Merridale Cider

A couple years ago I visited Merridale Estate Cidery in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.  With so many folks around Edmonton making cider, and many of them looking for the fastest, most efficient way to produce a year’s supply, I thought I’d post some details from a commercial operation.

The apples at Merridale are all old-world cider varieties, basically inedible out of hand, and absolutely nothing like North American grocery store apples.  They have names like Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, and Hauxapfel.  The varietals are categorized as either sharp, bitter, bitter sharp, or bittersweet.  Here “sharp” refers to acidity and “bitter” refers to tannin and astringency like you find in red wine, tea, and walnut skin, not true bitter flavour like you find in dandelion, radicchio, and hops.

A good cider is a balance of alcohol, acidity, tannin, and possibly sugar.  The exact balance changes with regional styles.  Traditional English ciders are usually bone dry and get their structure from acidity and alcohol.  Sea Cider’s Wild English is a great example (though it’s Canadian). French ciders can go this way, but there is a certain French breed that is sweet, with very little acidity, getting its structure more from tannin.  Cidre Kinkiz is one example of this style that is available here in Edmonton.  I really hate that cider.  Anyways.  All Merridale ciders are a blend of multiple apple varietals.

I was surprised to see the trees in the orchard.  I assumed that a commercial orchard would take pruning very seriously, as it gets more sunlight to the leaves and increases fruit quality and ease of picking.  The trees at Merridale have nice lateral growth but are not as manicured as I had imagined.  Not sure if it’s just too much work to prune such a large orchard, or these tree shapes give the most yield, or what.

A view of the apple orchard and a small beekeeping set-up.

In the fall the apples are harvested and washed before crushing.

This is the”1960s Bucher Mill” crusher.  The apples are loaded into the basin shown at right, under the red frame.  An auger or conveyor carries them up the ramp to the left, where they are dropped into the crusher.

The crusher at Merridale Cider.

Here’s a view of the crushing mechanism.

The actual crushing mechanism at Merridale Cider.

This is the press.  It’s an accordion-type structure supporting plastic sheets.  At each end is a hydraulic pump that pushes the accordion closed and brings the plastic sheets close together.  The apple mash is put into porous bags, and each bag is inserted between the plastic plates.  The juice falls into a trough beneath the accordion.The cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery


A close-up shot of the pressing plates on the cider press at Merridale Estate Cidery.

The juice from the first press is used for cider.  Juice from subsequent pressing is high in tannin and acid and reserved for distilling.  At Merridale 7 kgs of fresh apples can yield 4 L of juice.

Some of the cider at Merridale is chaptalized, notably for their Scrumpy, which is 11% ABV.  The natural sugar in their apples would only yield about 7% ABV.

Here are some of their fermentation tanks.

A large fermentation tank at Merridale Cider.

The finished cider is filtered at 1 micron using this contraption.  Merridale says that this filtration clears the cider of sediment without stripping the beverage of its fresh apple character.

The filter at Merridale Estate Cidery

Merridale cider is not pasteurized and is still very much alive when bottled.[1]  They use plastic bottles instead of glass (less explosion risk), and the bottles absolutely need to be kept refrigerated throughout distribution to prevent any undesired fermentation.  Bottling is done with a “1960 German champagne filler”.  I wish I had asked more about that machine.  CO2 is added at bottling.

Incredibly, I took no photos of their packaged product to show you, but you can check our their website.

It’s hard to find a truly dry cider (most are sweet, because, you know, only girls drink cider, and girls have to drink sweet things).  The Merridale Traditional and Scrumpy ciders are great, and quite dry.  They also make sweet varieties and even some pink ones containing berries.

Kevin made a video about Merridale, which is how we even knew to visit them in the first place.  We actually stayed at the estate for two nights in one of their yurts.  It was great to get a look inside an operation that produces craft cider and spirits.



  1. I see on the Merridale website now that some of their ciders are indeed pasteurized, or available in both pasteurized and unpasteurized formats, so either they have changed their process, or maybe I misunderstood my tour guide.

River City Kir

River City Kir: dry apple cider with a splash of cherry liqueurThe River City Kir: sparkling hard apple cider with a splash of cherry liqueur.  Something so simple shouldn’t need a complicated origin story.

