This is the time of year when I start scouting for apple trees. Neglected, venerable trees full of fruit that nobody wants. Not shiny, red, and flawless, ready to be popped into a lunch box. Nor even the big, sweet fruits bred for baking. The apples I want can be rough-coated, gnarled, and even a little scabby. They’re tart and tannic, puckering your mouth at the first bite. Powerfully flavorful. Perfect, in other words, for making hard cider.
That – hard cider making – used to be a tradition in my part of the world, southern New England. From Virginia north, but especially in the northeastern states, hard cider was the vin de pays, the local drink with a definite regional character. In part that was a reflection of the regional nature of apple growing. Virginia, for example, was ‘Hewe’s Crab’ country when it came to cider making; in New Jersey, the apples of choice were ‘Winesap’ and ‘Harrison’. New England boasted many fine cider apples; the standards included ‘Roxbury Russet,’ ‘Golden Russet’ and also ‘Baldwin’.
I had heard mentions in passing of hard cider from my father, a Connecticut native who associated it with haying time on relatives’ farms. But my first real encounter with it came in the library of the New York Botanical Garden. One day, while prowling the stacks, I came on a book published in 1911: The cider makers’ hand book : a complete guide for making and keeping pure cider by J.M. Trowbridge. This volume not only told the reader every detail of how to make hard cider, it made clear why you should want to:
“A pure article of cider, skillfully made from select fruit in perfect condition, should have perfect limpidity and brightness, even to sparkling in the glass… It should be fragrant so that when a bottle is freshly opened and poured into glasses an agreeable, fruity perfume will arise and diffuse itself though the apartment… It should have mild pungency, and feel warming and grateful to the stomach, the glow diffusing itself gradually and agreeably throughout the whole system, and communicating itself to the spirits…and it should leave in the mouth an abiding agreeable flavor of some considerable duration, as of rare fruits and flowers.”
I began collecting apples, and with an antique cider press rescued from a friend’s barn, I pressed my first batch, fermenting it down to dryness in glass carboys. I siphoned it into bottles and corked them. Six months later the cider was straw golden, clear, sparkling, and smelling and tasting of the apples’ very essence.
I’ve since updated my equipment, purchasing an electric-powered, Italian fruit crusher which I share with a farmer in western Massachusetts. The farmer, in return, allows me to use his hydraulic cider press. With these devices, I get far more juice from a bushel of fruit, which is good because appropriate fruit is harder and harder to find as the old trees die off and are replaced by less intensely flavored modern cultivars. Every year I have to travel farther afield to find my fruit. What better excuse, though, for exploring back roads while enjoying the fall foliage?
Posted by Thomas Christopher on September 4, 2017 at 4:55 am. This post has 10 responses.
Drink This, Feed Me
If your neighborhood is anything like mine, there are plenty of neglected apple trees, trees planted by optimistic home landscapers and then more or less abandoned when the owners learned that producing blemish-free fruit requires a strict regimen of sprayings. Blemish-free fruit isn’t necessary for cider-making, of course, and my experience has been that the offer to share a gallon of cider will usually gain you access to all of such fruit as you can use.
I try fruit from different trees until I find some with a lively flavor. Then I use the scavenged apples as a base for cider-making, enhancing them with the small but tart and flavorful fruit from hedge-row apples I find growing along abandoned fields and maybe some crabapples to add extra tannin.
For a finer vintage, I have located some surviving trees of old fashioned apples that traditionally were grown specifically for cider-making, including one huge old ‘Golden Russet’ that every second year produces bumper crops of small, rough-skinned yellow fruits that make a glorious cider all by themselves – this juice I generally save for fermenting into “hard” cider.
The ‘Golden Russet’ apples ripen late, in early to mid October, which is a characteristic they share with many other outstanding cider apples. In fact, it is a good idea to make a special scout for apples about now – what you find ripening during this later part of the season will tend to yield the richest juice.
Another example of a desirable, late-ripening apple is the ‘Baldwin’, a once very popular variety that still persists in some older commercial orchards and which adds authority and tannin to cider when blended with sweeter, less complex fruits. West County Cider, a maker of hard ciders located in Colrain, Massachusetts, makes a pure Baldwin vintage cider that is delicious – look on its website for retail outlets.
The most useful reference about heirloom cider apples is The Apples of New York State, by S.A. Beach, which was published in 1905. It provides descriptions, including the value as cider apples, of the roughly 1,000 apple varieties then grown in New York State. Most of these are no longer available, but a surpising number of varieties can still be found if you are persistent in your hunt through old orchards. Over the years I have found everything from ‘Rhode Island Greenings’ to ‘Roxbury Russets’ and ‘Gravensteins’, all of which contributed to memorable ciders.
Posted by Thomas Christopher on October 15, 2015 at 7:02 am. This post has 2 responses.
Drink This, Eat This, Feed Me
Once upon a time, cider-making, not football was the fall preoccupation throughout much of this country. Wherever apples grew – and thanks to pioneering nurserymen like John Chapman that included much of the Midwest and upper South as well as the Northeast and Pacific Northwest – the fruit was gathered up into barrels, crates and wagons and hauled off to the nearest cider press.
‘Golden Russets’, the premier New England cider apple
There this fruit was converted into a beverage that could be consumed fresh or fermented for long-term storage. Nor was this cider the insipid stuff we pour today from plastic jugs, the juice of left-over desert apples. My grandfather dismissed the modern stuff as “McIntosh Posh”, because he could remember the real thing. In his youth, the bulk of the cider came from apple varieties selected and grown especially for this purpose.
That juice had a robust flavor, a balance of tart and sweet, with just enough tannin to add body. Fresh and fermented, it was the vin de pays of American apple country, with each region favoring different apples and producing characteristic flavors of its own.
Fortunately, with a bit of enterprise, most of us who live in areas where apples flourish can reproduce something like this old time product and at not much cost, other than a small investment of time. The first necessity of course is to locate a cider press. If you are lucky, you may find that a local orchard will press your apples for you – I have gone that route in the past, paying the same price fer gallon as if I had purchased the orchard’s own cider. By asking around or even advertising, you may find someone with a cider press they are willing to share, perhaps for a share of the product.
If you intend to make cider every year, it’s worth purchasing a press of your own – homeowner models start at about $275-300; you’ll also need a grinder with which to pulp your fruit before putting it in the press, and this will run another $200 or so. If this is more than you care to spend, why not share the press (and the cost) with one or more neighbors? Personally, I share a press with an institutional farm – I donated an electric apple grinder and earned the right to use the farm’s hydraulic press. I only use this equipment a day or two each year; the farm not only stores the machinery and provides a working space, but it even shares extra apples with me. It’s been a great arrangement for both parties.
In succeeding posts I’ll include tips on scouting for free apples and the actual process of cider-making itself.
Posted by Thomas Christopher on October 1, 2015 at 7:03 am. This post has 10 responses.