Friday, 27 November 2009

End of Season Report

Well, that's it for another year. The elbow-length rubber gloves have been peeled off for the last time, everything thoroughly washed down, and the press now sits dismantled in the corner of the ciderhouse until next years harvest.

It's been a longer season than usual, starting with the Malvern Hills perry pears we picked way back in September, and finally finishing last Monday with the last batch of Vilberie cider apples. We've ended up with almost 500 gallons of cider and perry, and the only thing which stopped us making more was a lack of space and eventually running out of fermenters! Here's what we've made this year (the variety shown in bold makes up the major part of the blend):

  • Bulmers Norman/Unknown Bittersweet and Sweets/Bramley (250 litres) - S.G 1.052
  • Yarlington Mill/Dabinett/Harry Masters' Jersey/Blenheim Orange (250 litres) - S.G 1.058
  • Yarlington Mill/Blenheim Orange (190 litres) - S.G 1.060
  • Yarlington Mill/Bramley (130 litres) - S.G 1.058
  • Mixed Dessert/Culinary (possible Welland Valley Special) (130 litres) - S.G 1.054
  • Vilberie/Unknown Dessert/Bramley (560 litres) - S.G 1.049
  • Malvern Hills/Blakeney Red (130 litres) - S.G 1.066
  • Blakeney Red 1.050 (250 litres) - S.G 1.050
  • Mixed Unknown Perry Pears (130 litres) - S.G 1.046
  • Green Horse/Unknown Perry Pears (130 litres) - S.G 1.050
  • Single Variety Uknown Perry Pear (60 litres) - S.G 1.060

Sugar levels (the Specific Gravity reading at the end) are up across the board this year, and therefore final alcohol levels will be up significantly too. It's also likely that the general quality of the ciders and perrys will be higher as a result. The higher percentage of bittersweet cider apples in the ciders this year should result in a fuller, richer flavour to our Rockingham Forest Cider, which will be a blend of the three main batches, ie. Bulmers Norman, Yarlington Mill, and Vilberie. Some of the individual pressings may be left unblended if they prove to be of sufficient quality.

I'm particularly pleased with the amount of perry we've made this year, though it could have been much greater given a little more time and a longer 'panking pole'. The perrys will probably remain unblended and sold under their varietal names where known.

So, what have we learnt this year? As usual, quite a lot. The learning curve is as seep as ever, which is as it should be. If we're not learning new things every year, we're obviously not trying hard enough! This year we've learned:

  1. The difference between 'ripe' and 'mature' fruit, particularly in the case of cider apples and perry pears. Cider apples are generally ripe when they fall, or can be shaken easily from the tree, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are fully mature and ready to press. Some further time may be needed before the fruit has fully developed it's flavour, and pressing too early can lead to a lower quality cider or perry.
  2. That a good rule of thumb when pressing full bittersweet cider apples is to blend with approximately one third sharp apples to achieve the correct level of acidity. By chance this is what we did with the Vilberie, pressing one sack of sharper apples for every two bittersweets. The ideal acidity level for a balanced cider is considered to be between 5 and 6 parts per thousand Malic Acid, so we were particularly pleased that when we tested our Vilberie blend, it came out at 5.6ppt.
  3. That we need a bigger ciderhouse, and more hours in the day!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Harvest Home

The final harvest of the 2009 season is in. 48 sacks of Vilberie cider apples, plus 22 sacks of unknown yellow sharp apples and a few cookers to blend in. That's about a ton, and I've got my work cut out to press them over the next two days...

Once again the weather in the orchard was wonderful, more late Summer than early Winter. I was helped on this visit by my sister-in-law Susan, who's hard graft ensured we had plenty of time for a lunchtime refresher at the terrific Crown & Trumpet, a local CAMRA award winner. The Crown & Trumpet is what Karen refers to as 'a proper pub', and it is too. Great ales from Stanway Brewery (and decent Hogans Cider), a real fire, real friendly locals, and festooned with old Flowers Brewery memorabilia to add interest. Another good reason to visit this part of the Cotswolds.

Once again we were lucky to have the loan of Johns mighty Land Rover. The orchard is getting pretty muddy at this time of the year, no place for a man with a white van. All four wheels needed to be engaged to get to the top of the orchard without mishap, though unfortunately the day was not entirely free of misfortune...

The Vilberie apples have now fully ripened, as judged by their flavour, waxy skin, and the fact that most of the apples had now fallen to the orchard floor. This was a bit of a shame for Sue and myself, since harvesting apples from the grassy floor is so much harder than when shaken down onto a tarpaulin, and additionally the fruit will need more thorough washing prior to milling and pressing. What a difference a week makes, the apples were still clinging to the trees last weekend, though very easily shaken down, but the blustery weather of the last week beat us to it, and very little fruit was left for us to shake down this weekend.

The good news is the amount of sharper fruit we've managed to harvest at this late stage in the season. The Vilberie is a very good quality bittersweet cider apple, that is to say it is high in tannin and sugar but low in acidity. I've been a little concerned at this lack of acidity, so I'm very pleased at the 2:1 ratio we've achieved of bittersweets to more acidic fruit.

So what of the misfortune? Well that's a painful story! Throughout this year's long harvest, from early October right through to late November, we've avoided any serious mishap in the orchard. No injuries, no major strains, nothing much to get the Health & Safety people in a froth. So it was particularly disappointing that on the very last turn around the orchard, when all the harvest was in, and all that was required was to transport the apples down to the van, I managed to get stung by a not-so-sleepy Wasp hiding in an old rag in the Land Rover! Needless to say, it's been entered into the Rockingham Forest Cider accident book, so we can all have a laugh about it in years to come...

