[Editor’s note: Article was written in October 2020]
About five years ago, after a trip to Nova Scotia where wild apples were growing everywhere, my friend John and I decided to try our hands at making some cider. We’d both been avid homebrewers for several years, and had fermented apple juice from local orchards before, but we wanted to try some “real” cider made from a mix of cider and wild apples.
We set about building a “system”—a scratter, to grind apples, and a press, to extract the juice. From reading online, I knew that the scratter was the hard part. So I gave the job of building one to John. People were using all kinds of things to grind their apples, from blenders to garbage disposals to paint mixers, mostly with poor results. We found a “fruit crusher” on Kijiji—an Italian made grinder with a cast iron drum. Although it probably worked great on grapes, in our tests it just wouldn’t deal with apples. John then decided to use plans from woodgears.ca (an excellent resource) to build our own. It is made from a turned maple drum embedded with stainless steel screws, hooked up to a ¾ hp motor John found on the side of the road. The stand is made of two honey supers I had built and abandoned because they were mis-measured. It works amazingly well, burning through a bushel of apples in a few minutes.
In our first year of operation, we attempted to use a frame built from some 4×4 material John had found on the side of the road (you might be noticing a theme here). The wood was from some Chinese pallets, and although they were beefy, they were not terribly heavy. On the first press the frame started creaking, and it blew out completely on the second, and we patched it together with 2×6 pine and limped through the rest of the day.
For the next year, I re-built the frame from some rough sawn hardwood a friend found in his garage, left by the previous owner. We think it’s either ash or oak—either way the boards are 12”x1” and look quite nice planed, sanded and oiled. This frame does not creak, even under 20 tons of jack pressure.
The other key piece of equipment are the racks, which are made from the same hardwood, ripped into 1” x 0.5” strips, and glued up as lattice. A couple of racks are wood strips glued to plywood, and we use these stronger racks at the bottom and top of the stack.
Our process has evolved over the years, but it is roughly this:
We start the set up the day before, as this saves us a lot of time in the morning. With the scratter set up in a screen tent to keep wasps off, we blend our apple collection as evenly as we can, trying to get a mix of sweet dessert apples, wild apples, and crab apples. We scrat in lots of 4 bushels, as we find this is what fits into a single press run, and yields roughly 2 carboys (40 L). It also fits conveniently into a 104 L tote. We will fill 2-3 totes, move them inside the barn (where we press), and let them oxidize until browned. Oxidation helps develop colour and finished cider shelf life.
John will run the press while I continue to scratt the rest of the apples. Pressing is what takes the most time, with each press run taking 45 min or more. John lays down a rack, puts down the cheese mold (a square frame, lays a curtain over that, and then fills the mold with apple. He then folds the curtain evenly and tightly over the apple to form a “cheese”. He repeats this operation 5 more times until we have a stack, and then he adds in a bottle jack (or two) and applies pressure. As the juice runs, the cheeses lose volume, so he must relieve the jacks, add spacers, and then add more pressure, sometimes repeating this 2 or 3 times, until the juice stops running. We then dismantle the stack, collecting the spent apple pomace for the composter. Apparently, you can make excellent cider vinegar from the pomace as well, but we haven’t tried this yet.
We’ve tried different material for the cheeses, and have found that nylon or polyester sheers or curtains work the best. They are easy to clean, absorb very little juice, and are relatively strong. We get ours at the local thrift shop.
Since we both have kids, we keep a lot of juice sweet, and serve it on tap or from frozen through the year. Some of it we ferment as well, and we’ve tried various yeasts over the years from cider-specific yeasts, beer yeast, wine yeast, and wild ferments. Every year the wild fermented cider turns out the best, so we have ended up doing most of our fermenting au naturale. The disadvantage is that it takes longer for a wild ferment to get going, and to finish, so there’s a lot of waiting involved.
Cheers, and happy cider making!
Drew Avis is a homebrewer living in Burritts Rapids, Ontario. He is a member of the Members of Barleyment.