[Pauses awkwardly, before rapidly relating a complicated origin story]

A Kir is a French cocktail, a glass of white wine with a bit of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur).  There are a number of common variations.  The Kir Royal, for instance, uses Champagne instead of still white wine.  The Kir Breton uses hard cider.  So this most recent invention was inspired by the Kir Breton.

I’ve tentatively titled this drink the River City Kir.  I’m open to other suggestions.  This is the first cocktail I tried with my homemade cherry liqueur.  It’s a knockout.  My cider is bone dry, and quite tart, so it takes the sweetness of the liqueur beautifully.  And the colour is fantastic.

I can see the River City Kir becoming my house apéritif for the summer months.

Why Cider Matters to Edmonton

This week I am giving a presentation at Eat Alberta about how to make cider.  I’m not an expert by any leap of the imagination: I’ve only been making cider for three seasons, and truthfully everything (everything!) that I know I learned from Kevin and Chad and a handful of websites.

The preamble to my presentation is called “Why Cider Matters”, and I thought I’d share the gist of it with you.

An apple blossomBackyard cider-making is the single most exciting movement within our local food scene.  A bold statement, I know.  Of all the burgeoning activities related to food production – gardening, fishing, visiting farms, joining CSAs, foraging mushrooms, hunting – cider-making may be the most accessible, and the most capable of transforming the cuisine of central Alberta.

There are apple trees everywhere in this city, especially in older neighbourhoods.  Standing in my backyard in McKernan last summer I could see three.  Walking through back alleys you are never more than a block away from one.  Everybody knows where there is at least one apple tree, and most of those trees produce at least 100 lbs of fruit.  The great irony is that the owners of these trees often consider them a nuisance.  Most families have trouble consuming all the fruit produced by a single tree, so the apples languish on the branches and fall to the ground, where they are raked into garbage bags so that they don’t destroy the lawn.  In other words, not only is there a glut of delicious fruit within our city, there are also people desperate to get rid of it.  So much so that they will invite you into their yard to pick ripe fruit, free of charge.

So.  We have a lot of apples.  What should we do with them?  Certainly we should be making apple sauce, apple pies, candy apples, apple jelly, and apple butter.  And of course we should be eating a good deal of them out of hand.  But there are many compelling reasons that we should convert most of them to hard cider.

Reason 1: Pressing apples into cider is the fastest, lowest-energy method to preserve and consume our apple hoard.  You cannot turn all of the apples in Edmonton into pies.  You can’t.  You can very casually pick hundreds of pounds of apples over an autumn weekend.  Each pie uses maybe two pounds.  Imagine the time required to peel, cored, and slice the apples, and the energy and space required to freeze and later bake each pie.  I love pie more than most, but pie is not the answer.

The first and most beautiful fact about cider is that it converts our numerous apples into a delicious, shelf-stable drink with no added water and very little energy.  If you ferment the cider to hard cider, you do not need to heat the liquid when bottling and preserving.  In fact the only non-human energy I use in producing cider is transporting and crushing the apples.

Reason 2: Apples that are impractical to eat out of hand or use in baking because of their size, flavour, or condition, can still make fantastic cider.  Tiny, mealy, sour crabapples: what could you possibly do with these in the kitchen?  Would you peel and core each of the 5000 thumb-sized specimens that fall from a tree?  I think not.  The juice from such apples, however, is often remarkable, and can lend buoyant acidity and colour to a cider blend.

Reason 3: Delicious, versatile cider could be a foundational ingredient and flavour in central Albertan cuisine.  As I’ve said before, culinary invention has two mothers: scarcity and excess.  We certainly have an excess of apples.  Cider can be a session drink, consumed glass after glass with friends, or a table drink, sipped alongside food. You can cook with it: imagine cider-braising pork and cabbage.  Cider has two notable value-added products that could be a boon to local food.  One is vinegar: cider vinegar could be the base of every bottle of vinaigrette and every jar of pickles in Edmonton.  The other value-added product is apple brandy, which of course is illegal to distill without a license, but someday should be sipped at the end of every meal, and used to flavour pâtés, and preserve fruit, and elevate cream sauces, and on and on.

That is why I’m interested in cider.  By far the hardest part of starting a winery is establishing grape vines.  That part has already been done by our parents and grandparents.  All we have to do is reach out and collect the fruit.  Then crush, press, ferment, bottle, and consume it.  It is your birthright as an Edmontonian.  Dramatic, I know, but true.

