Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Beer & Cider Festivals

From the outset we have always planned to sell the majority of our cider through local pubs, and if we decide to bottle any of our cider in the future, there are also a few local farm shops we would love to supply. Beer festivals have never really figured in our plans, not because we dislike them, far from it, it's more because we wanted to establish a 'local' market for our ciders. Beer festivals are often very enjoyable events, and there's no doubt they can be a great showcase for the ciders of smaller producers like ourselves, but I see little point in giving exposure to ciders at festivals which cannot then be tracked down in regular outlets.

In the past we have sent barrels of our cider to festivals in Leicester, Newcastle, Northampton, and Reading , as well as several of the smaller pub festivals which are now commonplace throughout the Summer months. Supplying this number of events can seriously stretch our limited supplies of cider, and so we've decided that this year our cider will only be going to our regular pub outlets (Criterion, Leicester & Hatton Arms, Gretton), plus two excellent local CAMRA beer festivals.

The Northampton Beer Festival takes place in the grounds of Delapre Abbey in Northampton, from Thursday 29th to Saturday 31st May. If the sun shines, as it did last year, it is a lovely under-canvas event, with a good range of draught cider available at the 'Mad Apples Cider Bar'.

Later on in the Summer we will be supplying our ciders to three of the pubs which take part in the popular Welland Valley Beer Festival (20th - 22nd June). This event takes part in several Welland Valley pubs, including our local Red Lion in Middleton (pictured right), and has the added attraction of a vintage bus service which links the pubs on the Saturday of the festival.

Further details of both these festivals will appear on the Northants CAMRA website nearer the date:

Sunday, 27 January 2008


This weekend we had the pleasure of a visit from Ray Blockley and Gail Lomax, fellow cidermakers from Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. They came bearing the gift of cider, and after a short visit to the nearby village of Gretton for a pint of our local Great Oakley Brewery's beer, we set-to with a tasting session which went on into the early hours.

Ray and Gail had brought along a generous flagon of their own Torkard 57 cider, a sample of a batch which will be available at the Chesterfield Beer Festival (1st - 2nd Feb). We also tried bottles of our own Rockingham Forest Cider, Hogan's Perry, and finally, Sidra Leartibai, and Zapiain Sidra Brandy, both from Spain's Basque region. All good stuff, and useful (though sadly not tax deductable) research.

Sunday morning dawned rather too brightly for my liking. I seemed to be the only one suffering from a hangover, which was just as well since there was important work to be done, some of which required a clear head and a steady hand. Our sturdy Vigo Rack and Cloth Press, which has served us well over the last three seasons, and which only last September I swore I'd never be parted from, has found a new home in the upcoming 'cider heartland' of Hucknall. Ray and Gail already have a good homemade press, and plan to make a bigger version in the near future, but until then they require a little extra pressing capacity. Luckily for all concerned, we happen to have a little too much pressing capacity at the moment, so a deal was struck, and the press was loaded into Ray and Gail's trailer for the long journey 'up north'. For the first time in several years I find myself without the means to press apples. A slightly strange feeling, which happily should only last the few short days until we collect our shiny new (secondhand actually) hydraulic press (more of which later...)

Pictured here is Ray, struggling gamely with a multitude of bungees, and his 'Boy Scouts Book of Difficult Knots'. Karen and Gail look on admiringly whilst I help by taking photos! We look forward to following the further adventures of the Vigo Rack & Cloth Press, if and when the Torkard Cider Blog ever makes an appearance.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

English Apples

As I'm sure you all know, finding a decent range of English apples in a supermarket, is almost as hard as finding a free-range Chicken at the moment. If we believe what the supermarket buyers tell us, the English apple season lasts from September (tasteless, unripe Discovery's) to December (tasteless, unripe Cox's), and there's simply no demand for a ripe, tasty, home grown apple with an old-fashioned name, at any time of the year. Unless you're prepared to buy chill-stored Cox's or Bramleys, that's about it for most supermarkets, though if it's a South African Granny Smith, or Chilean Braeburn you're after, these are always in plentiful supply.

