It's apple-picking time, and for a lot of farmers that means it's also apple-pressing time. As much as people love apples, there are plenty of folks who love fresh cider even more.
For many families, a trip to the apple farm for a jug of cider is a treasured autumn ritual. At one popular cider spot, Weber's Cider Mill Farm on Proctor Lane in Baltimore County, Steve Weber and his family have watched several generations discover the delights of apple juice as it was meant to be.
Steve Weber and his crew started up the rack-and-cloth cider press a couple of weeks ago. His father purchased the press secondhand in the 1940s, and it's still going strong.
For this method of pressing cider, apples are chopped and spread in layers on a flat cloth, which is then folded over. A wooden rack is placed on top of the apples, and the layering process is repeated. The press can make about 100 gallons in half an hour. Weber says one batch uses between 28 and 30 bushels of apples.
Juice apples can be of any variety - they're the ones that don't make the grade for selling directly to the public. But because each variety has its own characteristics, the mix affects the flavor.
Weber says the goal is a nicely balanced cider containing some tarter varieties like Jonathan or Stayman Winesap along with Red and Golden Delicious and other sweeter types. Although cider makers can usually come pretty close to the balance they want, cider-making is not a hard-and-fast formula.
As different varieties ripen, the mixture of apples available for cider changes, too. As a result, Weber says, you can taste the progress of the season in each batch. That's part of cider's charm.
Cider is acidic enough to kill most bacteria, and until recent years, it could safely be consumed in its freshest state. But a stronger form of E. coli bacteria has cropped up, forcing cider makers to treat their products.
Full pasteurization kills much of cider's fresh taste, but Weber says a "flash pasteurization" process, which heats the cider to 164 degrees for only a few seconds, can kill harmful E. coli without destroying the flavor.
Fresh cider still must be refrigerated, and even then it won't last indefinitely, at least not as cider. You can save it till spring if you like, says Weber, but when you open it you'll have something other than cider - maybe vinegar, maybe fermented "hard cider."
You can get pasteurized cider, whether it's labeled juice or cider, year-round. But the truly fresh stuff is a seasonal treasure.