Fresh apple cider has been part of our fall family get-togethers ever since I was a kid. Auntie Annie, Uncle Bill, and my cousins made apple cider every year, just a few blocks away from us in Willowdale. They “bottled” it in old milk cartons or, sometimes, unlabelled red-and-white cartons that Uncle Bill had bought somewhere. Then they’d drop by for a visit with a couple of cartons. It was delicious.
It was a family tradition that I didn’t think anything of at the time. One Thanksgiving, after I had grown up, we got together with my aunt, uncle, and cousins and made cider while the turkey was roasting in the oven. It was then that I started to appreciate what a good opportunity cider making was to hang out together.
There is nothing quite like polishing a freshly picked apple on my shirt and then taking a bite.
I enjoy fall trips to apple orchards. There is nothing quite like polishing a freshly picked apple on my shirt and then taking a bite. The smell reminds me of childhood walks with my dad past an old apple tree that had very sour apples (we’d kick fallen apples, hoping that we could make one last for the two-block walk home). I enjoy apple shopping, too—bins full of apples at roadside stands smell divine. And when I find an orchard selling something different from the grocery store—maybe a spicy ‘Tolman Sweet’ or the white-fleshed ‘Snow’—I feel as though I’ve struck gold.
Once I began taking my kids apple picking, I started reminiscing about Auntie Annie and Uncle Bill’s cider making—the way the family hung out together. I got a cider press. I was more excited about it than I was when I got my first car. (Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, as it was a rusty, oil-guzzling Ford LTD—but I was very excited.)
My press is fairly simple. A metal-studded wooden cylinder grinds the apples, and then the apple bits fall into a slatted tub where I use a hand-operated screw press to press them. Apple juice runs down the tub into a tray and pours out of a hole into our cups. We guzzle the first few glasses. After we fill jugs for immediate use, we switch to freezer-safe containers so we can store cider to enjoy later in the year.
Some years fall presents summer-like weather, and the drowsy yellowjackets hang out with us, intoxicated by the smell of the apples; other years, there are flurries, so we dress warmly. It’s as much about the company as it is about the juice. Sometimes, after pressing our share of apples, I’ll put away the press but then come across especially nice or unusual apples and bring it out again, unable to resist.
Hand-grinding apples is fun at first, but less so after a dozen bushels! My mechanical aptitude is marginal, but I knew it was possible to install a small electric motor on the grinder. Lucky for me, my neighbour Dave took one look at the press and knew what to do. That was the extent of the modifications we made. Unlike my Uncle Bill’s, my press has only one tub to both catch apple from the grinder and press it, which means I can’t press and grind simultaneously (some presses have two tubs).
It wasn’t long before my friend Tony gave me a big press that he had used for pressing grapes. That solved the bottleneck. Not only is the tub on his press much bigger than mine, but the screw press has better compression, so I can squeeze out more cider. Now I can grind the apples on my original unit while I press out cider on Tony’s press.
Cider vs. Cider
The word “cider” confuses: It makes some people think of sweet, fresh-pressed juice (sweet cider), while others think of its more potent fermented cousin (hard cider).
Making hard cider is another reason for a get-together. I tackled it with my neighbours Dave and Rob one year and haven’t looked back. Fermenting carboys of cider fill the basement with a delicious smell. We’ve tried the all-natural approach, letting naturally occurring yeasts on the apples drive the fermentation. The result tasted a bit like … socks. Champagne yeast gives us better results. Batches not fit for drinking are useful in the kitchen (see my Cider-Making Tips below).
Cider Next Generation
Despite the electric motor, my kids prefer to turn the large red grinding wheel by hand. Emma is 12, Quinn is 9, and Keaton is 8, and they all like to have cider parties with their friends. They make cider, bob for apples, climb the tree, and spend a fall day outside.
It’s also a nice learning opportunity: the kids see firsthand that not all apples look like what they see at the store, having dropped both whopping big and little wee apples in the grinder. They know that an apple with a scab can still taste great. They know that apple trees come in different sizes, having climbed in big old trees but also picked from dwarf trees no taller than they are. They also know that the taste of our cider changes if we use different mixes of apple varieties.
This will be year 8 in our cider-making adventures. It’s a family tradition we all love. We’ve had a lot of fun hanging out with friends around the press. I don’t do it to save money—it takes quite a bit of time and work. The reward is good cider, the pleasure of making it, and lots of delicious apple-picking and cider-making memories. Every fall I’m as excited about my cider press as when I first got it.
Apple press. I’ve never seen them for sale in stores, but you can find both new and used presses online. Be warned: they are not cheap. But I’d say they offer better long-term value than a new large-screen TV.
Apple shopping. There’s no need for blemish-free apples. Go to roadside stands or orchards and look for “C” (sometimes called “cee”) grade apples, which are misshapen, blemished, or smaller or larger than retailers want. Some varieties are juicier than others: ‘Macintosh,’ for example, is quite juicy, while ‘Russets’ are more dry and mealy (but they can be very sweet!). Some varieties are sweet, some are tart, some are aromatic—and some are astringent. For a more complex flavour, especially if you’re fermenting cider, try to use a blend. One year I saw a couple of pecks of crabapples for sale so added them to the apples I was grinding for a carboy of hard cider. Crabapples often have more tannins, which can be a nice addition. Another year, my friend Dave picked the crabapples growing in the schoolyard.
Storing cider. Refrigerate fresh cider. It will last 1 to 2 weeks in the fridge before it begins to ferment. For freezing, milk cartons and plastic juice bottles work well. Don’t fill containers to the top because cider expands as it freezes, and you’ll end up with a bunch of little cider volcanoes in your freezer.
Cider for cooking. I use lots of cider in my cooking. My approach to French onion soup combines consommé, red wine, and apple cider that have simmered all day. Apple-cider baked beans are a big hit with my kids. And I use cider in marinades and glazes.
Growing apples. Growing apples in an urban garden is hit-and-miss. Some years the old ‘Mutsu’ apple tree in my yard is laden; other years start off well until the squirrels make off with nearly all of the fruit. Without thinning, apples tend to bear fruit in alternate years. I grew espaliered apple trees with some unusual cider apple varieties: some died because of a nearby black walnut tree; and the others, which were coming along nicely, have just been gnawed back to the trunk by a squirrel that used the branches to make a nest. Maybe next year…