I recently moved to a small, very old farm in central Virginia where I discovered a big, also very old apple tree. Although pocked with woodpecker holes and barnacled with lichen, the tree stands tall, its trunk as thick around as a truck tire.
Back in high summer, when we arrived, the branches were loaded with green fruit. The apples were misshapen. Two diseases were prevalent: flyspeck, which dotted the fruit with tiny whorls of black dots, and sooty blotch, gray-green smudges on the skin. These fungal afflictions thrive in humid conditions and on poorly pruned trees. My home weather station reported 99 percent humidity for so many days in a row I was sure it was broken. The tree had not been pruned in so long it resembled a worn and ragged crinoline.
Although these conditions would ruin the crop of a professional grower—no one would buy apples that looked like these—they didn’t keep me and my family from wanting to eat the fruit.
The apples, as they ripened, were tart and sweet. Eaten out of hand they had a straightforward flavor and a floral aroma that sadly didn’t continue after a bite (no hidden rose gardens, no sudden notes of honey). The bite was crunchy, but not brittle. The texture grainy, but pleasantly so.
As the apples blushed and the days grew shorter, I faced two problems. First, I had no idea what kind of apple tree I had. Second, I had no idea what to do with all the apples I had. What I did know was that we had to enact a plan before the deer and the black bears got to the crop, a job they seemed pretty happy to undertake.
The problem with inheriting a very old tree is that no one is around to tell you what it is. I contacted Jason Grizzanti, co-founder of the Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery, in New York, which makes the acclaimed Doc’s Draft Hard Apple Cider. He’s also makes apple jack as master distiller at the Black Dirt Distillery and has a degree from Cornell University in pomology—the study of tree fruits. We didn’t really get anywhere. With a tree as old as mine, you can “eliminate thousands of cultivars,” Grizzanti pointed out. For instance, it can’t be a Honeycrisp because those apples, developed in Minnesota, have only been available to plant since 1991. But that still left dozens of possible varieties.
“My experience with these types of things is that usually it is something more pedestrian than you think or hope,” said Grizzanti. Popular apples are popular for a reason, of course, and although I’ll admit to a brief fantasy about having discovered some super-specific and interesting apple variety, of which I had the last remaining example, I knew I probably had a basic, solid apple that someone would plant because they wanted to eat apples.
The second problem was easier to solve.
While I monitored the bear situation (bear scat under the tree one morning, a lumbering form dashing back to the woods one night), I waited for the apples to ripen and ordered a cider press.
Pressing apples into cider is a kind of ritualistic, full-family event that signifies the end of summer as seriously as the blaze of goldenrod or newly harvested corn does. And it would move some product. We turned a scant two bushels of apples into two-and-a-half gallons of fresh cider. Friends of mine, plucking their apples from a big Golden Delicious tree, made even more.
Fresh cider poured into a mason jar straight off the press and sipped seconds after the pomace is squeezed is one of the most delicious things in the world. It is as different from the store-bought variety as the experience of watching a movie about Paris differs from actually walking along the Seine. Even the fairly simple apple variety I have reveals a complexity and depth of flavor after crushing, layered with brown sugar and spice aromas.
The solution to the overabundance of apples led to an overabundance of cider, but that is easily solved with fermentation.
I dosed my juice with metabisulfite to knock out wild yeasts, blended in some of my friend’s Golden Delicious cider and pitched in some White Lab yeast. It frothed and stank on the counter for almost two weeks and now I have a little row of 16-ounce bottles aging on a back shelf. Yeast is stronger than most things that spoil cider. And while there’s always the chance that you will make vinegar instead of cider, the process is so straightforward that anyone can grasp the production of hard cider with a couple days of reading.
One of the best guides I’ve found on the subject is Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider. It is surprisingly co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Annie Proulx and was one of her first books. (I also ordered her Plan and Make Your Own Fences & Gates, Walkways, Walls, & Drives.)
Proulx includes a delicious, but dangerous-sounding punch called the Cidermaker’s Undoing, which involves lighting three quarts of hot apple jack on fire. I did want to taste it, but I didn’t want to flambé my kitchen, so I rejiggered the recipe to suit current fire codes.
First, I made an oleo saccharum by peeling a lemon, pressing the peels into about two ounces of turbinado sugar in a bowl and letting it sit for an hour or two. Once the oils of the lemon had dissolved into the sugar, which was now all sloshy and aromatic, I heated a cup of fresh apple cider in a small pan.
In a small jug—anything will do here—I dropped a couple of heaping spoonfuls of the lemony sugar and poured in the hot cider. I gave it a stir and poured in a cup of Laird’s Apple Brandy 100 Proof. I stirred the concoction a final time and portioned it out into mugs.
It was exactly what we needed as the sun sank in the fall sky and the chill of the evening crept into our bones.