November 7, 2017

Cider 13 (2017)

Another great year for cider. The weather was beautiful, the company good, and the cider delicious. Ben's writeup can be found here.

Apple Supply
Apples were plentiful this year. This makes sense since apples tend toward biennial production, with last year being light and the year before being very heavy. For the first time the orchard in Five Islands made a significant quantity of fruit. These trees were planted over ten years ago and are mostly on Antonovka. They are getting pretty big now, and looked lovely in the spring when covered with blossoms.

Ben and his parents have worked hard to build the orchard and take care of it, so it is satisfying to see returns ramping up. This year Ben spent plenty of money and time implementing an organic spray routine to keep the bugs down, and Emily and Dave picked about 1000kg of fruit from the orchard and from wild and untended trees around the island.

There were still a few apples on the trees in the orchard when we arrived for cider. Emily led some picking on saturday, some of which went toward making apple crisp for dinner.

For quite a few years now we have sourced about half our fruit from Autumn Hills orchard in Groton, MA. They give us a good blend of high quality varieties including Golden Russet, Cox Orange Pippin, and Spencer. We buy two bins of seconds from them, and usually Ben has driven down in his truck to meet me there and pick them up. It is a lot of driving for him though, and he is already stretched thin working long hours with his company near Portland and preparing for cider in Georgetown. So this year we experimented with shipping the apples from Groton to Portland. 

I salvaged a bunch of sturdy boxes from work; we empty out lots of these since a portion of our incoming silicon chunks arrive in them. One box holds 30kg of Si chunk, double bagged in 5kg portions. My original plan was to load the boxes and plastic wrap them to two pallets, but it turns out to be cheaper (at least with the company I used this time) to ship via van courier. The sales guy said the drivers are cheaper for a van and the vehicle burns less gas. 

Jim Serdy, a friend from work, was good enough to join me for a morning of packing apples at Autumn Hills. 

We loaded up 24 boxes from two bins, about 20-25kg per box. We picked a few pears and enjoyed the scenery until the courier showed up, then helped him load the van. That afternoon the boxes were delivered in Portland, then transported in Ben's big red truck to deeper Maine. With the purchase and shipping I spent around $400 on these apples, still a reasonable deal for having good fruit delivered.

Total apple input on Saturday was 1589kg.

Equipment Upgrades
First off, Ben rebuilt the hydraulic bike stand for the press. He incorporated an outboard motor fuel tank as the oil reservoir, taking the place of the bucket with a rag over the top. A new frame was built from 80/20 extrusion, with the exercycle mounting via front fork to the side.

 The chain coming from the crank cog goes to a freewheel cassette mounted on a jackshaft near the bottom of the frame, complete with fully functional (though upside down) derailleur. 

This shaft spins in pillow blocks mounted to the 80/20 and has a large diameter double groove cast iron sheave on it to serve as a flywheel on one side, with a small step sheave mounted in the other side to power arbitrary attachments on the table top via a long V belt. Just inboard of the step sheave is a sprocket which links by chain to the log splitter pump. The hydraulic controls are mounted to the frame such that it is easy to operate them while riding the bike.

This improved bike power stand will probably mostly run the Country Living grain mill those 364 days a year when it doesn't run the cider press. However, even on that day it is now possible to mill grain and press cider at the same time. This takes more concentration on the part of the biker, since the right speed to operate the grain mill needs a different gear than the final high pressure push of a press cycle. But the derailleur makes this possible.

As part of the new bike stand project, Ben replumbed the hydraulics and tidied things up so hoses are more out of the way and the plumbing is more svelte.

Another major equipment improvement was made by Eerik to the bottling rig. He built some cool linear slides from roller blades and 80/20. Ben and Eerik worked out a neat compound action footpedal system from odds and ends in the barn, with the force needed to keep the bottle filler seated in the bottle provided by the weight of assorted chunks of metal.

Eerik put in a very full day Saturday operating this new setup to fill many a case of 750ml bottles with last year's hard cider.

I bought an antique corn sheller from ebay and tuned it up in Somerville before cider. I'll make a post on that project later on. 

To adapt it for use with a bicycle, I hand filed a die cast sheave to fit onto the square taper drive of the shaft. 