Autumn's gift to summer: sparkling hard cider.

Mulled Cider

A mug of frothy, steaming mulled cider.A few years ago I waxed eloquent about mulled wine as a way to use up leftover wine and appreciate exotic spices.

Since then mulled wine has been fully supplanted by mulled cider in my house.  I’ve been pressing cider in increasing quantities, and the abundance of cheap, delicious apple juice has pushed wine further and further from my thoughts and my dinner table.

What I am appreciating most about mulled cider is its adaptability.  After fermented apple juice, every other possible ingredient is optional, so the drink can be tailored to the moment.

If I’m using dry cider from last fall I’ll add some honey for sweetness and body, but if I have cider fresh from the press I won’t sweeten it at all.

Depending on the temperature outside and how much work I have to do later in the day I might add a couple shots of brandy to the mug.

Maybe it’s a cool fall day and I want only the taste of apple juice and cinnamon.  Maybe it’s the longest night of the year and I need to add black pepper, allspice, and clove…

This is high season for mulled cider in Edmonton, as it is best enjoyed outdoors, in the midst of autumn leaves.

Apple Press

Cider flowing from the press.Once apples have been crushed, they need to be pressed to extract the juice from the mash.  As with the apple crusher, I’ve been using Kevin’s apple press for the last couple years, but decided to build my own this fall.  I am indebted to him, and to Whizbang Cider for his post on rack-and-cloth pressing.

The essential components of the press:

The Press: some kind of geared, ratcheted jack that actually exerts the force that presses the apples.  We started out using a scissor jack (pictured below) but have since found that a hydraulic pump jack is more balanced and easier to operate.

The Frame, which sustains the force of the press. The top and bottom beams are made of three 2″ x 8″ spruce boards bolted together.  The boards are on their sides for strength.

The Tray, which collects the cider once it is pressed from the mash.  The base of our tray is a 18″ x 24″ commercial-kitchen cutting board.  It’s the right dimensions, it’s food-safe, and it’s affordable.  We screwed some spruce doweling soaked in mineral oil around the edges to form a lip to keep the cider in the tray.  Liquid flows out a gap in one corner.

Use and Design Details.  The apple mash made by the crusher is collected in cloth and formed into juicy blocks called cheeses.  I bought a few meters of t-knit cloth from Marshall Discount Fabrics (also a good place to pick up cheesecloth on the cheap…).  This material has the strength and stretch to endure pressing.  I use a bus tub (the white plastic tub at the back of the photo below) to shape the cheeses.  Line the tub with a section of cloth, add apple mash, then fold the four sides of the cloth over the top to make a tidy, rectangular packet of mash.  No string is required to fasten the cheese.  The cheese is placed in the tray, centred under the top beam of the frame.

We stack three cheeses on top of each other.  Be sure to make the cheeses similar dimensions and stack them carefully.  The cheeses are separated by pressing plates that maximize extraction.  We used cutting boards.

The cheese stack is topped with the main pressing plate that distributes the pressure from the press across the surface of the stack.  Our main pressing plate is made of two perpendicular layers of 2″ x 4″s screwed together.

Finally we use some 2″ x 4″s as spacers to span the distance between the main pressing plate and the jack.

The full set-up:

A homemade apple press

The tray comfortably holds about 3-4 gallons of mash in its stack, which it converts into about 2.5 gallons of cider.

The set-up works quite well, and is affordable: I spent about $150 on the lumber, bolts, and cutting boards.  There is some room for improvement.  We need to find pressing plates (cutting boards) that are a bit bigger, as right now the edges of cheeses are not under the internal pressing plates, and are not fully extracted.  We also need a proper spout on the edge of the tray, as some cider dribbles down the sides.

Special thanks to Eric, one of the cooks at Elm, who helped with the build, and has been climbing into apple trees all over the city to pick fruit.

Apple Crusher

An apple crusher, formerly a garburatorThis post is about “converting” a garburator into an apple crusher.  I use sarcastic quotation marks because there’s really very little you have to do to change a garburator into a crusher.

For the record, I stole all of this from Kevin, who built his first crusher years ago, posted about it here, and has generously lent it to friends many times since then.  I just got around to making my own, so I thought I’d write about it for the sake of completeness, but there really isn’t anything in this post that isn’t already in his.

