Shortly after I planted my first apple trees I started to wonder about how many apples one tree would yield and found out that mature semi-dwarf trees average 4-5 bushels per tree. For 2 trees that gave me an expectation of 8 – 10 bushels, which was substantial but not an overwhelming quantity. Now that I have roughly 20 trees it comes out to 80 – 100 bushels, which is a bit more than I believe I can eat, cook, and give away on a regular basis, so I needed to come up with some means of storage that took as little space, time, and energy as possible. In the end, cider pressing stood out as a very good option. As a guideline, a bushel of apples should give around 2 gallons of cider, which can then either be consumed fresh, frozen, fermented into hard cider, or fermented into vinegar; these latter two options providing a good way to store and use the apples all year around with no refrigeration needed, though I must admit my appetite for hard cider greatly exceeds my need for cider vinegar, and I do have a definite taste for sweet cider as well!
I looked at buying a new cider mill from one of the few companies that make them, but with a woodshop full of scraps and various hydraulic and mechanical jacks at my disposal it felt nearly criminal to not at least have a go at making one first. Every press I could find had two main parts: a grinder / chopper / crusher component to pulverize the apples and a press to squeeze the juice from the pulverized apples. The press itself did not appear to be an overly difficult item to make, so I focused my attention on the grinder. While researching various types of fruit grinders I stopped by a flea market and found an antique grape crusher which I figured might work, but a few experimental apples later it was obvious that it was not up to the job. I decided to make my own and went online to get an idea of what size to make it. To my great surprise, an ad for an antique cider press in working order and at a reasonable price appeared, and a phone call later I was ready to buy it.
It took a fair amount of disassembly and the combined effort of three men to get the press into my truck bed, and once home it took an engine hoist to get it unloaded. When apple season next came around I pulled it out of storage and spent an afternoon disassembling, scrubbing with bleach water, rinsing, drying, cleaning rust off of any pieces which would be in contact with the apples or the cider, and reassembling it prior to it’s first use.
The cider press is a hidden gem from a different era. It is big, with a hardwood frame and cast iron parts. The entire upper pressing structure – screw, handle, foot, and crossbar, are massive cast iron pieces. The seller knew it had been used at his uncle’s small commercial orchard in the 1960’s and referred to at that time as “the old cider press”, but after he passed away it fell out of use and eventually sat in the back of a barn until the seller cleaned the barn out and decided to sell it. The press is of a design made popular in the mid 1800’s with two bottomless wooden tubs on a slatted base; one tub is under a screw press and the other under a grinder. It has no brand, model, or date information nor patent numbers, and the apple hopper is galvanized sheet metal instead of wood, so I believe it is an early 1900’s version of the older design.
In use, the apples are put into the hopper and a crank is turned by hand. The crank connects via a series of cast-iron gears and flywheels to the grinding mechanism, which consists of a chopper that initially breaks the apples into manageable bits for the crushing rollers, which have an interlocking pattern of ridges and hollows designed to crush the pulp but leave room for the seeds to pass through intact. The pomace (ground and crushed apple pulp) falls out of the rollers into the tub waiting below, which holds the pomace from approximately a bushel of apples. The loaded tub is pushed forward to take the space under the press screw, while the tub which was under the press screw is set under the grinder to take the next load of pomace. A pressure plate is placed on top of the full pomace tub and the press screw is turned to engage the plate, after which it is further turned to press the pomace and extract the juice, which exits the tub via the slatted base and walls, collects in a catch basin underneath, and eventually drains via a strategically placed hole into a waiting container. While the pressing is occurring, the second tub can be reloaded with new pomace in something like a continuous operation.
From apple to cider takes about half an hour per tub from the first apple in the grinder to the last run of cider from the press. Grinding and pressing the first bushel is fun; the second is enjoyable, and by the third it is down to simply hard work. While one person could in theory operate the press, it is much easier of there are two people and sustainable with three. With three people, one loads apples into the hopper, one turns the crank to grind the apples into pomace, and the third operates the press. Positions rotate at each tub change to give the person running the grinder a break.
Once the pressing is done the press, like any tool, must be cleaned. A basic cleaning and wash down after each day’s use is followed by a complete strip, vigorous scrubbing and pressure wash prior to storage for more than a couple of days.
Once clean and dry after my first usage of the press, I looked at the weathered metal and considered my options. The preserver in me wanted to keep everything as it was and just wipe the metal with some food-grade oil as a rust preventative, but the practical me quickly decided the press is there to be used and maintained, and a good coat of paint offered better long-term protection than a wipe of oil. Accordingly I sandblasted all the metal components except the crossbeam (which I could not easily remove) to thoroughly remove any trace of rust, then primed and painted them. With the metal bits taken care of my attention turned to the wooden structure, where I did take a more preservation friendly approach and applied a food-safe sealer over the fragments of existing and likely original paintwork.