Cider is an act of creation and discovery, a tribute to summer and harvest, liquid light imbued with joy and thirst. A small, slow batch should convey the subtleties of the terroir in which it is nurtured and fermented, whether meadow, honey, fungi, straw, moss, lichen, compost, forest or blossom. To be fair, cider also may fail drastically, spoilt and worse than putrid vinegar.
The risks and rewards in cidermaking share a tangled past with rustic cheesemaking and brewing, butchery and baking, preservative acts of pickling, salting and fermenting that prepare us for the days ahead. Evidence suggests that the thick dovetailed bottles that can withstand double fermentation were first produced by monasteries in England for cider production before the technology was copied in France to make Cremant and Champagne.
Once a currency used to entice workers to Somerset farms, cider may be dry, medium, sweet, cloudy, still or fizzy and is better and more complex when aged. Rescued from obscurity and a reputation as a last resort of the down and out, artisanal cidermakers are producing heirloom varietals and vintage blends and have sparked a revival. Today, it makes for a refreshing choice when settling into a pub garden under a walnut tree on a sunny afternoon.
Cidermaking occurs in autumn, once summer has tantalised the orchards with slashes of heat, and the first crispy dawns tickle sugar out of the fruits. Many orchards and market gardens that would harbour traditional cidermaking varieties are presumed lost to the winds of disinterest, neglect and misguided agricultural policies, but this is not exactly the case. Nosey bike rides and valley walks are opportunities to peek through hedges and gates and spot a potential crop. Glimpses can be seen in hillside meadows, farmyards, gardens, commons or estates, even in a splendid scenario near a community barn and press.
Securing quality apples is absolutely essential to the creation of a quality drink. Some detailed reading about the steps in fermentation is recommended and numerous guides are available. For an enthusiast attempting anywhere between 25 and 200 litres, a degree of commitment and flexibility is required from harvest to bottling. The process can be daunting and you might feel wary about the chunk of time set aside to pick down an orchard of a dozen trees. An actual real world result – conjuring alcohol, bubbles, if not magic from your own juice and labour – is what makes it worthwhile.
Be aware that life may thrust itself in the way and a fraction of the crop may escape into the grass and nettles. Maybe you have underestimated the amount of buckets, barrel or bottles that need apprehending? Are you short a scratter (masher) or fruit press? Require an extra hand? Will packets of yeast, chemicals and sanitiser arrive by the end of September when picking may rightly commence.
A window of time is on our side. Quality apples can be stored for a fortnight or more in a cool dry airy spot once the harvest has started, which might be just one run in an SUV or pickup, plus anything scrumped from the adjoining gardens on site once the equipment is in clean working order and the ingredients have materialised.
Cider isn’t pressed from just any kind of apple. They’re a variety of ovoid, oblong shapes, a mix of large eating and cider apples – certainly no sour allotment Bramleys among them on this second attempt – blushed, gold, emerald and ruby, shaken and picked from trees that see neither spray nor much pruning other than wind. They’ve ripened on their own accord in sun-kissed orchard next to the Avon River, a few miles north of Bath as the watercourse hooks past Solsbury Hill, a microclimate of moisture and sun, brambles and swans.
Sunny weather in October is wishful thinking, so in this instance the makers crack on, unbothered by spitting clouds, washing crates of apples, sorting and chopping. Here, one rule is most important: keep the space clean. Surfaces, knives, buckets, masher and press with an eye on the final destination – fermenting buckets with airlocks and lids. Running a basket fruit press is not herculean but it does deserve attention, stamina and power to fill, press and empty all day. The scratter knows them up in batches, and here one could pause for a day and set the macerated fruit aside to kickstart the natural yeasts on the blotted skins and to add flavour, but there’s only so much time set aside for this luxury. What’s there is there, in that garnet liquid pressed on the spot and tipped in five litre cups into one bucket, then the next, three in total, each with a distinctive, chewy taste.
The calendar demands the 78 litres of juice rest so the chemistry may begin, with a few important decisions on how much risk is acceptable. Screw up and a whole bucket’s in jeopardy.
Leave it to nature to runs its course and pray that no contamination has happened and that the wild yeasts will quickly monopolize the sugars.
Or err on the side of caution: As done here, three Campden tablets per bucket to quell the juice for the first 24 hours and seven grams of Champagne yeast each the next evening to define the fermentation, leaving natural sugars to do the rest.
It looks and smells good when the lid cracks open: froth, alcoholic bite, no ugly signs of bacterial contamination from leaves, grass or other appley matter.
It’s alive but how alive?
There’s no easy gander at this amateur level of cidermaking.
Once you add the yeast, you’re off, keeping the buckets warm for a solid fortnight, listening to them gurgle and burp, watching a sediment of yeast shower down as golden lees, and checking infrequently with the hydrometer for readings of sugar and alcohol. At this point, it tastes astringent and raw, and the hydrometer indicates alcohol below five per cent.
After three weeks the time has come to slow down the fermentation at seven per cent. One method is to add more Campden tablets, kill off its live qualities and shut down fermentation completely. Another is to harness the cold, slowing the process down, while leaving enough active culture for the next step.