The first step is to obtain a kitchen garburator that has never been used.  I have seen them on Kijiji, but they get snatched up pretty quick.  I bought a new 3/4 hp Badger garburator at Home Depot for $150.

A garburator

Next make the power connections.  There is an access panel on the bottom of the garburator.  The black wire is the power wire, the white is the neutral or power return, and the green screw is to ground the power cable.

The electrical connections on the bottom of the garburator

For regular use in a kitchen sink it makes perfect sense for the access panel to be on the bottom, but as an apple crusher the garburator will be sitting on top of a workbench, and if the power cable is fed into the bottom, it won’t sit flat.  You can make a new “access panel” by drilling a 1/2″ hole in the side of the housing.  Be careful not to let the drill bit slip too far into the housing, as it may damage the motor inside.  Sand or file the edges of the hole.

"Side access panel" - a hole drilled in the side of the garburator housing

For a power cable I used an extension cord.  By cutting off the receptacle end of the cord you expose the three 14 AWG wires within: a black power wire, and white return wire, and a green ground.

Severed end of an extension cord

Cut the sheath farther back and strip the individual wires to expose the copper filaments. I wanted to use twist-on wire nuts to make the connections, and Lisa’s father Ron informed me that to do that these strand wires would need to be soldered.  He took a soldering iron out of his back pocket and did me the favour.  You can see in the picture below that Ron also stole the grommet from an old power bar to protect the power cable from the sides of the hole we drilled in the garburator.

The stripped and soldered wires.

Connect the two black power wires together and the two white return wires together.  The green ground wire is screwed to the body of the garburator.

The electrical connections.

Close the access panel and that’s it for electrical. Next I installed a hopper to ease apple-loading and to keep fingers away from the input.  I used an old Bles-Wold yogurt bucket, so I count my hopper expenses as the 10¢ deposit I paid when I bought it.

The yogurt tub that became a hopper

The garburator came with everything I needed to mount the hopper, the plastic bucket simply taking the place of the kitchen sink.

Assembling the hopper mounts

Here’s the crusher with the power and hopper installed.

Fixing the hopper to the garburator

The final touch is to extend outflow piping so that the apple mash flows into a bucket.  Below is the outflow piping that came with the garburator.

The stubby outflow piping on the garburator

I used a foot or two of 1 1/2″ ABS piping to extend the outflow.  First glue the ABS fitting to the extension piping with plumber’s glue.  This is supposed to cure for a while before being used.

Gluing the ABS connector to the outflow piping

Screw the extension pipe onto the original elbow pipe.

That’s it.  A little more than $150, and maybe thirty minutes of assembly.  Thanks, Kevin.

Attaching the outflow piping

Cider Vinegar

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.

-Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”


A bottle of honey-coloured homemade cider vinegar.This year, for the first time, I successfully “made” vinegar.  I didn’t write about it earlier because I didn’t feel like I had actually done anything, or learned anything.  Hence the quotation marks.  The truth is that with the numerous little crocks and tubs in which I’ve fermented cider, every so often something really weird happens that I can’t explain.

I tried really hard to make vinegar last year.  I read quite a bit online about the process.  The conversion of alcoholic beverages like wine and cider into vinegar is a fermentation in the broad biochemical sense.  When we make cider, yeast, a fungus, digests the sugar in apple juice, and produces alcohol.  In the case of vinegar, the creature doing the digesting is acetobacter, the food is alcohol, and the byproduct acetic acid.

Something very interesting happens once acetobacter takes hold of a crock of booze.  The bacteria need oxygen, so they weave a little raft of cellulose that floats on the surface of the liquid.  This raft appears as a snotty layer of scum.  In direct contrast to its appearance, it’s been given a rather quaint name: “mother of vinegar.”

Vinegar-makers working with commercial alcohol will generally inoculate the drink with a bit of mother.  However, when working with fresh, unpasteurized cider, the vinegar process will happen of its own accord, though let me tell you that it happens very unpredictably.

Last fall I left a crock of dry cider exposed to the air in the back reaches of my basement, and waited.  Soon a powdery-looking foam developed on the surface.  There was clearly some kind of process taking place.  An exothermic process, to be more precise: if you held your hand a few inches above the foam you could feel heat emanating from the liquid.  I tasted the cider every few weeks.  It changed, but never became sour.  It actually seemed to be losing acidity.  One day in the spring I tasted it, and in a weird inversion of the wedding at Cana, the delicious, alcoholic cider had been transformed to water.  It had no taste, and no acidity.  I almost wept.

