Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Delapre Abbey Beer Festival

All cidery activity has ground to a halt. Long overdue surgery on my dodgy right knee, combined with a particularly nasty and virulent virus have left me a little short on fitness. I can't even hobble down the pub on crutches for fear of infecting the whole village, though I can consider myself lucky that both ailments have struck at the same time, meaning only one 'sick-absence bollocking' from the boss, rather than the two I would have got. Happy days!

So, in the absence of much else to occupy my time, this is perhaps as good a time as any to draw your attention to the 3rd Delapre Abbey Beer Festival, a relative newcomer on the CAMRA festival circuit, but in my opinion, one of the better beery (and cidery) days out.

The festival is an under-canvas affair set in the spacious parkland's of Delapre Abbey, a short walk from the centre of Northampton (passing the excellent Malt Shovel on the way). A good enough place to spend an hour or two of your time even without the attraction of around 150 beers, ciders, and perrys.

Beer festivals under canvas offer the chance to drink and chat in the great outdoors, and to me are much more pleasant affairs than those which take place indoors. The festival at Delapre Abbey is like a mini version of arguably the best beer festival of them all, the Peterborough Beer Festival, which takes place in several huge tents towards the end of August. Of course outdoor festivals are always at the mercy of the elements, and none more so than the one at Delapre Abbey which takes place during the early, unpredictable part of the summer. Many a fete or gala has fallen victim to a May deluge, and it's to be hoped that this years festival is blessed with a repeat of the fine weather we had last year.

The cider bar at last year's festival was relatively small, but with a good range easily sufficient for a days cider and perry drinking. This year it's hoped that all three of Northamptonshires commercial cider producers will be represented, Eve's of Kettering, Windmill Vineyard of Daventry, and our own Rockingham Forest Cider.

I've got four weeks to get my knee fit enough for the walk to Delapre Abbey. Hardcore physiotherapy is the only answer. Failure is not an option.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Quality Control

Yesterday I got down to the serious business of quality control. It's important to us that our regular outlets are happy with the product, and that it's selling reasonably well. This calls for regular visits throughout the year, often involving many hours of intensive sampling. Nice work if you can get it! The weather had taken a change for the better, and a stroll down the Welland Valley to the Hatton Arms in Gretton seemed like an excellent idea. The stroll ended up being a bit of a hike, for which my winter-weight body was slightly under prepared, but this is fine walking country, and it was well worth the effort.

The cider we delivered to the Hatton is selling well, and it's tasting pretty good too even though this is an early batch not quite at it's best yet. The good news is that our cider will only improve from here on in, and if we get a few more days like this one, the sales curve can only go upwards. The picture above shows the view from the smart decking at the rear of the pub. Though a little hazy, the picturesque village of Lyddington can be seen across the valley.

Back home the brilliant white pear blossom has now emerged, and right on time some of the ciders have started a secondary 'Spring' fermentation. I've had to pop airlocks back on one or two as the fermentation is quite vigorous. In olden days, before the role of yeasts in fermentation was widely understood, it was thought this spring activity was somehow associated with the arrival of the blossom itself. We now know that it's simply the warmer weather sparking the yeast into life again, or more rarely the presence of a Malo-lactic 'fermentation'. This isn't a fermentation at all, but a benign bacterial process which converts the Malic Acid in a cider into the less sharp-tasting Lactic Acid. Our ciders are not too sharp anyway, but the Malo-Lactic process is desirable because it can also produce additional complex flavours in the cider. Either way, activity at this time of the year is common and certainly not undesirable, though if the storage vessels have been sealed down tightly, it can lead to alarming bulges and maybe even explosions in the ciderhouse!

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Blossom Time

Today has been quite chilly, but this is ideal weather for a spot of digging in the orchard. When we moved to Middleton we inherited a small orchard which had been somewhat neglected over the years. The ground had become overgrown with all kinds of perennial weeds, nettles, brambles, and worst of all a choking ground cover of Ivy. I decided that the only answer was to painstakingly dig out all the weeds, level the ground, and re-seed with grass. It's been a long job, but we're nearly there now.

The numerous apple trees around the village are in varying states of growth at the moment, and I spent a pleasant few minutes photographing the emerging blossom. I never tire of snapping apple and pear blossom, it just looks so delicate and pretty at this time of year.

The open blossom in this picture is from one of the old cooking apple trees in the village orchard. This little haven for wildlife provides us with a few sharp apples for the cider in October, but it's in a very sorry state. The trees are covered in ivy, and the high winds we experienced last year has unfortunately felled one of the apple trees. This now lies untidily across the partially demolished wall separating the orchard from the roadside. It still produced a healthy crop of apples last year, and is laden with blossom now, but quite what will become of it remains to be seen. The local council have so far shown no interest in maintaining this land, though it has been suggested that the orchard could become a 'Pocket Park'. I think this would be a great solution, and I would happily volunteer to help maintain this neglected village asset.

Whilst examining the blossom on one of these trees, I noticed a ladybird snuggled in the centre. This one looks suspiciously like a Harlequin Ladybird, an invading foreigner which may be about to out-compete our native ladybirds. I took a snap and have forwarded the details to The Harlequin Ladybird Survey for identification.

