This year’s Gravenstein apple crop — at least in my mother’s organic orchard — was great. The late spring and cool summer meant the apples ripened up later and we didn’t engage in the annual cider making ritual until the end of August.
This year was probably my 35th year of making cider and my son and his friends are now old (and strong) enough to do a lot of the work. My family uses an antique oaken cider press that is probably about 100 years old. I’ve had to replace a few minor parts, but it still works great and we always have a blast cranking out the delicious juice.
This year we made roughly 20 gallons of cider. My family took a little over half and the other families took the rest. We freeze most of the cider, but we made enough to boil a few gallons down to syrup for a maple syrup alternative. When my father was alive, he would always make enough to drink with breakfast the entire year, though he preferred a blend of Golden Delicious and Jonathan apples that was a bit too sweet for my taste. Even with some of our cider going to syrup or used for mulled cider at Christmas, we often have trouble getting through everything we make and some portion of cider will start to ferment in the refrigerator. I like this mildly fizzy, alcoholic drink almost better than the fresh, though the feeling is not shared by my wife.
As I was setting up for this year’s party, I had to pull a dozen wooden apple boxes from under my mother’s house. As I dragged them out, I bumped against a crate of dusty champagne bottles that took me back to when I was in high school and college and I had gone into business as a cider maker. I made 20-30 gallons each summer and fall to sell as well as for my family to drink. I never got rich selling cider, but some summers I made between $60 and $80, which seemed like a lot at the time. My customers were quite loyal and some would contact me each summer to see if I had any cider for them yet.
By the time I was in college, my friends and I were becoming interested in making alcoholic beverages. We schemed about a way to take advantage of my experience in making large quantities of cider and having the apples and equipment. We started out modestly, using a 5 gallon glass carboy that had been stored away under my family’s house, and with some champagne yeast and a fermentation lock, made passable hard cider.
Our initial success spurred us on to greater aspirations. One of my friends obtained an old top-loading washing machine and set to work. He pulled out the agitator and dropped a plywood disk studded with nails pointing up. He replaced the lid with another piece of plywood pierced with a length of 4″ diameter PVC for a feed tube. The drain line ran to a tub in the back. We washed everything as thoroughly as possible, then set the washer on spin cycle and let it rip. We dropped the apples in the tube. The nails instantly shredded them, bits of apple shot out the top and through gaps at the edges, but juice started gushing out the drain tube. We were laughing so hard we could barely keep loading apples.
Fast forward a few weeks and we had a lot of cider fermenting, even after one of the carboys exploded in my friend’s garage (causing it to smell like a brewery for months). Another friend supplied us with several cases of champagne bottles he’d snagged while helping cater some weddings. Another friend, David Lee Ingersoll, created a label for us and English Hill Cidery was born.
English Hill Cidery’s product wouldn’t have won any awards, but it was drinkable, at least after the second glass or so. We consumed most of it over the next year or two, but we had made so much that I don’t think we made more before we had all finished college or moved on. Many years later, a few bottles are still sitting at my mother’s house. I haven’t mustered the courage to open a bottle and they’re probably best remaining as museum pieces.