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Pressing Day at Dragon’s Head CiderDecember 2nd, 2012 at Sun, 2nd, 2012 at 4:08 pm by Karen Dale
On a November morning as dry, golden, and sparkling as their semi-dry cider, I visited Wes and Laura Cherry on the last of their many apple-pressing days.
The Cherrys make “Dragon’s Head Cider,” the most popular hard cider now sold at Vashon Thriftway. They planted their first cider apples two years ago and sold their first 120 cases of hard cider last summer. So far, they have released a “Traditional Semi-Dry” that’s delicately flavored, dry, and lightly carbonated—a quaff much nearer to champagne than to your Treetop kiddie cider.
They were inspired by a wine-tasting trip to Europe, where Wes realized he preferred hard cider to any wine. After careers in tech & consulting work (and Wes’s experiments fermenting hard stuff from jug cider) they decided they wanted to raise their young family in a progressive, rural area. After looking around, they thought of Vashon “right under our noses,” and started shopping properties. Once they found one of the old Mukai strawberry fields, what was a five-year plan quickly became a five-month project to create Home, a cider-apple orchard, and Dragon’s Head Cider.
It’s early days at this ciderhouse: the Cherrys are clearly going through the experimental stage. In fact, Wes cobbled together this cider press, Rube Goldberg style, from ebay purchases and modifications done in his metal shop next to the ciderhouse.
I’m here because I wanted to see what folks do with a bumper crop of apples. And here were four bins of apples: a bin of Stayman Winesaps bought from Island orchardist Doug Tuma, plus three bins of local Jonagolds and Melrose— “mostly eating apples,” Wes explained, “that I use for the aromatics.”
His wife Laura, ponytailed, aproned, and gloved, joins us, ready to start the wash that begins the pressing. We fill crates with winesaps and dump them into the steel rinse tank; Laura pushes the apples toward a small water-wheel that will leapfrog the apples into a feed hopper.
From there they’ll be caught on a conveyor belt, ride 12′ into the air, and drop into the maw of the apple mill that will fill a pair of buckets with apple pomace.
While one bucket fills, Wes grabs the other and dumps the grindings into canvas envelopes that hang from the accordion frame of half the press. When that half is full, the hydraulic motor presses them together while opening the other half to have its envelopes filled. Juice runs from the canvas bags, filling the collection cradle below and running through tubes into one of the ciderhouse’s 1000-litre tanks.
Finally, when the last drop of juice has been squeezed out, the frame springs open, tips over, and shakes out the spent pomace like toast from an up-ended toaster. Talk about easy clean-up!
Wes and Laura smile at each other over the juice-run: she’s just as involved as he and clearly they enjoy working this together, on this beautiful day.
Inside the ciderhouse, Wes already had juice fermenting in big tanks from earlier pressings: mixes of traditional cider apples from his own orchard plus table apples from here and Eastern Washington, a tank of just Newton Pippins from Hood River “because I was so impressed by the experimental batch I made last summer,” and a tank of crabapple juice that he’ll use as a “secret sauce” in his cider blendings. Several glass carboys were filled with fermenting juice, including a “perry” from abandoned pear trees around the Island.
He showed me one of the pears: they are tiny green, some no bigger than cherries. I bit: it had a sweet forward taste followed by the dry pucker of a high-tannin fruit. He said, “These are very tall trees, 60-80′ tall and narrow. You shake the fruit off: I wear my hard hat when harvesting those trees.” With 100 gallons fermenting, he hopes to bring out a “Perry”—a pear cider— during the next sales season.
It won’t take long for the yeasts he adds to start the ferment rising. Once that’s done, they bottle the cider, first adding a bit of sugar to round out the apple flavors, then topping with a spritz of carbonation (another Wes-concocted machine) before capping and pasteurizing. Pasteurizing kills the action of the yeast, plus any bacterias that the alcohol of fermentation didn’t kill off. The final product is just under 7% alcohol and lightly fizzy.
Laura asks me if I’d like to return in a month to help them plant more trees. They want to end up with around 1500 cider apple trees, and within a couple of weeks, the last 450 will show up. “We invited 44 adults and their 10 kids to come help, which is what we did with the earlier plantings. And we’ll have a big party at the end to celebrate.”
I went, I photoed, and I planted, on that drizzley first day of December. That entry will be my last for 2012, so come back next week for the “Drowning of the Young Apple Trees at Dragon’s Head Cider.”