The mother from a successful batch of natural cider vinegar

I’ve only been making cider for two years, but I’ve already seen that any number of microbes can get a stranglehold on your fermentation tubs, and they all throw up different types of gross-looking scum.  This year I saw some very bizarre blobs indeed.  Most often they look like white dust floating on the surface, perhaps with delicate veins running throughout, like marble.  One time a peculiar, fine honeycomb structure developed on the surface of the cider.  Sometimes boogers form.  Several times the flotsam looked like beer trub.  Sometimes it’s snow white.  Others it’s puke green, or chestnut brown with hints of amber.  Most often it’s beige.

Sometimes these alien landscapes appeared on dry cider that I intentionally left exposed to the air.  Once they appeared on dry cider that was in a glass jug fitted with an air-lock.  A couple times they showed up part way through the initial alcoholic fermentation.  I should mention that if you’re trying to make cider and scum like this forms, you can usually just rack the cider and leave the sludge behind, and fermentation will continue.  This year I was very curious to see what happened, so I left most of them alone.

By mid fall I had a little closet with five or six one gallon jugs, all covered in some kind of bacterial culture.  Throughout the fall, every couple of weeks I taste all of them, using a syringe to poke through the scum and extract a few drops of liquid.  Some still tasted like cider, a few others like diluted cider.  Two of them hit my tongue and had a startling, sour-apple acidity. I strained off the liquid and bottled it as vinegar.  I also transferred what I can only hope is a mother of vinegar to some dry cider from the cellar.

The vinegar looks, smells, and tastes absolutely nothing like Heinz cider vinegar.  Mine is the colour of creamed honey.  It’s very hazy, though as it sits in the pantry I notice that there is sediment accumulating on the bottom, so perhaps it will clear with time.  It smells and tastes unmistakably of fresh apples, with a very full, well-rounded acidity.

If the tub of dry cider that I inoculated turns out well, I’ll have at least two gallons of vinegar to play with, and it will no doubt end up in all my pickles and dressings.  For now I’m content to consume it by diluting it slightly and pouring it over charcuterie and bread.

Hard Cider

Autumn's gift to summer: sparkling hard cider.Earlier in the month we pressed our apples into cider.  The juice that ran from the press was sweet and tart, with a full, milky mouthfeel, and a subtle siltiness that I think was from the skins and seeds of the fruit.  It had a cloudy, oxidated colour and was a pleasing drink in all of its many facets.


As with grapes, there is an abundance of natural yeast living on the skins of apples, and when you crush the fruit and mix the skins with the juices, the yeast has easy access to sugar.  I’m always surprised by the efficacy and consistency of this natural fermentation.  Basically the cider can sit in your basement for a week, and fermentation will begin all on it’s own.  For a brief few days, the cider gets even better than when it was first pressed.  A yeasty aroma develops, and the resulting alcohol wakes up the palate.  The drink becomes slightly effervescent. 

Preserving Apple Juice.  The natural fermentation described above is inevitable unless you take specific measures to prevent it.  If you want to keep your non-alcoholic apple juice for more than a week, you have two methods at your disposal.  The first is freezing.  The principal advantage of freezing is that it preserves a lot of the fresh aroma of the beverage, as well as wild yeasts.  The disadvantage is the moderate energy required to run your freezer for months on end, and frozen liquids tend to take up a good deal of valuable freezer space.  The second option for preserving fresh apple juice is canning.  The canning process pasteurizes the juice, killing any yeasts and thereby preventing alcoholic fermentation, but it also kills some of the aroma of the drink.  You then have a jar of delicious apple juice that can safely sit on your shelf at room temperature, freeing up freezer-space for other necessities like meat.  The downside of this preservation method is that it is extremely energy intensive.

Why to Ferment to Hard Cider.  So you can see that both methods have their pros and cons.  Fermenting the apple juice to hard cider solves all the issues mentioned above.  Of course fermentation drastically changes the flavour of the cider, but it actually heightens the aroma and flavours.  And the real beauty is that alcohol is a natural antiseptic, so hard cider can be bottled safely without the heat treatment required for fresh juice.  The only power I use in my cider-making is operating the crusher.

