Sunday, 1 September 2013

Gearing up for a good harvest

IMG_20130817_160415_111    It's my favourite time of year! Apple harvest time!
    To be fair so far that means the earlies rather than the cider apples. Grenadier, White Transparent, and of course the Beauty of Bath being enjoyed by the wasps in the picture. But the mere fact of picking and eating fresh apples for me means summer has finally delivered.
    After last year's disaster we're going to have a huge yield. Time will tell exactly what the apples will be like, but with decent sunlight I hope they'll have a good sugar content.
    I'll be getitng out the press for a good clean, and making a Vigo order for any sundries I've run out of.
    Good luck if you're pressing this autumn, and may your apple juice run sweet and clean!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Single varietal

    With the pruning long past and the resulting pile of branches disposed of, there's not much going on in the orchard at the moment. The daffodils are coming through, and like ciderists everywhere I'm left worrying about the rain, the frost, a late spring, and all the myriad other factors that can deprive me of my apple crop this year. A cheery sales email came through from Vigo a few days ago promising that 2013's climate so far would give us a bumper crop. I'd expect the rest in 2012 to have done my trees some good, but I wish I had some of the cider they're drinking!
    The lull in activity does however provide an opportunity to talk about an experimental batch of cider from the 2011 pressing that I mentioned in passing last year. My first attempt at a single varietal.
    Single varietal ciders have attracted some attention in recent years as producers use them for marketing effect, to attach a connoisseur's cachet to their product in the same way as the wine industry has marketed their product by grape varieties rather than by region. Some apples give rather good single varietal pressings, but I can't help at times feeling that they miss the skill of selecting the mix at pressing time to achieve a balance of flavour otherwise unattainable. Cider differs from whisky or wine in this respect, this blending is not done to hide an otherwise cheaper product.
    My single varietal came from an unusual standpoint. I did not want to create a balanced and enjoyable cider, instead I wanted to create the sharpest cider I could, as a drink for mixing with my apple juice. You should try it, it's rather refreshing and the alcohol doesn't go straight to your legs!
    So the apple I chose is not a cider apple at all. Bramley. Great in apple pies, makes surprisingly good juice for drinking, but too sharp for normal cider.
    I happen to think Bramley is an interesting apple. We have several Bramley trees from different sources, when my parents planned the orchard they had a winter's worth of pies in mind. The reason for my interest is that those trees, though all giving classic Bramley shaped apples, all exhibit different characteristics. There is one whose Bramleys are slightly yellow with sometimes a red blush on their skin, are palatable to eat, tart but not too much so and with flesh that's easy to bite into. Another gives much more acid fruit, still unmistakably Bramley but greener and harder. I'm unsure why this is as all the trees are unmistakably the same variety and grow in the same part of the orchard so I'd expect would share the same terroir.
    My Bramley cider used the sharper fruit. I wanted it to be mouth-puckeringly sharp. The fresh juice was very drinkable as even a sharp Bramley has plenty of sugars. I didn't press much, just enough for a one-gallon demijohn. I didn't want much of the stuff.
    It seemed to take longer to ferment than my normal cider, and it kept going slowly after racking. Bottling came in Autumn, giving me sixteen 330ml bottles. I don't expect any of the secondary fermentation that develops with storage in my normal cider, this stuff is far too acid for that.
    So, having opened a bottle and tried it, what's the verdict?
    Success, definitely. Mouth-puckeringly, painfully sharp! But with a decent alcohol content and still with that "pippy" apple taste, after all this is still a craft cider. Mixed with juice, gives it a "kick" without the resulting drink feeling like watered-down cider.
    There it is then. My first single varietal cider. And not one you'd expect. Not one you'd probably drink either, to be honest. But it works for the application I made it for, which is all that matters.

Friday, 25 January 2013

It's pruning time!

    Well, here we are again, hello January. Standing around in the orchard pruning the trees again. This year we've not had much of the wonderful crunchy frost and bright sunlight, it's either been squelchy mud and rain, or snow. Neither of which are much fun, to be honest.
    I have to admit it, I envy people with traditional cider orchards featuring huge unpruned trees. They can stay indoors at this time of year, or watch over their fermenting juice. Our orchard was laid out for producing fruit to be eaten, so all its trees have been pruned to an artificial shape and need regular maintenance. We cider makers don't care in the same way about the size or visual quality of our fruit, so it's mildly annoying to have to spend so much time in the cold.
    The 2012 fermentation has slowed right down, I'll be thinking about racking it in a few weeks. Meanwhile the 2011 cider has turned out rather well. My unexpectedly cloudy batch I wrote about in the summer is slowly beginning to settle too, I was expecting it to take longer. As an experiment I've put some of it in an outbuilding where it'll be frosted to see whether that helps.
    Meanwhile as usual I gave cider to my colleagues in lieu of Christmas cards. Now the label is adorned with a line drawing of an apple, courtesy of Wikipedia. I suspect I'll have to locate some little stubby bottles for next year if I want to give it out then, so poor was the 2012 harvest.
    Otherwise, everything's quiet until May, blossom time. Here's hoping for a better spring than last year.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

