Once you’ve tasted fresh-pressed, homemade apple cider there’s really no going back. Life just isn’t the same.
And from there, it’s a short jump to turning sweet cider into the ‘hard’ (alcoholic) variety or apple cider vinegar.
The Cider Press
The goal: To extract as much of the juice (cider) from the apple as possible.
The key: Chop/grind the apples as small as possible and then apply a greater-than-human force to the pulp to extract its juice.
Traditional cider presses include a manually-operated wheel that drives a long metal screw downward, pressing a wooden plate against the milled apples. The apples are contained within a small wooden ‘barrel’ with space between the slats to allow juice to escape (while retaining the solid pomace).
My personal issue with the traditional press is that some of the parts can be prohibitively expensive. Here’s how to make an inexpensive, DIY version.
The Poor Man’s Press
Got a car jack? You’re 90% there.
All you really need is:
- some sort of platform (could even be your kitchen counter)
- something solid & secure, above the platform that can be pressed against (kitchen cabinet, tree limb – or a homemade frame)
Let’s start from the apples and work outwards.
- Chop and mill the apples. Don’t worry about peeling them or about the seeds or stems. They’ll all come out in the process. It’s easy enough to quarter the apples. Traditionally, they’d be thrown into a manually-operated food mill. You can improvise with a food processor or even a blender on a coarse grind setting.
- Add the pulp to a bag. The one in the photos is a cheesecloth soup stock bag. You may want to err on the side of a finer cloth bag. The bag makes clean up a breeze – just toss the remaining ‘pomace’ in your compost or out for the wildlife (if appropriate where you live).
- Consider a metal pan. Building ours, we used a stainless steel cookie sheet beneath the bag of apple pulp. We cut a drain notch in the end with an angle grinder & metal cutoff wheel. (A hacksaw would also work – just be sure to remove metal burrs before working with food.)
- Build a platform. You mainly want to suspend the bag/pulp high enough to locate a container beneath, in which you can catch the cider. The one in the photos is made from 2×6’s with a 3/4″ piece of birch plywood on top, making the total thickness of the platform ~3 3/4″ thick. A little higher would have been beneficial.
- Add a frame if necessary. We added a frame for the car jack to press against. The uprights in the photo are made from 2×8’s and are 30″ long. They very well could have been shorter (eliminating the need for the 4×4 spacer blocks you see in the photos). We recessed the horizontal bar in the verticals with a mortise/tenon joint for strength.
- Retrieve the car jack from your vehicle. Most vehicles include a scissor-jack style lift (shown).
Press Your Apples
Time to put your cider press to use. This is where the car jack method really shines over the manual screw.
Lay the bag of apple pulp in the metal pan and set it on your platform, so the edge of the pan hangs over the lip of your platform. Set a dish beneath in order to catch the cider.
Sit an additional piece of plywood on top of the bag of apple pulp. Set your jack on top of the platform, shimming it with spacer blocks if necessary.
Raise the jack until it extends between the frame and the platform on top of the apples. It should make things snug.
Begin to ‘jack up’ the car jack even more. You should notice an almost immediate response from the apples – in the form of liquid. If the cider doesn’t run to the notch in your pan, shim the platform so that it pitches ever-so-slightly in that direction.
Crank the jack a bit more. Each time you increase the pressure and the cider begins to flow, STOP. Just wait. Let the flowing of the juice subside before applying more pressure. And then continue.
Sweet & Hard Cider and Vinegar
Alas, what to do with your cider? (If the question leaves you sleepless at night, I’ll gladly take it off your hands…)
What you have in front of you is pure, raw, unadulterated sweet cider. It hasn’t been pasteurized like most (all) commercial ciders you can buy. You may be surprised at how sweet and syrupy such a natural (and unsweetened) juice can be! The best ciders are often made by combining a variety of sweet and tart apples. Have fun experimenting!
Refrigerate for up to a week (if it lasts that long!). If you place the cider in a sealed container, you may notice that by the end of the week it’s beginning to become ‘sparkling’ cider. What devilry is this? Read on…
Years ago, when I began homebrewing I started with cider – simply because it’s so easy. But that was with commercial, pasteurized cider, which is less than ideal. Fortunately, you don’t have that problem when you press your own apples!
Fermentation is a fairly simple (and totally natural) process, though I’m sure with that statement I’ll lose some brewer friends. It boils down to this: Yeast (a living, natural organism) likes to eat sugar. But in the process, yeast poops out two by-products: carbon dioxide (CO2) and…ta da – alcohol (C2H6O)!
We need to vent the CO2 (hence those simple but fancy-looking airlocks you see) or the pressure that builds up can burst your system.
Here’s the cool part: The yeast continues to create alcohol as a waste product, ever-increasing the alcohol content that it’s swimming in – until it, essentially, drowns in its own waste and shuts off. Commercially-sold yeast products are designed to ‘shut off’ (drown) at specific levels of alcohol. A common yeast to use for cider is a dry champagne yeast. Interestingly, if you were to remove the natural sugars from an apple, it won’t taste like an apple. So when the yeast consumes the cider’s sugars, it grows less sweet – which can be a welcome change to hard ciders. Ideally, a little sugar remains beyond the yeast’s shut-off point, so you retain a little sweetness.
Further, there are wild strains of yeast in the air and on your containers. Even if you don’t pitch yeast into your cider – given a couple weeks, your home-pressed cider will turn ‘hard’. (Albeit, with some unpredictable flavors due to those wild yeasts.)
Apple Cider Vinegar
Um, pretty much just let it sit.
Your sweet cider will turn hard and, left longer, the hard cider will turn to vinegar. You can speed up and control the process by adding the ‘mother’ from a previous batch of unfiltered apple cider vinegar. If you look at a bottle of Bragg’s (or similar brand) vinegar, you’ll see a cloudy cake that settles to the bottom. That is what’s known as the ‘mother’ – it births your vinegar all by itself. (Many brands filter it out – you’ll know with one glance whether the mother is still in there. Unmistakable.) Simply add some to your new batch of cider and mother will do the rest.
Vinegar is more magical than cider. You can drink, clean, bathe, cook, flavor, preserve food with it – and so much more!