Back in our orchard the buds on the Bramley are on the cusp of bursting into flower. I was a little disappointed to spot an aphid sucking away at one of the buds, even in this cold weather when other insect life is scarce in the garden. The cider apple trees are all later flowering, but I've included a picture of the topmost bud ready to burst forth and extend the central leader growth. Even the new Tremlett's Bitter trees are showing signs of growth, despite the recent trauma of planting out.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Hatton Arms

There are many fine pubs dotted along this part of the Welland Valley, and we've been lucky to visit most of them over the last couple of years. One of our favourites right from the beginning was the Hatton Arms at Gretton, a thatched village pub constructed from the local ironstone which gives many villages around here a touch of the Cotswolds in appearance.

The Hatton was lovingly renovated in 2004 by licensees Carl and Lisa Butler, and has been run by them with just as much care, and attention to detail. The Hatton is a true locals pub, but also does a fine line in high quality food. From the outset there has been an emphasis on sourcing local ingredients, as well as local ales from the Great Oakley brewery, so our locally produced cider has fitted in nicely with this ethos.

Recently Carl and Lisa have decided to pass on the reigns of the business to the incumbent chef Shaun, and Kirsten who has worked the front of house since the early days. Rural pubs like the Hatton rely on the regular patronage of local villagers, as well as the passing trade, particularly throughout the Summer. On our recent visits to the Hatton it has been pleasing to see the bar buzzing with local trade, and it's to be hoped that a decent bit of Summer weather will bring a similar buzz to the terraced decking this year.

Rockingham Forest Cider is now available at the Hatton, and we aim to supply our ciders throughout the Summer months, including the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Pulling Power

Todays blog entry comes to you with a pint-glass full of mixed emotions. On the one hand it's hard to find anything positive to say about the dreadful capitulation of the (once) mighty Leicester Tigers RFC, to an admittedly sparky performance from the Ospreys at Twickenham today. A thoroughly depressing spectacle witnessed from the bar of our local the Red Lion.

The Red Lion in Middleton has recently changed hands, and the new licensees are keen to offer a more local choice of ales than has previously been available. This weekend I've enjoyed a few pints of Wot's Occuring and Wagtail from our local Great Oakley brewery, and this has certainly helped to cushion the blow of today's dissapointing rugby result. The Red Lion will be one of the 10 pubs which participate in the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June, and we hope to have our ciders available here during the event.

Another positive for today was the delivery of a couple of bag-in-boxes of our cider to the Criterion Freehouse in Leicester. The picture shows Anna, one of the hard-working Criterion barstaff pulling a pint of this year's Rockingham Forest Cider. Anna is apparently rather camera-shy, so I'd like to thank her for posing for this shot.

The cider range at the Criterion is a moveable feast, with probably the best choice of quality traditional ciders available in Leicestershire. We now aim to supply our cider to the Criterion throughout the Summer, and will also be delivering cider to the Hatton Arms, Gretton from tomorrow, more of which later.

To paraphrase a well used footballing cliche, very much a weekend of two halves!

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Tremlett's are Go!

The Tremlett's Bitter cider apple trees finally arrived today, happily coinciding with the warmest, sunniest day of the year so far. Great planting weather, and perfect soil conditions too.

These trees are yearlings (Maiden Whips), grafted onto M26 semi-dwarfing rootstock, and are lovely specimens with plenty of growth. Liz Copas, in her excellent book 'A Somerset Pomona - The Cider Apples of Somerset', describes Tremlett's as '...difficult to manage, being full of vigour...' which probably explains the size of these trees. Anyway, the planting season is getting late, so in they go, and this is how I did it...

The trees arrived well wrapped in straw, and protected from damage by a strong cane. The straw around the roots was quite moist, but even so the rootball had dried a little and I felt they would benefit from a short time in a bucket of water. Whilst they soaked, I got digging.

The hole needs to be big enough to easily take the roots without bending or distorting them, and deep enough to plant the tree at least as deep as it was before being dug-up at the nursery. Seems obvious I know, but the planting depth is quite critical. Too shallow, and established roots will die off hindering the establishment of the tree. Too deep and there is a danger that the scion will send out rootlets which may bypass the rootstock, not good if you aim to control the size of the tree.

Once the hole is dug, a stake can be driven in with a lump-hammer, and I like to sprinkle a handful of bonemeal around the hole to help with establishing a good root system. Some people add organic matter to the hole, but my understanding is that this tends to promote excessive top-growth, whereas I want the tree to spend it's first year putting down a firm anchor of roots. The bonemeal needs forking into the soil so that it doesn't burn the roots with direct contact.

With the tree held in position using a tree-tie, I can now shovel back the crumbly earth around the roots. After a light firming-in with the boot, it's time to fix a rabbit-proof guard. A must for most rural/village gardens, rabbits are everywhere and will quickly strip the bark off a newly planted tree. I use a hoop of chicken wire, not pretty, but I've had no damage yet in the orchard.

The final task is 'tipping-back' the leader. By pruning the first year growth back to a bud, and pinching out the two buds below it, we aim to encourage the tree to send out lateral branches lower down, and strong central leader growth upwards. That's the theory, and only time will tell if I've got it right with these new trees.

For a video of fruit tree planting by the professionals, have a look here: Fruitwise Planting a Small Pear Tree