How to Ferment to Hard Cider.  As described above, fermentation happens all on its own.  The major draw back to natural fermentation is that it is unpredictable and inconsistent.  Every now and again fermentation will stall, and it becomes clear that some other organism has taken hold of the juice.  If the cider is racked, the yeast usually re-asserts itself.  For a more complete discussion of some of the weird stuff that can happen, see my post on making vinegar.  Even if true alcoholic fermentation proceeds, inconsistent and unpleasant aromas often develop.

Pitching commercial yeast will control the fermentation and draw desired aromas from the fruit.  There are a few strains of cider yeast.  A Riesling yeast called Rudesheimer also works well.  I have a friend who uses lambic yeasts.

Cider Styles.  On a long enough time line, without preventative measures, all cider will ferment till it is completely dry, that is, void of sugar.  If you’d like to have any residual sugar in your cider, the most common method is to treat the cider with sulfite to kill the yeast and arrest the fermentation.

A case of bottle-fermented bubbly ciderBottle-Fermenting.To know when to bottle hard cider you must first decide what style of cider you want to make, namely still or effervescent? If effervescent, do you want light carbonation, like you might find in English ale, or heavy carbonation, like the large bubbles dissolved in Champagne? You control this by bottling when the cider has a certain specific gravity.  Specific gravity is a way to approximate the amount of residual sugar in the cider, and the more sugar that is left at bottling, the more effervescent the drink will become.

  • At a specific gravity of 1.000 or lower the cider will be still, that is, not effervescent.  Still cider can be bottled in almost anything, including wine bottles with a cork.
  • By bottling around 1.003 you will end up with cider that has the mild effervescent of beer.  This style of cider should be bottled in a beer bottle with a crown cap or swing cap.  (One fall I drank only Hacker-Pschorr and Muskoka Spring Oddity so that I could collect the swing cap bottles…)
  • At 1.008 the cider will be very sparkling, like Champagne.  Lots of pressure builds in the bottle, so this style of cider must be bottled in a heavy, Champagne bottle.  The cork must be caged to keep it in place.  Some types of Prosecco come in heavy bottles with swing caps.

Dorky sidenote.  I’ve developed a labelling shorthand for my bottled cider to give an idea of what the carbonation level is.  A label reading only “Cider” is still.  Sparkling cider is labelled “Cider – Special No. X” where X is the last two significant digits of the gravity reading before bottling.  So, Special No. 10 is very bubbly, while Special No. 3 is only faintly effervescent.

Most sources say that bottle fermentation takes two weeks at minimum.  I’ve cracked some bottles at that point and found them flat, so I try not to touch them for at least four.  But if you can wait even longer, you will be rewarded…

Aging Cider.  Immediately after fermentation, sometimes my cider is good but not great.  The acidity is a little harsh, and occasionally there are some funky odours, perhaps sulfur, or solvents like nail-polish remover.  Some cider can benefit hugely from a few months aging.

Effects of Aging Cider.  Last year on St. Patrick’s Day I pulled one of the few remaining litres of still cider out of the cellar to thin out my corned beef drippings.  I don’t think I had tasted it since Christmas.  The cider had gone through a remarkable transformation.  Obviously it was still dry, but nowhere near as abrasively tart as it had been in December.  The acidity had mellowed markedly.  All in all it was actually quite well balanced.  And somehow the nose has lost the harsh odours.

Malolactic Fermentation in Cider?  My best guess as to why the cider changes so much is a process called malolactic fermentation, a bacterial fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid.  It occurs naturally in some classic wines, and is now induced by vintners for certain styles, notably oaked Chardonnay.  I don’t think that MLF changes the absolute pH of the wine, but  lactic acid is much softer and more palatable than malic acid, so the perceived acidity decreases.  The two main acids in grapes are tartaric and malic acids.  Apple juice contains mostly malic acid, so it’s possible that if MLF were to take hold in cider, it would greatly affect the tartness of the drink.  My sources on winemaking say that MLF bacteria naturally inhabit the wood of the barrels.  Whether or not MLF could start spontaneously in apple cider stored in plastic and glass, I’m not sure, but it’s the best guess I have to explain the dramatic change that apple cider goes through over six months storage.