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Rain (almost) Stops Play

The final cider apple harvest of the season very nearly didn't happen this weekend. Friday arrived along with severe weather warnings, and a mild dose of 'Sore Throat & Sniffles'. I'm not very good at being ill, particularly when there's work to be done, so Karen and myself retreated to the Red Lion for restorative pints of Welland Valley Mild round the cosy log fire. Nice, but not getting the cider made.

I must say, we've been very lucky with the weather this year (and our health for that matter). It was only a matter of time before a proper bit of Autumn weather came along and put the dampers on things. I'm sure a time will come when the whole cidermaking season will be nothing more than a freezing, windy, washout. Proper hard work...

A break in the weather on Sunday meant an unfeasibly early 6am start to get to the orchard for daybreak, and what a day. It was as if the Autumn had been rolled back again for one last warm(ish), sunny day. I really love the peacefulness of the orchard at this time of year, with most of the trees now bare of fruit and leaves, and nothing but Woodpeckers, Buzzards and the occasional sleepy Wasp for company. It's been very hard work harvesting the fruit this year, but I'm going to miss being in this orchard when the season finally comes to an end.

Meanwhile. there's an awful lot of Vilberie cider apples to harvest, plus a few Bramleys and some mystery yellow apples which will hopefully add a bit of balancing sharpness to the blend. There are five Vilberie trees in the orchard, I managed to harvest two of them, leaving a fair bit to do next Friday when I plan to make the final visit of the year to this beautiful corner of rural Worcestershire (weather permitting!). John kindly loaned me the use of his old Land Rover, saving me the job of lugging 30+ sacks of apples down to the car through a wet and muddy orchard, and whatever happens now, there's apples to be pressed, and fermenters to be filled next weekend.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Red Lion gets a taste of Somerset

Thanks to our friends in the North, Ray & Gail of the Hucknall Cider Co, real Somerset cider will soon be making a guest appearance at the Red Lion, Middleton. Just as soon as the last few pints of our own Rockingham Forest Cider have been sold, two new ciders from family cidermakers Hecks will be on tap in the run up to Christmas.

The Hecks family have been making their award-winning ciders and perrys in the village of Street for six generations, and are notable not only for the consistently good quality of their produce, but also the wide range of blended and single variety ciders and perrys they make. A visit to the atmospheric farm shop, situated in the very heart of the village, is rewarded with a bewildering array of draught and bottled ciders and perrys to sample and buy.

The ciders which Ray & Gail have brought back for us are an easy-drinking Medium/Dry blend (perhaps more Medium to my taste), and a single variety Tremlett's Bitter, properly Dry and a little more tannic than the blended cider.

We have a rule here at Rockingham Forest Cider, that when one of our own ciders has been delivered to the Red Lion, we don't bring it back home, one pint at a time! Needless to say, this rule doesn't apply to 'Guest Ciders', particularly those we have a particular fondness for.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Round of Real Ciders

What's this picture all about then? Well to be honest it's just an excuse to feature an interesting old cider tray from Barry Lount's extensive collection of Breweriana (Cideriana?), much of which is on display at Barry & Liz's award winning pub, the Cow & Plough in Oadby. As you can see, it's well decorated with ciders from the dozen or so available at this weekends Bonfire Beer Festival, though disappointingly a beery impostor has been sneaked onto the tray too.

The cider range was very good for a pub beer festival, exclusively West Country, Three Counties and Welsh ciders. My personal favourite was the Swallowfield Cider from Herefordshire. No perry, perhaps not surprising considering last years very poor perry pear crop. I'd be surprised if any Three Counties cidermakers have any 2008 perry left by now.

The image on the right is included to give an indication of just how varied the colour of ciders can be. These are all made from individual blends of various cider apples, yet range from deep golden to pale yellow.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Something Fruity for the Weekend

The excellent Cow & Plough in Oadby, Leics, is hosting a Bonfire Beer Festival this weekend (5th-7th Nov). Now beer we can take or leave, there's generally enough good ale at our local the Red Lion to make a trip over the border to Leicestershire a rare treat these days, but the award-winning team at the Cow & Plough are also serving up a very good range of ciders at this festival. Rather too good to miss in fact, so we'll be toasting this season's vintage apple and pear harvest on Saturday lunchtime. Here's the cider menu:


Sunday, 1 November 2009

October Wrapped Up

We completed the last pressing of October yesterday, bringing our main cidermaking month to an exhausting conclusion. It's nothing but rest and recuperation from now until the Vilberie are ready later in November.

I'm getting a bit nervous about the Vilberie for all kinds of reasons. I've nothing much to blend in to up the acidity of these bittersweet apples, and may have to order a little Malic Acid for the job. I'm also concerned for the condition of the trees, which are already in quite a poor state. When we last visited the orchard, one tree had lost a large branch due to the weight of crop it was carrying, and the crown on another tree has split for the second time. High winds over the next few days could wreak even more damage before we get back to the orchard, and I'm expecting to find most of the crop on the ground. It's much harder work scratching around in the grass for apples, particularly when they're quite small like Vilberies.

Good news: A neighbour let us take all the crop from their mature Bramley Apple trees, not a massive quantity, but a useful bit of sharp juice for the pressing yesterday. We even managed to find enough local apples to fill a couple of small fermenters of Welland Valley Special, including a few pears and some huge yellow apples from down the road in Rockingham village.