Sunday, 25 September 2011

Back on the Green Horse

Green Horse - One of the few!
One of the good things about harvesting fruit from a truly mixed orchard, is that for every tree having an 'off' year and bearing little or no fruit, there's likely to be something else fully turned 'on' as it were. It's not good for consistency, but it means there's always something to press.

There are two Green Horse perry pear trees in Johns 'Far Orchard', one of which has cropped very heavily for us for the last couple of years. The other tree is tucked away in the corner, close to a row of conifers which compete for water and nutrients, consequently it's never had much of a crop on it. This year, Green Horse is having an 'off' year, which means instead of the usual half a ton or more of fruit, we've got barely four sacks of pears to play with. To fill our press we need something like seven sacks of fruit, so there will be no single variety Green Horse Perry for the 2012 season. A great shame as its one of my favourite perrys, even more so because its specific gravity came out at a whopping 1.064, up from 1.050 last year. I guess this is down to a combination of factors, including the dry Summer, optimum ripeness (these pears really needed pressing today), and the paucity of the crop.

To fill the press, and go most of the way towards filling a large fermenter, we pressed the sharp Green Horse pears with a few sacks of another more tannin rich perry pear (another whopping gravity of 1.068). This will be topped up tomorrow with a vigorously fermenting 25 litres of Blakeney Red from last weekends pressing session, making a three pear blend which will hopefully taste great, and won't be as lumpy as our last blending experiment.

The weekend harvest included our first few sacks of apples from one of two Blenheim Orange trees we'll be using to produce a nice sharp blending cider. This will be used for much needed acidity, and as a fermenting starter for the Yarlington Mill and Vilberie apples later in the season. There's perhaps one more perry pear pressing session ahead (Red Longdon is having an 'on' year), then it's full steam ahead with the cidermaking.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Brigstock Beer Festival 2011

Once again the Brigstock Beer Festival (Fri 23rd - Sat 24th Sept) neatly bookends our cidermaking year (well almost*), and once again we'll probably have to miss it.

It's unfortunate that this excellent village festival occurs slap-bang in the middle of our perry pear harvest. Whilst villagers and visitors enjoy the beer, bands, and bonhomie in this pretty Northamptonshire village, we'll be shaking trees again, up to our ankles in a carpet of fragrant perry pears. Maybe next year...

In addition to the ales on offer, we've delivered barrels of our Red Kite 'Yarlington Mill' Cider, Kingston Black Cider, and the very last box of Malvern Hills Perry (well nearly**). There will also be cider from Cromwell of Huntingdon. Friday night is a comedy evening, with live bands on Saturday evening. The Saturday afternoon session is entirely free entry.

* The mighty Nottingham Beer Festival is still to come
** We've held a barrel back for the 2012 Leicester Beer Festival

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Blakeney Red - Yields Down, Gravity Up

Our Perry merry-making continues. This time it's the Blakeney Red pears that need our attention. The orchard has (or had) three Blakeney Red trees, good annual croppers, and more compact than the huge old Malvern Hills trees making them so much easier to harvest.

Sadly, as with many of the trees in this elderly orchard, the Blakeneys are not in the best of health. In fact one of the three trees appears to have given up the ghost this year. We've noticed die-back on the odd branch before, not necessarily a fatal situation, but the whole tree now appears to be either dead, or having a very serious rest! I think that an already struggling tree may have been pushed over the edge by the extremely dry Summer we've had this year. John will be leaving the tree in for the time being, just in case it shows a spectacular recovery next year...

So, only two trees harvested, which is a great shame as the Blakeney Red Perry was probably our most popular drink this year. Even so, we've come home with a similar quantity of pears to the Malvern Hills, and managed to press almost 50 gallons of juice from them, which is a little less than last year. I think the pears were close to a peak of ripeness. Larger than usual, mainly yellow and still quite firm, but perhaps not as juicy as the Malvern Hills. The sugar levels are similarly high, with a very respectable specific gravity of 1.060, the highest we've recorded for Blakeney Red by a long way. It's that dry Summer again I think.

