Friday, 27 June 2008

Festival Saturday

Friday at the Welland Valley Beer Festival is predominantly 'locals night', where villagers and those from slightly further afield get to preview some of the ales and ciders ahead of the big day on Saturday. The delightful vintage bus service on Saturday helps to bring folk into the valley from near and far, and the good reputation this event has gained in previous years meant that this year was busier then ever.

We started the Saturday of the festival with a quick cider delivery to the Red Lion in Middleton, which had taken a bit of a hammering the night before. At 10.30am the pub was already full to the gunnel's, with the first buses of the day from Market Harborough, and a coach party from the Alexandra Arms in Kettering combining to create the sort of crush at the bar rarely seen these days, more's the pity! A swift half of something beery with brother Paul and sister-in-law Sue, before we headed up the valley on a red double-decker, barely squeezing under the railway arch into Gretton. The Welland Valley Olympic Drinking Team were already in rude voice down below. I think they disembarked to terrorize the gentle folk of Gretton, whereas we chugged on to Seaton to meet up with 'two-glugs' Tom, and brother Nigel, both drinking pints, both totally out of their depth.

The George & Dragon at Seaton has a very fine view of the Welland Valley Viaduct on a clear day. Unfortunately this wasn't a fine day, but the magnificent spans of the viaduct still looked impressive even through the drizzly mist hanging over the valley. We had a few beers in the garden before catching the bus back to Harringworth for the White Swan, a good pub on any day of the week, but certainly one of the best of the festival. The ales and ciders were set up in the garden/car park, as was a whole host of slightly soggy traditional pub games. A giant Jenga game ensued whilst Nigel & Tom battled it out on the Connect Four. Ray & Gail threw balls down the skittle chute to varying effect. Nice work White Swan people.

The next stop was the beery highlight of Gretton. Three pubs all overflowing with beers, ciders and thirsty customers. The Hatton Arms furnished us with a few juicy cuts from a pig which had been specially fattened for the event, and a chance to compare and contrast a couple of East Midlands ciders. We then headed up the hill to the Talbot's very well organised beer tent, and finally the very, very busy Blue Bell. By the time we rolled back down to the Hatton, things had got very busy here too. It was time to jump on a bus and get closer to home.

Whilst Karen called it a day, and most of the others headed off to Ashley for buses back to Market Harborough, Ray, Gail and I went for a final flurry at the Royal George in Cottingham. The weather had improved by now and after a beer on the decking we followed the Jurrasaic Way to the Red Lion for another final flurry. Excellent Corby band Skibereen were just striking up in the bar, so the final drink became a final few before we finally headed home in the fading light. A great end to a fine day out.

We finished the festival on Sunday with visits to the George at Ashley and Sondes Arms, Rockingham, before a final few in our local the Red Lion. The Castle Inn at Cladecott was the only pub we didn't get to.

This year's festival was notable for two things. Firstly, the bus service seemed to cope better than last year, all praise for which must go to the drivers and owners of the vehicles, and festival organiser Karl Tecklenberg for working out such a good timetable. Secondly, the pubs were at times struggling to deal with the shear number of people enjoying the festival on the Saturday. It would be nice to think that a few of these folk enjoyed their visit to the pub so much, they might like to do it again a few times this Summer, and thereby help out the beleaguered licensees of these fine village locals.

Footnote: Due to my almost complete inability to take photos of this year's event, I've had to cobble together a range of pics from more than one year. The Viaduct pic was obviously taken on a rare bright day in the valley, the picture of the festival bar at the Hatton (featuring a rare sober-ish image of Welland Valley Drinking Team member 'Gattlin' Gun' Rob) comes from the 2007 event, and the bus, which is the one we came back on, is from 2006.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Aphid Attack

Here's a gruesome picture to finish the day with, I hope it doesn't give anyone nightmares.

What with one thing and another I've not been keeping as close a watch on the orchard as I perhaps should have, but lucky for me 'Eagle-eye Ray' of the Hucknall Cider Co had a stroll around the trees this weekend and spotted some nasty goings on.

