Mill's annual tradition is a familiar one that rolls on in both good and bad times

The late-summer phone message from Carolyn Lattin, my East Olympia neighbor and the owner of Lattin's Country Cider Mill, was a pleasant surprise and included an offer I couldn't refuse.

“When your apples get ripe this fall, bring them over some Saturday and you can use my cider hand press to make apple juice,” Lattin suggested.

There was only one catch: I had to share some of my fresh-made apple juice with her customers.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” I said in reply.

After a stretch of late-summer sun, two of my earliest ripening mystery varieties were ready to pick, so I called Lattin to confirm a date. We picked Sept. 11, not knowing at the time that it would be less than two weeks until tragedy struck at the cider mill.

Upon arrival, the cider press was set up right outside the entrance to the farm’s cider and produce store. The handsome, well-maintained wood and metal machine is the same one Carolyn and her late husband, Victor, purchased for $800 after they moved from Seattle to their Thurston County farm and quickly realized they couldn’t eat all the apples their orchard produced. It’s also the press Carolyn used to launch production of her award-winning apple cider.

“We’ve lived on the farm 54 years and had the business 33 years,” she explained.

One constant through all these years is how much Carolyn hates to see apples go to waste.

“We used to press apples for hundreds and hundreds of people,” Lattin recalled.

But after an E. coli outbreak in 1996 involving nonpasteurized apple juice produced by the Odwalla fruit-juice company, all that unregulated apple juice making at Lattin’s ground to a halt under new directives from the state Department of Health.

Today, Lattin cranks out more than 100,000 gallons of pasteurized apple cider and apple-berry mixes per year for sale to a dedicated clientele of restaurants and grocery stores – and farm customers – using a powerful, commercial press that squeezes about 1 gallon out of every 13 pounds of apples.

By comparison, the much-beloved hand press is used for small jobs and produces about 1 gallon per 25 pounds.

The original Lattin cider press has one major alteration. The hand-cranked grinder was replaced years ago with an electric-powered rotary grinder that chews up the apples as fast as you can feed them into the hopper.

I made quick work of my 50 pounds of apples, joined by a steady stream of smiling farm visitors ranging from old-timers who’ve made plenty of their own apple cider in their day to little kids who have never seen an apple turned into juice.

I coaxed Charis Christian, 6, into tossing a few apples in the hopper, which prompted her to say, “We love apple cider.”

The most fun was watching the juice run into the metal pail as I tightened the screw press into the bucket of chopped-up apples.

Just for kicks, we placed my apple juice next to Lattin’s commercial product for a random taste tests by those in the gathering crowd.

Lattin’s award-winning cider consists of anywhere from 10 to 14 varieties of apples with an equal mix of last year’s crop for added sweetness and this year’s crop for a tart, fresh flavor.

My apple cider held its own, drawing favor from some of the adults, while Lattin’s sweeter stuff was preferred by most of the kids.

“I like them both, but the Lattin’s is a little sweeter,” said Jackie Bakker, a diplomatic first-time visitor to the cider mill and farm.

After enjoying the privilege of operating the revered Lattin cider press, I returned home with 2 gallons of apple cider and about 20 pounds of apple mash that I sealed in Ziploc bags and refrigerated to dole out slowly to our horse.

For those of you who have never visited the Lattin cider mill and farm at 9402 Rich Road S.E., East Olympia, fall is a prime time to take the trip, and it’s the perfect time to show your support as the Lattins recover from Thursday’s tragedy. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through the end of October. One can’t help but notice the bright-orange pumpkins in the field, almost ripe for picking by farm visitors old and young.

Buoyed by my apple cider-making experience, I tried my hand last weekend at grape juice from the table grapes hanging in juicy green clusters in my arbor.

My goal? Putting the grapes to good use before the birds and raccoons get them.

Relying on a recipe I grabbed off the Internet, I washed the grapes, mashed them, brought them to a boil, then strained the juice through a cheesecloth into a half-gallon container. I let it cool for several hours, then gave it a taste test.

It was the worst grape juice I’d ever had. The natural sweetness of the grapes had disappeared, replaced by a sour, foul-smelling juice.

Turns out the variety of grape I used – Interlaken – is best eaten fresh, frozen or dried into raisins. The other variety I grow, Canadice, might have been a better choice for juice.

I think I’ll have a glass of apple juice and wait to hear from knowledgeable table grape growers about my screw-up.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444