Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Apples in the Press

Earlier in the month I was interviewed, photographed, and generally spit-roasted by the features editor of the Northampton Chronicle & Echo. The resulting article, inspired by CAMRA's October Cider & Perry Month campaign, appeared in the October 11th edition of their 'Weekend Life' supplement, but since we were too busy picking apples in Worcestershire that day, I failed to track down a copy.

Today Karen had business in Northampton so I took the opportunity to tag along and pop into the Chronicle & Echo offices, who were happy to sell me a copy. They obviously have an awful lot of this edition left over...

The photographer took dozens of pictures, posing me like a cheap page three girl over mounds of rosy-red apples. Unfortunately, rather too many of these tawdry images made it into the article, and for your own good I've neglected to include the full-page spread which featured on the front page of the supplement!

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Pick 'n' Mix

Today was almost certainly the last day of pressing this season. It's been hard work, but gratifyingly we've managed to make more cider than ever before, around 400 gallons in total.

Today's pressing session was quite significant as we were making a new batch of our Welland Valley Special, the cider we make from local apples and which we usually sell at the Welland Valley Beer Festival in June. The picture above gives a good indication of the mix of apples which have gone into this year's batch, around 8 different varieties in all. The dessert apples which make up the bulk of this blend were very full flavoured late varieties, including some small, yellow, and very sweet apples from Rockingham, a sack full of huge russeted pippins from up the road in Cottingham, and the deep purpley red apples in the picture which had a wonderfully rich, slightly bitter, sweetness. These apples came from an old orchard on the Rockingham Castle estate which contains at least eight different varieties of apple and pear alone. If only we know what they were! The specific gravity of the juice is 1047, which should give a reasonable level of alcohol, and I think this blend will produce a very good cider.

We used some of the juice from todays pressing to top up the earlier batches of cider, particularly important where the fermentation had all but finished. In the event I slightly overfilled one of the tubs and had to remove a little so that it wouldn't overflow into the airlock. This gave me an opportunity to sample some of the cider we pressed in September, which was made from a blend of organic dessert apples.

The cider is obviously very young and still quite cloudy. It's quite hard to evaluate the aroma at the moment, as the yeast has not settled sufficiently and it still dominates the nose. Other than that it shows great promise. The flavour is sharp, but pleasantly so, and there's quite a bit of fruitiness despite the cider being quite dry. The first taste is a little bit too full-on to really enjoy, but after a few sips it starts to taste remarkably drinkable. Not bad for a cider made only a month ago, and I'm confident this will mellow nicely for early Summer drinking.

Friday, 24 October 2008

A word about? ...Organic

This year most of our cider, and all of our small batch of perry will be made from the fruit of old unsprayed traditional orchards. The only fertilizers these trees receive are from the livestock which graze the orchard floor during the Summer months or the diverse range of fauna attracted to these largely unmanaged havens for wildlife. We count ourselves very lucky to be given access to these venerable, unspoilt orchards, which we're confident have been free of any agricultural spraying programme for many years, if indeed they've ever been sprayed!

Unfortunately most of the trees and orchards we gather our fruit from are living on borrowed time, of little or no commercial value, merely waiting to be exploited as building land or at the very least for a more profitable agricultural use. Grain seems to be the flavour of the month, apples have been out of favour for decades! By continuing to harvest (and pay for) the fruit from these traditional old orchards, we like to think we're going some way towards supporting their continued existence, even if it's only in a very small way.

The cider we make from the fruit of these old, unsprayed orchards is not necessarily better than that made from more intensively grown fruit, that's all down to the blend of apples and the skills we aim to bring to the cidermaking process. But given the choice we'll always choose to make our cider from apples grown without the use of agri-chemicals, even if that means hand picking the fruit and paying more for the privilege. The more intensively managed the orchard, the more need there seems to be for sprays and chemical fertilizers, and we've found that the fruit from old traditional orchards is often largely free from the sort of diseases which are routinely sprayed for in the more intensive orchard environments. Which brings me rather neatly to the point of this blog entry, the 'O' word.

Organic ciders have to be made from apples grown organically, ie. grown subject to strict guidelines on what can and cannot be added to the soil and the trees themselves, and so reduce the growers impact on the environment in general. The organic system has always made sense to me, I don't want to eat and drink things full of artificial chemicals, and I care enough about the environment to want to support organic growers and to encourage more to think and farm in the same way. So why are things not so rosy in the organic orchard...

The cider we made in September was from a batch of fully certified organic apples, 'cull fruit' not suitable for commercial sale due to blemishes or small size, but perfectly suitable for juicing and cidermaking. We were offered the fruit by the nice people at Windmill Orchards in the Northamptonshire village of Sulgrave, and felt that it was worth making an experimental batch of cider, since not only would it be from 'Organic' apples, but also from relatively 'local' Northamptonshire fruit. Even though we knew we wouldn't be able to call the resulting cider 'Organic', we were reasonably confident that we would be able to label the cider as being made from 'organic apples'. We would therefore be able to comfortably pass on the higher cost of the apples in a slightly increased price for the cider, knowing that customers would be getting the double whammy of a truly local cider made from purely organic apples.

