Ever since they began making apple cider in an old dairy barn at Trax Farm in 1964, workers here have spent the dog days of summer through the dead of winter cranking out gallons and gallons of the beverage to sell to the public.
In recent years, however, the popularity of alcoholic hard cider has made that work a nearly year round process.
Rather than just bottling and selling its own product, Trax now also sells bulky, 270-gallon containers on pallets filled to the brim with unpasteurized apple cider for various customers to eventually ferment into alcohol. It’s given a boost to an already prosperous autumn tradition.
Overall, Trax produces 75,000 gallons of apple cider a year, according to Bob Trax, a part-owner of Trax and the sixth generation to operate the sprawling farm near Finleyville that straddles Peters and Union townships in Washington County.
Cider and apples are still the No. 2 seller behind pumpkins and hayrides at the farm in October, Trax says, but they’re incredibly important to the farm’s image.
“The cider keeps plugging away,” Trax says of the market sales that reach into winter. “The cider has a far greater outreach with the distribution.”
The aroma of apple sauce rolls up your nostrils the instant you walk into the old dairy barn located about a half-mile from the market that was built in the 1870s and has housed the apple press for more than 50 years. That first Trax apple press was a “rack and cloth” design that was labor intensive. “We wore it out,” Trax says.
It was replaced in 1974 by a Willmes press that operated until the late 1990s when Trax Farm purchased the current machinery that snakes around the basement of the dairy barn.
The farm grows its own apples on an 18-acre orchard near the barn, while also trucking in the fruit from around the country to give the cider a nice “blend” of flavor from different varieties, Trax says. The workers usually pick the apples that are nicked up, a little green or too small to be sold at the market.
Once at the barn, the apples are put through a washer and then sent along a conveyor belt and through a smasher that pulverizes them into an sauce-like paste. The green and yellow machine – built in the 1970s and originally used to clean potatoes – is staring down its final season since workers have to fabricate their own parts each time it breaks down.
“I hate to see the old girl go, but we need to replace her,” Trax says.
From there, the apple paste is funneled to the press, a cylindrical contraption with an air bladder inside that pushes the juices out through a screen and into a trough below. The liquid is suctioned into a tube and the unpasteurized juice transported in tubes attached to the ceiling into a holding tank.
“It’s a real fiasco when the tube breaks,” Trax says.
This is where the juice meets a fork in the road. If it’s destined to become hard cider, it will be hosed into the large, square containers on pallets to be transported by the company that will ferment it into alcohol. “They want the fresh juice,” Trax says.
Otherwise, the juice moves over to a machine with metal tubes and filters that “flash pasteurize” the liquid for 10 seconds at 164 degrees.
Once that’s finished, it’s stored in one of three holding tanks. Eventually, workers fill various-sized plastic cartons with the cider and they’re off to market with varying expiration dates, depending on if they contain preservatives for mass distribution.
One batch takes 4,500 pounds of apples to create, which produces more than 400 gallons of cider.
However, not all of that finished product is sold with a Trax label. Some are sold to other farmers, who then add their own brand.
“I can’t tell you who it is,” Trax says with a laugh.
The process is hard work and the maintenance is constant, Trax says – but it’s all worth it in the end.
“It makes you feel proud,” Trax says. “To keep going like this (since 1964) and for people calling us to ask us for it. It’s a nice thing.”