The Art of Apple Cider

8/24/2017

Fall 2017

There’s no better way to celebrate fall than with the timeless tradition of hand-pressed cider.

As the sagebrush fields and basalt cliffs give way to mile after mile of fruit-laden orchards and lakeside vineyards, I know my wife, Bekah, and I have arrived at the heart of Washington apple country for one of our favorite annual to-dos. Every October, family, friends and friends-of-friends from all over the Pacific Northwest converge in Quincy to eat, laugh and make up to 100 gallons of fresh cider from nearby orchards, which thrive in the area’s volcanic ash-rich soil.

I attended my first cider press 11 years ago at the invitation of Chris Staudinger, a friend since middle school, and the great nephew of Peggy Emtman, the matriarch and host of this annual gathering. Bekah and I have attended the press on and off since, so it’s become somewhat of a pilgrimage. It’s a gathering free from the pressures of traditional holidays – just good people getting together to take part in the custom of making a wonderful fall libation. (At the end of the day, I greedily cram the back of our 2010 Forester with as many gallons of cider as I can get my hands on!)

From left to right: Suzanne Staudinger, Peggy Emtman, Kathy Emtman and Rick Emtman at the 2016 annual cider press.
From left to right: Suzanne Staudinger, Peggy Emtman, Kathy Emtman and Rick Emtman at the 2016 annual cider press.

A Family Affair 

Peggy, an octogenarian, and her husband, Ray, who passed away in 2010, founded their orchard in the early ’60s. “We knew nothing about irrigation,” she says, standing next to her stunning garden, carpeted with hundreds of brilliant dahlias. Both came from families of dryland wheat farmers in eastern Washington. “We said, ‘If we can’t make it, we’ll go grow pineapples in Hawaii!’” Their gamble and hard work paid off, and they eventually increased the orchard’s size from 10 acres to more than 200. As it turns out, they rode the wave of a booming industry: The Washington Apple Commission estimates that there are now more than 175,000 acres of apple orchards in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

In the early ’80s, as the orchard expanded, the idea of starting an annual cider press caught on as a way to show appreciation for the pickers’ hard work. “Dad wanted to do something fun for them before they moved on,” says Rick, Ray and Peggy’s son. The first press was such a huge success that it became an annual fixture. “The pickers and their families used to come and just camp out in the parking lot with their guitars,” says Peggy. “It was fun!” These days, Rick and his wife, Kathy, are the main organizers of the event.

Suzanne Staudinger picks apples for cider.
Picked apples are collected in red, wooden bins.

Pickup Game 

We begin our work on this gorgeous fall morning by donning apple harvesting bags – a kind of bulky, canvas sack you carry over your shoulders. The bags are equipped with hitches that allow you to open the bottom so the apples drop into the red, wooden apple bins. As we set to work in the crisp air, I quickly remember just how tough the art of apple picking is. As in years past, I repeatedly attempt to master a special wrist flick/roll technique for plucking apples that preserves the stem’s attachments for better future growth. However, as the morning rolls on, I still have much to learn. It takes our group about an hour of hard work to harvest the several bins of apples we need – only hand-picked fruit is used to avoid ground contamination.

The chopping crew prepping sanitized apples for the final stages of pressing.
The chopping crew prepping sanitized apples for the final stages of pressing.

Chop Talk 

After we finish picking, the real fun begins. We sanitize the equipment and tables, then gather around the chopping blocks (flipped over apple bins) to begin hours of chopping thousands of pounds of Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Fuji, Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp apples. The cider recipe changes slightly each year depending on the seasonal availability of the apples as well as whatever the latest trendy apple is – sweet and crunchy Honeycrisp is the market crush this year.

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Quartered apples are put into the electric grinder to be minced before they go through the wood press.
Quartered apples are put into the electric grinder to be minced before they go through the wood press.

We sanitize the apples via a light bleach-water dunk, and two volunteers carry them to the chopping tables. The crew sets to work, using tools ranging from chipped cleavers to old chef’s knives to the Excalibur of apple slicing – a curved, razor-edged Kershaw Alaskan hunting knife.

When we finish cutting, another group ferries the quartered apples to the electric grinder to be minced before the penultimate stage: the reliable old wood press. Here, all of our hard work is rewarded as we watch the apples being pressed and transformed into a beautiful amber stream flowing steadily into buckets. The sturdy press has weathered countless crankings over the years with only one breakdown, due to a worn-out sprocket.

For our finishing act, we put the buckets of cider through a gravity strainer – the final filtering – then pour the cider into dozens of repurposed sanitized jugs while congratulating ourselves on a job well done.

The old wood press has delivered cider over the years.
The final step is filtering the cider through a gravity strainer.

See You Next Year

As I walk among the orchard’s trees, I remember how Chris and I used to ride the resident golf cart at full speed up and down the rows, bouncing over fallen apples. It occurs to me that, even as an adult, I wouldn’t mind taking the cart out for a drive today. Sadly, the faithful old cart has tumbled over one too many Fujis and kicked the bucket.

Peggy and the family kept the orchard running for years even after Ray passed away. A few years ago, however, she sold most of the orchard to another grower under one condition: that family and friends continue to be allowed to pick a few bins of apples for the annual cider press.

As the final jugs are topped off and the press comes to a close, I notice that a nearby 25-acre section of the orchard that once hosted Braeburns, Fujis and 60-year-old Golden Delicious trees has been bulldozed and planted with a new crop. Feeling nostalgic and a little defensive, I ask Rick why the new growers have knocked down the rows of perfectly healthy trees. “They’re planting cider-specific varieties of apples,” he says. They’re New England varieties with humble looks and quaint old-world names like Roxbury Russet, Dabinett and Yarlington Mill. “They aren’t very pretty, but I hear they make a great cider.”

“Oh, well, in that case … ,” I say with a grin.

Things get in the way some years and Bekah and I can’t always attend the annual outing, but I look forward to the press more every year, my appreciation for the tradition growing with time. In an age of rapid technological and environmental change, it’s nice to be a part of a cultural and agricultural practice that goes back millennia. The faces differ slightly every year, but the welcoming smiles are an annual fixture, the smell and taste of that first cup of fresh-pressed cider heralding the arrival of autumn in a way I’ll always remember.

Love fresh fall apples, but don’t know a Dabinett from a Roxbury Russet? Visit our guide to apple varieties across the country!