October: pressing

    So it's the big month in a cider maker's year. October, when we press apples to yield juice for fermentation. Fermentation that'll happen slowly over the winter in time for racking and eventual bottling in the spring. Cider making's a waiting game.
    My pressing started in September, though I wasn't pressing then for cider. The first pressing I do is usually for apple juice which I'll pastuerise and decant into plastic milk cartons to be frozen for winter drinking. I usually use cooking apples for that because I like my drinking juice tart; dessert apple juice is too sweet to be refreshing in my view. Besides, the dessert apples can be used for cider and the cookers can't.
    I'll normally spend three of four weekends pressing, but in 2012 due to the poor yields I only managed two.One in September for juice, and one a week ago in mid October for cider. It's a simple enough process, the apples are chopped up in a machine called a scratter before being pressed to release the juice. Our scratter is home made, with a big electric motor driving a spinning stainless steel blade. It produces pomace formed from small chips of apple and sometimes very thin apple slices. Whether it would be better if it crushed the apples as well isn't proven, but it at least allows the juice to come out readily enough.
    Our press is a fairly unexciting Vigo basket press. Not the largest scale set-up, but about right for the size of our harvest and the throughput of our scratter. The juice is collected in a stainless steel bowl before being transferred to the plastic jerry cans I use as fermenters. Our orchard is old so I'll add a bit of yeast nutrient to it as well as some sulphite to kill bacteria. The spent pomace meanwhile goes to the compost heap in a wheelbarrow. One day I'll try steeping it for a second pressing, but I usually just don't have the time.
    Yeast is another matter. Natural yeast or cultured yeast? To be honest I've used both, often side by side on the same pressing of juice. Both seem to produce good cider, but I've had film yeast infestations with the natural yeasts. Your yeast experience may vary.
     So there it is. Cider, busily fermenting. The press carefully cleaned, its wooden bits drying out to stop them going mouldy. And I'm thinking ahead to my next task in a couple of months: pruning the orchard in the January frosts.

Poor yield in 2012

    2012 will not be a bumper year for cider makers. All that cold and rain early in the season following on from a winter drought has given us an awful yield. So in our mixed orchard, which trees were the winners and which the losers?
Coxes shaken down from on high
    In the non-cider space, my mother is vexed by the failure of her cooking apples. Not a single Bramley this year from five trees, that's something of a disaster for me as well as for her because I normally use Bramleys as the bulk of my drinking juice production.
    But as always with a mixed orchard there is another tree that takes the strain. 2012 was a good year for Grenadiers, the early cooker, so our freezer is full of both sliced apple and plastic cartons of pasteurised September juice.
    My cider comes mostly from dessert apples. There are one or two trees that normally produce unspectacular apples in huge quantities, Wagoner, Sturmer Pippin and Rosemary Russet, that give me a decent base of juice that I can blend with sweeter apples and my relatively few Dabinetts. This year though only the Wagoner made the grade, and an ancient Cox sport planted as a pip in the 1940s that is two stories high. I had no chance this year of the trees from which I normally get the small and misshapen fruit, the Ingrid Maries and the Crispins.
    Oddly my Dabinett has done very well this year, but it's still too young to contribute a significant amount.
    So in the end I have about half the cider from 2012 that I'd expect. I have plenty from previous years and 2012 will still provide me with enough for my needs, but I can't rate this year as a good one.
    There is a silver lining though. The trees are healthy, and after a few bumper years the rest will do them no harm. With luck 2013 will be a better year still for that.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Unexpectedly cloudy

    I finally completed bottling my 2011 pressing on Sunday. That's right, in August.
    My reason for such a late finish is simple: back in April I managed to trip over one of the plastic jerrycans I use for fermentation, disturbing the settled yeast and turning the cider within from the usual beautifully clear to a murky yellow cloudy cider. I thought a few months standing would settle it out, but sadly that was not the case and to cut my losses I bottled the resulting batch of cloudy cider last weekend.
    I don't like cloudy cider. For me it has too many associations with either badly kept Weston's Old Rosie, cloudy fake Real Ciders whose brand names I won't mention here, and the public fixation with "scrumpy" as some kind of gold standard of authenticity. My ciders have always been as clear as I can make them.
    So I'm left with 40-odd bottles of cloudy cider. An interesting pressing that suits cloudiness as it happens, an experimental mixture of dessert apples and a hedgerow find of an unusually bittersharp crab apple. I guess you'd have to taste it to understand where I'm going with it, but for the apples that went into it I think I've got the taste I was trying for. I hope after a year or more in the bottle, particularly if I let them get really cold this winter, the cloudiness will have settled a bit and I can pour a mostly clear glass from them.
    Looking at the remains of the yeast at the bottom it was clear what had happened. Dead cider yeast creates a skin on top of itself when it settles, and the unexpected violent agitation had broken that skin. Pieces of it were visible, in contrast to the intact mat of yeast that is normally left after bottling.
    I'll be doing my first pressing in a few weeks, the orchard is full of ripening apples. Unexpected to be bottling so close to harvest.

Monday, 23 July 2012

All in the bottle

    I've been a little late bottling my cider this year. I guess that's inaccurate, I always end up finishing about now so by my own standards I'm not too late, but I really should have done it all over a month ago.
    Anyway, several hundred bottles later I have a lot of new cider stashed away to mature. Though I sez it myself, it tasted pretty good even in this immature state, with luck the '11 pressing will be a vintage one. I made much more of an effort to balance the different varietal flavours than previous years rather than just throw all the apples in together, so maybe that's paying dividends.
    Traditionally the new cider is first opened around pressing time. So I'll leave this lot until October and see how it's turned out by then. Something to look forward to.