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'.