Samples & secateurs

If you’re wondering why we haven’t posted in a while, wonder no more! We’ve been up ladders again giving many of the trees we pick around the cidery and Port Washington a good winter pruning. That, along with finalizing our blends and preparing for bottling, has been keeping us steadily on our toes. Exciting times, tiring times—no surprise they go hand-in-hand.  

It seems to me, in the cider world, pruning is a task often left out of the cidermaking narrative—perhaps because many cideries are not as involved in the growing of the apples they use. And yet it’s essential: truth be told, apple trees have been domesticated and bred for so long they really only flourish (much like cats and dairy goats) with some level of care and attention from their friends with opposable thumbs. A skilled pruning balances the tree’s structure and creates strong fruit-bearing limbs that will not break under a heavy load of fruit. It also directs the tree’s energy away from excessive, unneeded vegetative (leaf) growth, rather sending it into the fruiting spurs—those cherished little buds that flower and fruit each year. And lastly, it opens up the canopy so light can reach the fruit, and keeps disease in-check by removing as much dead and diseased growth as possible.

Ideally, unless it’s of a tip-bearing variety, the tip of almost every branch on the tree is “headed back” to about pencil-thickness and even more importantly, to an “outward bud,” as whichever direction the bud nearest your cut is facing, that is the direction in which the branch will continue to grow (see the photo bottom left). That being said, branches growing completely vertical, or branches that rub on other branches, or, in some cases, branches that cross and block the sunlight from reaching other fruiting branches, need to be thinned, ie. cut off just before the branch collar, that little ring of bark at each branch’s base.

Pruning time is essentially a repeat of harvest time, except you haul what you “pick” to the burn pile rather than the cider mill. We find it to be an enjoyably challenging task with a similarity to landscape painting in that it requires constantly stepping back and contemplating the tree's overall structure and shape.

Our other favourite task is blending cider (bottom right). After letting our racked batches mature untouched for as long as possible to avoid contamination and air exposure, we pulled out samples, considering each batch first on its and own and then deciding how best to blend them. With heritage mixed-use apples such as ours, we’re generally looking for a balanced level of acidity, body (mouthfeel), complexity of flavour, and a pleasing aroma. We’re quite excited about our batches and how well they do complement each other in different combinations.

Next month: bottling. We’re getting so close to release!


Experiments in ice cider

A couple of weeks ago we decided to turn our last few totes of apples into a small-batch experiment in ice cider. Ice ciders generally range from an ABV of 7-13% and are left residually sweet without the addition of extra sugar--rather, the higher sugar level is attained naturally through the freezing of the apples, which concentrates the apples' sugars, as well as from multiple rackings of the cider which stops the fermentation before all of the sugars are fermented to dryness.

Claude Jolicoeur's The New Cider Maker's Handbook informs us that there are two approaches to this process, and we decided to try both: "cryo-extraction," in which you freeze the apples and press them partially thawed; and "cryo-concentration," in which you freeze vessels of pressed apple juice, and then siphon the first juice that thaws as it will contain the highest concentration of sugars. In Ontario and Quebec, this can be done using the great outdoors--by leaving the apples on the trees or the juice or apple bins outside to freeze in winter temperatures. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we'd have to drive our apples to Pemberton to find such weather, so we used a very large and unromantic deep-freezer.

It was lucky we had the enthusiasm and helping hands of friends from Vancouver's Callister Brewing and Orchard & the Sea, because it turned into a longer pressing process than expected: the apples, of course, thawed unevenly in the totes and we waited past dark for some to reach a satisfactory state of thaw. The last press was a chilly but beautiful production creatively lit by iPhones and headlamps.

Instead of milling the apples, for ice cider the apples are pressed whole (top right). We mixed Grimes Golden and Columbia and Dolgo crab apples with an assortment of heritage dessert varieties in order to balance that final sweetness with some acidity. The result was a delicately pink-hued juice that we can ferment to an 8 or 9% ABV while retaining a nice residual sweetness.

After pitching a yeast (wild fermentation isn't recommended for ice ciders), It is now slowly fermenting in these cool ambient winter temperatures, and we will monitor it until it is close to our desired final sugar level--at which point we will begin the racking process, and eventually bottle and pasteurize it to kill any remaining yeasts that could become active in the future. Once we've done this successfully, we'll pull the vessels of frozen juice out and next try the cryo-concentration method, thawing and siphoning off only the first few litres of juice.

It will be quite interesting to compare the two final ice ciders and decide on which method we'd like to pursue and perfect in future years. Fingers crossed these first experiments will be amazing enough to end up in the tasting room this coming year.  

The last of harvest and the first of fall planting

The apple bins are emptying, the juice is in the cider house fermenting, and with only one more small pressing to do we are wrapping up the harvest season and moving on to other tasks around the farm and cidery. With the help of family and friends we picked, received and pressed over 32,000 lbs of apples beginning in late August and finishing this week, which equals over 8000 litres of juice. About three months of harvesting! Many of the varieties were early and many we left on the trees as long as possible, even past leaf fall, to reach maximum flavour and sugars (top right photo). We were rewarded with some juice coming out of the press at 1.060 specific gravity—that’s getting close to an 8% abv cider if fermented to dryness.   

