Apples grow in abundance in my area. Through most of our country they do, actually. In the early colonial days, our predecessors planted loads of Apple trees in response to the high cost of barley, and more importantly malted barley. In their quest for a refreshing, satisfying beverage with enough kick to keep it from going bad, they discovered hard cider. Sure, it wasn’t actually a new fermentation. People had been brewing wines and meads from Apple for centuries by the time our European ancestors settled in Northern America. But, for those early settlers, just as for us today, hard cider was a veritable discovery.
But, this is a memoir, not a history lesson, you might be thinking right about now. I must tell you the year I brewed hard cider, I did my forefathers proud, and to truly appreciate that, I wanted to put my family’s epic efforts into perspective.
Apples are relatively easy to gather in my area. All of them, even the mealy little ones you find on abandoned trees left to grow wild in old lots where no one lives anymore, produce a respectable lot of juice. Our forefathers, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson included to be sure, would have worked with apples a lot more like those little almost-crabapple-sized ones akin to the abandoned tree style apples we harvested that year. Back in America’s early days, farmers used a precursor to modern science’s genetic manipulation, selective breeding and grafting, to expand the variety of apples available, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that apples began to grow to comparatively colossal size. Hard cider was the biggest driving force behind the expansion in apple varieties up until prohibition.
Surely, those early settlers would have gathered their harvest as the apples ripened like we did. From late August on, I scoured our city for apples that clearly were underappreciated, fallen on grassy lawns or tucked away places where they’d been ignored for years. I kept my ears open, too. Anyone who didn’t want their apples that year was guaranteed to have an apple-free lawn and tree within an afternoon if I caught wind of the situation. Every few days, I’d launch my little family off on another apple-gathering excursion. Hubby used the apple picker; he loves tools of all kinds. My boy climbed; his expert climbing skills and light weight made up for his short seven year-old arms. I picked everything in-between and lugged full boxes to the car.
Apples juice better if they’ve had at least a week to just sit in a cool, dark place. That turned out to be rather convenient. The first of my apples sat a month or more, the last a week…at least the final fight over whether we had enough apples to make hard cider lasted about a week. Finally, I conceded, but only because I’d run out of boxes and garage space. Even in my zeal, I could see my man was right. It was time to press.
We rented an apple press from a local farmer. We set up the press early in the morning and pressed all day. As the day progressed, various other homeschooling families stopped by, helped out, tasted some fresh cider, and took home jugs to share. Neighbors who’d never even thought about where their grocery store cider comes from stopped by, too. We shared our knowledge and our cider with them. When the public school kids came home, several of them stopped by to join in as well, most commenting on how lucky my boy was to be pressing instead of sitting in a classroom. He’d usually treat them to a tirade on how hard it is to have to pick so many apples, but I choose to believe he was secretly pleased with all the attention.
By day’s end, I’d spent about thirty dollars or so and we’d pressed about forty gallons of cider. I fermented fifteen gallons as hard cider and another eight as cyser, also known as Apple wine. We turned another eight gallons into vinegar. We froze a good five gallons and gave away at least four gallons. I honestly lost count after the thirty-fifth gallon of pressing. It was an almost endless stream of apples and cider on a long, tiring day.
But, oh, what a brilliant day it was. I’ve got to believe pressing day on an early northern colonial farm would have been equally filled with laughter, sunshine, spills, aching muscles, children running about and the sweet, promising scent of freshly pressed apples of a crisp fall day.