Every autumn, I buy a gallon of apple cider from Quig's Orchard in Mundelein. Quig's has been pressing for half a century, since a time when Lake County was as Up North as Wisconsin, but these days the orchard is an island of apple trees beleaguered by the aluminum tide of subdivisions. I go for their unpasteurized cider. It's the virgin juice, with none of the flavor or impurities boiled away. After a few weeks in the refrigerator it starts to ferment, and then it sparkles across the tongue like whiskey and frost.
All-natural cider is not so popular anymore. People worry about germs. Last year when I asked for my gallon, the woman in charge of selling cider looked at me with surprise and gratitude.
"Now you're someone after my own heart," she said. "I'll see if I can find some in the freezer."
She returned with a block-solid jug of frozen cider. I felt like I was buying moonshine from a still out in the woods.
I just about was. Starting this year, fresh apple cider is almost illegal. When I went to Quig's in September, the cider lady wouldn't sell me any.
"We're not allowed," she said, apologetically. "The state won't let us anymore."
I'd driven 35 miles, so rather than go home empty-handed I bought a gallon of wimpy pasteurized cider--it tasted like apple juice mixed with third-bag tea--then went home and sent a cranky E-mail to the Illinois Department of Public Health. The following Monday I received a reply from a woman in the Division of Food, Drugs and Dairies:
"I understand your wanting to stick with tradition," she wrote. "Unfortunately, it is no longer a safe practice. While your cider ferments to get that bite there could be other pathogenic bacteria growing too. Not all people are as healthy and able to fight off those bacteria. There are some things we have to give up to make the world a safer place. Sorry (my mother agrees with you)."
Unpasteurized cider had always seemed so pastoral, so wholesome. Now the health department was branding it deadlier than grain alcohol. I figured that if Illinois wouldn't let me drink it, I could find my cider in some neighboring state, one that didn't have laws against apples or guns or cigarettes or alcohol or anything else that only kills people who have no common sense. Surprisingly, none of the Indiana orchards sold all-natural cider. But I was planning a trip to the east coast in October, and I figured if any place respects an autumn tradition, it's New England. I called my friend Bill, an English professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
"We'll find you some real apple cider here," he promised. "New Hampshire's motto is Live Free or Die. That's gotta be good for something."
We found what we were looking for just across the Connecticut River in Vermont, at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. The jugs carried a cigarette-style warning: "This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria which can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems."
I'm not young, I'm not old, and I'm pulsing with antibodies. I bought six half gallons. As I ferried them to the checkout lane, Bill stood by the register, giving me two thumbs up.
"I told ya," he squealed. "I got the hookup!"
We drank the first jug right there in the parking lot, and I swear I could taste the mushy skins of Macintosh apples in the tart liquid. (Bill's wife was eight months pregnant, so she abstained.) I bought a cooler at Kmart and packed the rest of it in ice, as though it were a liver on its way to David Crosby. A week later it was in my refrigerator, ready to become alcohol.
It turns out the state of Illinois didn't crack down on apple cider; the feds did. Ten years ago most of the cider you bought at an orchard or supermarket was all-natural. But then came the Odwalla incident. In the fall of 1996 dozens of people caught E. coli from a batch of apple juice pressed by the California company. A 16-month-old Colorado girl died. The bacteria may have gotten into the juice because Odwalla used apples that had fallen in a cow pasture. But it wasn't just a sanitation problem: Scientists had never seen E. coli that could survive the acidity of apples. This was a robust strain. The Food and Drug Administration determined to keep it away from children. This year it banned unpasteurized cider from large supermarkets. Small stores--like that food co-op in Vermont--can sell it until January 2004. After that, fresh apple cider will be legal only at the mill where it's pressed, and then only with the warning label.
The new regulations have been a blow to orchard owners, who earn up to half their profits selling to stores. Now they have to buy pasteurization equipment, which costs between $10,000 and $20,000--a tough nut to make, especially since the apple crop has been so scrawny the last two years.
"It would be safe to assume that 30 to 40 percent of [American] cider operators have gone out of business because of this," says Matt McCallum, publisher of the Fruit Growers News in Sparta, Michigan. Quig's is still in business, but the orchard's patriarch, Bob Quig, is railing against the new regulation. "In 50 years we never had a problem," he said.
