Pressing Cider — Part I

It’s time for picking apples and making cider. We don’t have apple-producing trees at the institute yet. We have two ornamental, non-bearing apple trees, but it will take a few years until we have newly planted trees bearing fruit. Many farms in the area have big apple trees in their yards. In some cases these are the remains of an orchard. I was able to gather apples from two yards near us. One is just down the road, owned by Mr. Reed. Another was about two miles away, owned by Mr. Johnson. When I approached the landowners about their apple trees, both said that they didn’t do anything with their apples: no spraying, no pruning, and no picking. This means the deer generally ate the dropped apples. Unused apple trees seems to be a common thing here. This is probably because it is so easy to buy fresh apples, juice, sauce, and other products all year round in the grocery store. It isn’t worth the effort to collect and process a large batch of apples for most folks today. As our food system learns to live without fossil fuels in the future, people with apple trees in their yards will be thankful for their once-neglected resource.

Picking a Mix of Apples

Sweet apples are good for eating and juice, but they don’t necessarily make the best cider (cider is fermented and alcoholic even though it is common to find nonalcoholic “cider” in stores, which is technically unfiltered juice). Ciders are best made up of a mix of apples. Matt at Brix Cider recently told me in an interview (Low Tech Podcast No. 26), that tart apples provide the flavor and sweet apples provide the body for cider. I was able to pick two types of red apples (one tasted like red delicious and one like Macintosh) and one green (tart and not very sweet). The overall mix in my cider is about 60:40::green:red.

It took me about an hour to pick five bushels of apples using milk crates and a ladder. I picked another bushel down the street. I stored some of the apples I picked earlier in the crisper of the refrigerator: apples are best stored just above freezing with high humidity. Because they were not sprayed, some apples had worms and most had surface spots; the spots were no problem but the wormy ones had to be discarded.

Preparing for Pressing

Ripping oak into staves.

After picking the apples, I let them sit for about a week to let the cell walls start to break down inside the apple. This allows for more juice to be extracted (at least according to the internet). During that time, I built an apple press. These generally cost hundreds of dollars, but as someone who likes to try and build things at home (and someone with less money than time), I looked at a sampling of apple grinders and presses online and got to work. Mine cost about $50 since I had the lumber sitting around the workshop. It took me about 8 hours.

Most presses consist of a bucket with open staves, a plunger that is pushed down by a screw, a strong base to contain the thousands of pounds of pressure, and a grinder to shred the apples before pressing.

The finished apple press.

I made the staves and drum for the grinder out of seasoned white oak I had sitting around. I had to cut it down from split pieces. I made 1-in-square staves and bound them around a solid base to create a bucket with open gaps. Hardwood is used to prevent any taste from the wood being imparted on the juice. Also, the bucket has to survive high pressure.

The frame was built of dimensional lumber as I have plenty of scraps sitting around. I used plenty of nails inserted in pairs at slight angles to bind the joints together. In future years, I may reinforce the joints with carriage bolts.

The plunger is pressed down by a large screw, but since press screws are hard to find, I used a 3/4-in threaded rod as the screw and a large nut and washer mounted to the bottom of the crossbrace as its point of contact. At the top of the screw, I jammed two nuts together so that I could use a ratchet to drive the press.

The grinder consists of a hopper into which quartered apples can be tossed and a rotating drum full of spaced screws left protruding at about 1/4 in. This drum is driven by a crank. The apples are dropped in and when the drum is rotated, the screw heads shred the apples into tiny bits. The smaller the bits, the more cider will come out. Unfortunately, my screws and drum were spaced too widely and the apples were not shredded as finely as they should be, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post about pressing cider and starting the fermentation process.

All of the surfaces of the press and grinder that would come in contact with food were heated and then coated in beeswax. This gives it a food-safe coating.

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