Saturday, 29 December 2007

Rockingham Forest Slider

With Christmas pretty much put to bed for another year, this weekend had been earmarked for work in the garden. Our modestly sized vegetable plots are now almost empty of produce, so I spent most of the day picking up feed-bags of rotted horse manure from a stables across the valley in Great Easton. Very satisfying work, but bloody hard going, and not helped by the chilly gales whipping down the valley today. Whilst shovelling the aromatic muck onto the bare earth my mind was firmly on the reward of a warming alcoholic drink and a welcome 'feet-up' with a Christmas film or two. The time seemed right to see how our little Slider experiment had turned out.

The Sloes have done their job and can finally be consigned to the compost bin. We tried the Rockingham Forest Slider first, which had emerged a lovely pale pink, with an aroma very similar to that of Sloe Gin itself. The taste is basically that of a much lighter Sloe Gin, with a little added sharpness from the cider, and very easy-drinking. If you like Sloe Gin, you'll love this 'longer' version, which slips down rather too much like a soft drink for comfort. The Tillington Hills Slider was slightly sweeter, and equally easy-drinking, but had a slightly bitter aftertaste. This wasn't exactly unpleasant, and perhaps even added a certain 'grown-up' edge to the drink. All in all a very successful bit of alchemy, and definitely worth repeating with a few tweaks next year.

Drinking the Slider's on such a miserable day weather wise, got me thinking about hot drinks. The slightly herbal flavours of the Slider struck me as being ideal for the mulling process, so as a final experiment we microwaved up a mug of the Tillington Hills Slider until hot and steamy. This was a huge success and even got the thumbs up from Karen, who isn't too keen on Gin, and was a reluctant taster of the two Sliders to begin with. Even without any added spices (which I'm sure would improve the flavour still more) the hot Slider was equal to any Gluhwein I've tried, and I feel this is probably the ultimate expression of this winning combination. What could be more apt at this time of year than a mug of hot mulled Slider, perhaps even as the perfect accompaniment to a Winter Wassail should you be lucky enough to attend one.

If you would like to try a commercial version of Slider, there is one available from the Liquer makers Bramley & Gage, though they are currently out of stock until the end of January.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Sloe Food

Today was the traditional pre-Christmas 'Sloe Gin Bottling Day', and also our first attempt at making it's somewhat rarer relation, Slider. I'm guessing that not many people know what Slider actually is, and to be honest I'm not 100% sure myself.

Our interpretation of this alcoholic by-product of Sloe Gin making, is to take the gin-soaked Sloes, and give them a second extended soaking in the last bottle of our 2006 cider. The idea being that all that gin which has migrated into the sloes needs to be coaxed back out again, ideally along with a little 'essence of Sloe'. We've also made up one jar with a bottle of the Co-op's pretty decent tasting Tillington Hills Dry Cider, though in hindsight what I perhaps should have done was add the sloes to a demijohn of this year's maturing cider, ideally under airlock. I'm a little bit concerned about any potential re-fermentation or bacterial infection, which could lead to exploding Kilner Jars, so as a precaution I've moved the whole experiment out into the potting shed, and I'll probably not leave things 'maturing' for too long.

The Sloe Gin has turned out to be very moreish, so I'm really looking forward to the results of this (strictly non-commercial) little experiment, and will post the results here when we get to try the Slider out.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Orchard Maintenance & Pest Control

The pruning is now complete for this year. I didn't remove much wood in the end, just a few laterals in the wrong place, and most of the leaders needed tipping back to encourage strong growth and more laterals to break along the trunk. This light pruning work is very satisfying, but you have to constantly remind yourself to only make cuts where absolutely necessary. There is often a temptation to prune too heavily just for the sake of it, or the belief that the ideal tree shape can only be achieved by drastic tree surgery. Much of the remaining work to create a good tree shape will involve the tying down of upright branches in the Spring, and allowing the older trees to bear a small crop of apples. This should prevent the trees from growing too vigorously, and will also help to bring the more upright growing branches into fruiting, since the spurs which will eventually bear a crop of apples tend to form on horizontal growing branches.

