Fresh-pressed apple cider isn’t a luxury on the North Fork. In fact, those who shop at Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue — which has been pressing its own juice for more than 50 years — might consider it a necessity.
At 112 years old, Wickham’s cider press is just a few years older than the nearly century-old barn in which it resides.
“It was built in 1904 and has never missed a season of operation,” said farm manager Tom Wickham.
The press was originally owned and operated by the former Billard Farm in Cutchogue, where a King Kullen supermarket is now located. The Wickhams brought their apples to be pressed at the farm on an annual basis until the early 1960s, when owner Irving Billard sold them his press.
“He was getting along in years and decided he didn’t need the press anymore,” Mr. Wickham said. “So we bought it, disassembled it, brought it here in pieces and put it back together.”
Since then, the Wickhams have used the press each fall to press their apples into some of the sweetest and purest juice available.
“We make it until we have no more apples left,” Mr. Wickham said. “Usually that’s at the end of the year, or just before Christmas.”
Like a giant iron monster, the press sits in a small side barn on the Wickham’s property, waiting patiently to be fed. Mr. Wickham said they make cider about twice a week.
“When you press cider, after about a week it starts to ferment. And while fermented is still safe to drink, it’s not sweet cider anymore,” he said.
Pressing the apples is the job of brothers Manuel and Geraldo Rais, who have been making cider at the farm for the past 11 years. For every 42 boxes of apples, the men add two boxes of pears, which Manuel Rais said gives Wickham’s cider its distinct flavor.
“The pears help make it sweeter,” he said.
The press is at its nosiest when the apples are poured into a bin that connects to a wooden conveyor belt. They clunk around until the belt picks them up and transports them to the ceiling, where they are deposited into a grater.
As the apples are grated, the shredded fruit rains onto a canvas tarp placed on the press platform. Once a large enough pile of pulp has accumulated, the Rais’ spread it out evenly, using a large plastic frame the same dimensions of the platform. Once finished, they remove the frame and wrap the pulp into the tarp, folding it up like a package.
The entire process then begins again, with more apples going into the chute and being grated into pulp. Different varieties are used, such as honey crisp and granny smith. Manuel Rais then adds the pears.
“We put about five to six bushels of apples into each layer,” Mr. Wickham said. “Each bushel gives about two and a half gallons of cider.”
With three layers of fruit pulp wrapped in tarps on the press platform, the Rais brothers push the entire platform around so that the layered fruit goes beneath the press.
The machine the Wickhams use is a two-platform reversible press. Built by Boomer & Boschert Press Company in Syracuse, N.Y., one side of its platform can be pressed while the other is loaded with fruit for the next batch. The entire platform sits on a swivel that allows it to be turned around.
“My son rebuilt the pivot a couple years ago. The whole thing works really well,” Mr. Wickham said. “Originally, this was powered by a steam engine. When I saw it operating at the King Kullen site, they had a belt that went outdoors to a tractor with a pulley that made the belt go. Now, we have electric motors.”
The press emits a rhythmic clicking sound as it presses the pulp. Soon after, juice pours from the tarp into a large stainless steel tray fitted to the press platform. From there, it flows through plastic tubes into the FPE CiderSure 3500 UV Cider Processor machine, which uses cider and juice pasteurization technology involving ultraviolet light.
“A thin layer of the cider passes through two panels of glass as the ultraviolet light penetrates it and kills any pathogens,” Mr. Wickham said. “It’s not a pasteurization, but is the equivalent in terms of food and safety.”
Once the juice has been purified, bottled and labeled, it’s ready to be sold at the farm stand.
“You would never install equipment like this nowadays. Today’s presses are much more compact,” Mr. Wickham said. “But as long as it still operates well — all it takes is a little bit of oil — it’ll work indefinitely. Nothing really will wear it out.”