Tannin. Where would we be without it? The picture on the right shows the juice of the Yarlington Mill cider apples we've been pressing recently, the rich tannins oxidising to a deep orangey-brown as the juice come off the press.
If we couldn't get hold of a supply of tannin-rich bittersweet cider apples like these, we'd likely be making a lighter, sharper, perhaps fruitier style of cider from dessert and culinary apples. A cider perhaps more representative of the Eastern Counties cidermaking tradition we're geographically closer to, than the fuller flavoured, spicy, rich ciders of the West-Country and Three Counties areas. Some people express a preference for one style over the other, but we like to make both, and have found that our customers are pretty evenly split in their preference for the different styles.
In truth, the ciders we make from one year to the next are largely determined by what fruit we can get. Last year we made a fruity, sharp cider from a large batch of organic dessert apples, as well as a richer Three Counties style cider from an assortment of mostly bittersweet cider apples. This year we're pressing what's available, and the mix is turning out rather differently.
Almost half the fruit we've pressed this year has been Perry Pears, a real departure from previous years when perry pears have been at such a premium. It would be nice to think we could make this quantity of perry every year, but sadly it's almost inevitable that the trees which have given us such a bumper crop will be taking a well earned rest next year, and the crop will therefore be very much smaller. The rest of the fruit we've pressed has been almost exclusively high quality bittersweet cider apples, and there's plenty more to come when the Vilberie ripens fully in November. On the face of it a very good season so far, many people struggle to get hold of good cider fruit, and we've been very lucky with both the quantity and quality of our cider apples this year. There is a small but important problem however...
Fruiting in the various local orchards and gardens we harvest from, has been so poor this year that we may struggle to make even a small batch of our Welland Valley Special Cider. The shortage of local apples is so acute that we're even struggling for Bramleys, something I never thought would happen. The village orchard has four Bramley trees, our own and the one next door bringing the total to six. We've never been short of Bramleys, in fact most of the crop usually falls before we have a chance to harvest it, which is very good news for the Blackbirds. This year I've taken maybe 30kg of fruit off the whole lot, and other trees in the valley are carrying a similarly modest crop (see pic right).
Now Bramleys are not exactly the best apples for making cider. A pure Bramley cider is quite thin, lacking in body, and often mouth-puckeringly sharp. It's this intense sharpness that makes Bramley Apples unwelcome in excess, yet very useful in a blend lacking in acidity. Bittersweet cider apples are characterised by being high in tannin and sugars, but lacking the acidity needed to produce a balanced drink on their own. In addition, a lack of acidity can often lead to ciders developing 'off' flavours during fermentation or later storage. The Malic Acid which a few Bramley Apples bring to a blend can be an important contributor to both flavour, and the kind of chemical balance needed for a cider to keep well throughout the season.
So, we're short of Bramleys! What to do? We're pressing the last of the Yarlington Mill bittersweet cider apples on Saturday, so I'll be 'Scouring the Shire' for whatever sharp apples I can find to blend in with this low acid fruit. Bumper crops of cider apples and perry pears are all well and good, but sometimes there's a need for something less exotic when it comes to cidermaking. The word is out, we need Bramleys...
PS. 2009 marks the bicentenary of the mighty Bramley Apple, with events marking this pomological milestone occuring throughout the year. Visit the Bramley Apple website for more details.