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Oct 21, 2003 12:45 AM

Fresh Cider Pressing in Sterling, IL (long)

  • c

A few weeks ago, I met Erik on a Cider production run in the vicinity of Sterling, Illinois. Sterling is west of Dixon and the twin city to Rock Falls. The exit on I-88 for Sterling/Rock Falls is the same for the Ronald Reagan birthplace, just in case you need a memory jog! I left my house after morning rush hour and made it to Sterling two hours later.

We rendezvoused at the local Maid Rite diner, a small Iowa franchise home to loose meat sandwiches. Erik ordered his favorite cheese Maid Rite with minced onion and yellow mustard. He also partook of a white bean and ham soup that he commented was quite good, for diner. I had had a Maid Rite in Minnesota recently. I was ready for another Maid Rite sandwich, until I read a handwritten special: creamed chicken on biscuits. It was delicious in the way all comfort food is delicious. Additionally, it fed a wee frustration I have had for a while. Not far from Dixon is the town Amboy. In an old Dairy Queen, some women of the community have developed their own fast food. A seasonal offering is creamed chicken on biscuits. In my perfect timing, I either come just before “the season” (cool weather months) or just after!

After lunch, we picked 3-4 bushels of apples. We stopped when we no longer could reach the branches. Erik had been coming to the same location for the past 3 weeks, so we did the best we could with what was left. It was fun reaching up, picking an apple and somewhere further up in the tree another apple let loose bopping the picker’s head. I felt like Dorothy in the Land of OZ with the hostile apple trees picking at her. Erik had picked 5 bushels of apples and pears at another location earlier in the day. We needed 10 bushels to meet the minimum at the Cider processor, however I had friends meeting us who were also bringing 1-2 bushels of apples.

To process the 10+ bushels of apples and pears into 22+ gallons of fresh cider, we drove over to Ye Olde Cider Mill at out appointed time of 2 PM. Please note they make Cider for the public by appointment on Thursdays only. The remainder of the week is devoted to making Cider for the personal consumption and resale. Those who bring their own, the cost is a mere 90 cents a gallon including plastic jug, but the education and memories are priceless.

The Keller’s believe they may be the 3rd owner of the Cider Mill housed in their barn. They estimate it was built in 1880 and originally powered by steam engine. The rinsed apples are dumped into a hopper, where a conveyor belt carries the apples up into a grinder/pulverizer about 12-15 feet above the floor. As the apples are processing, Tim places a 48x48x6 inch wood frame on top of a slotted wood platform, then drapes a very large sheet of burlap, which extends beyond the frame. He reaches up to a trap door causing the pulverized apples to drop into the center of the burlap-draped frame. He closes the trap door, spreads the apples even with the frame, and then wraps the burlap on top creating a porous-apple-package layer. He lifts up the wood frame, places another slotted wood board on top of the burlap package encasing the ground apples and repeats the process until all your apples are ground and layered.

The cart laden with layers of pulverized apples is already exuding juices into a steel basin below. The cart is rolled over to the next station, where the apples are slowly lifted up against a barrier causing juice to flow into the steel basin below. The juice is pumped from the stainless steel basin to a tank with two mechanical taps with two rubber hoses in each tap. Erik and I lined up a gallon jug up to each tap and began filling fresh cider up to the shoulder, allowing room for expansion if frozen. Zipping around filling, sealing and putting aside bottles was good fun.

The time to process 10 bushels of apples into 22+ gallons of cider was perhaps 15 minutes. Like all good entertainment, it was worthwhile to come early and leave late so there was an opportunity to see the Cider Mill go through its paces a few times.

Tim also allowed us to pick as many black walnuts as we wanted from under his trees. We left with a fifty-pound sack with walnut stained hands. To process, we shuck the exterior cover which reveals a walnut in the shell. These are to dry for several months. If you shake up a shelled walnut and you hear some rattling, then they are ready for shelling and eating … a midwinter treat.

In the shop in the garage, I purchased a pint of locally produced sorghum, which can be a substitute for molasses. I also picked up a flier for Arnold’s Farm, which will raise and slaughter animals on your behalf and delivers to Chicago. You can check them out at their website specified below.

Afterwards, Erik, my friends who live near Amboy and I went for dinner at Arnie's Happy Spot in Deer Grove. This is the type of town where you drove through it before you realized you had been there. Arnie’s is on the edge of this small town. In the parking lot there is a permanent parking space reserved for the bride and groom. The restaurant is like a lot of Veteran of Foreign War posts: a large room with a bar along one side, booths on the other side and tables in the center. All table surfaces were covered in colorful and practical plastic tablecloths. My local friend knew half of the people present and motioned us to sit the maximum distance away. In communities where everyone knows everyone else, there is not always too much privacy. So much for observation, we were there to eat.