I decided it was time to contact the UK arbiters of all things 'Organic', the Soil Association, to find out where we stood with regard to the labelling of this 'premium' batch of cider, which is where it all started going wrong! Because we are not registered as organic producers with the Soil Association, we cannot use the word 'Organic' anywhere on labelling or publicity, this despite the fact that we have receipts for all the apples which went into this batch of cider from certified organic growers.

I suppose I can understand the need for policing the use of the word 'Organic' throughout the chain of production from growing to selling, but the problem is that very small producers like ourselves are effectively priced out of the whole Organic loop. The minimum cost for registration with the Soil Association is well over £500 per annum, which is small change for large-scale producers, but a significant percentage of our current turnover. It really isn't worth our registering for this cost, any additional value we would realise from our 'cider made from apples grown by a certified organic grower' (even this title may be breaking the law!) would be wiped out by the cost of inspection and registration with the Soil Association. There is a sliding scale for registration, based on the size of the business, but unfortunately the scale doesn't slide anywhere near our (or many other small-scale cidermakers who are also using unsprayed fruit) level.

So, we will continue to make ciders and perry from totally unsullied apples and pears (of a standard which actually exceeds that of organically grown fruit, ie. no Sulphur sprays against scab!), but it's doubtful whether we'll be repeating the experiment of producing a cider from 'Organic' apples next year, since there's little chance that we can realise the value of a cider made from fruit that we can't talk about in public!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Monday, 20 October 2008

Hog Heaven

The tricky business of disposing of around a ton of pressed apple pulp has been made considerably easier this year with the help of the nice people at Keythorpe Rare Breeds.

Smallholding dynamo's Serena & Adam are the driving force behind Keythorpe Rare Breeds, producers of high quality pork and lamb at a smallholding on the Leicestershire/Rutland border. Amongst the menagerie of (mostly!) domesticated animals living happily at Keythorpe are a sizeable stock of rare breed porkers, and as we know, pigs absolutely love apples. So once we've extracted the important bit from the apples, the dry(ish) pulp, or pomace as it's known in ciderland, goes over to Keythorpe to supplement the diet of these pampered porkers.

I was a little worried at first that the pigs wouldn't be able to keep up with the quantity of pomace we've been producing, but it turns out I was way off the mark. Demand is outstripping supply, and the arrival of each fresh batch of pomace causes quite a stir on the smallholding. Here's a message I received from Serena today...

'...One of my fatteners OD’d on the other lot of apples the other day, and spent most of yesterday sleeping and looking very sorry for itself, needless to say Adam and I went out of our way to make as much noise as possible, and to constantly wake it up. Serves it right for spending most of Saturday with its head in the apple bag.'

Appley over-indulgence... Sleeping all day and looking sorry for itself... Serious lack of sympathy from loved ones... Hmm! Sounds rather too familiar to me...

Saturday, 18 October 2008


Yesterday was the first day of our annual October cidermaking week, an exhausting round of milling, washing and pressing which should ultimately lead to a ciderhouse full of busily bubbling fermenters. The day went reasonably smoothly, and progress was steady. Today has been a well-earned rest day.

The first fruit into the mill was a small batch of ripe perry pears harvested from the Worcestershire orchard we visited last weekend. We knew there were several old perry pear trees dotted throughout the orchard, including several of the highly regarded varieties Blakeney Red and Moorcroft (sometimes known as Malvern Hills), but with many Three Counties perry makers reporting very poor crops this year I wasn't expecting much from these ancient specimens. By commercial standards the crop was indeed pretty poor, but our more modest production levels made the meagre crop just about worth harvesting.

We came away with around three sacks of ripe pears from three or four different trees, and we appeared to have two distinct varieties. Pears of all types have a tendency to be at their optimum ripeness for only a few short days, quickly going from hard-as-nails to mushy-with-rot before they can be put to use. These pears were no exception, and it was crucial that we process them as soon as possible.

Most perry pears are high in tannin, but some are so mouth-puckeringly tannic that the resulting perry could be virtually undrinkable. Tannin levels in pears and apples can be reduced by a process called 'Maceration' which involves milling the pears then leaving the pulp to stand for several hours prior to pressing. We decided not to macerate these pears, Blakeney and Moorcroft don't fall into the 'massively tannic' category, and are regarded by some as relatively easy pears to make perry from. Welcome news!

