What with all the apples we had bought, we went ahead and invited over a bevy of friends and neighbors once again for this year's 'BYOJ' cider pressing party. (Bring Your Own Jug)
This always ends up as a fun day, but we never know exactly how the weather is going to turn out. The first year we did this, we had a freak snow storm during October that turned the backyard white. Last year, we managed a perfect, crisp New England fall day. This year was a mix of sharp winds and sudden rain, bookended by warm sunshine. Which mostly just managed to bring out the yellow jackets. I offset this by opening a few large jugs of last year's cider, which had been fermented into an almost champagne-like crisp hard cider. Soon enough, you didn't really care about what the weather was doing.
For the first time, I did a proper job of 'sweating' the apples for the week leading up to the pressing, allowing the sugars to concentrate and the cell walls of the apples to break down for better pressing. It's a multi-step process.
Step 1: Buy some apples. Step 2: Dump them in a pile on a tarp. Step 3: Don't bother them for a week or so.
When you come back and check on them, the apples will be a bit mellow, and a firm squeeze will leave an indentation. Also: all of the creatures in your neighborhood will have found the apples. Mostly, the yellow jackets. And if you're not out there first thing in the morning to gather & wash them, they will have woken up and be buzzing their claim around the mound of ripening apples, and you will have to use a fogger or a kevlar suit to retrieve them.
Or if you've cleverly invited enough over to your house, you can have the kids go get them.
Traditionally, you would use a hand-cranked grinder set into the top of the wooden press to first grind the apples into a pulp. The kids always love doing this, as it makes a real mess of things, and a satisfying smushing noise as the apples drop through one at a time.
Last year, however, one of our friends cleaned and re-purposed a small-ish electric wood chipper into a dedicated apple grinder. It's amazing how you can ramp up production with a grinder powerful enough to smash limbs of oak into pencil shavings. And as much as the kids loved the hand grinder, they really seemed to enjoy pulping the cider with the chipper.
Take the resulting slurry, and slop it into a giant cheescloth sack in the pressing basket. And squeeze. Voila. Fresh cider. No added water. No added sugar. Just pure sweet goodness. Now the challenge is to try and not to let the yellow jackets find it, or you'll be drinking little striped stinging bugs with every sip.
We ended up pressing about 60 gallons of cider again this year. I gave a bushel of apples away to the friend who lets us use his press every year, and left another bushel or so out for the deer and the yellow jackets to finish off. I've frozen some sweet, fresh cider for the holidays, and put up a bit more than 35 gallons to ferment into next season's hard cider, to make sure that we'll have enough fuel for next year's cider pressing, and our friends and neighbors all took home the rest in a variety of containers.
This weekend also happened to be my birthday. In a fit of creative cake artistry, my Bride and the kids put together a special cake to celebrate me successfully making it all the way around the sun one more time.
Note the chickens.
I only got stung by yellow jackets 4 or 5 times over the course of the day.
I couldn't have imagined a better way to celebrate my birthday.