Whilst working in the orchard the air was busy with the to-ing and fro-ing of Blackbirds, Blue Tits and Robins, all welcome visitors, particularly the Blue Tits which flit around the trees removing the many over-wintering bugs. Most days at this time of year we see Pheasants in the orchard, usually a rich chestnut and golden cock accompanied by a harem of flighty hens. They're a lovely sight, and they always do their bit by hoovering up insects and grubs from the grass. One visitor we are not so keen to see is a rabbit which has set up home beneath our neighbours garden. It loves the new grass in the orchard, and regularly makes a nuisance of itself in our vegetable patch during the Summer. I'm now hoping for a return visit from the young Sparrowhawk which dined in the orchard this Summer. The bird must surely be experienced enough to tackle a rabbit by now, but in the meantime it's just as well we took the advice of experienced orchardists and protected all our young trees with wire guards. Rabbits seem to have a particular liking for the bark of young apple trees, and whilst pruning I made sure that all the guards were in good shape, with no rabbit-sized gaps in evidence.

The hardest task was clearing the growth of weeds and grass from around each tree. Semi-dwarfing bush trees like these do not appreciate competition for nutrients from grasses and weeds, so it's essential in the early years to prevent this growth from encroaching around the tree. To be honest, I haven't tried hard enough to maintain this in the orchard, and I'll need to deal with this more rigorously next year, but an hour or so of hand weeding on a frosty December day has made a big difference, and I now feel all is ready in the orchard for the coming Spring.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Pruning time...

There's a welcome lull in the cidermaking, with nothing much to do until it's time to 'rack-off' the ciders in the new year. I'm really looking forward to this part of the operation because despite involving a new round of cleaning and sterilising, and the time consuming syphoning of large quantities of cider from one vessel to another, this will the first opportunity to guage how the finished cider is likely to taste. In the meantime my attention has turned to our garden mini-orchard.

In addition to an old but productive Bramley, and a rather sorry looking, but equally productive eating apple, we have 16 young cider apple trees in our small orchard at the top of the garden. The Dabinett's and Harry Masters' Jersey's were planted two years ago, with the addition of 4 Yarlington Mill a year later, all on M26 semi-dwarfing rootstock. The aim is to produce a small orchard of compact, heavy-cropping bush trees, and to this end I'm attempting to train the trees to the 'centre leader' form favoured in modern bush cider apple orchards. A combination of shorter days, colder weather, and the mighty gales we've had in the last few days have now removed the last few leaves from our fledgling trees, and it's now time to do a bit of pruning.

I've already ventured up a ladder to continue the renovation of the old Bramley (seen here before any pruning work had been carried out, on a rare snowy day), a difficult but neccesary job owing to the neglect it suffered under previous owners. The excess of unproductive upwardly growing branches are being brought under control, and the light penetration and air flow through the tree is much better than it was previously. Sadly this tree was in need of this kind of attention long before I took ownership of it, the badly crossing, and in some cases badly rubbing main branches will never be fully put right. Replacing this tree with more of the cider varieties would make good sense for future cider production, but it's the heart of the orchard and I feel it would be wrong to replace it whilst it still has a few pies and crumbles left in it.

The new cider apple trees present a different challenge. The work I do now will help (or hinder) the formation of strong, healthy trees, hell-bent on producing bumper crops of high quality cider apples, with little or no need for the kind of drastic renovation work needed by the poor Bramley in their later years. All I need to do now is read every book on pruning I can lay my hands on, oil the Felco pruners, and hope I've learnt enough from previous years efforts to make a decent job of it.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Christmas is coming...

With no cider left from the 2006 vintage to sell, and only a bottle or two left for our own drinking pleasure, there will be no Rockingham Forest Cider delivered by Santa this year. We'll have to remember to put a few bottles by next year, but in the meantime we've created a few branded items we're sure friends and family will be only too happy to receive as a Christmas stocking filler! The design used for the various items is our lovely logo, which was designed for us by the outrageously talented Leicestershire artist, and old friend of ours, Diana Fegredo (that's old friendship, not old Diana!). Diana has just begun an exhibition of her work at the Victoria Hall, Oakham, which will run until 28th November. Another great Christmas shopping opportunity.

There is a link at the bottom of this page to our expanding range of branded items, and with the exchange rate as it is, this is a good time to buy from this American site.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Final Turn of the Screw

Ok, so this is perhaps not the most exciting video to be found on the Internet, but it's highly significant for us nevertheless. This is a video record of this year's very last pressing, a juicy blend of Yarlington Mill, Dabinett and Brown's Apple; and absolutely the last cider apples that will pass through these hands until next year's cidermaking season. Enthusiasm for the hard graft of cidermaking was definitely on the wane, and those old injuries, and the inevitable strains and pains of lifting and shovelling were starting to take their toll.

