On a gloomy Thursday morning off U.S. 2, Brook Peterson’s face lights up.
He’s surrounded by wooden bins filled with apples, big enough to be red-and-yellow ball pits. In front of him is a 22-year-old machine, which looks a bit like a wooden soup cart outfitted with a shredder and a hand crank.
“You might want to stand back,” he cautions as he turns it on, “because pieces are going to fly.”
Peterson is one of the head apple-cider makers at the Apple Barrel Country Store. He’s been making cider for at least 12 years, he estimates, a fact evidenced by the ease with which he drops several Jonagold apples into the chute, or how he seems totally unfazed when, indeed, pieces start flying.
The Apple Barrel is one of the Flathead Valley’s leading producers of unpasteurized apple cider — not the kind you find on the average grocery store shelf, but a simpler, more natural version. The process is, literally, from bin, to machine, to strainer, to gallon-size jug, with no preservatives in between.
“Usually [cider] has to go through a pasteurization process to kill the bacteria, so this is just a raw product, like a fresh fruit smoothie,” said Dana Cordell, who owns the Apple Barrel with its founder, her husband Dave. The untampered product is “wonderful for you, but you have a very short shelf life of about 5 to 6 days.”
The Apple Barrel’s unpasteurized cider keeps it simple — just one ingredient — but there is an art to the process.
First, Peterson chooses the types of apples to run through the machine. He always combines types of apples — in this case, Jonagold and Granny Smith — because “if you only do one, the flavor is just blah,” he said. “If you mix them together, it comes out better. If you use a Granny Smith with a Fuji, you’re going to get a tangy, sweet [cider]. Whereas if you use a Jonagold,” a hybrid apple cross between a Jonathan apple and a Golden Delicious, “it’s a really good juicing and cooking apple, so we use it for juice.”
Next, he turns to the machine.
“This guy has taken a beating,” he said of the cider-maker, which the Cordells purchased from a guy in Oregon when they started the Apple Barrel as an outlet for local produce in 1996.
The machine’s first step is the column-like shredder, in which spiked gears grind the apples into a mealy pulp. Peterson usually drops two or three at a time, pauses for a step as bits fly from the top, then drops several more.
It can be a mess — Peterson ends this cider-making session with bits of apples on his face — but the shredding takes some vigilance. “You’ve still got to watch for components that may break. When an apple gets jammed it can throw off the system, which has happened before,” such as the blades in the shredder hitting the wood.
Peterson next moves the pulverized apples, contained in a wastebasket-like wooden bin, to a position beneath the hand crank.
This is where the fun part happens, he said. With a turn of the crank, a wooden lid presses down on the apples, squeezing their juices out the bottom and sides.
“I call it the apple cider waterfall,” he said.
Pre-strained cider streams from the base of the machine into a bucket placed at the end. Peterson wrings out the apples until the pressure makes the crank, sticky with apple cider, barely able to move.
“We don’t even charge [Peterson] for the exercise,” Cordell joked as Peterson muscled through the final turns of the crank.
The remaining steps are straightforward: Peterson runs the bucket of cider through a strainer, then funnels it into plastic gallon jugs lined up on a cart. With the slap of a sticker naming the expiration date and a pasteurization warning, the jugs head to the Apple Barrel refrigerator, where locals and tourists alike can buy them for $9 a gallon.
“It’s a process,” Peterson said of making cider. “You learn what works, what doesn’t work, you just learn a certain process.”
The cider-maker’s productivity depends on the time of the year. September and October are the busiest months for production, when “we’ll do up 60 gallons and it will be gone in three days,” Peterson said. But the Apple Barrel staff can be making cider with apples delivered locally or from Washington through January, for cider that is frozen and sold to customers through July.
Peterson usually makes 70 gallons per day during peak season, but has gone up to 90 on the busiest day.
According to Cordell, it takes about 16 pounds of apples to make a gallon of cider, and the Apple Barrel produces between 2,000 and 3,000 gallons a year of cider. So, multiplied over 22 years of service, the single hand-crank machine has processed somewhere around a million apples.
“It’s a workhorse,” Cordell said.
They’ve tried other systems where you can press 40 to 50 gallons of cider at a time, but the complexity of the machine meant “it took longer to do that than for me to press this,” said Peterson.
“I think the extra care and attention” of the simpler machine “just adds to it,” said Cordell.
It’s a fitting process for a product with one single, sweet ingredient. “Simple is best, I think,” he said. “The simpler the better.”
Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4439.