Blending our dozens of apple varieties has been an interesting challenge, as we did not have enough quantities of one specific variety to ferment each separately and blend after, as some bigger cideries might do. So this process looked like Matthew and I rummaging through apple bins, tasting each variety to judge its acidity (or lack of), flavour, and tannins, testing each variety’s sg (sugar levels), and numbering the bins on pressing day in a way that best balanced and complemented each variety. Readings and taste-testings of the fermenting cider in these first few weeks has reaffirmed our blending decisions, although in a few batches we’ll blend the small amount of Okanagan apples we had pressed last month, as some of the varieties we sourced in the Okanagan have more tannins and acidity than our heritage Gulf Islands apples.

There’s still a lot of work to do from rock-picking to weeding, planting and mulching, but it’s certainly a big relief to have the cider bubbling away happily in the cider house. Once it finishes initial fermentation we’ll rack it (pump it off of the lees/dead yeast) into new vessels where it will have a nice slow, cool temperature finish. Good cider can’t be rushed.

As we finish up this season, our work is shifting from harvesting to planting-out our new cider variety orchard. The leaves are starting to drop from the baby apple trees (below left), so we’ll begin constructing 10’ foot, 3-wire trellises for each row at the new planting site. As soon as the trees enter dormancy we plan to transplant about half of them to the orchard site. The rest will go on living in the nursery until we have another planting site prepared.

On a side note, a few people around the island have asked where our goats disappeared to. We moved them to a piece of farmland owned by Sandra and Noel just across the road (bottom right photo)—they were in need of a drier, warmer space for the winter and there happens to be an old barn up there. They were also in need of more weeds and roughage, as they pretty near ate themselves out of house and home down at the cidery! But with four stomachs each, I suppose that’s not surprising.

On seedling apples

Harvest season continues, so we've been dividing our time between picking, pressing and preparing the orchard site for a fall planting. We estimate we've picked and pressed up to 20,000 lbs. of apples (and pears) so far on Pender Island this fall with the help of family, friends, our cidery partners, and backyard growers (the top left photo shows about 5500 lbs.) As Noel says, we've turned all of Pender into an orchard--sometimes picking in five different backyards per day! We also ferried and boated about 4000 lbs. from our wonderful growers on Mayne Island. It's been an unexpectedly good harvest season considering that some of our favourite trees had a low cropping year. 

Since the majority of trees are now picked, we've slowed down a bit and have had time to track down some nice, astringent seedling apples to put in our late season blend. The best are usually the hardest to pick, being found in unpruned hedgerows engulfed in blackberry bushes--but we find creative ways (such as suspending an extension ladder across the bushes), even if it's just for a bushel or two.

Wild seedling apples are generally just chance offspring from nearby apple trees, grown from a seed. Because apple trees almost never reproduce true to parentage from seed (hence grafting, "cloning," as the primary method of propagation), the result is often an apple tree with inedible, bitter fruit. Perfect for cider. Perhaps you could say they are the Gulf Islands' answer to the traditional bittersweet cider varieties used in Europe. Used in a blend, they add a surprising amount of tannins, complexity and flavour.

Blending our varieties takes some strategy and allows us to use the more bland, dessert variety apples available on the old trees around here. In a properly balanced blend with astringent seedling apples and tart apples like russets, these dessert varieties shine. And we know that this strategic tasting, choosing, and blending goes back to the deepest roots of cidermaking. If you're up for a great additional (though somewhat academic) read, we shared this link on a cidermaking forum recently and we should share it here too: A Mouthful of Diversity: Knowledge of Cider Apple Cultivars and the United Kingdom and Northwest United States. This article reminds us that the North American cidermaking tradtion is still in the making, and perhaps the most we can do to develop its complexity, beyond grafting and planting traditional English cider varieties, is to track down, experiment with, and propagate some of those wild seedling apples that have a character yet to be tasted and appreciated. 

PS. You may also notice we have a new look! As our cider has developed over the season so has our identity, and we were lucky to have the creative team of Caste Designs in Victoria work with us to develop the crafty new logo above.


Rack & cloth pressing

Pressing season is upon us. We're currently about 2500 liters into our 6000 liter goal, and still working out the kinks in the new/old pressing system. The star of our setup is the hydraulic press, a "rack and cloth" or "rack and cheese" press--a modernized version of the kind of press that has been used in cidermaking regions for hundreds of years (post horse and mill stone, of course).  

How it works: the apples are dumped into a wooden hopper, where an auger rotates them up through a spray-wash system and up to the mill for grinding (photos 1 & 2). The resulting apple pomace (which looks like coarse applesauce at this point) falls down into another large wooden hopper where it collects until pumped over to the pressing table. Here a foot pedal is used by the folks building the rack and cloth layers to pump the pomace as-needed onto a pressing rack and "cheese" form draped with a diagonal cloth (photo 3). It is then neatly folded, topped with another pressing plate, and the process is repeated for six to seven layers. Jolicoeur's The New Cidermaker's Handbook informs us that those layers of folded pomace are referred to as the "hair", as the cloths were traditionally made of horse hair. Sadly, there are not enough horse tails on Pender to replicate this tradition, and anyway, I'm sure we would be the only cidery in production to do so. Finally, the stack is pressed at 2000 psi (photo 5), pumped over to an IBC container, and two happy cidermakers are the result (photo 6).

It's a simple and fun process but issues do occur, mainly because some apples are drier than others and do not run through our trusty pump very well. This results in someone holding the pump hose up very high while our friend George whacks it with a 2x4 as if he were batting in a game of cricket (not pictured). We'll tweak the system as we go and hopefully the last 3500 liters will be a breeze. For now it's been so great to have all the help we've received from our community of friends and family. Pressing on...