Having said that, there is something very satisfying about watching several gallons of dark, sweet juice flowing from a well made 'cheese' of apple pulp, and the steady burble of gasses escaping from airlocks has a busy, industrious cadence, which drives you on to press more apples, fill more barrels, make more delicious cider........

Oh dear! I think it's definitely time to hang up the rubber gloves for another year. This cidermaking malarkey could become a bit of a habit.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

The Ciderhouse is now filled with a fizzing, bubbling assortment of juice-filled fermenting tubs. We've almost hit our target of 1000 litres, and still hope to achieve this when the final few sacks of apples are pressed later this week. The juice has been checked with a hydrometer, and should give us a cider with an alcohol level of around 6.5%, which is just about where we like it to be. High enough in alcohol to prevent the cider from spoiling in storage, but not so strong as to put cautious drinkers off from trying our cider.

The yeast is merrily doing it's bit for the cidery cause, and in the process creating the unmistakable, slightly skunky odour of fermenting fruit. This is a good thing, even though Karen wrinkles her nose up at the smell whenever she ventures into the ciderhouse. The racket coming from below our bedroom is not so good. I've had to put large pebbles on top of some of the airlocks to stop them rising up and crashing down with a hollow 'thock' every few seconds. If things don't calm down soon (unlikely to be honest) we may have to take a short vacation in the spare bedroom, at least until the snap, crackle, and pop of fermentation eases off a little.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Pork & Apples

Small-scale cidermaking must surely be one of the more sustainable food and drink industries. Unlike brewing, there is no need to boil the juice prior to fermentation (which is why cider is made, not brewed by the way!). More often than not the raw materials are sourced locally, and most of the cider is likely to be sold locally too. Admittedly we currently need to buy most of our fruit from further afield, but our eventual aim is to increase the amount of local apples in our ciders, including the fruit from our garden orchard which should start cropping next year. Ideally we would like to buy a couple of acres and plant our own orchard of cider varieties so as to become totally self sufficient in fruit, though with land prices as they are, and demand so high, we're not holding our breath on this one.

One area of the cidermaking process we have been wrestling with for the last couple of years is the accumulation of spent pomace after pressing. By the time we finish pressing this year we'll have pressed almost two tons of fruit, leaving us with the problem of disposing of around a third of a ton of fairly dry, pulped apples. Traditionally, cidermakers have dealt with this problem by either 'losing' it under a field hedge, obviously not an option for us, or feeding it to their livestock. Pigs love it, and cattle are also more than happy with the temporary change of diet (though probably not dairy cows, as it could taint the milk). Sheep stomachs are apparently too delicate for more than an occasional nibble of pomace, which is a shame as there are plenty of sheep grazing in Middleton and Cottingham, but almost no cattle or pigs to my knowledge. Disposing of our pomace in an environmentally sensible way had become a bit of a headache.

We'd resigned ourselves to hiring a mini-skip, at no small cost, and hoping the skip company were true to their promise of taking the contents to the green waste recycling site. We were not particularly happy with this arrangement, but in this part of Leicestershire/Northants, the only other 'livestock' grazing the fields are the whinnying & clopping variety, so couldn't see any other realistic options.

We started our main cidermaking on Friday, and as a last treat before the week-long slog ahead I squeezed in a Thursday night visit to a few pubs in the market town of Uppingham. On my third attempt at getting served a drinkable pint of Bombadier in a pub whose name escapes me now, I happened to overhear a chap at the bar discussing his rare-breed pigs. My ears were by now in full 'pricked-up' mode. The chap turned out to be a very amiable builder named Rob, who when not building, helps out on his fathers smallholding in the picturesque village of Medbourne, a 'lick and a spit' from us in Middleton. A lucky meeting indeed, and just in the nick of time. Rob has now collected the first batch of pomace, and I trust the porkers are now enjoying their new orchard diet.

