A Pressing Engagement
“Yeah,” Josh laughs. “That’s some serious bite, huh?”
I take another sip of his hard cider. To be honest, it isn’t so much cider anymore as it is an apple wine. The potency is through the roof, the flavor divine, and I can only think about how awesome it would be to try to make my own.
“So how’d you make this?”
“A community cider pressing. Want me to let you know next time we do it?”
A panoramic view of the entire pressing operation.
See all my photos from the pressing here.
My eyes dart back and forth, looking for the yellow barn.
“It should be around here somewhere,” Brad says as we tool down the little highway through the north of Longmont.
“You mean that one?” I ask, spotting the small army toiling away. “With all the people, loads of apples, and strange-looking machines?”
“Oh, it’s right there,” he replies, stepping on his brakes to make the turn.
We pull in with an SUV loaded with empty barrels, gaskets and airlocks for the fermentation process, knowing that Brad, Erin, Josh, Laura and friends had picked a mass of apples the previous weekend with cider in mind. None of the 900 pounds of apples laid out in row upon row of bushels are theirs, meaning this is a larger operation than I had anticipated.
I snap a photo or two with my phone, a less than stellar, but ample alternative to bringing a mass of equipment, and weave my way through the heart of the operation to find Josh.
“Hey!” Josh calls as I approach. “Want to tag in and take over at the press so I can find my lovely wife?”
“Umm, sure,” I say, unsure of what I’m getting myself into. “Just show me what to do.”
And just like that, I join the fray.
My Six Degrees of Cider Separation starts with my good friend Josh. Josh, who grew up split between Colorado and Vermont, is a virtual homesteading renaissance man. His family owns a quarry in Lyons, and he’s slowly rebuilding his flood damaged log cabin home by hand with the help of friends and family.
Josh met Steven Jordan, one of the original pressers, on a lark. He spotted the old screw-driven press while stopping in Steven’s home and asked if he made his own cider. Steven responded by handing Josh a gallon of homemade cider and telling him a harrowing tale of machining the nut that helped drive the press.
Steven and Greg began pressing their own cider over 17 years ago, slapping together their makeshift rig out of found, rescued and custom machined parts. Each agonizing hand-turned gallon of cider produced was a prize hard-earned with sweat, ingenuity and brilliance. They called their little cider lab Looney Tunes for the crazy way that the machines themselves were built, a title they remind people of even as they’re making adjustments on the fly today.
The old screw press is still tucked away in Steven’s house, just across the way from the barn outside of which they set up. Today, however, they have a fancier makeshift press built from a repurposed hydraulic jack from a garbage truck. The barn itself is filled with precision machining equipment, spare parts, and all sorts of interesting tools and gadgets. At every step of the process, from the simple 2×4 lengths on the sorting table, to the sugar beet washer now pumping water over apples, to the milk chiller doling out gallon after gallon of cider, the piecemeal operation is built from anything and everything they could get to do the job.
“We have more than twice the number of apples here than we did the last time we did a pressing,” Greg tells me. Of that, I have no doubt.
It’s been two years since the last pressing. One silver lining to the flooding in Boulder county and the surrounding areas is that it, combined with a wet summer, meant a bumper crop of apples this year. Before I got there, three trailers of apples were unloaded from Greg and Steven’s supplier. That doesn’t include the mass that my friends collected, nor the ones other people brought.
“Really, it’s our supplier and Josh. Most people brought a bag here or a bushel there,” laughs Greg, “hardly enough to count.”
I look around at the crew of people, some standing idly by wondering what to do, some furiously working. Throughout the day, 15-40 people are working, milling about, and enjoying food, company and cider. Most only pop in for a few hours before disappearing, but a core group of about 20 are there the entire day. With six stations and ten or twelve jobs, some which require multiple sets of hands to keep up with the steady flow of apples, it’s no wonder this is a serious operation.
The process starts on the sorting tables. Three to eight people constantly dig through bushel after bushel of apples, picking out rotting, nasty apples from among the plethora of good ones. As the apples roll down the table, each set of eyes and hands rolls over the apples looking for ones to toss, and occasionally the best of the bunch to eat.