Common green Aphids had infested most of the cider apple trees, sucking greedily at the soft new growth, and making a curly mess of the new leaves. I've spent an hour blasting the critters off with a spray bottle of water, and squishing the more tenacious blighters between finger and thumb. This is a relatively easy method of control for a small garden orchard like ours, but I was hoping the huge quantities of Harlequin Ladybirds throughout the garden would render even this task unnecessary. I think I need to make the orchard more attractive to lacewing, Earwigs etc. The Harlequins appear to have out-competed the native ladybirds in this garden, but sadly don't seem too keen to move into the orchard and do what all decent ladybirds are supposed to do.

Of more concern was one tree with a bad infestation of the dreaded Rosy Apple Aphid (pictured above). This is potentially more damaging than other Aphids because not only does it lead to serious curling of the leaves, but can also result in small, misshapen fruit and premature leaf loss if left uncontrolled. This called for a targeted spray from a soapy insecticide, a drastic measure in an otherwise organic system, but this will hopefully nip this problem in the bud so to speak.

To finish on a happier note, here's a picture of a cider apple fruitlet, which even at this early stage has developed a very attractive deep red colouring. Here's hoping that the aphids leave this particular rosy apple well alone.

Friday Night is Cider Night

The 6th Welland Valley Beer Festival rumbled through the valley this weekend, leaving in its wake a trail of empty barrels, full-on hangovers, and a faint whiff of diesel from the fabulous vintage buses which ferried us about on Saturday. A grand day out, featuring 11 pubs, over 130 real ales and ciders, and the backdrop of the Welland Valley itself.

We visited almost all of the pubs throughout the weekend, starting on Friday evening with a short trip to the Hatton Arms, Gretton to deliver a box of Torkard Cider from Ray & Gail of the Hucknall Cider Co. We followed this with our traditional 'roll down the hill' from the Royal George, Cottingham to the Red Lion Middleton, this year via the Spread Eagle, a newcomer to the festival.

The George had their range of ales set up in the bar on a stillage which appeared to be made mostly from straw. Ciders on offer included Biddenden Bushells, a pale, strong cider made from culinary and dessert apples in Kent. We managed to catch a little of the late evening sun on the decking overlooking the village before taking the short stroll to the Spread Eagle.

This was our first of many encounters with the strong stomached men of the Welland Valley Olympic Drinking Team, a high-spirited bunch who were attempting to drink the festival dry long before Saturday opening! I enjoyed a Malvern Hills Perry from Welsh producer Gwynt-Y-Ddraig before moving on to the Red Lion in Middleton.

I was pleased to see that the Red Lion's mighty 'pyramid of beer' was still standing in the corner of the bar, a diabolical construction of ratchet straps and upturned barrels the ancient Egyptians would have been proud of. We worked our way through the small but perfectly formed selection of ciders and perry, including our own Welland Valley Special cider, cool and fruity from the fridge. Shortly before we called it a day we were joined for a chat by fellow East Midlands cidermaker Malcolm Grant and his partner Eve, of Eve's Cider. A terrific photo opportunity of the three cidermakers present that evening was duly missed, and off to bed we went via a glass of the excellent Ralph's Perry we'd brought back from the Three Counties Show.

Tomorrow was going to be a big day, and I didn't fancy starting it with a hangover...

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Welland Valley - On the Buses

The programmes have now arrived, they are available at all of the participating pubs at the bargain price of £1. I don't propose to list the beers or ciders, but I will mention that the cider & perry list is incomplete. Unfortunately the e-mail I sent to the organiser over a month ago listing the ciders and perrys which we were supplying was obviously not received! For the record there will also be a Broome Farm Dabinett/Michelin Cider, and Ayleton Red Perry, as well as Torkard 57 Cider from the Hucknall Cider Co.

One thing I will add to the blog is the bus timetable. Without wishing to undermine sales of the programme, I feel that the bus information is something that really should be made available more widely before the festival so that people can better plan their day out. There are a number of places this could be posted, most notably the Northampton CAMRA website.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Welland Valley Beer Festival - Update

Programmes have not arrived in Middleton yet, but here's a small bit of news for the beer drinkers.

The new licensee at the Sondes Arms, Rockingham has upped the game at this year's festival. Previously the Sondes have sold their festival ales through the somewhat limited range of handpumps in the bars, but this year the beers will be split between the bar and a separate stillage which means the full range of ales will be available at all times. In addition to the list shown, the Sondes will also have our Rockingham Forest Cider, and also cider from Thatchers of Somerset. The Sondes Arms is worth a visit, if only to enjoy the lovely orchard garden at the rear where you can admire the old apple trees, some of which contributed fruit to this year's Welland Valley Special Cider.

