Along with its alcoholic derivative, hard cider, apple cider was a staple in the early days of the United States. Apple cider provided hydration and nourishment for many people along the American “frontier” and more developed areas alike. Having brought in a large apple crop this fall, we made a couple batches of our own at Oak Spring.
Apples form a significant part of Bunny Mellon’s garden–in fact, in 1987, she even erected a building dedicated to processing and storing apples. This building, called the “Apple House,” is where we made the cider. Sitting behind the library and main house, the Apple House holds several walk-in refrigerators, an apple-sorting machine, and walls stacked high with bushel boxes waiting for the next harvest. Each box holds a little over 100 fruits, around 40lbs. Many of these baskets are now stored in some of the refrigerators at the back of the building, holding the fall apple crop.
There’s no way we can eat, use, or give away all of the apples before some of them go bad. That’s where those refrigerators come in. Situated behind the room where apples are washed and processed, these walk-in storage facilities can hold thousands of fruits. Inside, we see boxes filled with the heirloom and hybrid varieties found around Oak Spring. As well as apples such as the Golden Delicious, which people around the country find on grocery store shelves, we grow Arkansas Black, Cox’s Orange Pippin, and Bunny’s favorite apple, the York, among many others. These apples all have distinct tastes and flavors, making a balance of different varieties important when making cider. The Golden Delicious, for example, provides a more bland, sugary taste, which serves as an ideal base for other flavors, such as the tarter Arkansas Black.
For cider-making purposes, we retrieved bushels of washed apples from the Apple House refrigerators. These we set next to the cider press, a hand-cranked machine that grinds apples into pulp before squeezing the cider out of the bottom. At the center of the cider press, ready to receive the pulped apples, sits a bucket filled with cheesecloth. The cheesecloth strains the apples from the cider, making sure that only the liquid enters the jug beneath the press.
For our first batch of cider, we used Golden Delicious, Albemarle Pippin, Fameuse and Baldwin apples, with a couple of pears thrown in as well. The pears provide a smoother, sweeter taste to the tartness of the apples. With the ingredients set up and the tools ready, we began grinding the apples, throwing the fruit into a container at one end of the cider press that funneled them downward and into the gears that turned whole apples into pulp. This whole process is hand-cranked on Oak Spring’s machine; as one person threw apples into the waiting press, another turned the wheel that kept the press going. Within minutes, we filled the bucket with crushed fruit.
Now that we had crushed apples ready and waiting, we had to actually press all of the cider out of the pulpy mess. With a wooden board covering the contents of the bucket, we turned the press until it pushed the board down, compacting the apples and forcing rich cider into the jug placed below. As the cider drains out of the cheesecloth, it drips into a tray at the bottom of the cider press, funneling into the waiting jug. In the Apple House, there is actually a drain set in the floor beneath the cider press in case cider overflows.
Now we have our finished cider. This cider is quite different from the apple juice you’ll see at the grocery store–it has not been pasteurized, so the color is still a creamy brown. After two more rounds of cider-making, we have several waiting containers of new-pressed cider–each a slightly different color. Each batch of cider used different amounts of various apple varieties, from the Golden Delicious to the Albemarle Pippin (Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple), from the Baldwin to the Fameuse. Each apple has its own flavor, color, and even shape–the York, for example, tend to be lopsided. This diversity gives the ciders an equivalent diversity and richness of flavor. Lucky for us, each cider tastes different–meaning that we have more flavors to choose from.