One of my fondest memories is pressing cider in the fall at my grandma’s farm in western Illinois. By the time I came along, making homemade cider was a long-established family tradition. My late Grandfather, Charles Greuel, harvested apples from his own and other orchards for pressing since the 1940s. The trees that we picked during my childhood still stand and consistently bear wonderful, large apples from midsummer through late fall. Grandma asked Grandpa to plant a nice variety of trees so that she would have applesauce to make over the summer and good crisp fall apples for pies and cider.
The photo above was taken just a couple seasons ago as grandma pressed apples in the exact same press we’ve always used (it’s most likely well over 100 years old). We made cider in the multi-purpose “building” — it has all cement block walls and cement floors with large drains. The building is easy to clean as everything can be hosed and disinfected from use to use. This structure was built by Grandpa and still looks exactly the same. The name “Wagon Wheel Trading Post” displayed on the front is the namesake for our Kansas orchard.
Grandpa Greuel had several arrangements with local farmers to pick their orchards for a percentage of apples. My Uncle Steve remembers parking an old pick-up truck in a huge orchard and filling the bed over and over — one load to the owner and one load back to the building. This would go on until the entire orchard was picked clean. The building had a few walk-in coolers, and some choice apples would be stored, but most would await the press. The floor would be wall to wall with large, overflowing bushel baskets of dark red fall apples.
While pressing cider was hard work, it did have its rewards. Much like cranking the ice cream maker over the summer, the cider makers had no shortage of dessert — all the fresh, cool juice you could drink! Cider making was a multi-generational affair and we would all take turns at the “crank.” Our press was fitted with a large bar at the top that we used for additional leverage as the turning got more difficult. The younger cousins would start the process and the aunts, uncles and grandparents finished off the toughest work. We would press the cider into 5-gallon buckets and at the start the juice flowed quickly. As the pressing continued, the pulp would get concentrated to the point that we would pull it out, set it to the side for the livestock and then start over again. Grandma was always in charge of getting the cloth liner situated and everyone else would chop up apples for the next pressing.
After a couple presses the building would fill with the sweetest aroma, a thick honey-like scent mixed with all the earthy overtones that make you think that fall has arrived. We would press and drink, press and drink until our stomachs ached or our arms gave out. After clean-up, everyone left with more cider than they could handle for the rest of the season and lips stained reddish brown.
In 2008, I found an antique press in Western Kansas and my son and I are restoring it for use this fall. My kiddos are now in the same age range as I was when I created my fondest memories of pressing cider with my family. I can’t wait till fall!