Our local the Red Lion, Middleton have also posted up their beer list for the festival, and as you can see there will also be Rockingham Forest Cider, our festival special, and a Broome Farm Perry.

Checking Out the Opposition

This weekend we travelled to the Three Counties Cider & Perry Association's (TCCPA) annual competition at the Three Counties Show. This show is one of our favourites for many reasons, not least of which is the opportunity to chat with, and sample the wares of the many cider and perry makers who have stalls at the event.

This year we didn't enter the cider and perry competition due to difficulties getting our cider to the show, but the announcement of the winners on Friday was exciting for us nonetheless. Many of the winners are known to us, especially the Supreme Champion, Mike Johnson of Ross-on-Wye Cider & Perry Co. Mike is a great friend of ours, and mentor in all things to do with cidermaking. We are always happy to see Mike and his team win awards for the excellent cider and perry which is made at Broome Farm. It was such a shame that Mike wasn't there to collect this latest accolade.

One of the most interesting events organised by the TCCPA at the show are the tutored tastings, which also help to decide the 'People's Choice' cider. The tasting was given by Peter Mitchell, a respected consultant within the cider industry, and the tutor at a cidermaking course I attended in the early 90's. We tasted our way through four ciders and were asked to score them on a 'Most Dislike - Most Like' scale. The ciders we tried varied hugely in flavour, though all were very good quality. My approximate scores out of 10 were:
Ross-on-Wye Rum Cask Cider (4)
Barbourne Cider (6)
Rosie's Wicked Wasp (5)
Orchards Cider (8)

A little explaining is in order here. Mike's Rum Cask cider was technically excellent, but I just don't like spirit cask ciders. A Rum finish is better than that of Whisky, but I prefer the unadulterated taste of pure cider. The Barbourne was a very well made sweetish bittersweet cider, in the style of a French Cidre I thought. Nice, but a little too sweet for my taste. Rosie's Wicked Wasp was a very good 'Sharp' cider, possibly made from Bramley apples, or maybe Foxwhelp. Again, great quality, but just not to my taste. The orchards cider was an excellent example of a well balanced English cider, of a type I could happily drink every day. Lovely stuff.

Outside of the tastings the best we tried at the show was probably the Ralphs Perry, which was truly stunning and sets the benchmark even higher for our attempts at making perry this year. We came home laden with bottles and flagons, and look forward to next year's show when we hope to enter the competition ourselves, though on this year's outstanding standard, we certainly don't expect to actually win anything!

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Rockingham Forest Zoider

We opened the last bottle of the 2006 vintage cider this evening. This is the third time I've opened the last of this vintage, every time I think it's the last bottle, another one appears from somewhere. This is definitely the last one, and quite a interesting bottle it's turned out to be.

In making our cider we aim for a few basic criteria. The blend of apples is designed to give an approachable, fruity, and smooth cider. Not too tannic and full flavoured as to be heavy going, yet not too sharp either. We're not in the business of making ciders which only appeal to the connoisseur, so it was quite a surprise to find this (absolutely, definitely) final bottle was just that, a heavyweight, gob-filling spicy Somerset style cider.

So what had happened? Why was this cider of an altogether different style to everything else we made last year? I think the answer is probably the thing we try hardest to eliminate at all points in the cidermaking process, 'air'. The thing which has changed the taste of this cider so markedly is the presence of a tiny amount of acetic acid, cider vinegar to the layman. Cider vinegar is usually not welcome in our cider at any level, and it's production can be limited, or prevented completely by the careful exclusion air. The bacteria which metabolise the alcohol in cider to acetic acid can only thrive in the presence of oxygen, so making sure everything is well topped-up, under airlock, or sealed, should prevent a cider from turning vinegary. In over a decade of cidermaking I have never had a problem with acetic acid in my ciders, until this evening that is.

Having said that, as with many of the common flavour defects in cider, acetic acid at very low levels can introduce a desirable added complexity, especially if your aiming to produce a cider with a chunky, west-country twang. The difficulty is controlling how far this process goes, and that's why I have a zero tolerance policy to acetic acid in our ciders.

