Traditional drops of cider

Apple cider has been made for centuries. It was made long before the early European colonists brought their apple trees with them to this country. Cider was for many the drink of choice, in its many forms. It was cheap, easy to make, and kept well.

Traditionally, cider is made from drop apples. That part of the crop that fell before it could be picked was used by the farm family, canned, dried or pressed into juice.

The way cider is made is now being challenged, with potential requirements that all cider be pasteurized, and that no drops be used.

The future of cider was discussed recently at a meeting of Hillsborough County Farm Bureau, and several resolutions were forwarded to the state level: farmers want to continue to be able to sell unpasteurized cider at their farms, and be allowed to continue to use the drops.

Some years ago, a few cases of illness were traced to contaminated fruit juice, and the federal government responded by requiring that all cider be pasteurized. To the purist, and many old-timers, pasteurized cider is nothing more than apple juice. It has lost all of its character.

Fresh apple cider is cloudy, reddish brown, and contains varying amounts of solids. Left to itself, unprocessed cider will gradually ferment, forming at first “sparkling cider,” then, as the alcohol content rises, it becomes “hard cider.” The final product is vinegar.

Farming group’s resolutions

Freezing the hard cider can give a quite potent drink known as “apple jack.” Using the right recipes and techniques, you can produce champagne.

There are still a few antique hand presses around, mostly at farms where the adventurous can try their hand at making it the old hard way. Commercial cider is made with electric presses, with more concern about hygiene, and under strict controls.

Despite those controls, it’s getting harder and harder to find unpasteurized cider.

“Regulations prohibit the wholesale of unpasteurized cider,” said Dick Uncles of the state Department of Agriculture. “Unpasteurized cider can be sold only at the farm or the cider mill. There were several outbreaks of E coli in raw juice, so the Food and Drug Administration promulgated a regulation that a process be applied to kill the organisms.”

The FDA wanted all cider pasteurized, Uncles said, but New Hampshire had formed a task force when some illness arose.

“The initial regulations would have required everything to be pasteurized. One argument we used was people have told us they want a choice. So producers put on a warning label. The other argument we made was that previously there had been no regulations. We felt that because (cider) was acetic it didn’t support pathogens. Then they found a new strain of E coli in animal manure. So we developed some regulations on washing and sorting the apples, no manure used as fertilizer, no grazing of animals in the orchards. All of the cider mills complied.”

All of the producers are concerned about their own liability, he added.

One of those concerned about liability is David Orde at Lull Farm in Hollis, one of the larger producers in the area. He’s been making cider since 1981 and figures he’s pressed and sold about a half-million gallons without anyone getting sick.

“The whole E coli scare is by a group of stupid people who don’t care,” he said. “I think the risk is so small and so blown out of proportion.”

Yet because of the concern, Lull Farm does not use any drops in their cider.

“Our apples are all hand picked,” he said. “Our press room is milk-quality, our press is stainless steel.”

The farm makes about 10,000 gallons of cider a year. Being so selective comes at a cost.

Not using the drops for cider means they aren’t used for anything. “We leave 8,000 bushels on the ground,” he said. “I can’t afford the $1.50 a bushel it costs to pick them up.”

Lull Farm used to be about 90 percent apples. Now it’s diversified into growing more vegetables. Orde expects to continue to reduce the number of trees at the farm.

“You have to go with the times. The New England farmer is a small producer,” Orde said. “We just can’t produce the volume for the big grocery chains.”

Uncles said there are several methods of pasteurization. One method utilizes ultra-violet light. A new system uses a high temperature for only a few seconds with the cider immediately cooled.

Tim Washburn in Greenville does not make his own cider, so he sells a pasteurized product – cider made with the quick flash method by Carlson’s in Harvard, Mass.

“A lot of people do want the unpasteurized,” he said, “a lot of old timers.”

He said he sells all his drops for cider.

It was noted at the Farm Bureau meeting that the state of Massachusetts was considering outlawing the use of drops in cider.

In the meantime, Uncles expects things to remain the same in New Hampshire.

“We are dependent on our drops because most of our apples are McIntosh, which are prone to dropping and we want to use them,” Uncles said. “I don’t think we’ll change.”