Pressing Apple Cider

Yet ev’n this Season Pleasance blithe affords,
Now the squeez’d Press foams with our Apple Hoards.

-John Gay


To most contemporary city-folk the word “cider” implies fermented apple juice.  My grandparents made the distinction between “cider” (juice pressed from apples) and “hard cider” (fermented apple juice).  For now I have simply made cider, and will leave the discussion of hard cider and its variants for another post.

This week we picked about 150 lbs of apples from three different trees:

  • one beautiful, well-trained tree yielding large, blushing apples, which I will be referring to as “Ron’s apples”;
  • one crabapple tree with bright red, tart fruit;
  • one hideous, unkempt tree in our backyard that grows small green apples.  The tree is so large and spindly that we harvested its apples by climbing into it, shaking it vigorously, and then collecting the fallen fruit from the surrounding grass.

After harvesting, we borrowed a crusher and press from Kevin.  The crusher is a garburator, intended for a kitchen sink, outfitted with a hopper and a power switch.  You can read about Kevin’s design here.  The press is a strong wooden frame with a carjack that drives a plunger onto the crushed fruit, described here.  Thank you, Kevin.

Some notes and photos from our cider day.

Here are the apples we used.  Below, left are the crab apples.  Below, right, Ron’s gorgeous apples.

Left: Dolgo crabapples, Right: Norkent apples (I think...)

And here are the tiny, bruised apples from our backyard.  They don’t look particularly appetizing – you would never pay money for them at the grocery store – but they make for good cider.

Some sources say to wash and stem the apples before crushing.  Others say this is unnecessary.  I subscribe to the latter theory.

You also don’t need to peel or core the apples.

Below is Kevin’s crusher, doing what it does best.  The apple mash comes out white, then rapidly oxidizes to the rusty colour we associate with apple juice.  With a traditional crusher the mash will sometimes be put through a second time for a finer grind.  This in unnecessary with the garburator.  It’s very thorough.

Apple sauce from the crusher
The apple mash is scooped into a piece of cloth, which is twisted and squeezed to extract some of the juice.  We found that at least 90% of the juice could be pressed from the mash in this manner, without the use of the actual press.
Once the mash wrapped in cloth is shaped into a disc it is called a “cheese.”  Some sources say to tie the cloth with a piece of string.  This is unnecessary.  The cheeses are stacked inside the press.  Some sources say to place wooden discs between the cheeses.  This is also unnecessary.
Then the car-jack is opened to drive the plunger onto the cheeses.  The juice flows out of a spigot at the bottom of the bucket.


After being pressed, the cheese is dense, dry, and crumbly.  The left-over bits are called pomace.  In many parts of Europe grape pomace is mixed with water and sugar, fermented into a weak “wine,” and then distilled.  The resulting liquor is called grappa in Italy (especially famous in the provinces of Friuli and Piedmonte), marc in France, and tsipouro in Greece, to name only a few of the regional variations.  I suspect a similar drink could be made from this apple pomace.


We crushed and pressed the three different apples separately so we could taste the juices on their own.  Tasting notes:

  • Ron’s Apple Cider – A good balance of tart and sweet, with a hint of almond extract, probably from the seeds and skins.  Slightly silty mouthfeel.  Reddish brown.
  • Crabapple Cider – Very tart, but still surprisingly flavourful and pleasant to drink.  Brilliant pinkish red.


  • Our Backyard Apple Cider – This was the real surprise for me.  They are by no means choice eating-apples, and most were battered and bruised by our harvesting method.  Their juice, however, was fantastic.  A great balance of tart and sweet, and a distinct grassy finish.

The three types of cider were then mixed together.  While “single variety” may be popular with coffee and wine, apple cider and any of its fermented and distilled derivatives are always made from a blend of several apple varieties.  Half the work of the cider producer is in finding the right mix of sweet, tart, and aromatic apples to create a balanced drink.

Once mixed, the cider was syphoned into carboys to clear over night.  The roughly 150 lbs of apples made 40 L of cider.

This really is one of those epic, rewarding, seasonal “chores,” like tapping maple trees and slaughtering pigs.  There’s lots to be done with the cider, yet.  Stay tuned.

Applejack – Concentration by Freezing

A glass of homemade applejackWhile reading the maple syrup section ofOn Food and Cooking, I came across a shocking bit of information.