The cider we sampled this evening was certainly not unpleasant, and was similar in taste to quite a few west-country farmhouse ciders I've tried. The acidity was higher, but the level of acetic acid was at just the right level to give the 'twang', but without an overt vinegary flavour. Interesting, and quite pleasant actually, but I'm pleased to say that this is certainly not part of the 2007 vintage flavour profile.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Jugs, Jars, and Mugs

In the absence of any real news at the moment, I've decided to add a monthly pic from my small collection of stoneware cider jars. Resisting suggestions to call this feature 'Jugs of the Month', I'll be documenting the collection with a few notes on the producer where known.

These jars have been collected from junk and charity shops, car boots, and occasionally the antiques trade, though to describe any of these relatively modern pieces of memorabilia as antique would be misleading. Most date from the 60's/70's onwards, and some can still be bought new from the more touristy cider farms. I particularly like the jars made by Pearsons of Chesterfield, which have a more weighty 'classic' look than the more modern pottery versions. None have cost me more than a few pounds, and some, such as the Creedy Vintage Cider jars, are very common indeed.

So here's a brace of jars from the Godshill Cider Co, a thriving 30 year old cider business originally based in the picture postcard village of Godshill, Isle of Wight. Godshill produce a reasonably traditional cider at the Island's Ventnor Brewery, selling much of it through their two shops at Godshill and Shanklin. Considering how hard it is to find Godshill cider off the island, there are a surprisingly high number of these jars available secondhand. Presumably every visitor to the island must have brought one back, a rather expensive taster of Godshill's farmhouse cider. I have several more jars from Godshill in assorted designs which I may add here at a later date.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Orchard Update

The subject of apple tree training has recently been discussed on the ukcider forum, specifically that of cider apple trees trained to a centre leader form. Whilst having absolutely no expertise in this, I thought I'd add a few notes to the blog on our efforts to train cider apple trees in this way.

The basic principle of centre leader training is to produce a tree with a good height, and also maximum light penetration to the laterals which bear the fruit. Lower branches need to be longer in order to catch the sun during the late Summer ripening period. The further up the tree we go, the shorter the branches need to be for light penetration, resulting in a pyramidical shape of evenly spaced fruit bearing laterals. The eventual height of the tree is less important with cider apple trees than culinary and dessert varieties since they do not need to be hand picked from the tree.

Some cider apple varieties are easy to train this way, having a natural tendency to produce a strong central stem with plenty of evenly spaced laterals. Others varieties will fight you all the way, regularly losing vigour in the leader, or producing several equally vigorous leaders which will compromise the upward growth we desire. Our attempts at training our trees as centre leaders have generally been successful, but there have been a few problems.

To encourage a young tree to produce a strong central leader with good lateral growth, we tip back (prune) the leader in the Winter to a good bud, by up to two thirds of the previous year's growth, and rub out the two buds below. This should reduce competition for the topmost bud's growth, and also encourage the buds further down to break and form laterals. Sometimes the buds which have been rubbed out are precocious and need rubbing out again in the Spring. On a couple of occasions the topmost bud has failed to break, resulting in no growth until the fourth bud. There have also been occasions when the fourth bud has produced growth so vigorous as to compete with the topmost bud as a leader.

All very interesting, and it just goes to show that you can read all the books on fruit tree training, but there's no substitute for experience. We have had to do a little remedial Spring pruning to correct some of these problems, and some will have to be left until the Winter for similar treatment. Of course sometimes you just have to accept that a particular tree just doesn't want to grow how you want it to and let it go it's own way.

The first pic shows successful growth on one of this year's Tremlett's Bitter trees, a strong leader with lateral growth at the fourth bud (and below). The second pic shows strong competing growth from the fourth bud, which will have to be dealt with during Winter pruning, dependant on which is the stronger.

Rack 'n' Roll

A busy weekend of racking off, and barreling up of the Welland Valley Special Cider, ready for the Welland Valley Beer Festival which is less than two weeks away now. The cider is tasting very good, quite fruity and with enough residual sweetness to be described as a Medium.

Details on the beer festival have been slowly leaking out, but all will not become clear until the programmes appear (hopefully) in a week's time. I do know that the Red Lion, Middleton will have 20 ales, plus our two ciders, and a Blakeney Red perry from Broome Farm of Ross-on-Wye. The beer list for the George at Ashley has appeared on their website, and Malcolm Grant of Eve's Cider has told me that his cider will be available at the Blue Bell and Talbot, Gretton; and the Castle Inn at Caldecott. The Hatton Arms will have our two ciders, plus Torkard 57 Cider from 'Our friends in the North' at the Hucknall Cider Co, and a Dabinett/Michelin blend cider and Ayleton Red perry from Broome Farm.

