How to Make Apple Cider

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At the cider mill, your apples quickly become cider.
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Get a group of friends together for a cider making day.

Forty gallons of apple cider for 17¢ per gallon! That’s what our family stored away in the pantry and freezer last year … and that’s how inexpensively you can bottle your own “liquid gold”. This year — with apple-squeezin’ time already upon us — we’re planning to double our production and put up enough of the sweet, brown nectar to last us until October 1977. And, even allowing for inflation, we expect our costs to run only about 20¢ per gallon.

The virtues of apple juice seem almost endless. It tastes good. It’s a natural sweetener and a plentiful winter source of vitamin C. The tart squeezin’s are said to greatly aid digestion and — when drunk in the morning — increase body performance all day. Being mildly laxative, cider acts to cleanse the digestive tract. That old aphorism about “an apple a day” would seem to hold true even of the liquefied fruit!

Commercial apple juice, of course, is strained of all sediment, pasteurized, and diluted to a set Brix — or sugar concentration — prior to being bottled. (Often, too, preservatives are added.) In contrast, the cider you take home from the local mill–made from apples you picked — will have nothing added or subtracted: it’ll be richer and darker in appearance and abundantly more flavorful and aromatic than the pale, clear juice sold in supermarkets. And it’ll be more healthful, too.

If you want to have a supply of squeezin’s on hand for the coming year, now’s the time to start planning. You’ll have to [1] get your hands on a few bushels of apples, [2] locate a cider mill, [3] round up a good number of jugs or other containers, and [4] decide whether you’re going to preserve your juice by canning it or freezing it. Come with me, and I’ll help you get started.

Forage for Apples

Because we’re fortunate enough to have wild apple trees on our land, we’ve never had to spend a penny of our money or a minute of our time planting, cultivating, thinning blossoms, or otherwise caring for the trees from which we gather our fruit each year. Don’t fret, however, if you haven’t been blessed with apple trees in your backyard … your cider making costs still needn’t be any higher than ours.

Consider this: Every autumn, billions of apples fall from the heavily laden branches of thousands of wild and abandoned trees … only to spill onto roadsides, pour down hills, and rot on the ground. All you have to do is locate — and put to good use — a tiny fraction of these tons of fruit which go to waste each year in abandoned orchards or on public land.

Check around for neglected or wild apple trees in the area where you live (and make sure those trees really have been abandoned, and that you aren’t trespassing on someone else’s property). Chances are, unless you live in an area where — for reasons of climate or soil — apple trees don’t thrive, you should be able to locate enough free-for-the-taking fruit to keep you in juice for many months.

In the suburban neighborhood where we used to live, we discovered some apple trees on land which the state had bought for a freeway right of way … and gathered enough juicy red apples from the orphaned trees our first year to make fifteen gallons of delicious cider. As is the case with most unsprayed, untended trees, the apples we got from these foundlings proved to be undesirable for eating purposes … but were quite satisfactory for cider making. (Since blemished, bruised, and/or undersized apples do make splendid cider — but don’t sell well at the fruit counter — you might even want to ask commercial growers if you can clean such apples off the ground for them.)

If you have a choice, stick with late-ripening varieties — Red and Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Northern Spy, Rome Beauty, Victory, York Imperial — as they generally produce a more flavorful cider than early-ripening fruit. (The best taste, incidentally, comes from blending several varieties together.)

And don’t begin to harvest your crop until the apples have ripened enough to begin failing from the trees. This way, you’ll know that [1] the apples are mature, and [2] the trees will release a good deal more hard-to-reach fruit with a bit of vigorous shaking. You’ll need to harvest your apples soon after they’ve fallen to the ground, however, if you intend to beat the ants, birds, deer, and raccoons to the free eatin’s!

Plan to have plenty of boxes, baskets, sacks, or other containers on hand when you begin your harvest. It takes a bushel of apples to make two to three gallons of cider … which means you’ll need a whole carload of large grocery bags filled with the fruit to make anywhere near 40 gallons of squeezin’s. So come prepared!

Next Stop: The Cider Mill

When you’ve gathered up a respectable quantity of crisp, ripe apples — and you’ve made sure the fruit is reasonably free of dirt, insecticides, mold, and other impurities (washing probably won’t be a part of the mill’s operation) — you’ll want to cart your goodies off to an old-fashioned cider mill.

(Optional: If you have an abundant supply of other fruits, by all means experiment and mix them in with your apples. Grapes, pears, and peaches — stones removed — all make delicious cider blends!)

You may need to drive out into the backwoods and ask around in order to find one of the mills you’re looking for … they probably won’t be listed in the Yellow Pages. Even if you have to travel some distance, though, it’s worth the trip just to be able to watch the goings-on and breathe the heady aroma of all that crushed fruit. I’d probably go each year even if I had no apples to press!

We take our fruit to a mill owned by our neighbor, Bradley Culler (who, incidentally, largely built his “cider works” himself using recycled car engines, grain hoppers, and other items). During his busy season, Brad often doesn’t go home from the mill until 2:00 a.m. Because of the long hours of hard work that get packed into a relatively short period of time–and because of the high cost of owning and maintaining the machinery — cider mills like Brad’s have been closing down across the country in recent years. Brad guesses there may be about 300 still in operation, concentrated mostly in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Washington.