Pain Stops Play

Two days into our main cidermaking week and I've already been forced into taking a breather. The rigours of milling and pressing, with the attendant humping about of apples and pomace, takes it's toll on our sadly under-developed muscles. I usually end up with one or more areas of my back in spasm at some point, and all manner of old strains and injuries are liable to make an unwelcome return at this, the worst possible time.

Yes, the back is aching, but not debilitatingly so. My dodgy knee is holding up surprisingly well so far (looks around frantically for piece of wood!), and everything seemed to be progressing fairly well, albeit a little slower than I would have liked. But at some point during the first session, I appear to have strained a small area of my left hand, not so big as to render it useless, but it had become progressively more painful to use over the course of the second day. Such a small injury, but one in such a crucial position for lifting, washing, and shovelling apples and pomace, that I may as well have milled and pressed the bloody hand itself for all the use it is now.

I intend to rest it on Sunday, which means Karen will be cooking the roast, and driving me to the pub, and I'll have to remember to lift my Sunday lunchtime pint(s) strictly with my right hand only. Not all bad then...

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Apples Everywhere

The pressing of our local apples is done, and our focus has now shifted to the Three Counties area, famous for it's cider and perry making tradition. This weekend was spent ferrying almost 2 ton of assorted cider apples from growers in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, in readiness for the main pressing next week. The clear, sunny weather meant this was a great weekend to be in the Wye Valley, and particularly the foothills of the spectacular Malverns Hills. I managed to call in on a (very busy) cidermaking friend for a chat and a sample, and also visited a small farmers market where I was pleased to discover a cider and perry maker I hadn't heard of before (Newtowns Wines of Gloucestershire). All this, and I still managed to make it back to Leicester in time for the kick off of the Rugby World Cup final, accompanied by a few pints in The Vaults with friends and family.

We came back with quite a wide range of cider apples, including the 'vintage' bittersweet varieties Dabinett, Tremlett's Bitter, and Yarlington Mill; plus a few precious bags of the sharp, aromatic Brown's Apple (pictured above) which will help give the cider a good balance of tannin and acidity. Some of the apples came from a batch of mixed cider fruit, amongst which we recognised the scabby green/yellow of Bulmer's Norman, and some Sweet Coppin's which should help to moderate the hard tannin of the Norman's. We're very pleased with the varieties we got, and the quality of the fruit seems to be better than last years batch, which needed a lot of hard work to weed out the rotten and heavily bruised specimens.

When dealing with known varieties of high quality cider apples, it's often tempting to press and ferment the different varieties separately, with the potential to give you a more interesting range of 'Single Variety' ciders. I've always believed that the very best ciders are made from a good blend of apple varieties, and though single variety ciders can be quite interesting (and also make good commercial sense), they often taste a bit one-dimensional to me. We'll be blending the different varieties as we press, with the aim of achieving a single batch of well balanced cider. This is why we take great care in selecting as good a range of apple varieties as possible, though the vagaries of apple growing and supply, mean that the blend is always likely to change slightly from one season to the next.

Looking at the bags of apples now, the task in hand does look a little daunting for a hobby-size mill and press, but we've given ourselves the whole week to get this lot pressed, and the only thing we can do now is clean and sterilise everything in sight, and pray for the good weather to continue into next week.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Cooking Apple Conundrum

This weekend we pressed another load of the big, boxy cookers from the village orchard, plus a few more kindly donated by our neighbours and a few unknown 'fizzy-sharp', russeted apples from Rockingham. All things considered, a pretty sharp bunch of customers, and far too high in acidity to make a palatable cider on their own (although Richard Keeble of the Stamford Juice Co manages to makes a very good Bramley apple cider, so it can be done!). This is a shame, as they are some of the juiciest apples we get to press, far more giving of their juice than any of the cider apples we use, with the possible exception of the sharp, aromatic Browns apple.

These large cooking apples are pretty common around here. The number of trees dotted around Middleton & Cottingham suggest there was once a substantial orchard, probably associated with the 'Big House' at Cottingham. Unfortunately we don't know what variety they are, although at first glance I'd say they appear most likely to be Bramley's Seedling.

I was gathering these 'Bramleys' from the village orchard earlier this week, when a pick-up van pulled up, and a smiling couple joined me in the orchard, and began filling carrier bags with these ripe culinary freebies. They were gathering the apples for pies and such-like, and were pretty convinced they were not Bramleys, but couldn't put a name to them. It would certainly be nice to think we were making cider from a variety of apple with a more local provenance, but it doesn't look as if we will find the time this weekend to visit another Apple Day event with experts on hand to identify these apples.