More details as they emerge, particularly with regard to the ciders and perrys available.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Fruit Thinning

Stephen Hayes of Fruitwise Heritage Apples has just added a terrific new video to his YouTube Channel, a growing resource of essential information on orchard management. I'm so glad he has because this video has reminded me in the nick of time to do something in our orchard which I'd completely forgotten about.

One of the trees we inherited when we moved here is a sadly neglected little apple tree, poorly anchored, patched with rot, and overshadowed by the big Bramley. It's in a pretty sorry state to be honest, and I'll probably have to remove it at some stage, but despite all this it has regularly produced bumper crops of a tiny, yet very tasty, early eating apple. I would like to identify this variety, if only to set my mind at ease before grubbing it out that it's not a rare specimen, but the size of the fruit is proving to be a problem.

Last year I took a handful of these apples to the Stamford Apple Day event, in the hope of a positive identification. The withering looks I received from the experts made it obvious they were none too impressed. 'You didn't thin them out, did you?' was the closest I got to an ID, and I vowed to do just that next year, and return with larger specimens.

So armed with my trusty Felco's, and with Stephen's tutorial fresh in my mind, I set to, removing around half of the fruitlets which had set. On the right is a before and after of one fruit cluster, and I've also shown the bucket of fruitlets and a few fruiting buds I removed. I'm now hoping that this tree is not subject to a June Drop, a natural process whereby an apple tree will lose much of it's excess fruitlets. By September we'll either have a reasonable number of healthy large apples, or none at all!

A Short Video

The Northampton Chronicle & Echo has a short news item on last weekend's Delapre Abbey Beer Festival. Another huge success apparently, so congratulations to the Northampton CAMRA branch, and all others concerned with the running of this event. If you visit the Chronicle's website there is a short video of stills from the festival, and in amongst all the beery stuff, at around 1 minute 15 seconds, one of our very attractive 5 gallon barrels hoves into view (a smart addition to any pub). I was propping the cider bar up when these pictures were taken, but the photographer could not be persuaded to take one of me with the cider. This is perhaps not surprising as I was sporting a Leicester Tigers rugby shirt at the time!

I'm led to believe that the ciders and perrys ran out before the beer, which is of course how it should be. The video can be viewed here:

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Keeping it Local

The process of making and selling cider is, if done with a little care, quite a sustainable pastime. Apples sourced locally will obviously help in this regard, cutting down on the cider-miles, and we certainly aim to increase the amount of local fruit in our cider. Our Voran mill and press is electrically driven, but since it's in use for such a short space of time, energy use is relatively low, certainly much less than that used by a small brewery where the mashing and boiling of the brewing process takes place several times a week, all year round. The final part of the chain is the selling of the product, and we have always aimed to keep this part as local as possible, not least because of the added costs involved in transporting the relatively small quantities of cider we tend to deliver. I would be more than happy if all our cider were sold within five miles of the ciderhouse, so it's very pleasing that our latest outlet is practically on our doorstep.

The Red Lion in Middleton has recently changed ownership, and the new licensees have brought with them a keen interest in all things local. Out has gone the one, slightly dull real ale, brewed in the neighbouring county of Bedfordshire, and in has come up to three beers from just down the road in Great Oakley and Thorpe Langton. The improved range of beer is very welcome, and there will also be around 20 ales available at the forthcoming Welland Valley Beer Festival, along with ciders and a perry, including our own two 'very local' offerings.

The Red Lion is a pub transformed. I'm spending more of my time there, enjoying in particular the excellent Great Oakley Welland Valley Mild, a style of beer that many licensees will tell you is too unfashionable to sell, and I must admit to a degree of scepticism on this too. I'm happy to have been proved wrong and can report that the mild is selling very well in the Red Lion. I'm also pleased that our own cider is selling well, but the most pleasing aspect for us is that we can deliver the cider to the Red Lion entirely without the use of automotive transport. I'm proud to announce that the Rockingham Forest Cider fleet has a new addition, and if you're lucky enough to be in Middleton around opening time, you may see me pulling it through the village on a delivery run. Another small step on the road to sustainability, albeit at the risk of being labelled the new Rockingham Forest Cider 'Trolley Dolly'.