Even though North American Indians didn’t have metal pots until the Europeans came, they had an ingenious method for reducing maple sap to make syrup. They would leave the sap in the cold air overnight. In the morning there would be ice on top. That ice would be mostly (but not exclusively) water, so in discarding the ice they were left with a higher concentration of sugar in the sap.

After reading this, I immediately turned to the section of the book on distilled spirits, to see if there was any mention of whether this method works to concentrate alcoholic solutions. Sure enough, there was a boxed sidenote titled, “Concentration by Freezing,” with references to all kinds of liquors that are made in the frosty outdoors and never see the inside of a still.

On the internet, notably Wikipedia, this process goes by the name “freeze distillation.” My dad, a process engineer, takes exception to the term, as distillation separates solutes based on their different boiling points. There is a process called freeze crystallization that separates solutes based on their different freezing points, but that doesn’t apply here, either. The large difference between the freezing points of water (0°C) and ethanol (-114°C) is not what makes this process work, as evidenced by the fact that the process can concentrate maple syrup, which has no ethanol. I’m going to use the accurate though somewhat anemic word “concentration.”


Put your drink in a bowl and put it in a freezing environment like, say, your freezer. Or maybe your backyard.

When I first read about freeze-concentration, I imagined that there would be a clear, easily separated layer of pure ice on top, and a liquor beneath. This is not what happens. Instead you end up with a strange, delicate-but-solid crystalline block.

Freezing cider: the first step in making applejack

If you turn this block of ice into another container, you can easily mash it up into a slushy mixture.

The frozen apple cider is broken up to make this slushy mixtureNext you can strain the liquid off the ice crystals.

Straining the liquid off the slushAnd to maximize extract, you can transfer the remaining ice to a salad spinner to squeeze out a bit more applejack.

Spinning the remaining ice to extract more liquid


I started with 10 L of cider, and finished with between 2.25 and 2.50 L of applejack for a volume yield of about 23%.

  • Appearance -The applejack is slightly darker than the cider, with a bronze hue compared to the cider’s gold (image below).
  • Nose –
  • Taste – The difference in taste is pretty substantial. Sharply acidic, with warming alcohol.
  • Mouthfeel – The applejack had a subtly richer mouthfeel.  I was using still cider, but note that if you use bubbly stuff the apple jack will not be carbonated…

A glass of applejack beside a glass of cider: note the darker, bronze colour of the applejack

I also tried this concentration method with beer. I had never heard of beer being freeze-concentrated, but I thought I should try it, since the AGLC has banned strong beer from stores. [Editor’s Note:  There is a classic German beer that is freeze-concentrated: it’s called an Eisbock.]  I used Big Rock Traditional Ale, which is based on (ahem) traditional English ales. It has a dark caramel colour with a hint of red, and is very clear. It has a slightly fruity nose and tastes of caramel and roasted malt. It’s one of my favourite Albertan beers.

I froze 700 g of beer and pressed 215 g of liquor from the ice, meaning roughly two thirds of the beer was wasted.

  • Appearance -The liquor was ever so slightly darker than the original beer.
  • Taste – The difference in taste was noticeable, but subtle. The sweetness and the roasted, caramel notes were definitely enhanced, though it didn’t taste any more boozy than the original.
  • Mouthfeel – The beer lost its carbonation.
  • Overall assessment – The results were pleasing, but not nearly good enough to justify wasting two thirds of a beer.

Future Experiments

In terms of percent of alcohol captured from the original drink, freeze-concentrating is not as effective as distillation, but it definitely has its advantages. It preserves the flavour of the original drink much, much better than distillation, which doesn’t capture any sugars or acidity.

Freeze-concentrating also has advantages over heat-concentrating (ie. reducing over heat). Aggressive concentration by heat introduces dark caramel flavours to the liquid. If you had a chance to taste Indian Head birch syrup when the River Valley Syrup Company was selling at the Old Strathcona market, you know that it is a lot darker in colour and taste than most maple syrup. I think this was because birch sap has a lower sugar concentration than maple, and was therefore reduced more in order to produce a comparably sweet product. The prolonged reduction resulted in lots of deeply caramelized sugars. That darkness of flavour was certainly one of the appeals of the product, but it would be interesting to try freeze-concentrating sap.