The old wooden behemoth in Laurie Houle's shed creaks and whirs. Apples go in. Cider comes out. Leavitt's Cider Mill in Pittsfield, which Houle now owns, makes apple cider the old-fashioned way. Observers are welcome to take a peek - and a taste - on fall weekends until Thanksgiving.
Using gravity and a groaning hydraulic press, round apples are crushed and squeezed until they're dry. Their juice drips down into a pipe, which runs into a box. Unpasteurized, it's then bottled and sold.
Drinking a cup is like biting into an apple.
Houle has made cider at Leavitt's for 42 years. She's owned the press for 22. She bought it from a man who bought it from Reuben Leavitt. The story is that Leavitt moved the giant press to Pittsfield from Gilmanton Iron Works in 1930. Houle doesn't know how old it is, but she guesses it's pushing 100 years.
As a girl, Houle lived across the street from Leavitt. From the time she was 7, she would hang out in Leavitt's barn each fall. He made her a stool, and it was her job to push the apples into the grinder, where they're crushed into applesauce. Leavitt called her "cider girl."
After Houle bought the press in 1985, Leavitt helped her until his death a decade ago at age 91. Today, Houle relies on a rotating cast of friends and family on weekends in October and November.
Cider-making at Leavitt's goes something like this: One of Houle's helpers pours bushels of apples from the nearby Meadow Ledge Farm in Loudon into the industrial apple-washer, then sorts them to pick out the rotten ones. The good apples are pushed up a sort-of apple escalator into the grinder.
Houle is ready for them on the other side. Clad in a rubber apron, gloves and her red cider-makin' hat, she lays a wooden palette underneath the grinder chute and covers it with a cotton cloth. Then, she uncaps the chute and the mashed apples plop out, splattering her and whoever else is watching.
Houle spreads the apple mash onto the cloth and folds up its sides. On top of that first apple-filled package goes another palette and more crushed apples until she has a tower 10 palettes high.
The tower is wheeled under the press. When Houle flicks the switch, pulleys start to spin and a long piston bobs up and down. The press starts, and sticky sweet cider oozes from the cotton cloths.
Ten cloths of apples makes about 60 gallons of cider. Houle sells each gallon for $5.50.
A few years ago, Houle would make about 15,000 gallons each fall and sell her cider in stores. But because a new state law requires unpasteurized drinks to be sold from the place where they're made, Houle can only offer her cider from an ancient metal refrigerator in her barn-like shed.
These days, she makes about 4,000 gallons a year. Anyone is welcome to stop by and watch her at the press on Fridays from noon to 5 p.m. And on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. To 5 p.m.
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By MELANIE ASMAR
This article was printed on October 9, 2007.