The trio move out the shed for another fortnight. Perhaps too late to really aid any flavour, you toss in a handful of broken whisky cask chips to one bucket to see if it might impart that buttery oak structure familiar from winemaking. A secret wish: malolactic fermentation.
The air temperature has not tipped over nine degrees. The buckets seem content, unbothered by sports equipment or boxes. You return twice to rack the buckets, meaning you siphon the juice off the sediment to clear the cider, while being careful to not expose the juice to pathogens in the air. Easily overlooked, gravity is a friend. Allow time for racking to remove manually the bready lees (dead yeast) from too much contact with the golden honey liquid. (Note: in winemaking, stirring the lees from the bottom of the barrels into the juice with giant wooden paddles is a practice known as battonage. We also do a version of this in the bottle once cellared conditioning)
Wait out the brew longer in mid-November? No, life must scoot forward after two months of fiddling with this process. The Thanksgiving menu is near. Lockdown Two is coming to a close. It’s definitely time to rustle up the right bottles, which thanks to employment in the hospitality industry, are simple to procure: in a few months of trade, you’ve gathered empty cases of prosecco, champagne and rose frizant – they’re all suited to pressure of the little bubbles you plan to coax from the juice. You’d have saved the cages, too, but that’s implausible when you’re pouring 500 drinks a night. Not a time for charity.
About ten days before the end, the bottles are scrubbed in hot water with an odour-free, no-rinse sanitiser, glimmering in greens, blues and quartz according to their domain, rinsed twice on a cement driveway and put to dry in a garage. The process is repeated vigorously on bottling day, frosty and windy above the city of Bath.
This moment is also occasion for a last blend. Do equal parts from each barrel, off-dry, brut and extra brut, one laced with a faint memory of whisky, equal an apply burst of flavour that will mature, condition and effervesce with age? In the interests of sweetness, should you add any more sugar than a heaped teaspoon of dextrose to each to start the secondary fermentation, the most beautiful, mysterious part?
Without a barn of hogheads and blessed vintages to adjust the outcome, you mustn’t fuss too much with ciderology and it all gets siphoned together.
A neat tap with an overflow speeds up the process as you fill and refill in the cold garage. Wiggle in the plastic corks and tighten the wire cages and presto, you’ve got cider. By noon, 92 bottles are complete – less than planned but enough to divide among the people who helped in kind, the extra hand and yourself.
Spare a sense of accomplishment for later. If it’s bubbly and drinkable in two months, then pat yourself on the back.
The holidays pass and the last weekend of January seems apt for tasting what was cellared. Perplexingly fresh, dry with a touch of residual sweetness, an unexpected smoothness and balanced acidity, clear and sparkling rapidly in your glass. Each taste is an appley mouthful of sweets and sharps, breathing for the first time, and a vast improvement on the effort two years ago crushing fruits with a 2 x 4 and working a borrowed press for four measly demijohns of what proved drinkable but misinformed, some of it reasonably undrunk.
Vintage 2020 will improve with cellar time, an occasional rotation of the bottles in their racks, a trick to condition the liquid, for a drink that would not traditionally be tapped till about Easter. Imagine glugging it on a hot spring afternoon on the lawn, giggling with friends and crisps, the prospect of a prawn and pork satay barbecue ahead of you, that giddy, silly cider high tugging at your smile, for then you can be proud that you’ve cracked it that much more: you’ve created a trendy, organic, low sulphite, biodynamic, noninterventionist cider – just for fun.
Already tweaks and improvements are noted: more maceration, a hogshead or two, a better site, a bigger press and even better apples like Dabinett or Kingston Black for your juice.
Thanks to Margaret in Batheaston, Guy in Priston, Stephen in Bath, Pilton’s in Shepton Mallet, and the Beckford Bottleshop crew in Bath for rota tweaks and plenty of empties.
Cider 2020 Notes
Approximately 300 kilos collected from a cider orchard
September 14 – first visit to the orchard, fruit ripening but still starchy and tart.
September 28 – harvested after a sustained sunny period, before the October rains. Already many windfalls and main crop down. Picking was one week too late to gather the full crop, but at the same time an unmanageable amount of apples would have resulted. Stored in the crawl space under extra hand’s house.
October 5 and 6 – cleaning, chopping, mashing and pressing. Second batch includes Claverton Down crop of eaters, five extra kinds for a sweeter juice. 78 litres in total.
October 8 – yeast added, stored inside at 20 degrees C.
October 23 – racked and placed outside.
November 12 – racked again, kept outside.
November 17 – bottled in 92 bottles, of which 80 are 75 centilitre size.
January 31 – preliminary taste: bright, fresh, sharp, summer apple, restrained yeast, some residual sugar, subtle hint of smoky oak.
Investments and equipment
£220 7 litre fruit crusher and 18 litre fruit basket press
£60 3 25 litre buckets with lids, taps and airlock
£30 chemicals: Campden tablets, “no rinse” sanitiser, litmus paper, 10 airlocks and Champagne yeast, hydrometer
£25 extra chemicals, plastic corks, corker, metal cages
£14 whisky chips
2 outdoor tables
1 garden hose
2 meters tubing for siphoning
1 60 liter barrel – loaner
2 25 liter buckets – loaner