We may build or buy our own small hand-operated press and make small batches of cider at home, someday … but for now, it’s a great relief at harvest time — when everything in the garden seems to demand our immediate attention — for us to be able to cart our apples over to Brad’s mill … watch the lovely red-splotched fruit bobble up the conveyor belt … wait as our pickin’s are ground into pulp, pressed with a force of 76,000 pounds to the square inch, strained, and bottled … and drive home a half hour later with our jugs of sweet, delicious brown cider.

The cost of this service? It’ll vary, of course, from mill to mill, but last fall Brad charged $2.25 for up to 15 gallons, 15¢ per gallon beyond that quantity, and 5 cents per container to fill jugs. By anyone’s standards, this has got to be one of the last real bargains around.

How to Preserve Your Apple Cider

Once you have that dusky liquid safely in your containers, you’d best be prepared to keep it cold or else drink it within a few days. For without the addition of preservatives to retard the growth of micro-organisms, pure apple cider will begin to ferment in about a week if refrigerated … and much sooner if not kept cold. Provided the juice is stored in an airtight container (aerobic — or “exposed to air — fermentation will produce vinegar), its sugars will gradually be converted into alcohol, and the sweet will then become hard cider … a favorite drink of our forefathers, and — in fact — the national beverage up to about 1850.

You may like hard cider. We don’t, so we can or freeze all but a few gallons of the juice (which we set aside for making cider jelly or vinegar) within three days of bringing it home from the mill.

Freezing is not only easier than canning, but preserves the cider’s fresh-pressed flavor better (which is why we load our freezer with as many jugs of juice as we can fit in). When you fill your jugs for freezing — and, by the way, recycled plastic one-gallon milk jugs work just fine — be sure to allow ample room for the liquid to expand as it freezes (at least four inches at the top), unless you want a sticky mess inside your icebox. (If — after the first filling has frozen — you find there’s still some air left in the jugs, you can “top them off” with more cider … but again, allow a little room for expansion.)

When there’s no more space in our freezer, we can whatever juice we have left over. Here, plastic containers won’t do: glass is a must. It’s possible to put up cider in regular one-quart canning jars, but unless you’ve been stockpiling them for decades you’ll probably run out of jars, lids, and patience well before putting up your last quart of juice. A better idea is to use half-gallon or one-gallon glass jugs (the kind that you buy vinegar or cider in at the supermarket).

If you don’t already have a fair quantity of these containers, you might check with local orchards that market their own cider to see if they’ll either sell you the number of jugs you need or direct you to their supplier of containers. Or look in the Yellow Pages under “Bottles”. Once you’ve obtained some glass jugs, of course, you can re-use them for years.

You’ll also need some rubber-lined lids to cap the filled containers.

Canning the cider is simplicity itself once you’ve rounded up your jugs and caps. All you do is [1] empty the juice into a large pot, [2] heat the liquid almost to boiling, [3] rinse out your glass jugs and warm them in a low oven (to prevent the glass from cracking during the next step), and [4] ladle the steaming cider into the jugs. (Hint: A sterilized funnel might make the last step a little easier.) To seal the jugs, simply screw the lids firmly into place before the batch of juice has a chance to cool, then set your containers in a dark place and leave ’em. That’s all there is to it!

This procedure can also be used, by the way, to put up large amounts of tomato, grape, and other juices.

Heating will lighten the color of your cider and take away some of its tang. The slight change in taste will hardly be noticeable, however, if you serve the juice well chilled.

Using Your Apple Cider

With ten or twenty (or forty or fifty) gallons of apple squeezin’s in storage, a tantalizingly sweet-tart thirst quencher is only as far away as your cellar or refrigerator. Which means that on a hot Indian summer afternoon you can cool off with a tall cider-on-the-rocks. Or — on a crisp winter evening — you can heat some juice with a stick of cinnamon and a few cloves for 15 minutes and enjoy hot, mulled cider.

There are other things to do with cider besides drink it, of course. For instance, you can turn it into vinegar: just [1] replace the lids of one or two jugs with cheesecloth held down by rubber bands, and [2] allow the vessels to sit at room temperature. In a couple of months, you’ll have created a year’s supply of vinegar to use in salad dressing, cooking, hair rinses, etc.

Apple nectar is also one of nature’s best sweeteners. Use it creatively in cooking if you’re trying to wean yourself from processed sugar.

Or make cider jelly. It’s easy, since the juice extraction step is already done. Follow a standard cookbook recipe for apple jelly, but for cider jelly use a little less cider per box of pectin than the directions call for.

Because natural cider jelly is light in color and very mild in flavor, I often add some elderberry or grape juice to the recipe to give the spread a delightful red hue and a little more “zip”. Here’s the recipe I use (which has been adjusted for the different amounts of pectin in the two fruits):

Apple Cider-elderberry Jelly

1 box commercial pectin
3 cups apple cider
1 1 /2 cups elderberry juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 pounds sugar

Mix the pectin with the juices in a large pan and heat quickly to a hard boil. Add sugar at once and bring the solution to a full rolling boil. Then boil hard for one minute, remove from heat, skim off foam, pour into glasses, and seal. As with its healthful virtues, apple cider’s uses seem almost limitless.

Don’t Wait

As I said before, now’s the time to prepare for cider pressing. Find a source of apples, locate a mill, and round up some jugs (lids too, if necessary). With a modicum of planning, you should be able — like our family — to put up a year’s supply of good-to-the-last-drop apple cider for about 20¢ per gallon … which is just a little more than a penny per serving.

In these days of sky-high food prices, that’s a bargain.

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