This wasn't perfect but it worked well enough to shell quite a bit of corn quickly. Before trying it, I didn't appreciate that the cob had to nearly exit the bottom of the sheller, but was then pulled back and to the side by the spike disk and ejected out the side. So when I made the stand for the device to clamp to, it put the sheller too close to the table, resulting in the cob getting jammed. We pulled off my plywood base and mounted the thing on blocks to the improved bike power stand.

When we first tried the sheller on Friday night, everyone was highly impressed by how quickly and efficiently it stripped kernels. One problem though was this it sprayed corn absolutely everywhere. So we quickly repurposed a plastic bin to fit over the device and contain most of the corn blizzard. Ben is working on installing a chain guard below.

I taped a flap on the cob-out hole to keep kernels from spraying out too much. Somehow when the cob boinks its head out of the flap after the raucous stripping of kernels, it is tremendously amusing. Check these videos out.

The only downside to having the same bike power stand operate the cider press and the corn sheller/grain mill is that the rider has to pay more attention to the press operation than the grain. So I think the throughput on the grain suffered a bit, and we were cutting it close with finishing the grain processing in time to turn the output into dinner.

I made up 8 new press cloths for cider this year since we were running low after a few old ones suffered blow outs. I ordered the same 12oz cotton canvas from which we have previously used with good results. The fabric that arrived was extremely stiff, I think because of some kind of sizing applied to the fabric. After cutting and hemming the edges, I did wash the cloths twice and machine dry and steam iron them once, but they were still quite stiff. I figured they would get worn in quickly and folded them up to bring to Maine. 

However, trouble was immediately had when using the new cloths in the cider press. The fabric seems to be resistant to passing liquid through its weave, so the layers of wrapped up shredded apple acted like water balloons rather than sponges getting liquid squeezed out of them. The stack of grates and bundles would buckle and try to squirt out the side rather than compressing smoothly. As a result the new cloths were put aside and the old cloths were made to limp along and give another year of service. 

Not sure what to do about the new cloths - I'm thinking washing them a few more times in hot water with strong soap, maybe once with bleach? Anyone know a good way to strip sizing off new cloth?

Cider Processing
Running the cider process went well.

The bike driven washing tunnel was set up again

This time with some manipulators to help the apples get out at the end.

There were enough willing people to operate the machines and do the labor intensive step of cutting bad spots off the incoming apples before putting them through the washer.

The grinder had few problems despite getting rode hard all day and put away wet.

Ben had an electronic scale for the block and tackle in the middle of the barn, and used that to weigh all the apples before processing.

After the issues with the new press cloth were figured out, the pressing part of the operation went smoothly.

Cider is kept track of as it is bottled.

Child 2 helped me wash out and sanitize kegs, then I racked the remaining carboys of last year's cider into these for carbonation and bottling.

Here is a whirlwind tour of the main steps of the process:

The final count as taken was 

1589 kg apples
1041 liters of cider

This works out to about 69% yield, consistent with our previous years. This amount of apples is a good fit for our current capabilities. All the apples were run and some cleanup done by the time dinner was ready. The different parts of the process are relatively well matched now with no obvious bottleneck, so to get much higher throughput in a single day we would have to upgrade several steps. Probably if we hadn't had to fool around with the new press cloths, the grinder would have more obviously been the pacing item.

On Sunday the bulk tank of the run destined for fermentation was distributed to carboys.

Preparation and washing up was much more convenient this year because Ben and family had organized the acquisition and installation into the barn of a second hand stove, refrigerator, and sink. It was nice to be able to cook dinner without having to be completely removed from the goings on, especially since the nearest available oven would otherwise have required driving this year.

Food preparers seem to have settled into a routine menu:

- Fri. Night: Black bean burritos at the shore cabin (Ben and Alexis)
- Sat. Morning: Breakfast burritos (Josh and Kelsey)
- Sat. Lunch: Cream Can Supper (Emily and Dave)
- Sat. Dinner: Chili, cornbread, apple crisp (Becky and myself)

I think it is fine to cook the same meals year after year. These are proven winners, and is once a year too often to eat cream can stew, black bean burritos, etc? I think not. Speaking for myself, I am having a more enjoyable time at cider since we chose easier things to cook for dinner. For instance, it is so much easier to make huge tins of crisp than it was to make four apple pies! And it is cool to process the grain to make dinner, which would not be possible with a lot of pre-work.

In addition to the standby meals above, participants always are generous and thoughtful in bringing other dishes and foodstuffs.

