The chickadees are giving me hell. “Oh, shush,” I tell them, intent on maneuvering the fruit picker closer to the glossy apples that are tantalizing me from the top branches twenty feet above my head. “There will be plenty left for you.” There always are. My Liberty apple tree bears a huge crop every year, far too many for me to use, even if I could get them all down. I’ve already canned fourteen quarts of applesauce, and I’ve got three bushels of apples sitting in the kitchen, waiting to be turned into apple butter, more applesauce, and at least one pie. I’m harvesting now for the several bushels that I will turn into hard cider. Even after that, the chickadees will still have apples that will mummify on the branches in this winter’s cold and provide a needed source of fruit and seeds for them.
I have to say right up front that I’m not a serious cider-maker. Some folks are very knowledgeable about blending different apple varieties to yield a Master-Class cider. My standards, on the other hand, are pathetically low. For me, if it comes from my own trees and turns out at all potable with enough kick that I can tell I’m not drinking apple juice, it’s good enough.
William Spencer, my maternal ancestor who came over from England in 1623, would have been appalled at my lack of cider-making finesse, I’m sure. Ale was the proper Englishman’s tipple in those days, but my great-however-many-grandfather came from Devon, where he’d have been well-accustomed to making cider and perry (cider made from pears) on his farm. When he got to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, however, he and his fellow colonists quickly discovered that barley and hops didn’t take well to the New England climate, so unless they wanted to import the ingredients for ale from England–which was prohibitively costly when what you really needed was a good breeding boar and sow–you’d do well to give up on ale and make your own cider, instead. There were some native crabapples, but these were quickly deemed unsuitable, so succeeding waves of colonists brought with them either saplings of notable British cider apples, or the seeds of same, with which the settlers began to establish orchards. Within a century America had developed some cultivars of its own, varieties from which an excellent cider could be made even without blending the juices of several different apples. Roxbury Russet and Golden Russet, for instance, had a good balance of the aromatic oils, sugar, tannin and acid which make an outstanding cider.
By Revolutionary times, apple cider was well known as an aid to digestion, as a preventive for rheumatism, gout, kidney stones, colic and laryngitis, and as a general aid to longevity. John Adams started his day with a tankard of hard cider. “It seems to do me good,” he said. Yes, sir, Mr. President, I’ll bet it did. He lived to be 91.
Ethan Allen was another cider fan, though in his case he combined half cider with half rum in a concoction called a Stonewall, presumably because it had the effect of running into one. You have to wonder whether the Green Mountain Boys were fighting-under-the-influence when they took Fort Ticonderoga.
Fast forward to Prohibition, when many cider orchards were burned by fanatical temperance advocates, and countless regional varieties of cider apples were lost to commercial agriculture. By the time temperance ended, cider mills had been shut down or dismantled. Beer and bathtub gin rebounded, but cider didn’t take off again commercially until fairly recently. Which didn’t stop farm families from making the stuff the whole time, quietly, in the cellar or barn. In this case, breaking the law was a very good thing, because it meant that the trees that yielded cider apples were maintained on a small scale, at least, and scions from the best of them given to relatives and friends to graft in their own orchards. It is the only way some of that genetic diversity survived.
To me, there’s something very cool about making cider. It was America’s first widely-consumed beverage, and it connects me to a farming heritage that goes way, way back. I start by picking several bushels of apples. Because I grow them organically, these aren’t cosmetically perfect; many have insect damage. The best are saved aside for fresh eating and my once-a-year obligatory apple pie. Second-bests go into applesauce and cider. Everything else goes into the ‘deer dump,’ a mound of apples I leave at the edge of the woods for the deer to paw up through the snow. I figure that if any tiny apple maggot larvae are still left in the apples, the fermenting process will pickle them, anyway. I mean, it’s not as bad as staring at that damned worm in a bottle of tequila. At least these are ground up.
After picking, I leave the apples in the cellar to soften a bit, a process known as “sweating.” This both develops flavor and makes it easier to grind the apples. On a breezy, cool day late in October–the cooler weather helps to slow down the bacteria which can turn cider nasty, and the wind helps to combat the vinegar flies which carry the bacteria that will turn cider into vinegar given half a chance–I grind the apples into pomace. This mash goes into a mesh bag, which is pressed in my cider press to yield the fresh, or ‘sweet’ cider from which I’ll be making my hard stuff. I save aside some of this sweet cider to freeze. In the winter it will go into the bean pot when I make baked beans.
After the juice is squeezed out of the pomace, I pour it all into a seven-gallon food-grade plastic container. I add about three cups of brown sugar and a packet of the same kind of yeast used to brew ale. Then I screw on the cover of the pail, insert a waterlock in the small hole in the cover, and wait for the yeast to begin converting the sugars in the cider into alcohol. If the cider begins “working,” I’ll be able to see bubbles rising in the waterlock. The faster the bubbling, the faster the sweet cider is becoming hard. Because my cellar is quite cool, around 50 degrees, my cider tends to bubble slowly, which is actually good–slow fermentation yields a mellower cider.
So basically I just forget about it until the end of January. By the time my New England Patriots are in the play-offs (how’s that for hubris!), the cider is ready to drink. I siphon it into bottles, cap them, and store them. With a bottle of cider, some crusty bread, and a good cheddar cheese, I’m a pretty happy camper.
If the Pats lose, I just open another bottle.