One of the main reasons we spent a day pressing this high acid mix of apples, is to supply us with a 'Malic Acid Stock' ready for the main pressing at the end of the month. We usually press a range of cider apples, mostly bittersweets (high in sugar and tannin), but also a reasonable amount of sharps (high in Malic acid) or bittersharps (high in tannin and acid). Tannin is the essential ingredient which gives 'West Country' ciders (and also our own Rockingham Forest Cider) it's distinctive rich flavour, but without a reasonable amount of 'sharp' acidity in the mix, the cider can lack balance, and the all important 'drinkability'. We try to derive as much of our acidity from sharp or bittersharp cider apples, such as Browns, Kingston Black, or Stoke Red. These sharp varieties also have very good flavour and aromatic properties, and bring much more to a blend than using relatively bland culinary fruit. Unfortunately, these 'vintage' sharp cider apples are often in short supply, so we like to have a ready made stock of mouth-puckeringly sharp cider to hand, just in case we need it.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Apple Day - Stamford

Apple day is the big-day-out for enthusiasts of orchards, apples, and to a lesser degree, cider. Initiated by Common Ground in 1990, the number of events which take place on or around 'Apple Day' (21st October), grows year on year.

By a strange quirk of fate, I have never actually been to an Apple Day event, though certainly not by design. This year I determined to go to at least one of our local events, Stamford being one of the nearest.

One of the main motivators behind the Stamford Apple Day is the Stamford Community Orchard Group, which is dedicated to preserving Stamford heritage apple varieties (of which there are many, though most are currently designated as 'lost'), and establishing a community orchard for the benefit of all Stamford folk. They are ably assisted by the East of England Apples & Orchards Project, an umbrella organisation which covers voluntary groups throughout the Eastern Counties area.

The Stamford Apple Day event takes place at the Arts Centre in the town centre, with participants including Beekeepers, apple produce from Stamford New College, excellent local apple juices from the Stamford Juice Co (who also make a drop of fine cider), and a host of other interesting stalls with wide family appeal.

One of the most interesting aspects of an Apple Day event is the chance to have unknown varieties of apple from your own orchard/garden identified by experts in this field. I took along a couple of specimens from the several varieties we used in our recent cidermaking, hoping to put a name to a face as it were. Some small dessert apples from our own orchard proved difficult to pin down, not helped by the size of the fruit. We really should have thinned out the bumper crop on this tree, leading to better size apples, but as anyone who grows-to-press is likely to understand, removing healthy fruitlettes from a tree groaning with appley potential somehow goes against the grain. We'll know differently next year.

Another dessert apple, which we picked from the lovely Welland Valley village of Rockingham, was quickly identified as a Worcester Permain. In retrospect, and having now looked, and tasted these apples, the rich, sweet flavour and appearance is classic Worcester, but identifying unknown apples is notoriously difficult, even for the experts, so it's nice to have a really positive ID, rather than guesswork.

The image at the start of this Blog is of one of the many trays of apples laid out to help the 'identifiers', which also made a wonderful display of our rich orchard heritage.

We aim to go to at least one other local Apple Day event this year, possibly Wilson's Orchard in Northampton, and would seriously recommend you support Apple Day at an event near you.

Monday, 1 October 2007

When Apple Juice becomes Cider

There are a number of different routes that can be taken once your hard-pressed apple juice is safely transferred to the fermenters. In previous years we have simply taken a reading of the Original Gravity (OG), neccesary for calculating the alcohol level of the finished cider, then pitched in a general-purpose wine yeast. Last year we added a carefully measured dose of Sodium Metabisulphite prior to adding the yeast, in the hope of giving us a little more control over the fermentation. Many people swear by the addition of a little sulphite, and I personally have no problem with this, but I'm still very much on the fence regarding the use of sulphites in our cider.

The apples we use for much of our cider come from old orchards which have rarely if ever received a feed, organic or otherwise. This can result in fruit which has a very low nutrient level, such that the yeast may find it a struggle to get going. On the one occasion when we added Sodium Metabisulphite at slightly below the recommended level, there was a long, worrying wait before any yeast activity could be seen, and subsequently the yeast became stressed resulting in the (temporary) production of Hydrogen Sulphide. Whilst this unpleasant aroma is apparently fairly common in the early stages of fermentation, I can't help feeling that a combination of the low nutrient levels, with the addition of yeast supressing Sulphite, contributed to this potential problem. It could also have been the result of being a little stingy with the yeast!

