Cider arrives with cool evenings and the first hint of frost. It's the time of year when doughnuts and apple pies seem appropriate, and city families visit farms to pick apples and to check out pumpkins with an eye toward Halloween.
Cider serves as the nectar of autumn, just as lemonade dominates summer, hot chocolate winter and bock beer the spring. Cider belongs to almost no other time of year, and there is a reason for that.
"Summer apples don't make that good a cider," explains Bill Anderson, owner of Anderson Orchards in Valparaiso, Ind. Carl Garwood of Garwood Orchards in nearby La Porte, Ind., echoes the sentiment. "The flavor of summer apples is just about all tart," he says, "and that doesn't make a good juice."
But at Bell's Apple Orchard near Lake Zurich, Ill., one of the
area's few summertime cider operations, John Bell III managed to put out a tasty brew for those all-season ciderphiles who couldn't wait for the leaves to start turning.
"We had some red delicious apples that we froze last fall, and we mix those with the more tart apples we grow in the summer," Mr. Bell says. "This year, we were pretty heavy on Ida Reds. It's a well-rounded apple, flavorwise, so it makes a pretty good juice all by itself."
Discussions of cider take on a tone of connoisseurship as the manufacturers and some of the more discerning customers debate the relative merits of Jonathans, McIntosh, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Ida Red and Winesap as the building blocks of the ideal fall refresher.
"The ideal mixture is one-third apples with a lot of aromatic qualities, like McIntosh and Cortland," Carl Garwood says. "Another third would be the heavy sweets like Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. And another third would be the tart types like Jonathan or Winesap."
Rare is the autumn when all three parts reach maturity at cider-pressing time, so growers always juggle their crops and cider-pressing schedules to meet contingencies. During the fall pick-it-yourself season, much of the crop is presorted by customers, who routinely reject apples lacking full color, large size, or unblemished skin. With certain exceptions, those aesthetically displeasing products serve well as cider stock.
"Usually what they leave on the trees are apples with less color," says John Bell. "Probably the biggest thing that makes a cider apple is the lack of color with some blemishes -- I call them imperfections. If a Red Delicious, for example, doesn't have at least 90 percent color, it's going to get chucked into a utility grade or become a cider apple."
Opinions on the proper recipe for a good cider vary wildly, but there seems to be general agreement that
a cider made only from Red Delicious would be insipidly sweet. Mr. Bell suggests that anyone ambitious enough to attempt the crushing task of making cider at home, the best choice would be Golden Delicious.
"It gives you a sweet-tart flavor," he says, hastening to explain the apparent contradiction in terms: "There's a snappiness to the Golden, but there's also a mellow sweetness as it goes down the throat. There are little pockets of sugar in it."
Bill Anderson of Anderson Orchards, makes his cider using a favorite formula. "We like to mix Jonathan, Red Delicious and Golden Delicious together," he says. "A lot of people don't want it real sweet and not real tart, so this gives a sort of blend."
The press at Anderson can handle 35 bushels of apples at a time, each bushel yielding three or four gallons. "In the fall, of course, the fresh ones are more juicy," Mr. Anderson notes, "and we get more cider than if we had stored them for a long time. I don't know if we've ever pressed more than 1,000 gallons in a day, but we could press more than that."
Most cider presses have a similar capability, and so cider-makers carefully modulate their production according to the anticipated volume of walk-in customers and the demands of wholesalers.
Fresh cider made from newly ripened apples may keep for more than six weeks in the refrigerator. Most manufacturers add a slight amount of vitamin C to slow fermentation. Cider that has been clarified, pasteurized and otherwise preserved becomes something else: apple juice.
As cider ages, it will develop a sparkling natural carbonation. After that, it can turn to vinegar. Mr. Anderson, for one, allows a portion of his output to reach the vinegar stage and sells it to local farmers and horse breeders. "Dairy farmers mix it with their feed to aid digestion," he reports,