After our experiences pressing dessert fruit in September I was sure these (by now rapidly over-ripening) pears would surely clog up the pressing cloths and make a right mess of the racks. I worried needlessly, these pears milled to a fine porridgy consistency, and pressed beautifully. We didn't manage to completely fill the press, but did manage to extract a similar amount of juice to that of a full pressing of apples. The spent pomace was very dry and we managed to almost fill one of the smaller 70 litre fermenters. All in all, we like pressing perry pears very much!

Prior to pressing these pears I spent a bit of time researching the process, and one thing which cropped up time and again was just how much of a lottery perry making can be. Following all the rules is sometimes not enough on its own, you may also need a little bit of luck. Even a well-made perry can turn vinegary or develop other faults at the drop of a hat, so as novice perry makers we're hoping for a little bit of good old fashioned beginners luck to hover over this particular fermenter.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Cotswold Harvest

Whoever it was that booked the weather this weekend did a splendid job. A long weekend spent harvesting apples in driving wind and rain could have made for a thoroughly miserable experience, but the sun shined and it proved to be a memorable weekend in a beautiful Cotswold orchard.

Harvesting a ton or so of apples by hand is a very labour-intensive and back-breaking way to fill the cider press, but there are a few advantages which make it worth the additional effort. Despite the hard graft, it can be a very pleasant way to spend a day, particularly if willing helpers are on hand to lighten the load. Karen put in a very long day on Saturday, and brother Paul and sister-in-law Susan will no-doubt be feeling the pain from the Sunday harvesting session. It was a great effort and I'm very grateful for the help. I think everyone enjoyed the experience, and are presumably counting the days until next year's picking weekend...

Perhaps the biggest advantage of hand picking our apples is the chance to avoid any rotten, damaged, or unripe fruit. We can also avoid the excessive mud, leaves and twigs associated with mechanical harvesting, and this should make the cleaning process far easier.

Ripe cider apples are quite robust, and the traditional method of harvesting involves shaking the fruit down from the tree and collecting from the orchard floor, a hard but very effective method of clearing an orchard. So armed with long 'panking' poles, buckets, bags and a large tarpaulin, we moved swiftly through the orchards selecting only the best bittersweet cider apples to shake down, and a few precious perry pears. The steady stream of walkers on the adjacent Cotswold Way footpath seemed to appreciate our efforts, a rare glimpse of a genuine rural tradition, albeit with a modern fibreglass pole and a Lidl apple picker!

The poles need a little more thought as neither of them lasted the weekend intact. They really are essential tools in an old traditional orchard like this where most of the trees are on tall 'standard' rootstock. The perry pear trees are even taller, and much of the fruit is beyond the reach of even our longest pole.

We were selecting our apples by taste as most of the varieties were a mystery to us. Bittersweet cider apples have a distinctive bitter, tanninic quality, as well as a healthy dose of sweetness. We believe we may have Dabinett, Tremlett's Bitter, Yarlington Mill, and possibly even a few small Kingston Blacks amongst several other varieties. The perry pears could be either Blakeney Red or Moorcroft, and we're hopeful there are enough of them for a single pressing. This would give us enough juice to fill a 70 litre fermenter and with luck produce a very limited quantity of Rockingham Forest Perry.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Cider Jar of the Month - Norbury's Black Bull Cider

Black Bull Cider from the Norbury Cider Co was one of the first 'real' ciders I ever came across. Camping and partying in the Black Mountains of Wales occupied many of my weekends in the early 90's, and we always seemed to drive past the distinctive roadside sign for Norbury's Black Bull Cider on the journeys there and back.

The sign is long gone now, but anyone who would have taken the road from Worcester to Hereford in those days may well remember the huge white barrel, lofted high on a platform and bearing the image of the company's Black Bull logo.

The Norburys started making cider around 1980 following the slump in the homegrown fruit market as a result of the UK joining the EEC. The ciders are made from a range of traditional cider apples blended with dessert/culinary varieties grown in their own orchards, and are well made and clean tasting. The 'Black Bull' title is derived from the French 'noir' (black) and 'boeuf' (bull) from which the Norbury family take their name. I think it makes for a handsome and authentically 'rural' image on cider jars such as this one.

A range of bottled Black Bull ciders can be found locally at Brockleby's Farm Shop near Melton Mowbray, and Norbury also attend several East Midlands Farmers Markets.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Uppingham Oktoberfest

Another local beer festival comes along, and once again it's touch and go whether we'll manage to get to it. A plea to all beer and cider festival organisers, 'Don't organise your tipple-fest in October please, we're too damn busy!'... Well, it's worth a go.

The Crown Hotel is my pub of choice whenever I visit the Rutland market town of Uppingham. It's an Everards Brewery pub and therefore has beers I like (though sadly no cask Beacon), plus a better than average range of guest beers, and Westons Old Rosie for those who prefer the taste of fermented apples. The Crown has also become one of the centres of local CAMRA activity since licensee Alan Pickersgill was made Secretary of the new Rutland branch of the Campaign for Real Ale.

