CALAIS � There�s a five-gallon jug of cider fermenting in our house. It�s in a mini root-cellar below the mud room, where it will remain until Town Meeting Day, when I�ve been given the go-ahead to pull the plug, pour and drink.
My instructions come from Terry Bradshaw, who pressed and
squeezed the cider stock from five varieties of apples.
Bradshaw, 36, is a farm manager at the University of Vermont
who moonlights each autumn in his Calais garage.
Wearing long green rubber gloves and a matching apron, with big black boots, Bradshaw spends Saturdays in October squeezing juice from a selection of apples � crates of which are stacked in a corner of his garage. His small business, Lost Meadow Cidery, produces about 300 gallons of sweet cider each fall, and 400 gallons of juice for making hard cider.
�It�s a weekend operation, a hobby operation, that�s a little out of control,� said Bradshaw, who grew up on a farm in Chelsea. �But it�s fun, and efficient enough: Let�s open the doors and sell some juice.�
Bradshaw opened his garage doors five years ago, and sells mostly to repeat customers. New business is generated by word of mouth. �I used to have a $21 advertising budget,� Bradshaw said.
The stock for hard cider is made to order and sold by Bradshaw in five gallon carboys, at $7 a gallon, along with fermenting instructions. Certain customers, usually home-brewers, like to �tweak� their stock, typically more than necessary, Bradshaw said. Others � and I�m firmly planted in the �other� category � add yeast, set aside the stock, and wait.
Bradshaw�s operation is a Saturday afternoon sideshow for customers and assorted hangers-on, people looking for sweet and sassy fun on a hilly dirt road about 10 miles northeast of Montpelier.
The morning pressings of sweet cider are closed to the public for food safety reasons, Bradshaw said. But afternoon pressings of hard-cider stock are viewer-friendly, a spectator sport, because the fermenting process is an effective pathogen-killer, he said.
Food safety seemed a non-issue at Lost Meadow in early October, when I watched Bradshaw press a batch of juice for hard cider. I readily tasted the dried and condensed apple pulp from the morning squeeze, which was dumped in the back of his pickup before delivery to a neighbor�s herd of beef cattle.
The pulp resembled a tightly woven door mat made of apples. It tasted like the fibery foundation of a highly concentrated energy bar, observed photographer Emily McManamy.
The sweet cider Bradshaw extracted from this pulp, which was bottled in his refrigerator, is an amber-gold liquid treat. Its sweetness obscures a mild, refreshing tartness; the drink tastes as a fresh as pulling an apple from a tree.
�I personally select the fruit for the sweet cider,� Bradshaw said. The apples come from orchards in Lebanon, N.H., the Champlain Valley, and Bradshaw�s own trees, he said.
�I don�t divert good, saleable fruit just to use in the cider mill,� Bradshaw said. �The cider fruit is small, bumpy and lumpy.�
Lost Meadow�s hard-cider stock is squeezed from several apple varieties, including tart European varieties high in tannin, Bradshaw said. An early October stock was squeezed mostly (60 percent) from dessert apples edible off the tree, with a variety called Liberty making up the backbone of the juice.
Bradshaw uses apples from a number of sources, including a one-of-a-kind central Vermont picker whom Bradshaw calls �Crazy Chris.�
�He brings me a handful of apples,� Bradshaw said. �I taste �em, I mull �em over. I say, �Yes. No. Yes. No. I want a few of these.� I don�t have the energy or the time to get them. Somehow, Chris does.�
Crates of apples are stacked in the garage, boxes that include bumped, dimpled and funny-shaped fruit whose appearance is moot for the pressing they get and the juice they yield. Bradshaw�s rig � customized for his purposes � presses 20 gallons at a shot.
�It�s a nice unit to work with,� he said. �Better than five gallons or 1 gallon. Better than 50 or 100.�
Turning apples into juice is a two-step process � loud, fast and impressive.
Step 1: Put on ear protectors, for the grinding phase
In this step, Bradshaw dumps bushels of apples into a hopper, and plunges the fruit � about 120 apples per crate � through a grinder. The apple mush comes out fast, and lands in a five-gallon bucket that is placed on a jack, a piece of equipment whose height is set to keep apple spray to a minimum. In a couple of minutes, a bushel of apples is reduced to mush.
The mush is like rough and raw apple sauce, studded with chunks of fruit and skin. After Bradshaw runs seven crates of apples through the grinder, it�s time for Step 2.
�That�s grinding,� Bradshaw announces with a smile.
Step 2: It takes more finesse to press, and it�s more fun to watch � quieter, too
Pressing involves stacking and loading seven wooden racks with apple mush, and then pressing the juice out. Each rack holds a bucket of ground apples, which Bradshaw wraps in thick brown cheesecloth. When he is satisfied with the bundle of wrapped apple mush, and when the rack is in place just so, he adds the next layer of apples � and so on. It�s like he�s building a big cake, only to collapse it with a press that pumps out the juice.
When a batch is complete, Bradshaw shoots a dose of sulfites into the juice, and sets aside the jug for a customer who has ordered the stock in advance. The sulfites serve two related purposes, according to Bradshaw: They suppress the growth of wild yeasts and bacteria, thereby allowing the fermentation to be carried out by preferred wine yeast.
If Bradshaw is a pro at pressing apples, he�s less easy to press for answers on how to care for the hand-crafted, five gallons of juice.
I left with the impression that less is more � and that suits me fine. We stuck our carboy in a little gravel-lined pit near the kitchen, where the sugars will ferment to alcohol over the winter.
I added yeast two days after we brought the stock home, per Bradshaw�s recommendation, to promote fermentation with a select wine yeast. I�m hanging onto a piece of rubber tubing Bradshaw gave me, with plans to siphon the juice out of the jug in a couple of months, clean the container, and pour the juice back in.
Other than that, I�m happily anticipating Town Meeting Day, and a taste of early March fizzy fun.
I asked Bradshaw what he likes to eat with his hard cider. It seemed to be the only question he didn�t answer before the words were out of my mouth.
�Oh, gosh,� Bradshaw said. �I don�t know ... dinner!�
Contact Sally Pollak at firstname.lastname@example.org or 660-1859; to find out more about Lost Meadow Cidery, go to www.lostmeadowvt.com.