The Quig family had the bad timing to buy a $40,000 cider press two years ago. Now they can't use it without buying the pasteurization equipment too. Legally Quig's could sell cider in the raw, but the schools that come in for field trips won't let their pupils drink it, and local stores can't buy it for their shelves. So the Quigs send their apples to a processor in Grand Rapids, which sends back the pasteurized juice.
"It does take some of the profit away," Quig said. A few more bad apple crops "and we may have to start planting houses here."
(When I made my under-the-table cider buy at Quig's last fall, I was getting the final drops of the 2000 vintage. The orchard froze it for home vintners. Pasteurized cider won't harden into a sot's delight, because the 160-degree heating that kills off harmful bacteria also kills off the yeast that's essential for fermentation. "Some people have been making apple wine for years, and they usually come in and buy five or six gallons," Bob Quig said. "There aren't many these days. I guess the idea of making home cider is kind of over-the-hill.")
Cider supplies are scarce all over the midwest. The Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, still sells it all-natural. Tree-Mendus Fruit in Eau Claire, Michigan, has a little frozen stock left. In Illinois you can only find unpasteurized cider at a few rural farm stands. Tanner's Orchard has it, but you have to make the 300-mile round trip to the Illinois Valley hamlet of Speer.
"I'm out of the wholesale cider business since the rule started," owner Richard Tanner said. "I used to wholesale about 30,000 gallons a year."
That was half his yearly cider business, but "we've learned to adapt," he said. "We're hiring fewer people. We're changing our marketing strategies. Now we've got wagon rides, a corn maze, pick your own pumpkins, a slide in a corn elevator. That's just part of the general trend in the industry." He's looking into pasteurization equipment. If he buys it he promises to "still save a little bit for the old wine makers. I'll pull it off before it's pasteurized."
Many autumns I've tried to turn my cider into full-blown alcohol, grog at least as fine as the prune wine fermented in prison cells. I've never succeeded. I've poured sugar into gallon jugs and hidden them in the cupboard for two weeks; they turned to sour vinegar. I've left a bowl of the stuff on my porch seven straight nights, skimming off the ice each morning; I didn't get drunk. Since I may be in possession of my last batch of prealcoholic cider, I figured I'd better get it right this year. So I consulted a pro: Greg Fischer, proprietor of Bev Art Brewer and Winemaker Supply in Beverly. Fischer's family owned an apple orchard in upstate New York.
"When we had the orchard, we'd put a jug on the shelf, loosen the cap, and let it go," he said. "You never knew what you were going to get. You've got to hit it just right."
As a teenager he would sneak down to the cellar to get drunk on fermented cider. Sometimes when he returned for another swig a few weeks later, he'd put the jug to his lips and gulp down vinegar.
Today Fischer is a more sophisticated tippler. I went to see him just before lunchtime one Thursday, and he popped open a bottle of a "very dry cider" he'd made from Jewel apple juice. He'd added yeast to make it ferment. It was as parched as Soave.
"To make alcohol and get a buzz is real easy," he said. He opened another bottle, this time of apple wine, and pushed a glass in my direction. "The question is, can you make it with good flavor?"
Fischer had done both. The apple wine was as rich and aromatic as port, and I was getting a buzz. (Fischer will be offering tastings of his wares this weekend at "Planet Buzz: A Celebration of Mead, Cider, and Perry," at the Black Orchid Lounge, 230 W. North.) I tried to take notes as he walked around the store, collecting the equipment I'd need for my home winery. A plastic bucket. A glass jug. A siphoning hose. It all cost me $16. I was supposed to add a cup of sugar to my cider, let the mix sit in a bucket for two weeks, then siphon it into the jug and store it for another month. It would be ready by Christmas. In the meantime he advised me to save my beer bottles; I'd be filling about two dozen of them.
"The worst thing you can do," he said, "is drink it out of the jug, unless you're going to drink it all at one party." Prolonged contact with air is what turns the alcohol to vinegar.
So now I have a bucket of apple cider fermenting on my kitchen table. It's giving off a cloying smell, like sour mash. I also have a half gallon that's hardening the old-fashioned way: I loosened the bottle cap to let the gas escape. When the foam in the neck subsides I'll have the cheapest booze in Chicago--$1.40 a fifth, I figure. You can't find a bargain like that anymore.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.