One thing the kids like about this trip is drinking plenty of hot cocoa

Becky prepping apples for crisp:

Dinner on Saturday

Breakfast on Sunday

Sunday lunch - leftovers!

Ben grew rye and a stand of corn in the orchard this year.

The corn was put into the homemade food dryer to get hard enough to grind in time for cider. This corn is a great looking open pollinated heirloom dent corn called Wapsie Valley, from Fedco.

The Five Islands based crew had already threshed the rye with a string trimmer in a barrel and winnowed it using just the breeze.

Saturday we shelled enough corn for dinner using the Black Hawk No. 9 set up on the bike power stand in about 20 minutes.

I roped in Erin and Aaron to help with winnowing the corn, which was swiftly done with the dual box fan setup (the wind was too mild that day for winnowing).

This corn really is attractive.

We switched the sheller out for the Country Living Mill and started grinding (whilst pressing cider of course).

It seemed to me to go slower than the last two years. One issue was the knob controlling the burr spacing kept trying to back itself off every couple minutes, so you had to grab it and tighten it frequently. If one forgot about it, the output got too course and then needed to be put back through the mill. The Country Living is a well built piece of equipment though; I bet something can be done to fix that problem. 

I cajoled my family into picking out the little round black seeds dispersed in the rye, which Ben says are vetch, plus the odd bit of trimmer string (easy to see since it is fluorescent green). The rye then went into the queue for grinding.

We ground up enough grain to make two big trays of cornbread according to this recipe (so 2x below list in total):
  • 900g corn
  • 450g rye
  • 140g chia
  • 200g sugar
  • 70g baking powder
  • 1.5c butter
  • 1600g milk
  • 10 eggs
Mix dry ingredients, work in room temp butter with cutters or whisk. Add wet ingredients and mix. Pour into parchment lined greased trays. Cook at 200C (400F) until tester comes out clean, 30-50 minutes. Top will be quite brown.

These two cornbreads turned out very well; great flavor from the fresh grain grown on site.

Rye was also used in place of wheat to make topping for apple crisp. Becky made up 15 recipes of topping, each consisting of:

- 1/2c oats
- 1/2c ground rye
- 1/2c nuts
- 1/2c brown sugar
- 1/2c butter
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon

Plenty of helpers were kind enough to run three apple peelers and two cutting boards to prep about 30L of apples mainly from the orchard. There were some Redfield, some Spitz, a few Wickson, some Indian Point Russet, among others. Two giant trays with nut topping were assembled, and a small tray with no nut topping. We had a huge amount left over since the people with little kids and babies had mostly turned in by the time it came out of the oven. Those giant trays take forever to bake through. It was good leftover Sunday morning, but there was still a ton left even after lunch on Sunday so next year we will reduce to one huge tray and one small tray. 

Becky made 6 recipes of chilli, which was also too much. Probably cut back to 4 next year. We ate it for lunch Sunday, then took the rest home with us in our big pot. Our family then ate it for dinner for two more days, then froze it for a week, then finished it off as tacos after defrost. Whew, lots of chili.

On Sunday, with a less pressing (ha ha) schedule, Steven and I helped a handful of kids shell the rest of the corn crop.

People worked on bottling up the tank destined for fermentation, stowing equipment, and cleaning up the barn.

The Scene
This was the 13th year of this cider making tradition, and my kids are increasingly into it.

They really like going to Maine, to romp in the countryside, set things on fire, and spend time with the other kids they have made friends with over the years.

These days we always manage to stay in the shore cabin, which is an excellent place to visit. No electricity, plumbing, or insulation. But this adds to the novelty. We always make a fire in the woodstove morning & evening, even if the temperature doesn't truly warrant it. The view across the cove is very peaceful. Child 3 says he wants to live full time in the shore cabin, ha ha.

One of the attractions of the country for the kids is having more freedom than usual to roam around as they please, cut things with knives and burn them up in a fire. Fortunately there are some older kids who seem to be relatively reasonable about keeping things from getting too out of hand (thanks Wilkins kids!). Here they are grinding up some graham crackers with the country living mill, which they later cooked with other stuff as an experiment on the barn stove.

There is one dirt pile near the barn which could have almost been purposely set up to attract kids. This year it had an abundant crop of ripe milkweed pods waiting for them, the seeds of which predictably ended up all over everyone and the neighborhood. Child 2 stuffed her pockets with fluff, which later clogged up the laundry and required several rewashings of that load of clothes. But they had a wonderful time. Here is Child 3 rolling down the dirt pile with Nick. Amazingly there were close to zero injuries the whole weekend!