For appetizers, we ordered fried cauliflower, because none of us had ever had fried cauliflower as an appetizer. The cauliflower looked like fried cauliflower, but the exterior hid a wee surprise: cheese! These were cheddar cheesy fried cauliflower, which were accompanied by ranch dressing. Unexpectedly good. Our appetizer was followed by an iceberg lettuce salad. I choose their homemade, or rather adapted, fresh cucumber ranch dressing: grated cucumber in ranch dressing. This was a refreshing dressing on an iceberg lettuce and I don’t particularly like iceberg lettuce. Our main course was the fried chicken recommended by Erik. Of course, in a style I’m sure Erik learned from Harold’s, Erik ate his chicken with Tabasco sauce. This was a very lightly coated and well -cooked fried chicken fresh from the fryer. It was a very good fried chicken lacking in only one element: salt! Delicious as it was, I’d rather the salt was in the batter than having to sprinkle as I go.

The land between the Chicago Regional metropolis and the Mississippi is drive through territory for most of us. However, getting off the expressway and meandering through these small towns has many undiscovered treasurers. Making Cider on a 120-year-old Cider press is a rarefied experience. My friend who lives no more than 15 miles away from Sterling is quite active in her community was totally unaware of this Cider press. She has perhaps a dozen apple trees and knowing a convenient method of processing Cider made her day.

Thank you again Erik for allowing me to process cider and for a terrific day!


Maid Rite of Sterlinq
111 East 3rd Street

Ye Olde Cider Mill
Tim Keller
1716 W 4 St

Arnold's Farm
Elizabeth, Illinois (near Galena

Arnie's Happy Spot
1679 Hoover Road
Deer Grove, IL 61243

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  1. v
    Vital Information

    Thanks for the great post Cathy2! Very inspiring.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Vital Information

      Fantastic post! And I am still regretting not being able to go along since Erik had planned a whole day of activities. I really enjoyed the cider though! (not from this batch but from the previous) I even fermented a jug of the 4 I got from Erik.

      1. re: RST


        It really was too bad you couldn't make it. However, there is always next year!

        Best regards,

        1. re: CAthy2

          What made me jealous is that it has been a couple of years since I had real -- i.e. unpasteurized -- cider. It has disappeared from the farmers markets. I thought I heard that this was due to a pasteurization requirement in Michigan, but I could be wrong. Is there anywhere in the north suburbs to get the real stuff?

          1. re: Jonah

            Just so you know, I picked up a half gallon of unpasteurized cider at the Oak Park Farmer's Market this saturday. It's not particularly cheap, but it's readily available at at least 3 of the stands there. The best one is in the northwest corner of the market.

            The Oak Park Farmers Market operates every saturday until the end of this month, so you may want to get there this saturday if you're interested, it'll be your last chance until next autumn.


    2. Two questions:

      1) What are you soing with all that cider? 22 gallons is a lot to use.

      2) Are you looking for more black walnuts? I picked up a ton of them last year and could not find anyone who was interested in them. Ended up feeding them back to the local squirrels. If you are interested, maybe I could pick some up while I am taking my five mile daily march.

      PM me if you are interested

      1 Reply
      1. re: jlawrence01


        22 Gallons is a lot. Erik took approximately 10 gallons for himself and friends. I took the rest home but 5 were intended for Chowhounds. 2 gallons each went to my sister and a good friend. Several gallons went straight to the freezer and the balance into the fridge. Once some were frozen, then some in the fridge were transferred to the freezer.

        The Cider processor was talking about a customer who purchased 50 gallons. However, she didn't want to buy a freezer and wanted the processors to keep it for her. The Cider people keep 55 gallons in freezers for their personal consumption. If they followed through on their customer's request, then they would either give up their cider or have to buy a new freezer.

        An alternative storage for the Cider would be to can it in half gallon jars and water-bath process.

        So many ways to spend one's time!


      2. That's a great writeup, Cathy.

        A few notes:

        1) Tim charges $3.50 for a full gallon of his cider. He's been forced to purchase apples from commercial orchards in Southern Wisconsin, as his own orchard was destroyed by hail a few years ago. [These apples have been sprayed.] He charges 90 cents/full gallon, if you bring your own apples, and 70 cents for gallons filled to the shoulder/freezing capacity.

        2) It should be clear that this is an unpasteurized product. It is also very lightly filtered. [Tim uses the same cloth filters that dairy farmers use for milking.] There's quite a bit of particulate matter that makes its way through.

        3) The apples and pears that we used were not sprayed. Its very rare, hereabouts, to find unsprayed orchard fruit. [Its even more rare in the Chicagoland area.]

        4) According to Tim, there's a big difference between his cider and the cider (pasteurized or not) that's available at the commercial orchards in the Chicagoland area. His cider press allows for the air to interact with the must. This results in a more full colour, body, and flavour profile. He tells me that the vast majority of commercial orchard presses make cider in a relative "vacuum."

        5) Tim doesn't know of any other press like his within several hundred miles. He has clinets from Iowa, Southern Wisconsin, Southern Illinois, etc.

        Perhaps I can arrange an outing for interested participants, next year.

        Erik M.