This year I was also concerned that the poor Summer we've had would lead to low sugar levels in the fruit, particularly for this relatively early pressing. Many trees have had bumper crops this year, but the wet weather and lack of sunshine would surely affect the ripeness of orchard fruit. It seems however, that the little bit of good weather we did finally enjoy at the end of the Summer has turned things around just in time. The OG of this batch of cider is 1049, which is better than the fruit we pressed last year at the same time. This should give an alcohol level of around 6.5%, which we're quite happy with.

The other factor we like to check at this stage is the pH of the juice. A low pH (high acidity) can result in a cider which is too 'sharp', but the big advantage is that a high acid cider is less prone to problems during fermentation and storage. This juice has a pH of around 3.0, which is pretty low. I therefore decided to forgoe any addition of Sulphite, and pitch in a good yeast.

There are many people who also swear that the best ciders are made without the use of cultured yeasts, relying purely on 'wild' yeasts to ferment the juice. I'm sure this is true in cases where there is likely to be a good supply of these wild yeasts, such as an old cider house or barn which has seen decades of cidermaking. Unfortunately, we live in the East Midlands, an area not noted for it's cider tradition, and with this being only our third season making cider in Middleton, we choose to add yeast from a packet rather than hoping for a strong wind to blow some of this rare fungus in from the West Country.

This year we are using a specialist yeast ideal for cidermaking , Uvaferm BC, which is available from Vigo. I dosed the juice shortly after pressing, and had a nosy in the fermenter the next day not expecting to see much. What a pleasant surprise to see the tell-tale ring of activity on the surface, and within 36 hours there was a thick head of yeast, and the airlocks were bubbling merrily. Every year we learn a bit more about the magic of cidermaking, and this year our first lesson has been: Don't mess around with off-the-peg wine yeasts. This made-to-measure cider yeast is the business.

The Ciderhouse (otherwise known as The Garage) is located directly below our bedroom, which means that for the next few months we will be lulled to sleep by the steady 'glop' of CO2 escaping through airlocks. Much better than counting sheep in my experience.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Milling & Pressing

I've always associated the tradition of cidermaking with the short, dank days of Autumn and early Winter. In anticipation of this I usually erect a sturdy(ish) Gazebo over the cidermaking area. Making cider can be a hard enough job, without icy drizzle seeping down your collar, diluting the juice, and turning our 'Shark' electric fruit mill into a lethal weapon.

Once again, our first cidermaking session of the year turned out warm, sunny, and totally lacking in any need of cover from the elements. Pleasant it may have been, but somehow it just didn't seem right!

This first days cidermaking serves two purposes. First is the production of our 'Welland Valley Blend', an opportunity to create a truly local cider of a different style from our 'Rockingham Forest Cider'. The other is as a dry run for the main work later in October. This is a chance to test the equipment, attempt to establish an efficient system of work, and iron out any major problems whilst things are operating at a more leisurely pace. We do this every year and it works very well for us, but every year we forget just how physically demanding the job can be. Almost every aspect of the process on this (small) scale involves a fair bit of muscle power, and the more you make, the more you wish for conveyors, pumps, and hoists to take some of the hard graft out of the job. Unfortunately, being able to afford such mechanical aids would involve up scaling the whole enterprise, thus necessitating even more equipment, and more costs, spiralling ever upwards in a pattern no doubt familiar to many trying to make their hobby pay for itself. In the mean time, we make our cider in a very labour intensive way, and dream of the day we finally make something approaching a profit...

We use a 'Shark' Fruit Mill to pulp the apples ready for pressing. This mill was obtained with help from Ray & Gail of Torkard Cider, Hucknall, Notts, to whom we express a big thank you each time we switch it on and find it still works. It's a fine bit of kit, works very well, and is cursed roundly whenever it needs cleaning.