This is the second of two annual beer festivals which take place at the Crown. The Oktoberfest (Thurs 9th - Mon 13th) will feature around 20 Real ales, draught German beers and a small range of real ciders, including our own Rockingham Forest Cider. This will be the last event we supply with cider this year, another significant milestone in our cidermaking year.

Update: Whilst delivering our cider yesterday I had a chance to chat with Alan. The beers are all stillaged, rigged up to cooling equipment, and settling nicely. There will in fact be 6 ciders available from Biddenden (Kent), Thatchers (Somerset) and Westons (Herefordshire), plus of course a barrel of our own from Northants.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Pressing & Problem Solving

Cidermaking is of course an art. Selecting varieties of apple which are suitable for the style of cider we're trying to make is the start. The conduct of the fermentation, maturing and blending of the different ciders, and careful storage right up until the point of sale are all important in producing a high quality drink.

The actual physical process of making cider is much more a problem solving exercise than an art. Every year we aim to move the process forward, investing in new equipment and up-scaling production, but each great-leap-forward brings with it new and unforeseen problems.

Our terrific new Voran Press has been instrumental in doubling our efficiency this year, by both speeding up the process, and increasing juice yield significantly. The press delivers over 24 tons of pressure through the 8 layers of the cheese, effortlessly squeezing the apple pulp dry, and delivering around 13 gallons of juice each pressing. This sort of efficiency can of course lead to bottle-necks somewhere in the process, and it's in the washing and sorting of the fruit that we're now struggling to keep up. We may have to invest in a bigger bucket!

The huge pressure that the new press delivers can cause problems too. The dessert apples we've been pressing up to now have a tendency to squeeze out through the press cloths, making cleaning a very difficult task. This shouldn't be such a problem when we start pressing the more fibrous cider apples later in the month.

The Rotary Mill (or Scratter) which is attached to the press is also very efficient. It deals with bucket-loads of washed apples as quickly as we can pour them in, spitting out the finely milled pulp at such a high velocity that things could get very messy in the ciderhouse. Our ingenious solution involves a cheap storage tub, a Stanley Knife and a couple of Bungee's. The high-speed pomace is now directed straight down to the waiting tub, and another potential nightmare clean-up session has been avoided.

Talking of nightmare cleanup's, the Acacia Racks which separate the layers of cloth-wrapped pomace, are also a bit of a devil to get clean. Cleanliness in cidermaking is essential, and these racks will quickly develop a bloom of mould if not cleaned and dried properly after use. I've been searching long and hard for a reasonably priced container big enough to lay the racks in for a soak in sulphite solution. I finally found a tray in a garden centre which was the perfect size for the racks, though unfortunately not deep enough for all nine together. More cash spent, more problems solved.

The two larger pictures of the press were kindly sent to us by James, sometime resident of our village local the Red Lion, in Middleton.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Apple Day 2008

October is a busy month for cidermakers, orchardists, and lovers of all things appley alike. Common Ground's popular Apple Day, CAMRA's Cider & Perry Month campaign, and of course the month-long task of harvesting and pressing the fruit for next year's cider all help to focus minds on our wonderful orchard heritage throughout October.

Apple Day events are planned throughout the country, most not actually occurring on the day itself since the 21st of October falls on a Tuesday this year. A full listing of all known events can be found on Common Ground's Apple Day Events Calendar, which is already chock-full of great days out, and is constantly being added to.

Similarly, events which have been planned by local CAMRA branches for the Cider & Perry Month campaign can be found via the Cider & Perry Month page on CAMRA's website. The ukcider Events page is also worth a look, and is an excellent resource for cider related events throughout the year.

Personally, I wish that both these seasonal initiatives were held at a less busy time of the year. We rarely get the opportunity to attend any of the Apple Day events, we managed to get to Stamford last year and hope to attend at least one local Apple Day event this year. I can't help thinking that many more cidermakers would get involved with Apple Day and Cider & Perry Month, if the events were taking place at a time of year when all the cidermaking was done and dusted, and maybe they even had some cider to sell.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

It's all kicking off...

This short, gloomy video is to help give you an idea of the activity in the ciderhouse at the moment. We added a cultured yeast to this batch of juice, and fermentation has been very quick to start. All 14 vessels are now glopping away merrily as the yeast converts the natural sugars in the apple juice into alcohol. Fermentation also produces a fair bit of heat, as well as a somewhat 'funky' aroma. We're leaving the garage door open whenever possible to help cool things down a little, but nothing much can be done about the diabolical sounds emanating from the busy airlocks. With our bedroom being directly above the ciderhouse, this constant noise will be lulling us to sleep for several weeks now.