Walk into the cider house at Richters Orchard in Northport and you'll immediately notice an intense scent: the smell of the freshest, juiciest apple you can imagine. But you won't be biting into any fruit here, where the business is fresh-squeezed cider.
Richters is one of six local orchards that still presses its own apple cider this time of year - and one of only three which allow the public to hang out and watch it happen.
Peak cider time
The apple-pressing season runs from September to May, but it's the week leading up to Thanksgiving that always keeps farmers the busiest, says brothers Andy and Lou Amsler, who have been running the Richters' cider mill since 1979 (their late father worked for original owner Frederick Richter as far back as 1934).
Come turkey season, the brothers are often spending several hours a day at the press in order to keep up with customers' penchant for fresh cider, which means now is an ideal time to stop in to see how it's done.
From apple to cider
Public tours of the Richters' cider house are informal and self-guided - simply show up during pressing hours and you'll be directed to the mill, where large crates of the orchard's own apples stand waiting to be tipped into a bin for washing before a conveyor ride carries them into a chopper. The result: a chunky, slushy mess that gets piped to the press.
The mashed-up apples are fed onto cloth-lined wooden pallets that are sent through a press that squeezes the juice out, eventually leaving only a tightly packed square of skins and seeds. The juice is funneled into a refrigerated holding tank. Later, it will be flash-pasturized and bottled.
"I like the way it smells," says kindergartner Timothy Cleary, who was visiting the orchard as a class field trip from Fifth Avenue Elementary School in East Northport (he decided after the tour that he'd like to be a cider maker himself).
All told, it takes about eight bushels of apples (about 320 pounds) to make 25 to 30 gallons of cider. While it tastes great, fresh cider won't last as long as apple juice sold in supermarkets, Andy Amsler explains, because it doesn't have preservatives. Richters' cider should last at least a week in the refrigerator - and it can be frozen.
East Northport resident Mary Hoffman remembers touring Richters' cider house with her daughter - now she's bringing her grandsons, Zachary and Colton Habel, ages 5 and 3 months. Says Hoffman, "The kids get so excited when they get here. . . . Coming to see the apples being pressed and drinking cider are just part of the holidays for us."
WHEN | WHERE Pulaski Road (between Bread and Cheese Hollow and Old Bridge roads), Northport
HOURS Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday. The orchard expects to be pressing cider 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. daily through Thanksgiving (call to confirm before you go).
COST $7.25 a gallon, $4.50 a half-gallon. Holiday blend is slightly higher.
Jericho Cider Mill
WHEN | WHERE 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, 213 Rt. 106, Jericho
COST $7.50 a gallon, $4.75 a half-gallon
Owner George Zulkofske says he starts pressing at 5 a.m. practically daily during the week leading up to Thanskgiving. There isn't a formal tour, but the public is welcome to stop in and peek at the process (call ahead to confirm schedule).
WHEN | WHERE 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, 116 Manor Lane, Jamesport, and 729 Main Rd., Aquebogue, which is closed on Wednesdays.
COST $7 a gallon, $4 for a half-gallon
This family-owned orchard presses its own cider a few days a week and invites drop-ins to step over to the pressing area. Workers will answer questions about the process.