A quick scan of the orchard revealed that the Green Horse perry pears are almost ready for harvest, once again around 1-2 weeks earlier than last year, so we'll be hard at it again this weekend.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Perry Pear Day at Hartpury Orchard Centre

It's been a hell of a weekend of perry making action already, and we've still got pressing to do. Meanwhile, here's a few images from this years Perry Pear Day at the Orchard Centre in Hartpury, Gloucestershire. Exhibitors included the Gloucestershire Orchard Group, Charles Martell, Albert Rixen and friends, Out of the Orchard Cider & Perry, plus many other food and orchard related stalls.

What it's all about. A world record 90 varieties of Perry Pear on display, presided over by perry pear expert Jim Chapman. Jim couldn't make the event last year, so I was delighted to meet him this time around, and deliver my small collection of unknown perry pear varieties for identification.

Workhorse of the world, a Lister Junior powers the Scratter for the vintage pressing demonstration

Levelling out the Perry Pear pomace on the vintage Workman Press.
Charles Martell, accompanied by Britains youngest distiller George Lewis, presented their new 'Owler Pear Spirit in the afternoon sunshine. I can confirm that it's very nice indeed, and despite being a little pricey for a young spirit, I've now secured a bottle for future enjoyment.

Gloucester Cattle crop the grass in the recently planted Perry Pear orchard.

The Goodnature Squeezebox Press in action

Perry Pears. All types, prior to washing and sorting.

Building the Cheese on the vintage Workman & Sons press. The pressing demo proceeded at a leisurely pace, interrupted by lunch breaks, downpours and the odd sample of last years vintage. Just as it should be.
Washing and sorting perry pears the 'hand-raulic' way, much as we do at home.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Thoroughly Modern Milling

I've got a love-hate relationship with Malvern Hills perry. Obviously I love the taste or I wouldn't bother making it, but from a commercial perspective the high tannin is a bit of a problem.

Here are some other loves: Usually nice weather for harvest. Loads of fruit available. Consistently high sugar levels can give very high alcohol in the finished perry. A naturally clear perry. Nice name.

...and for balance, some hates: Very tall trees make harvest difficult. Harvest/Pressing time ultra critical. Consistently high sugar levels can make for a perry which is hard to sell.

Freshly Milled
But back to those high tannin levels. Malvern Hills perry is a clean, fruity, and quite subtle tasting drink, but the tannins are really quite fulsome and astringent. That's to say they dry the mouth in an uncompromising way. I'm fine with tannins generally, but even I find them a bit 'wearing' at this level. It means that our Malvern Hills Perry is perhaps more of a connoisseurs drink, when we'd much rather it had more general appeal, though the last thing we want to do is dumb it down.
After Maceration
After our recent disastrous blending experiment, I've decided I need to tackle the issue at source. My new-fangled innovation for this years Malvern Hills perry is the old-fangled processs of Maceration. Maceration is simply the process of milling the pears to a fine pulp, and leaving well alone for a few hours before pressing. In this way, the tannins in the pears oxidise, and hopefully precipitate out, leaving all the lovely perry taste but with less of the mouth-drying tannin. It's a bit of extra work because it spreads the processing out over two days instead of one, but hopefully the results will be worth the effort. I went for a 24 hour maceration, milling the pears on Saturday, ready for pressing on Sunday.

I can't say that the pressing was a pleasant experience, but then the first of the season never is. Nothing is in the right place, every piece of kit needs a thorough clean, and fatigue takes hold as we're using muscles that have lain idle since the last cidermaking season. Putting the fun-factor aside though, it was a successful weekends pressing, giving us around 220 litres of juice with an average Specific Gravity of 1.070. One batch achieved 1.071, the highest gravity we've recorded, with the potential to give a final alcohol level of around 9%.

The warm weather we're having at moment should mean fermentation will romp away, and it now remains to be seen how successful our maceration has been, and whether it's worth repeating again next year.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Time for a Swift One

In between the arduous task of harvesting a trailer load of perry pears, and the equally hard graft of milling and pressing them, I managed to find time for a mini cider crawl in the tourist hot-spot of Broadway. All work and no play as they say...

