Cider season is upon us, and as always it creates excitement and anticipation, as we New Englanders transition from Summer to Autumn. Although Summer is not technically over, Labor Day weekend usually kicks off the apple fermenting season. I first got into making hard cider in the early 1980s after turning twenty-one and remembering the stories my grandfather told me about when he was the caretaker at the old White Reservoir in Westhampton, Massachusetts. He and my grandmother lived in a remote house on the protected property, with my dad and his sister, with not a single person for miles around. They used to call it the “Hotel Shivers” because in the Winter it never warmed up!
There were hundreds of old heirloom apple trees on the property, mostly from old orchards that existed before they dammed the stream to make the reservoir. My grandpa was a robust and hard worker, a World War One veteran, born in 1898, and never could get enough of hard work. He would pick, collect off the ground, grind, and press all the apples he physically could, and put the cider into large barrels. He did not add yeast as we do today, mostly because he could not get anything but baker’s yeast, so he did what the local cider mills did and let the natural yeast that was on the apple skins do the work. He would add store-bought white or brown sugar to some of the barrels to increase the alcohol content, but leave some to ferment as they came off the press. It got very cold over the winters in those days, and there was no heat except for fireplaces, so usually he would sell as much of it as he could in late Autumn, and people would drive from all around the area to buy it in gallon jugs.
However, his greatest notoriety came from his Apple Jack, which is a crudely distilled hard cider. He would drain some of the remaining barrels into maple syrup pails, carry them down to the frozen surface of the reservoir, and wait in the freezing cold until ice crystals began to form, using a fishing strainer to get them out. When you keep doing this, it removes the water and concentrates the alcohol, making what is commonly called “Apple Jack”. For this extra effort and the extra “kick”, he would charge a premium, and customers would come from all directions, including law enforcement personnel, to whom he gave a nice discount. I come from a long line of home fermenting pioneers, and will be relating more true stories of my fermenting heritage in the near future.