We were aiming to fill two of our 70 litre fermenters, giving enough cider to supply our regular outlets during the Summer Welland Valley Beer Festival. To this end I felt we needed to do at least 5 pressings, ideally over the course of a single day. This number of pressings should, on the face of it, be reasonably easy to achieve. In practice, by the time we've assembled, cleaned, and sterilized all the equipment, there is often barely enough time to press the day's quota in time to get everything cleaned up again before daylight, and enthusiasm rapidly fades. We managed to 'squeeze' 6 pressings in, and filled both fermenters, which was very pleasing.

The design of our press is based on the traditional 'Rack & Cloth' screw presses which have been used by cidermakers for hundreds of years. This was purchased from Vigo of Devon, who specialise in supplying equipment and sundries to the UK wine and cider industry. These presses are certainly not cheap by hobby standards, and many choose to build their own from timber as an alternative (see here for an example), but it's a sturdy piece of equipment and we hope it will last us as long as we continue to make cider on this scale.

We have found that a single pressing with this press usually yields around 5 gallons of juice, depending on how generously we build each layer of the 'cheese', and how juicy the fruit is. During this pressing we found that the best yields were from the large pears we picked from the village orchard. I'm not sure how much flavour these will give to the finished cider, since dessert pears have quite a subtle flavour which will usually become even more subtle once the sugars have been fermented out. What they will undoubtedly do is help to balance the acidity of the apples, especially the 'sharp' cooking apples which are so plentiful at this time of year.

Our press is reasonably efficient at extracting the juice from the pulped fruit our mill delivers, but is obviously nowhere near as effective as a commercial hydraulic or belt press. In years gone by, farm cidermakers would often leave the press for several hours or overnight to extract the maximum amount of juice, but we're attempting to make cider in the short gaps between our day jobs and many other time consuming commitments (the Rugby World Cup couldn't have come at a worse time...), so don't have the luxury of such a long pressing time. Even so, the pressed apple pulp (pomace) seems sufficiently dry to me, and there comes a time when an extra turn of the screw results in such a small return of juice that it's time to call it a day. The spent pomace is traditionally fed to livestock, ideally sooner rather than later, since what little juice remains in the pulp is liable to ferment, and drunken pigs and tipsy cattle are not necessarily the friendliest of animals! We are currently looking for a local livestock farmer willing to take our pomace.

Apples & Pears

This weekend we got the new season's cidermaking underway, pressing several sacks of mixed apples and pears, all sourced from within the Welland Valley area. It's said that when making cider from non-cider fruit (ie. culinary and dessert apples), it's best to use as wide a range of varieties as possible, each adding a little to the overall flavour of the finished cider. We were lucky to have picked around 10 different varieties of apple, mostly low acid dessert apples, plus a couple of varieties of pear. I'd like to say I can name each apple and pear which has gone into this mix, but unfortunately I can't as yet name any of them! We hope to be able to take a few of these apples to an Apple Day event later this month for possible identification, but even the experts can struggle to identify unknown varieties of apple, so we may never know.

One of the big advantages of picking your own fruit for cidermaking is that you can afford to be choosy about the quality of the fruit, and also handpicked or gathered apples will usually be much cleaner than those obtained from commercial orchards. This is because most commercial cider apple growers shake the ripe fruit from the tree, then collect them using a mechanised harvester which sweeps them up from the orchard floor. Everything goes into the hopper, rotten fruit, leaves, grass, and even the occasional stone. Of course the big drawback of picking your own is the extra labour involved, but the time saved when cleaning and processing the fruit just about makes up for this extra effort. Besides, an hour or two spent in an old orchard on a bright September day, is infinitely preferable to the hard graft of washing mud and slugs off a trailer load of bruised or rotten apples.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Picking apples in the Welland Valley

This is one of the many trees we have been harvesting fruit from over the last week or so. This one is a roadside wilding, which has produced a good crop of sweet, but fairly bland dessert apples. We have also picked Dessert and Culinary apples (and a few pears) from an old orchard in Rockingham village, and a number of trees in Cottingham and Middleton villages, including our own small orchard. Our aim is to get as good a mix of fruit as possible. Too many cooking apples in the mix can result in a very sharp (acidic) cider. Sweet, low acid apples like the ones from this tree will help in this regard, as will a few pears.

Last year we produced a separate Eastern Counties style cider from locally picked apples which we sold as our 'Cottingham & Middleton Blend'. This year we hope to make a little more cider from local fruit, which we aim to sell at the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June, probably as a 'Welland Valley Special Blend'.