Thursday, October 17, 2013

JAB Cider Pressing

Having just arrived back in Minnesota after a long trip down South, where Summer is still in full bloom and 80 degree days still the norm, the sudden transformation into full-blown Fall was a bit of a shock.  Tim Roets, Jack of All Brews' Secretary, had organized a cider pressing event at Sponsel's Minnesota Harvest Orchard in Jordan for us prior to my departure, and I was able to get out there on Sunday the 13th of October.  In about 2007 our club bought an old wooden cider press that would look at home in an 1890's museum.  In my opinion this type of shared purchase is one of the best things about belonging to a homebrew club.  We had one organized pressing at Deardorff Orchard shortly after that, and then smaller group and family pressings since.  I haven't used the thing since that first year and was happy to get another chance to see it in action.

The day broke with a startling fiery red sunrise upon the horizon.  The air was a sharp 53 degrees against my skin as I settled into my car for the drive to Jordan--about 30 minutes from my home in Waconia.  The country warble of Fred Eaglesmith twanged from the speakers in my car, singing about old cars, bootleg hooch, crazy women and (of course) trains.  Yellow leaves flitted across my windshield, blown about by a light, crisp breeze.  Over the river into Belle Plaine, past old firehouses, churches and 60's era maintenance shops.  Then onto Old Highway 169, aged and nearly empty, but still flat and picturesque country road.  On the left: an abandoned filling station with a single sad child's stroller parked on the trash littered concrete of its parking lot, throwing a long shadow against the faded and boarded up building.  Soon I was winding up a wooded hill and then following hand-painted wooded signs for the orchard--promising pumpkins, apple picking, petting zoo, and most intriguing: apple catapult!  I wound my way into thick forest canopy, yellow and orange leaves glinting in the early morning sun and swirling from road in my wake.  Old Fred continued to sing of lost love and Blue Tick hounds.  The trip up to this point had a surreal feel to it that is hard to convey--a feel of rural life, age, and the death of yet another Summer.

When I found myself on the orchard grounds, I felt that I had stepped into Fall incarnate.  The cool air, the smell of dry leaves and earth, the woodsmoke from the BBQ food truck, the flash of orange from an enormous mound off pumpkins--all assailed the senses at once.  I parked in the already busy grass parking area, and headed to a large white event tent that was set up for my crew.  Kent, Joe and Bob (and spouses) were already setting up the antediluvian press when I arrived.  A large pallet of Haralson apples had been left for us, as well as an empty to collect our apple leavings for the farm's goats to gorge upon.  A line of empty carboys, including my own, cried out to be filled with the sweet and sticky nectar of the apple.  In order to get the most juice from a apple it has to be ground into chunks before crushing, and somewhere along the line one of our men had hooked the ancient wooden press up to a motor for more efficient apple grinding. 

Not really Tidy Cat...

With a trickle of JAB members coming in over time we expanded our process, eventually finding a rhythm and a job for everyone to do.  Two to three people would dunk the sometimes muddy groundfall apples into buckets of water to rinse them off, then cut out any glaringly bad spots before throwing them into a collection bucket for the grind.  The water was bone-chillingly cold, leading to icy and numb fingers.  By the end of the day most of us were wielding our short and shining knives like miniature elven blades.  Rinse.  Scrub.  Stab.  Rotate.  Plop in the bucket.  Repeat.  Sarah and Debbie were like whirling dervishes with those knives.

Two men would run the ghetto motor and drop the cleaned and pared apples whole into the whirring grinder.  This part of process brought to mind visions of Stephen King's The Mangler, a story about a cursed industrial laundry press that gets possessed by a demonic entity and results in multiple "accidents."  Thankfully all digits remained in place at the end of the day's work.  A spray of white apple chunks would squirt and thump out the bottom of the grinder, into the waiting mesh-lined wooden bucket. 

When the bucket was filled and flattened, the wood top was placed over it and the hard work began.  With an old carved wooden pole placed atop the press, the press-gang would wind the huge screw down onto the waiting filled bucket and soon sweet brownish apple juice would trickle from between the wood slats into a waiting flat box.  When the whole wooden press would start to creak its outrage at this treatment, they would stop cranking and let the cider flow for a few minutes.

Catching the cider in a large tub, we would then run it into a carboy or bucket after passing it through a strainer to catch larger chunks, debris and yellow-jacket wasps (thankfully not many of those on this cool day.)  Each bucket of apples led to a bit under 1.5 gallons of cider.  We checked the specific gravity and it came out to around 1.056.
The bag of apple pomice (crushed apple guts) was then emptied into our apple graveyard, which was entirely full by the end of the day's pressing.

Periodically groups would head out on foot with a red wagon, or hop on the tractor to find more distant game--looking for sweeter apples to tone down the tartness of the Haralsons we already had.  The kids in the group had a great time doing this and helping out in myriad other ways, making this a full family affair.

This particular day was incredibly busy, striking me as the result of some twisted pairing between the Renaissance Festival and an apple orchard.  Thousands of people milled about the grounds, buying pumpkins, hopping on tractors to pick apples, and just enjoying the fine day.  The country strains of Willie Nelson (or at least a fantastic facsimile) floated from the main building.  Our cider pressing operation soon attracted groups of the milling throng, ogling our progress and asking many questions.  Several of the JAB members took turns fielding questions and demonstrating our process, as well as talking up the club and handing out flyers.  Still a bit exhausted from my recent trip, I sat back a bit more than I probably should have as president of the club.  Later in the afternoon Brent and Randy from Midwest Supplies arrived and brought their fancy technologically advanced stainless steel bladder press along with them.  At that point we had two presses going at once, one nearly unchanged from the 1800's and the other using space age technology.  Ours was more fun to watch!  I'm glad those guys showed up and helped us out or we never would have made it through the whole batch!

High Tech

Sooner than expected, our 5:00 PM finish time arrived, corresponding to running out of apples and topping off the last of Shawn's carboy.  I had expected to stay a few hours, get my cider and then head home.  Instead I spent nearly 7 hours lugging buckets, picking and cleaning apples, and more.  Though I wished Sj had been there with me, I had a remarkable day among friends and strangers.  This was certainly the most effort and time-consuming batch of cider I'll ever make, but well worth it.  With a sore back and a smile on my face, I hauled my carboys of sloshing raw cider to my car and headed back toward Waconia.  Now the sun was lowering and shining through the half-denuded trees with a startling orange glow.  A large bald eagle launched itself from a tree beside the road and swooped so close to my car that I could see the dying sunlight glint from its yellow reptilian eyes.  A magical moment.

Closer to home I discovered the price for driving on dirt and less traveled roads.  As I drove back through Belle Plaine, my car's tire sensors went off, alerting me to a tire pressure of 28 psi in the rear passenger tire.  The wonders of modern technology continued to demonstrate a slow and steady drop in pressure as I desperately tried to get all the way home before the tire completely went out on me.  27 psi as I left the outskirts of town.  26 psi as I made my way past desolate corn fields.  25 psi as I entered the outskirts of Cologne.  24 psi as I pulled into my driveway in Waconia.  Wiping cold sweat from my brow, I chocked the tires and pulled out the jack.  With superhuman effort (requiring me to literally jump up and down on the lug wrench) I managed to get the lug nuts off, and then throw on the donut from the trunk.  Not a perfect end to an otherwise perfect day, but that is often the way life is.

Thanks again to the fine folks at Minnesota Harvest Orchard and Midwest Supplies!  And special thanks to up-and-coming professional brewmaster Tim Roets!

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