A Toast To Cider

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

October 23, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Smithsburg -- "Cold Sweet Cider," read the sign outside the fruit stand. I pulled over.

I was on a cider run, driving up and over the Western Maryland mountains on a glorious fall day. When I turned off Interstate 70 and onto Maryland Route 66 the scenery began to resemble a landscape painting. The silver waters of Beaver Creek ran alongside the road, pausing now and then to circle a fading field of beans or visit a trout hatchery. Near Cavetown, the road skirted an apple orchard, and intersected Route 64. I turned right and a few hundred yards up the road, stopped at the Lewis family's fruit stand for two jugs of their dark apple cider.

The Lewis family has been growing apples and pressing cider for two generations. One of the current cider makers, Nevin Lewis, recalled that 35 years ago his father, Keller, would haul apples to the Grossnickle cider press. This was a community cider press, and farmers around Smithsburg paid a small per-gallon fee for use of the press.

It was a massive old press, with a big wooden tank to catch freshly pressed juice. It made good cider, Lewis said. But it never would pass a modern health inspection, he added.

These days the Lewis family makes cider in their own press, using gleaming stainless-steel tanks, clear plastic hoses and other devices that health inspectors smile upon. The cider is put in 1-gallon plastic jugs, kept cold, and sold at the family's Washington County fruit stand and at farmer's markets in Baltimore, Columbia and Hagerstown.

The cider press sits in a building about halfway between the roadside stand -- watched over by Nevin Lewis' sister, Jane Huff, and her husband, Bill -- and an apple orchard, part of the 150 acres of apples that the family works.

In the orchard, it was harvest time. The air was crisp. The trees were laden with fruit. Lewis, along with sons Steve and Kevin and a handful of hired workers, was loading bulk bins, 25-bushel containers, with freshly picked apples. Jumping off a tractor, Lewis hopped into his truck and drove me over to the cider press. He gave me a quick tour and talked about what makes a good cider.

He started with the apples. Cider apples don't have to be pretty, but they do have to be clean, he said. "You use your cull apples," Lewis said, using the growers' term for fruit that is not good-looking enough to be sold in markets. Before these less-than-stunning-looking apples roll into the cider press, they are washed in water to remove any dirt.

You use a blend of at least two and sometimes three different types of apples, he said, to balance the acid and sweet flavors of the cider. He ticked off the list of the Lewis family's approved cider apples. "We use reds (Red Delicious), Jonathan, York, Winesap, Grimes and Lowery." Rome and McIntosh apples are not used for their cider, he said.

Out in the apple orchard, Lewis showed me a few of the devices farmers use to measure the pressure and sugar content of apples and thereby figure out when to pick the crop. Using a sugar tester, a device that winemakers use to test the sugar content of their grapes, Lewis examined a slice of Jonathan apple and reported it had a sugar content of "15-bricks." This meant the apple was "great for cider."

When discussing the McIntosh and Rome apples, Lewis cited years of cider-making experience rather than scientific data as the reason these varieties are kept out the press. "For us, they just don't make good cider," he said.

Another key to cider-making is the press used to crush the fruit, Lewis said. Some cider-makers use air bags or belts to force the juice from the pumice, or ground-up fruit, he said. Lewis prefers the old-style rack press which, working something like an olive oil press, uses hydraulic pressure to squeeze juice out of apple pumice that has been placed in cloth-bottom trays.

Using a rack press requires a lot of cleanup work, he said. So he has an industrial-strength washing machine just to wash the cloth used in the trays. Moreover, cider made on a rack press usually leaves a few tiny pieces of fruit in the bottom of the jugs.

But for Lewis, the superior flavor of the cider made on a rack press is worth the extra work the press requires. Besides, he said, a few pieces of apple in your cider is a sign that you are drinking the real stuff, not some apple-flavored liquid made from concentrate.

Usually, the Lewis family makes cider in 65- to 80-gallon batches, Lewis said. The cider season peaks around Halloween, when the family sells about 1,000 gallons a week.

The walkie-talkie radio in Lewis' truck crackled. He was needed in the orchard. If the weather cooperates, he said, the apple-picking season can stretch into November. A recent stretch of warm days and cool nights was ideal weather for the apple crop. But farmers know the weather can be fickle. And since the sun was shining, Lewis hurried back to the apples.

I took 2 gallons of the Lewis family's "cold sweet cider" back home over the mountains with me. It was gone in four days.

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