Which begs the question, if supermarkets can't source a decent range of English apples at any time of the year, how is it that Smith's Farm Shop of Wisbech, can offer over half a dozen varieties of their own apples throughout the Spring, and even as far as early Summer. This traditional roadside fruit & veg stall is another good reason to visit Wisbech at this time of year, and I always buy a couple of their well-filled bags of apples when passing. It's also another good reason to avoid shopping in supermarkets which, it seems to me, will always be too big and inflexible to meet the increasing demand for quality English produce.

Smith's Farm Shop is located on the Cromwell Road, just off the A47 south of Wisbech.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Wisbech - Orchard Country

Yesterday I was in the Cambridgeshire market town of Wisbech. I was there today as well, but luckily I chose yesterday to explore the surrounding countryside, since today was a fair bit wetter. Wisbech is surrounded by literally hundreds of acres of orchards, consisting mostly of the squat bush trees favoured by dessert apple growers. Whilst it's true to say that these modern bush orchards with their neat rows of dwarf trees, lack the visual appeal of the old standard orchards, but I think they have an appeal all of their own, particularly out here on the flat fenlands.

The East of England Tourist Board have spotted the appeal of these orchards, and produced a Cycling Discovery Map called 'Apples and Ale' as an aid to their exploration (the 'Ale' part refers to the town's Elgood's Brewery, an imposing Georgian edifice on the River Nene). I didn't have a cycle with me, so can't vouch for the route's ease or otherwise, but it's pretty flat out here on the Fens so I can't see it being a problem for most folk.

The modern orchards are everywhere, but what really caught my eye was the Old Orchard at Wisbech St Mary, a non-commercial orchard with trees over 100 years old. A short walk up a (very muddy!) track, it's free to visit, and open all year round.
It's a beautiful space, even in the depth of Winter when the trees are perhaps at their craggy best. The neglected state of the trees is I guess, quite deliberate, and all the more welcoming for wildlife. Rotting apples litter the orchard floor, welcome food for birds at this time of the year. I'm sure I caught the colourful flash of a Woodpecker in the corner of my eye, as well as a multitude of more common bird life. It was nice to see that a bare patch of the orchard has been newly planted with a few rows of orchard fruit by the East of England Apples & Orchards Project, including the local Wisbech variety Lynn's Pippin. This is one place I look forward to revisiting in the Spring, when the trees will be covered in pinky-white blossom.

With this abundance of apple growing about, you would think that signs of cidermaking would not be too far away, but no-one I've heard of makes a drop around here. Of course the mighty Gaymers were originally from just up the road in Norfolk, and their presence can still be felt in the Autumn when lorry-loads of apples are seen on the roads hereabouts. This sign is at the edge of a field on the outskirts of Wisbech.

There are more of my photos from the Wisbech St Mary orchard, and many more lovely orchard pics besides, at the Orchards UK Flickr Group.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Racking Off & Topping Up

This weekend we began the time consuming process of racking the cider off the lees (the old yeast and apple deposits). Quite a dull job really, but enlivened by the chance of a little taster from each of the different batches of cider.

Racking off is the means by which we remove the young cider from the lees which, now fermentation has slowed right down, will have settles on the the bottom of the fermenter, leaving the clear-ish cider above. Some cidermakers never rack their cider, they presumably feel there is no need for this additional, perhaps risky process, but leaving a cider on the old yeast deposit has it's own risks, and may adversely affect the flavour of the cider if left for too long. We feel it's a job worth doing if only for our peace of mind, and it's actually quite a satisfying thing to do, with the feeling that you are somehow 'cleansing' your cider.

For racking we have a very low-tech piece of equipment, The Big Wooden Spoon. Ridiculously large, totally impractical as a culinary tool, but a few coats of varnish and a length of food-grade tubing turns this into the ideal racking-off tool. It's a job which can't be rushed, if the flow is too fast not only will sediment be sucked up, but you also run the risk of agitating the cider and driving off any dissolved CO2, essential to help protect the cider from oxidisation and other potential problems. During the transfer a small sample of the cider is taken to check that all is well, and this is the opportunity to taste it's cidery potential.
We managed to rack almost half our ciders before the pub beckoned, and it was very interesting tasting the different batches. We aim to blend the different apple varieties during pressing, so that each individual fermenter has more or less the same flavour profile. Even so, we found that each container we racked off was subtly different. One was a fair bit more tannic than the others, perhaps more Bulmers Norman went into this one. Others were slightly sharper, and there was one in particular which was a little sweeter and fruitier than the rest. I'm very pleased with the flavour and condition at this stage, all the ciders have a light 'prickle' of CO2 which will help to keep them fresh into the Summer, and they all seem to have enough 'bittersweet' character to mature nicely over the next few months.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Stake Out...

