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.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

On bottle donations

    It's the perennial problem facing all hobby cidermakers, a bottle shortage. You need several hundred empty bottles in short order, and no matter how many you save there never seem to be enough.
    I am very fortunate, I have one or two lovely friends and colleagues who save their bottles for me. Yesterday as I soaked the labels off some of those donations I had cause to consider the issue of bottle donations, both good and bad.
    You see, I am quite frequently offered bottles. But despite my need for them I have learned to treat offers with caution.
    It's a "Something for nothing" thing. There is a certain type of person who once they learn you are a cider maker seems to think that giving you some bottles that they would otherwise pitch in the recycling entitles them to a lifetimes supply of free cider as well as the right to deliver frequent lectures from an expert perspective on the subject of "Scrumpy" and what an "Authentic" cider should be. The bottles are rarely rinsed so you receive a bag of festering beery remnants, each with its own mother lode of bacteria and moulds to contaminate your precious pressing, each of which must be carefully washed to remove all residue. You would be amazed how tenacious dried-on beer residue can be.
     And for this you are expected to give them the same amount of bottles back, full of cider. Here's a suggestion, try offering that deal to Magners, Westons, or Bulmers, and see how far it gets you.
    So how about this. If you have a friend who makes cider as a hobby, offer them your used crown cap bottles and you'll probably get some bottles of cider in return. But if you really want to retain them as a friend, rinse the bottles out when you've drunk the beer, OK?

Friday, 11 May 2012


    Spring came later this year than last, but now the blossom's well under way. And the wet weather has kept the frost at bay, so it hasn't been killed. So the orchard is a riot of pink and white, and - touch wood - 2012 looks to have started well. On the ground the pheasants are nesting, so we're staying clear of the apple trees for a few weeks. Here's a picture of some of the first blossom to appear, I think it might be on one of the Bramleys. Not a cider apple at all, but it makes a good picture.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Bottle reckoning

    Not a lot is going on in the world of cider in April. Racking has passed, as has pruning. Bottling won't happen until May or June.

    Ah, bottling. The yearly worry of all small-time ciderists: will I have enough bottles?

    My Easter weekend was partly spent on a bottle-reckoning. All my various stashes of bottles brought together. Have I got the required couple of hundred bottles? Almost, and I have a couple of months to go. Maybe this year I'll avoid a last-minute bottle panic.
    I shared a bottle of the 2010 pressing with my wife at Sunday lunchtime. Very palatable and a lovely colour. And another bottle ready for the 2011 pressing of course.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Belated racking

    I should have been doing this six weeks ago.
    Racking, that is. Syphoning the young cider off the spent yeast into a clean container, ready for a further few months settling. An easy enough job, except for the final moments in which care has to be taken to ensure that yeast isn't sucked up the pipe. There is always a bit of yeasty cider left at the bottom that gets wasted.
    The 2011 pressing is shaping up well, though it tasted as you'd expect from a young cider it was very palatable and showed plenty of promise.
    I ferment my cider in big plastic jerry-cans sold to caravanners to carry drinking water. Not very conducive to photography I'm afraid. I did however ferment one demijohn of a special cider, of which more on this blog in due course. The picture shows the spent yeast immediately after racking, the texture being exactly as it was under the cider. I have no idea what mechanism makes the yeast settle with holes in the upper surface like that.

Monday, 23 January 2012

January pruning

    The last few weekends have been spent in the orchard, pruning. Our orchard is a multi-purpose one, so unlike many traditional cider orchards its trees have always been pruned and thus need this yearly maintenance task to avoid becoming impenetrable thickets of competing new growth. Some like the Crispin need only a minor trim, while others like our Charles Ross have reached for the skies and a full-on haircut is required.
    It's restful work and in a fine winter like this one the orchard is a pleasant place to be. The ground is worryingly dry at the moment, we may have had a bit of rain so the pond that was empty pre-Christmas now has water, but it would be foolish to believe we might not be in for a spring drought.
    Today's photograph is of one of the trees I don't prune. In fact it's not even an apple. This is our Fertility pear tree in all its dormant glory against a January sky. The pears it produces are very small but sweet, I blend them with cooking apples when I'm pressing juice for pasteurising and drinking rather than cider making.