picking up other stray molds or microbes from the environment by cleaning everything.  We rely on creating an environment favorable to the yeast and unfavorable to other common microbes like acetobacter so the yeast will win the race and suppress everything else.

By “work area”, I don’t just mean the table you’ll be sorting apples on.  Think about any surface where you may place a piece of equipment while you are working and clean that too.  Think about where you are going to set the pressing head while you remove the mashed fruit from the press.  Think about where you may put a funnel down while you put a cork in a carboy.  Clean it all.  Also think about convenient landing pads for things that are simply going to be dirty.  For example, when we press, we catch the juice in a 3-quart saucepan.  It sits on the ground.  We can’t really clean the ground enough to matter so the bottom is always going to be dirty.  We need a safe place to put that down during the juggling process of funneling it into a carboy and re-corking the carboy that won’t contaminate an otherwise clean surface.

That being said, you don’t have to use bleach or chemicals (even so-called “food-safe” chemicals) for most of the cleaning.  If you can reach the surface easily, clean it with soap and water and rinse it off.  Make sure you scrub it enough to really clean it, don’t just do a single pass with the sponge and call it good.  Stronger cleaning solutions are only required for places you simply can’t reach any other way, like the inside of your siphon tubing.

I use a strong sulfite solution for cleaning things like the siphon tubing.  I will then whip it over my head to remove as much as possible.  This does ultimately introduce a tiny amount of sulfites into the juice but not enough to really change anything in the process.  I do the same to sterilize carboys or bottles before use.  I rinse them first, then sulfite them.  After a bit, I pour off the sulfites.  Then I let the bottle or carboy sit for a few minutes and do another pour.  This usually gets a little bit more liquid out of the bottle.

Rinsing the Fruit

We always rinse the fruit before we press it.  We rinse it immediately before grinding.  We don’t do a major wash-and-dry type process.  We just make sure that each apple or pear is rinsed for a second or two under running water, and in the process we inspect the fruit and discard any that look like they might be rotten.  We don’t worry about insects.  They are not terribly common even in unsprayed trees.  In fact, most of the insects have already left the apples by the time they are ripe.  This may leave a few unsightly blemishes on the apples but it certainly doesn’t hurt their flavor.  The few strays that may be left get pressed with the fruit.  They aren’t poisonous, they don’t normally carry human diseases, and even if they did it is likely that the alcohol will kill all of that anyway.

Grinding the Fruit

[To be continued...]

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