First a refreshing Cup'O'Tea, kindly supplied by the owner of the orchard we'd been bending our backs in for the last few hours. While we chatted, Johns wife dug out a few old photos of the cidermaking from back when my Voran press was still under warranty. It's good to see these old photos, which feature a spectacularly quiff'd John, his father the original cidermaker, and Ted, an old boy from the village, milling and pressing in the ciderhouse as it's always been done. It's represents a nice bit of continuity as we're now using the same press, and harvesting the same orchard as John was over 20 years ago, and his father before him. With Johns permission I'd like to reproduce a few of these on the Blog some time.

Tea refreshes up to a point, but real thirst requires something a bit stronger, so into the village for a pint of Hogans Draught Cider at the Horse & Hound, our usual lunchtime refreshment venue when working in the orchard. This pub is also handy for several top quality charity shops, so something for the ladies too.

Onwards to the smart and bustling Swan Hotel. Always busy it seems, and very popular with thirsty tourists. I retired to the patio with a pint of Aspalls Draught Cider, a great vantage point to watch the world crawl by whilst basking in what may well prove to be the last of the Summer sunshine. Beer options here include the excellent Purity Brewery Pure UBU, which is what I'll usually have when I'm not drinking cider.

My final destination was the ultra-cosy Crown & Trumpet, tucked away off the main drag and all the better for it. Popular with visitors to the village, but still a proper locals pub, and always very welcoming even when busy.

The beers are generally all from local brewers, including Cotswold Spring, Stroud, and Stanaway, but I was here for the local ciders. Hogans Draught Cider is a long standing regular, but occasionally during the Summer there's also something from Gwatkin of Herefordshire. The bottled cider and perry in the fridge were a little too sweet for my taste, but on handpump was a fresh barrel of Silly Ewe, a new-ish dry cider from Gwatkin. Properly dry, and surprisingly full-flavoured for a cider of only 4.5%.

There's much to admire in the Crown & Trumpet, not least the unusual range of traditional pub games on offer, which apparently include Evesham Quoits (otherwise known as Dobbers!), Devil among the Tailors, and the rarity shown in this picture, Ring the Bull. Perhaps not quite as sophisticated as our beloved Northants Table Skittles, but a game of some skill nonetheless. It definitely warrants a return visit in the hope of catching a competitive game in full flow. At the very least it's a chance to try more good ciders in one of our favourite Cotswold pubs.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


It's been unexpectedly busy this weekend at Rockingham Forest Cider. The business of picking and pressing for the 2011 vintage is well and truly upon us, and once again, it's come a little earlier than we'd have liked.

There's no excuses really. It's been widely reported that the cider apple harvest is up to a month earlier than ususal. But in our case, it's not cider apples that have kept us busy all weekend, it's perry pears, Malvern Hills perry pears to be precise. Somehow we'd assumed that venerable old trees like these are rather more set in their ways than feckless faddy young cider apple trees. We were wrong!

We've come to expect the Malvern Hills pears (more correctly known as Moorcroft, or indeed Stinking Bishop) to ripen around the third weekend of September, which is a very convenient weekend to be in the Three Counties area as it coincides with the Hartpury Perry Pear Day in Gloucestershire. I'd pencilled in the weekend just gone for final preperations in the ciderhouse, in readiness for the Malvern Hills harvest next weekend. It therefore came as a bit of a shock when John contacted me to say the pears were already falling, and since we know that Malvern Hills pears rot within days of ripening, we were going to have to drop everything and high-tail it to the orchard or miss the lot. Worse still, the pears would need pressing immediately  we got home! Bye-bye relaxing weekend, hello hard orchard graft!

It was an eventful and exhausting day in the orchard. We managed to harvest around twice as many pears as last year, this despite several major Panking Pole failures and a couple of broken branches along the way. John had already warned us that quite a few branches had come down in the orchard recently, probably down to the very dry conditions making the wood less flexible in the wind. These Malvern Hills trees are very old indeed, and it grieves me to damage them in any way, but this variety of pear simply must be shaken from the tree, so no matter how careful we are with the Panking Pole, some damage seems inevitable.