One downside of the warm and beautiful weather was that the yellowjackets were out in force. Only a couple stings though, which is better than I would have expected from these aggressive pests.

I had brought my fiddle to Maine on the off chance there would be time for music. Saturday is always super busy and chaotic and by the time things are settled it is late and it is hard to motivate to do much besides stare into the fire before turning in. But Sunday things are calmer and since we didn't have to get back to town early this year we took our time. I packed this stuff into our scion xB, along with sleeping bags, pillow, dinner cooking equipment, and the five of us. I have a large cartop carrier!

Ela had also brought her fiddle and was enthusiastic enough to overcome the reticence of a beginner like me and make it happen. I'm not good enough to play along with someone unless I've practiced that particular tune a lot, so I played some of my basic repertoire while Ela jammed some backup lines and chords. Ben soon joined us and played some of his tunes, and we both knew a couple well enough that we could play together. It was a lot of fun, and I hope we can do it again. 

Ben walked us around the orchard on Sunday and climbed up a few trees to pick us a few Spitz and Wickson to take home. The trees are getting big. The best time to plant a fruit tree is ten years ago, so looks like we are ahead of schedule on that front.

My carboys are now bubbling along slowly in my basement.

We use sulfite because it reduces the chances of losing a carboy and makes the results more predictable. I think you can get more interesting flavors using natural yeast and no sulfite, but I don't make enough cider to get the process stable and it really hurts to lose a carboy. Here is my process:

1) I put in 1/2 tsp sulfite powder to the raw cider, in the carboy it will ferment in (assuming a ~20L carboy), then put in a solid plug. Swirl/shake it up a bit.

2) At the same time, I make a starter by boiling 500-1000ml of cider per target carboy to sterilize it in a small pot with a lid. Then I let it cool sitting in a pan of cold water with the lid on. Sometimes I dump ice cubes in the tray if I want it to cool faster (usually I'm doing this at night just after driving back from Maine and I want to go to bed). While it is cooling, make some iodophore solution and sanitize a glass jug or empty 2L plastic bottle, a funnel, and an airlock that will fit the small bottle. Once the boiled cider is cooled down, funnel it into the small bottle.

3) Pitch yeast into starter, put on airlock, dose airlock with iodophore or vodka

4) leave this for 24 hrs. By that time, the sulfite will be dissipated in the main carboy and the starter will be developed. In theory you should be able to pitch yeast straight into the cider without making a starter. However, having tried this for a number of years, I always have better results when using a starter. Without the starter, it often won't start or will be very very slow to start and I'll have to fool around with it adding nutrient and warming it up, etc. The longer it sits without getting eaten by your yeast, the greater the chances something else will start eating it. Using plenty of starter will increase chances of success and make it more likely to just work without intervention. And you have to wait 24 hours for the sulfite to die down anyway, so why not have the starter brewing during that time?

We have mainly used champagne yeast, which is gives a very dry, clean tasting product, and is less prone to getting stuck during fermentation than some of the craft cider and ale yeasts I tried the first couple years of cider making. The one I most often have bought is Red Star brand, in a yellow packet and called Pasteur Champagne Yeast. However last year I tried something called MO2 cider yeast from Mangrove Jack, and I liked the result better. I feel like it got going faster and it had more interesting side flavors going on. I'm using it on all my carboys this year.

5) pitch starter on cider in carboy, put airlock on carboy

6) wait 1-4 weeks for primary to go and die down. I keep it in my basement, which this time of year is 15-20C. I don't think it matters all that much how long you let it go, you just want to let most of the sediment settle and then take it off the sediment.

7) rack to secondary using sanitized carboy and tube. It can sit in secondary indefinitely - the cider we bottle during cider weekend is still in secondary from the year before

8) rack to corny keg

9) carbonate from CO2 cylinder

10) serve or bottle. I usually fill up two 2L plastic bottles with repressurizing caps to drink from at a time.

Cider as it currently stands would be impossible without plenty of hard work and dedication from many folks, both Maine based and visitors. Thanks to everyone for pitching in and making it an enjoyable yearly event. Thanks to Eerik for doing a great job with photos too, many of which I used in this post (you can find the rest of them here).