Real Cider is a tremendously satisfying drink -- quintessentially English, beautifully refreshing. The methods of production -- on the smaller scale, at least -- really haven't changed that much over the centuries, and making your own offers an inventive glimpse into a fascinating part of our rural food culture.
Refined in Britain by the Normans, cider has a rich and varied history in this country, particularly in the West Country where as recently as the late nineteenth century it was customary for farm workers to be part paid in the drink (up to a gallon a day during harvest, with stone flagons placed either side of a field to 'encourage' the labourers) while 'cider houses' -- primitive roadside rural drinking establishments that sold no beer -- were ubiquitous.
But although sales have started to gain serious traction in recent years, due in no small part to the immense popularity of the carbonated 'served over ice' version, the real thing is a markedly different proposition: flat, thirst quenching, mouth puckering sharp -- often fearsomely strong -- and made using nothing but pure fermented apple juice. Perhaps because of its traditional rural roots, the making of cider also happens to be less regulated than any other alcoholic beverage, meaning you can easily set up as a small scale cider maker.
My own relationship with making cider began with a chance turn. Wending my way down the A303 through Somerset, I passed a large handwritten sign for 'Cider at Next left', followed a narrow turning and within minutes found myself standing in a beautiful barn while a ruddy-faced farmer's wife filled a 4L plastic flagon with golden 'medium'. I was immediately struck by the joy of finding a cliché that not only rung true, but that was almost surreal in its totality-- here was a drink made, served and sold on farm premises, just as it had been for hundreds of years.
So, how do you make your own? October and November are the months to gather fruit, after which the apples need to be turned to slurry -- either by hand, using a strong bucket and large piece of timber, or with a mechanical scratter (a machine used to break up, but not entirely pulp, the apples). This is vital -- it is essential that the fruit is reduced to a near liquid state before it reaches the press, as apples have a propensity to compact to a serious density if the chunks are too large, making squeezing nigh on impossible.
The fruit is then pressed via hand into what is known as a 'cheese' -- a large spherical piece of solid apple mass -- and the juice collected as it runs out of the side of the press. It is then fermented for between 2 -- 3 months, racked off and enjoyed.
When it comes to the blend, it's up to the individual cider maker. Broadly speaking, West Country cider tends to tannic and strong, the blend made up with specialist cider apples such as Redstreak, Kingston Black and Tremletts Bitter. East Anglian cider is sweeter, the blend made up from eating apples that contain less natural tannin and fruit acid.
My own debut foray into cider making was, however, something of a disaster. A couple of summers ago I invested in a small press and put the apple tree in the garden to good use. Without a decent apple scratter, I ended up going for the 'pole and bucket' method of apple bashing, whereby you bash the apples by hand until they reach the desired consistency.
Unfortunately, I didn't manage to get the apples to the desired point, split the bucket clean in two and ended up with a scant few litres of discoloured cider that carried an uninviting aroma of rancid cooking apples and ammonia.
Luckily, my friend Ben's family has been making cider for generations and last autumn the pair of us decided to make a batch with the aim of having it ready to submit to the prestigious Cambridge Beer Festival, held at the end of May. We started with a few afternoons spent foraging windfalls. Two magnificent Kingston Black trees provided 70 per cent of the blend, to which we added Yarlington Mill and Red Streak.
Unlike my previous one man operation, we now had access to a mechanical apple scratter, essentially a rudimentary plank of wood with nails sticking out that spins and reduces apples to a glorious slush, ready for the press within seconds. Racking off took place in April, and the resulting cider -- 'Lady’s Nook' (named after a nearby brook) -- was well received at the festival, and sold out within the week.
Millions of apples needlessly go to waste every autumn. If that's the case in your garden, give cider making a go -- all you need is a press, a scratter, apples and patience. Although small-scale cider making is pretty much an unregulated affair, you do have to fill out a HMRC tax exemption form for operations that produce and sell less than 7,000 litres in a year.
There are plenty of olde worlde cider recipe books out there but as we found, it's best to follow with caution. Ben's family recipe dating back to pre-WWI Herefordshire advised throwing a length of lead piping into the barrel to "add body". Even in the rustic world of cider making, perhaps some traditions are best left behind.
Watch the film below about legendary Somerset cider maker, Frank Naish:
Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fuelled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.