The month of September is usually the most hectic month of the year for us. My wife’s job takes more time than usual and many of her weekends are occupied preparing for the fair. I volunteer to be there with her and help get the fairgrounds ready for 60,000 visitors. Our tomatoes and summer garden need to be harvested. The school year is starting- which means school board meetings begin. We have garlic to plant, chickens to tend, and most dauntingly fruit to deal with.
I love the orchard and grape arbor. It is more of a museum of trees than a working orchard. We don’t spray our fruit. Certainly, pests can chew on our apples-although they leave the vast majority alone. They have sooty blotch and flyspeck- harmless fungi that do not affect the taste but do affect the appearance. An orchard is an interesting undertaking. Unlike most crops which are planted every year and yield every year (well not necessarily in my garden)- an orchard can take a decade to establish. The roots need to grow deep enough that there is plenty of nutrients and water available. It takes pollinators to be able to ensure that there is a good fruit set. It takes a spring with no cold snaps that will kill the delicate blossoms.
You can take some steps to ensure a healthy orchard. We brought in the bees a couple of years ago. We prune every winter. We try to fertilize and weed around the trees when time and money allow (it never does). However, there are some things we can’t control- weather being the primary one. Some years there is enough fruit to put some apples in storage, eat apples all winter long, and make a little applesauce.
This year, there were enough apples to do all that and more. We couldn’t even begin to imagine what we could do with all of them. As I write this, there are still several bushels on the trees, one entire tree to still harvest, and all of the wild trees that we haven’t even begun to harvest.
We decided to press some cider. I have been looking at plans to build a cider press- but there was more than a hand operated press and my limited time could possibly process. We enlisted the help of a friend with a hydraulic press. We took over 10 bushels of fruit (8 apples and 2 pears), and in a matter of a couple of hours turned our Starkeys, Golden Delicious, Golden Russets, Sweet 16’s, and Frostbites into 26 gallons of cider. We turned our pears into a separate 7 gallons of pear cider. We froze plenty for fresh drinking and attempted to make hard cider out of the rest.
I had been thinking about making hard cider for years now. Hard cider is the beverage that many of our ancestors drank. There were many water-borne illnesses, and hard cider was a healthy alternative to water at the time. It was an easy way for them to preserve the harvest. It provided many nutrients that would be lacking in their winter diets. I have read several books on making my own hard cider and picked the brains of so many people I know who are already making their own. I asked questions on sterilization, yeast, and equipment. Unlike home brewing, cider making can be done with minimal equipment. I still made mistakes, however from what I have read and heard, it is fairly forgiving.
Food grade buckets and lids, airlocks (about $1 a piece) and grommets, and yeast are really all you need. I purchased a hygrometer for record keeping. When the cider is ready, I will need some tubing, an auto-siphon (you can use a regular siphon but I like the auto-siphon), a capper, some recycled bottles, and caps. All of the equipment can be had for about $50.
Anna and I poured the cider into freshly scrubbed buckets. We added yeast (this was a mistake- I should have proofed the yeast first, however it shouldn’t really matter). We put the lids on, inserted the airlocks, and filled them to the line with water. We labeled each of the 5-gallon pails with the yeast we used (white wine, ale, and a champagne yeast- the yeasts ranged from $0.49 per bucket up to $2.89), and set them in the corner of the room to begin bubbling away. After the initial investment in equipment, it will cost us about $8 to make 144 bottles of cider. We will see what happens in the future. If all goes well, we will have about 20 gallons of nice cider to drink early next year. If it all goes wrong, we will have vinegar to clean the toilets. Either way, we will have gotten use out of what would have ultimately been more fruit than we could have possibly eaten.