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The Hard-Pressed Cider Company

By Johnette Rodriguez / Photography By Rupert Whiteley | November 22, 2016
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Apples from Pippin, Steere and Harmony Orchards of multiple varieties make up each batch of cider.

Time to Make the Donuts ... and Press the Cider


Many small businesses spring from a light-bulb idea; others evolve from a curiosity and a commitment to seeing something through. When environmental science student Rob Swanson and a University of Rhode Island dorm-mate started brewing hard cider, it was both.

The light-bulb idea was to use a cider press Swanson’s uncle had in storage and to move from orchard to orchard during harvest season to press apples into cider.

But once he had invested in the ultraviolet light machine he needed to pasteurize the cider, he realized how difficult it would be to transport such a delicate apparatus in a trailer to each orchard. So he changed his plan, and three years ago he moved the trailer and all the cider-pressing equipment to his aunt’s farm in Jamestown, Windmist Farm (home to the “Oreo cows,” actually Belted Galloways, that you see on your way into Jamestown Center).

Swanson started pressing cider in 2009, for special occasions and demonstrations, here and there in Rhode Island. It wasn’t until three years ago that he parked the trailer, semi-permanently, at Windmist, and it was just a year ago that he kicked off the cider donuts. And they’ve been flying out of his trailer ever since.

Even rainy days don’t deter the donut fans, Swanson affirms. Several assistants stay busy while he tends the donuts: one to stack the press with crushed apples, one to toss the hot donuts in cinnamon-sugar and serve customers, another for odd jobs such as loading the apples onto a conveyer belt, etc. The young men and women move quickly around each other in a smooth routine, polished by the experience of facing lines of hungry humans.

Swanson gets his apples from Pippin, Steere and Harmony orchards. He’s not choosy about varieties; he takes whatever misshapen or wind-bruised apples come his way, including Macouns, Paula Reds, Macintosh, Honeycrisp and Zestar.

“The only thing I can do is to grade out the ones that don’t taste good,” Swanson says. “I will cull out the ones that don’t have any flavor. That’s what makes the difference with our cider. Eventually I’d like to have my own orchard.”

The different kinds of apples are in different bins outside the trailer and they are washed before going up a conveyor belt into the trailer and being ground up as they spill down the other side.

“Then whoever is doing the pressing builds 10 layers of a ‘press deck,’ called cheeses,” Swanson explains. “We get 15 gallons out of a pressing. We get less than three gallons per 42-pound bushel of apples. Thus, we need lots of apples!”

They don’t press more than 500 gallons each year, and they sell cold and hot cider at the trailer.

And then there are the donuts, which have been a big surprise to Swanson.

“I set out to make a healthy apple cider donut that tasted good,” he emphasizes, “but it’s still a donut. It’s fattening, and you shouldn’t eat too many.”

Swanson uses a standard donut mix, adds cider, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom for spice and sets the bowl to turn in a large mixer. Later, he adds his secret ingredient—lots of hand-chopped fresh apples. Then he pours the batter into another large stainless steel container, this one with a large funnel on the bottom.

Swanson calls it “the stamper,” as he moves it over a vat of burbling palm oil, clicks a handle and out drops a donut. He does this until the vat is filled with floating donuts, and then he reaches for the long drumsticks he uses to turn them over (the better to keep away from hot-oil splashes). He mentions how unpredictable the donuts’ shape and sometimes even their degree of doneness can be, given the amount of apples he has added.

“But it’s worth it,” he says with a grin, as he looks at the donut line growing again.

He might have one donut with his morning coffee, but he’s astounded by the bags of a dozen donuts that he sells. The cider and donut business is strictly an autumn-into-early-winter enterprise: weekends from September through the weekend before Thanksgiving, and then he does make one move for the trailer to the Farmer’s Daughter, in South Kingstown, for weekends in December.

Swanson’s “day job” is running a small portable sawmill and doing a bit of carpentry. He’s been thrilled by the number of people hoping that he can succeed with the cider and donut business, but for now, he’s quite content with “the seasonality of it.”

“In the fall, I think all the time about cider and donuts, and the rest of the year I just shut my brain off about them,” he says, a soothing sigh of relief in his voice.

For fresh cider and donuts on December weekends, head to the Farmer’s Daughter in South Kingstown. And starting in September 2017, back at Windmist Farm in Jamestown. For more information, visit HardPressedCiderCompany.com.

Visit the Hard-Pressed Cider Company and see up close how they make fresh apple cider and donuts.

Photo 1: Rob Swanson (right) and his girlfriend and business partner, Jaclyn Cady, run the hard-pressed cider and donut business on weekends through December.
Photo 2: Hard-pressed cider is made by grinding up the apples, which are then put on a press deck in layers called cheeses, and then pressed to extract the fresh cider.
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