“In previous years, we didn’t even bother sorting them,” Justin, a veteran of eight years, tells me. “But we’ve got so many good ones this year, we can pick the best.”
The apples are dumped back into bushels and brought up to the old sugar beet washer. They’re washed twice, once in recycled water to get the dirt off and once with clean water for a bit more purity. As people rotate in and out at the washer, dumping two bushels in at a time, the amount of time for each wash is adjusted accordingly. Some workers keep time on a watch or timer. When I have a go, I time it the first few times until I find the rhythm of the seconds to the vibrations from the motor and start counting in my head.
A large foot lever opens the other side of the washer, dumping the apples into a funnel table where they’re ushered into a chopper. The chopper, which has a clearly hand-built frame, spits apple mash into buckets that are sliding in and out. Occasionally, when people aren’t paying attention or someone switches posts or tags out, the buckets are left overflowing onto the ground. Still, most of the apple mass is conserved.
The buckets of apple mash are shuffled over to two long steel tables. Three wooden frames fit perfectly to the wooden plates are used to create a temporary bowl for microfiber cloths. The apple mash is dumped into the clothes, packed down to the perfect size, and wrapped up. Once the frame is off, the plate and wrapped mash is shuttled to the press and loaded carefully in a stack, centered by the steel frame. In order to fit all the plates, occasionally they have to be prepressed just a bit to make room, either by hand or with the press itself.
When Josh joined in the pressing process two years ago, the apple crop was mediocre at best. His first batch of hard cider was less than stellar. He loaded some yeast killer in, shoved it in his basement, and forgot about it. A few months later, he tried it again. Apparently the yeast killer didn’t take, and it had fermented even further into the alcoholic wonderfulness that left him “accidentally drunk.”
“It was hard cider,” he jokes.
“If cider is jail, and hard cider is prison, then Josh’s was consecutive life sentences,” I chime in.
As delicious as it was, the fresh cider we’re pressing today is an incredible taste of fall.
“I didn’t know you could get flavors like this out of straight cider,” says Erin, tasting her fourth cup of the day, a late day batch. “I thought you had to mull it or add spices, but no, this is just straight apples.”
The door to the press locks in place with two fickle latches before any cider is actually extracted. This makes sure all the liquid flows down into the basin and the three drains. Each drain leads to a filter, which collects the cider in a tub. The bag filters need to be squeezed every pressing or two to make sure there’s no backup. Twice I see them adjust or fix filters, and far more often the filters are rinsed.
The plates and cloths when removed are loaded back into line, the leftover mash dumped and shaken into a large bin. The bin is taken to fields, trees, and trucks to be unloaded every once in a while so the leftovers can be reused as feed or fertilizer. When shaking out the clothes, the sticky mass flies everywhere, coating everyone nearby in tiny chunks of apple. I feel like flypaper every time I pause to try to wipe my forehead.
From the tub, a pump moves the cider up into the milk chiller. None is removed until the 250-gallon milk chiller is nearly full.
“Come get some cider,” Michelle yells to the crowd. “I mean now! We need more room!”
For the rest of the day, the cider is flowing, the presses are going, and every station is going unless there’s a breakdown. Once, the grinder overheats after jamming, twice the pump a the washer dies, and several times the press and post-production parts are adjusted, replaced, or repaired.
It’s sunset when we finally decide we’re done for the day. Dozens of bushels of apples still remain, piled up. We move them so they miss most of the sun as Greg, Steven and Josh discuss whether to do this again tomorrow.
“I don’t want to do it tomorrow,” Greg says with a smile. “You know, Josh, if it weren’t for your apples, we’d be done right now!”
“I know,” says Josh with a laugh.
As we close up, loading nearly 80 gallons of cider between Josh, Brad, Erin and me (I walked away with a paltry four gallons), the tank is still half full. I have no idea who will come collect the rest of the cider, or press the rest of the apples.
For now, though, I’ve got some good sweet cider. And in a few months, once everything ferments, we’ll be hard pressed to complain.
Steven and Greg are planning another pressing for October 11, when Joe’s family is coming to town specifically to press some cider. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can email them at LTfirstname.lastname@example.org for more information. See all my photos from the pressing here.