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Cider, Ha'd and Sweet
by Daryle Thomas
It's about zero-four-thirty on the twenty-second day of September. I'm sitting here with a dozen eggs to, once and for all, confirm or dispel the nagging question of whether or not eggs will stand unaided on the autumnal equinox. I suspect that scrambled eggs may be included at breakfast this morning.
I would assume that the little brown orbs will stand ever so slightly askew, straightening to bolt upright as the sun crosses the equator, only to list opposingly as the momentous event wanes. Yeah, right!
What is guaranteed is that fall is upon us. It's time to do all those things you were going to do this year early, so there wouldn't be a fall rush. Go ahead and paint, it'll freeze before it dries.
Fall is the time for some folks to roll out the cider press in anticipation of the first golden drops of autumnal tonic. Tain't nothing like a gallon or so of fresh cider to clear the constitution. And while we're at it, clearing a path to the outhouse might be in order, too.
Just what is involved in the proper production of real, unpasteurized cider? First step, for many of us locals, is to steal the apples. I don't mean orchard-grown thefts. There are a million or more wild apple trees all over Vermont. Toss some boxes and bushel baskets into the truck. Get yourself one of those pointy-topped apple pickin' ladders and cruise the back roads for some fine cider apples.
Cider-Making is a Pressing Concern
Pack the back half of your pickup with the purloined apples. If you don't have a cider press, be aware that some commercial pressing houses will do custom pressing. You can even use that authentic grape press your uncle brought back from his trip to Italy, the one that says "made in Taiwan" on the bottom. Use the Cuisinart to macerate the apples into sauce and squeeze away.
Many species of apples benefit from "sweating" before pressing. To sweat your apples, store them on a tarp or wood platform for a week or two. When the apples mellow enough, a firm squeeze will leave a slight indentation. Many apple pressers will note that freezing the apples and then grinding them up as soon as they thaw out the next day produces wonderful cider. Often times you get back from an afternoon of apple pilfering so dog-tired you can't unload the truck. The apples freeze overnight, but thaw as the sun rises over the tailgate. This is just another example of cold sweat. It seems to work as well in the back of Fords as it does in Chevys. Families making smaller amounts of cider could use a Toyota, I'm sure the end result would be just as good as an American pickup.
Either method of sweating concentrates the sugars in the apples by breaking down the cell walls, allowing some of the water content to evaporate. Very often the resultant cider is, or seems to be, somewhat thicker or syrupy.
Special Ingredients are a Matter of Personal Preference
Once the apples have undergone the sweating process, a final washing is in order before grinding. There are stories of the "old timers" grinding everything and anything in the cache. Leaves, worms and soft spots, in it went! Well, I may pass on the soap, but a strong stream of water to hose off the big stuff can only help the flavor. Pick out any apple that has a rotten spot. Now the cleaned and mellowed apples are ready to grind into pomace.
Commercial cider mills use high power hammer mills to pulverize the apples into sauce-like consistency. Most home grinders utilize a much less brutal macerator. Usually the grinder box has a five inch wood cylinder with small angles spaced around it. The angles have cutouts, making the angles look like metal teeth. At best, the apples are ground into a coarse, chunky mass. Many years ago, Eric Chittenden of Cold Hollow Cider Press assured me that the finer the mash, the greater the yield of cider.
At the time, I was part of a woodworking company that manufactured furniture-grade cider presses for home use. We ended up at a certain land grant university in Burlington, in the metal working shop. As I recall, there was a substantial hydraulic press just begging for some clever person to use it. Using a bullet punch, we punched vicious, four-sided projections that had a fleur-de-lis shape into stainless steel plates. Once punched, the plates were rolled into cylinders to just slip over the wood cylinder in the grinder box. A rather hefty axle held the grinder head in the box. A crank handle mounted to a flywheel drove the axle at sufficient speed and intensity to rival commercial hammer mills in cider production. Needless to say, we sold every cider press as fast as we could make them.
The last step in cider production is the pressing, or wringing as it was called in the good old days. Commercial presses dump the pulp in "cheeses," which are nylon bags that are folded over the pomace and stacked on the press plate. The actual pressing takes about a half an hour, but some mills leave the pressure on overnight. The juice, which is called "must," is stored in stainless steel vats or special plastic drums. Never use copper, galvanized, iron or aluminum containers to hold the freshly squeezed juice. These metals react with the juice, producing at best an off-taste and at worst, gut-wrenching compounds that make the imbiber wish for a quick death.
Making Cider the Ha'd Way
At this point the cider is ready to chill and drink fairly quickly as fruit juice. Or... we can make ha'd cida', which is the apple grower's version of wine. It is legal for the head of a household to make, I believe, up to 200 gallons of low alcohol wines for family use. Typically, 200 gallons of hard cider should kill off some families. For the curious, a five-gallon carboy should be a sufficient amount for many people. Once the concept is well understood, up to 55-gallon barrels can be experimented with.
The process to harden cider is identical to making wine. Rather than bore you with a drawn out description, I suggest that the interested reader visit one of the many wine-making shops in the area. I occasionally make a batch of hard cider, for medicinal purposes only. The easy way is to spend a Sunday afternoon driving around the countryside visiting cider mills. Ask for a sample of the day's pressing. You may note that some cider is sweet, some is tart, some has an aromatic edge and some is quite fairly called astringent. A blend to your personal taste can be made.
Simply put, the cider base is sweetened to a desired amount depending on the alcohol level wanted. Very strong hard cider may approach 10 percent alcohol, but most home hooch is in the 7 percent to 8 percent range. If you put a fair amount of research into the wine-making process, you will be able to produce a hard cider that will easily rival many expensive wines. Salud!
Daryle Thomas, proprietor of the Hearth and Cricket Stove Shop in East Wallingford, Vt., is a certified Master Gardener who relishes the fall - when folks start seriously thinking of those cold winter days ahead.