So that was the Friday of what has now become known as Malvern Hills Weekend. More on the new, and innovative (for us) Saturday processing later...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Some Gift Ideas for Christmas... Please!

All the signs are indicating that Summer has now definitely departed these shores. We're going to be far too busy during Autumn to think about anything but cider and perry making, so I feel that now is an opportune time to get my 2011 Christmas wish list out there in the public domain, giving you all plenty of time to 'peruse and choose' in time for the big day...

There's something here for all depths of pocket, but please don't feel any obligation to choose a cheaper item from the list if you can think of something else of a greater value that we might like. We're nothing if not flexible, and aim to make your shopping experience as stress free as possible. Please bare in mind that hard cash is an acceptable alternative if the gift of your choice has already been taken. So Yo-Ho-Ho, and on with the list:

  • Voran Apple Washer & Elevator - In buying us this fantastic piece of Austrian precision engineering, you'll not only be making it very difficult for us to get to sleep on Christmas Eve ('Is it Washer-Elevator Day yet Karen?'... 'No, go to sleep'), but also helping us prevent further injury to Knees, Back and Elbows during the 2012 cidermaking season. We want one of these beasts more than life itself, and would be more than happy to take delivery right now if it makes things easier for the purchaser. The price may seem high, but we'll be getting an awful lot of food-grade steel for your money, so it's a bargain really...
  • Ex-Rum Distillery Cask - Just the one required. Full would be best, but we're prepared to take and empty one if that's all you can get. No other spirits please.
  • 'Owler - This might take some tracking down, but I think we're worth it. 'Owler is the latest quality project from Charles Martell, he of Stinking Bishop cheese fame. Not content with making world-class cheeses, he's now distilling perry at his farmhouse in Gloucestershire to produce a very limited quantity of smooth, clear Pear Spirit. I want some, and don't for one moment think that a bottle of Poire Williams will do instead.
  • Croft Gold - You may have to go all the way to Shropshire to find a truckle of this rare-as-Hens-Teeth cheese. Croft Gold is produced in the foody capital of Ludlow. A pungent rind-washed cheese, which benefits from a daily wash in the very finest Herefordshire Cider Brandy (I'm guessing this is done by flaxen haired Shropshire Dairy Maids in the dewy morning... or something similar). Like all good cheese it's probably quite expensive, but please don't be mean. A measly slice won't go far on the Christmas Cheese Board, Man-Up and buy a full round. Catch me in the right mood over Christmas and you may even get a nibble yourself... Ho-Ho-Ho!
  • Return Tickets to Oviedo - All right, I know I'm pushing it a bit with this one, but we're desperate for a holiday...
  • 4 Acres of Good Pasture Land - Much less affordable than you'd imagine, but hey, if you don't ask, you don't get. A gently sloping, south facing field is ideal, vehicular access and a water source would be handy, but I'd be happy with pretty much anything within 10 miles of home to be honest. Throw in a hundred or so cider apple saplings and I'll name a cider after you.
  • 1 x Barnevelder Pullet - Karen has said (repeatedly) that the Rockingham Forest Cider Flock is quite large enough and I can't have any more hens, but if someone were to buy me one....
  • A Monkey - Yes that's right, a real live Monkey. Preferably a nimble, sure-footed, curly-tailed cheeky climbing Monkey. A Monkey capable of training in the essential task of shaking perry pears out of very tall trees. Easier to look after than small children, and not (as far as I'm aware) subject to the same onerous health and safety legislation. Do make it a cute Monkey though, not one of those primates with a gross looking bottom.
  • Socks - Ha-ha! For all those hanging on for the 'Budget Option', here it is. Big, woolly, Welly-socks are what we're talking about. All the better to insulate my toes against the chill of Autumn cidermaking. But feel free to pop one of the above items inside before hanging them on the bedstead. A few Oranges wouldn't go amiss too...