Curtis Orchard in Champaign, Ill., has a cider-making process that's a fast-moving, well-honed operation churning out about 1,800 gallons of apple cider per day. Curtis Orchard is open from late July to mid-December. Go behind the scenes in this week's feature.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Jason Wood sits on a wooden apple crate in the Curtis Orchard cider house, picking apples out of a bin — one after another after another, all day long.
He turns each apple over in his hand, visually inspects it and then tosses it gently either into a bin of perfect apples that will be sold to customers or a bin of seconds that will be pressed into cider.
“I’m looking for cosmetic differences, bruises or holes, ” he said.
“All the apples in here are good quality. We’re looking for hail-grade, those that have maybe been through a hail storm. We’re looking for the less-than-perfect apples for the cider,” said Randy Graham, the cider house manager and one of the owners of Curtis Orchard in Champaign.
“A rotten apple gets kicked out. It affects the flavor of the cider and the shelf life,” he added.
Wood, 42, is on the front end of the cider-making process, a fast-moving, well-honed operation that churns out about 1,800 gallons of apple cider per day. Curtis Orchard is open from late July to mid December.
The cider is made in a 2,000-square-foot room behind the orchard’s gift shop and cafe. It’s loud and busy there, with a forklift frequently moving bins of apples here and there. The smell of fresh apples permeates the space.
“When we work, we have to move fast because we make a lot of cider in one day,” Graham said. The orchard has 5,000 apples trees of many varieties.
After the apples have been graded, they are washed with water and fed into a grinder that chops the apples into small pieces. The chunks are then pressed between two nylon belts, which extract the juice.
The juice goes into a holding tank, while the apple pulp, called “pomace,” is collected and later spread on the ground in the apple orchard. It’s organic matter that amends the soil. Besides the pulp, the pomace contains the skins, seeds and stems of the fruit.
The juice is pumped through a tube from the holding tank into a balance tank. At this point, Graham samples it. The apple cider at Curtis Orchard is blended from a variety of apples, which may include Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Braeburn, Fuji and Gala.
“You want it to have body, sweetness and tartness. At this point we can correct it. If it’s running tart, we put a sweet apple in. If it’s too sweet, we put a tart apple in,” Graham said.
He said cider made early in the season tends to be tart, because tart apples are harvested early. Late-season cider is generally sweeter.
“We have a following for the early tart cider. Europeans like cider with a bitter, stronger flavor. Americans like it sweet, mellow and mild,” Graham said.
Once he’s satisfied with the flavor, the juice is flash-pasteurized. It’s heated to 166 degrees for about eight seconds, then cooled to 55 to 60 degrees. Pasteurization kills any bacteria that may have gotten into the cider from the skin of the fruit. No preservatives are added.
“Start with cold and end with cold. That’s the key to shelf life,” he said.
Curtis Orchard was founded by Paul Curtis, a former professor at Parkland College in Champaign.
He had a small hog and grain farm that produced a meager yield for the labor that went into it. Wanting to diversify and increase production, he planted 700 apple trees on the property in the mid-1970s. They did well, and he added to that number in subsequent years.
In 1980, he sold his first apples to the public and today Curtis Orchard & Pumpkin Patch draws 160,000 visitors a year. In addition to selling fresh apples and cider, the operation has a pumpkin patch, petting farm, corn maze, miniature golf, pony rides, cafe and gift shop.
Apple cider vs. apple juice
Graham is often asked the difference between cider and juice.
“The simple answer is ‘nothing.’ Cider is an old-fashioned name for juice,” he said.
But Americans have come to know apple juice as a clarified, shelf-stable product that has a weaker taste than cider.
Cider, Graham said, “has pectin and fiber in it. Hold a bottle up to the light and you’ll see cloudiness. It’s pasteurized but not sterilized. And it still tastes like the fresh apple it came from.”
Years ago, the word “cider” referred to hard, or fermented cider, while the nonfermented cider was called “sweet cider,” Graham said.
But terminology has changed over the years. Now, “cider” typically means sweet apple cider, while “hard cider” is the term used for the fermented, alcoholic stuff.
Apple cider lasts about five weeks in the refrigerator. After that, it begins to naturally ferment.
Graham said this year’s drought resulted in sweeter apples with intense flavor and more body.
“This has been a really good year to make cider,” he said.
-The pilgrims planted the first United States apple trees in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
- Some 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in the United States and 100 of those are grown commercially.
- Apple trees take four to five years to produce their first fruit.
- Most apples can be grown farther north than most other fruits because they blossom late in the spring, minimizing frost damage.
- The top apple producing states are Washington, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Virginia.
- Some apple trees will grow more than 40 feet high and live more than 100 years.
- Almost one out of every four apples harvested in the United States is exported.
- Apples have no fat, sodium or cholesterol. A medium apple has about 80 calories and five grams of fiber.
- Apples ripen six to 10 times faster at room temperature than if they are refrigerated.
- It takes 25 to 35 apples to create one gallon of apple cider.
- The official state fruit of Illinois is the GoldRush apple.
SOURCES: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service and U.S. Apple Association