Richard Koziski grabs a wooden paddle and spreads a heap of crushed apples on a cloth-covered rack at Dexter Cider Mill in Dexter, Mich. (pop. 4,067), readying the fragrant fruit for pressing into a traditional American beverage.
“This is the way cider was made 125 years ago,” says Koziski, 75, who bought Michigan’s oldest continuously operated cider mill in 1986. “We preserve this process so people can have a taste of their heritage.”
Civil War veteran William Van Ettan used the same technique and equipment when he built the wooden mill along the Huron River in 1886. In those days, farmers arrived at the mill with wagonloads of ripe apples and brought along their own wooden barrels to haul their cider home. Van Ettan received a portion of the farmers’ apples in exchange for pressing their fruit.
To produce their cider, Koziski and his daughter Nancy Steinhauer, 47, the mill’s current owner, buy apples each fall from local orchards, blending sweet varieties, such as Red and Golden Delicious and Winter Banana, with acidic varieties, such as Jonathan, Cortland and McIntosh.
After washing the apples, Koziski guides them along a chute into a grinder, five bushels at a time, on the top floor of the mill. Crushed apples drop onto a cloth-covered wooden frame in the pressing room below. Working swiftly, the cider makers evenly spread the mashed apples and fold the heavy mesh cloth like an apple-filled envelope.
After removing the wooden frame, they place a slatted oak rack on the cloth and repeat the process, stacking six more racks of cloth-wrapped apples and rolling them under the press. As the rumbling belt-driven press applies 1,200 pounds of pressure, streams of apple juice trickle through the cloth and flow into a refrigerated tank.
“Cider doesn’t get any fresher than this,” says customer Bruce Blonde, 63, of White Pigeon, Mich., as he watches the cider-making process.
Some of the fresh-pressed cider is used as an ingredient in the mill’s apple pastries, pies, cookies and doughnuts, baked by Koziski’s wife, Katherine, 75.
“Oh, my word, I haven’t had any of these in years,” says Christine Fuller, 66, of Bloomsburg, Pa., after biting into a warm apple cider doughnut. “They’re really good.”
Several hundred mills, particularly in apple-growing states and regions such as Michigan, New England and Washington, quench Americans’ thirst for fresh-pressed cider. Among the oldest is the steam-powered B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill in Old Mystic, Conn., established in 1881 and today run by a sixth generation of the Clyde family.
Most of the cider consumed in Colonial America, however, was neither fresh nor sweet. Without refrigeration, apple juice naturally ferments, turning into hard cider—an alcoholic beverage.
Making hard cider was a way that frontier farmers could preserve a portion of their apple crop, according to Ben Watson, 49, author of Cider, Hard and Sweet: History, Traditions, and Making Your Own. American colonists daily drank cider—rather than water—because streams and shallow wells often were polluted. By 1775, one in 10 New England farms operated a cider mill and cider was used as a form of currency. Children drank a less-alcoholic hard cider called ciderkin.
“America is the only country in the world where there’s a distinction made between hard and sweet cider,” says Watson, of Francestown, N.H. “When Prohibition came around, farmers developed this product called sweet cider.”
Though Prohibition during the 1920s halted hard cider production, at least publicly, some farmers continued to ferment the traditional beverage. One was Jim Koan’s grandfather Albert Koan Sr., who established Almar Orchards in Flushing, Mich.
“My grandfather always had 40 or 50 barrels [of cider] in the basement,” says Koan, 63. “He traded hard cider for hay and groceries. Hard cider helped save the farm during the Depression.”
Today, Koan and his wife, Karen, 59, and three of their children operate the 500-acre Almar Orchards, producing both sweet cider and J.K.’s Scrumpy Hard Cider. To meet demand, they process apples year-round with modern equipment and age hard cider in stainless steel tanks.
While the Koan family makes cider with 21st-century equipment, they maintain old-fashioned farming techniques. Like his grandfather, Jim turns his pigs loose in the orchard to eat fallen apples and help control pests.
“Most people are two or three generations removed from the farm,” he says. “We’re playing an important role in preserving our heritage.”
Fresh from the farm
Part of the sweetness of apple cider is visiting a rustic barn or building perfumed with apples and savoring the taste of the fresh-pressed golden nectar.
“I see people sitting with a cup of cider and gazing off toward the horizon as far as the eye can see,” says Shelly Schierman, 57, co-owner of Louisburg Cider Mill and Country Store in Louisburg, Kan. “When you come out of the city, it’s really an event.”
Schierman and her husband, Tom, 59, opened the mill in 1977 in a restored hay barn. Each fall, the Schiermans offer a bushelful of attractions, including a Ciderfest, pumpkin patch and corn maze, and from August to February, they press 12 million pounds of apples into cider.
At Lattin’s Country Cider Mill in Olympia, Wash., visitors flock to the farm every Monday year-round to watch the cider-making process.
“If we won’t eat it, we don’t grind it,” says Carolyn Lattin, 79, who began making apple cider as a hobby in 1978 for her family and neighbors. Today, her flourishing business supplies cider to stores in Oregon and Washington.
In addition to cider, Lattin and her daughters, Sherrie Kohlmann, 43, and Debbie Lattin, 47, make cider beverages blended with blackberry, raspberry and strawberry juice.
Cider enthusiast Jim Parker, 73, of Sterling Heights, Mich., loves to visit cider mills to buy his favorite drink. Since 1970, he has maintained a log of the more than 100 Michigan cider mills he has visited.
“What makes the best cider is a blend of apples,” says Parker, who helps judge the Michigan Cider Contest in Grand Rapids each December. “I like a darker, thicker cider—an old-fashioned cider. And I drink it every day.”