Yesterday, I was forced to buy a bundle of new tree stakes, and I thought I'd make note of the reason why here, as it may prove instructive. The cider varieties we planted are all on the semi-dwarfing rootstock M26, which owing to it's lack of vigour requires that the trees are staked and tied for at least the first few years of their life. This prevents the tree from rocking in the wind and damaging the root ball, and failure to do this would almost certainly have resulted in our precious trees being uprooted in the strong gales we have experienced recently.

The stakes we used initially were a square section of tannalised softwood (see left-hand pic) bought from a large DIY store. They seemed to be just the job when we bought them, but proved slightly less so when we tried to drive them into the ground. The square section is not the strongest of profiles for this kind of work, and some broke at weak points whilst we tried to lump-hammer them in. Over the last couple of years I've regularly bumped into some of the posts with the mower, and in one case it snapped at the base as a result. All in all, not very impressive and it was time to replace these lightweight pretenders with the real thing. The stakes we went for are Gardman Tree Stakes (1.2m x 35mm, pressure treated, FSC softwood), a round profile stake, as shown in the right-hand pic. These have gone in much better, and are much sturdier in the ground than the previous stakes, and should hold our trees firmly enough until the day they can stand on their own strong roots.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

A New Northamptonshire Orchard

The remnants of old, often neglected orchards can be spotted in many of our neighbouring villages. Indeed we've taken advantage of some of these to make our own 'local' cider. It's much rarer indeed to find new orchards being established, particularly in the East Midlands, and certainly not on any kind of 'commercial' scale. It was therefore a huge pleasure to hear of the establishment of a new large-scale orchard, not too far away in the North-East of the county.

Lyveden New Bield is a National Trust owned Elizabethan pleasure garden, situated in an isolated part of rural Northamptonshire near Oundle. The striking unfinished shell of the Lodge, and the gardens with their unusual spiral viewing mounds are perhaps the main reason people visit this peaceful site, but there is now another attraction with the recently completed restoration of the traditional orchard.

The National Trust have painstakingly restored the orchard on it's original site, using the same varieties of fruit planted by Sir Thomas Tresham over 400 years ago. The orchard is a text-book example of fruit tree planting and layout, with a mix of apples, pears, plums, and other traditional orchard fruit. The trees are well staked, guarded, and kept free of weeds, but the grass between the rows has been left un-mowed, providing an undisturbed habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife. The whole vista can be viewed from the bank which runs along the ornamental canal, and closer inspection reveals that all the trees have been labelled with a short description. I was particularly interested in the variety Golden Harvey Apple, also known as Brandy. Evidence of a 400 year old cidermaking tradition in Northamptonshire? I like to think so.

The trees at Lyveden appear to be on old-fashioned 'standard' rootstock, and given a few years of careful management and healthy growth, should develop into the most wonderful traditional orchard of a type rarely seen outside of the West Country and Three Counties. I can hardly wait to see this fledgling orchard develop over the coming years.

The Fruitwise Guide to Apple Tree Pruning

Regular contributor to the ukcider discussion group, Stephen Hayes, has recently uploaded a very useful series of videos on apple tree pruning. They can be viewed on Stephen's YouTube Channel here:

Hampshire based Stephen and his partner Julia, established an orchard of heritage apple varieties in the 90's, and have subsequently amassed a great deal of practical experience in the management of fruit trees, including a number of cider varieties. Short of attending one of the hands-on pruning courses which are run around this time of year, this is the best bit of pruning advice you're likely to find. Stephen has a very watchable style and I can't recommend this series of video workshops highly enough. Whilst there are plenty of books available which go a long way towards explaining the theory of pruning, there really is nothing better than seeing the process in the flesh. I hope that Stephen continues to share his knowledge and experience with us over the coming years.