Imagine this bar scene. Customer (me in flippant mood) ‘May I have a pint of wine please?’ Response: ‘We don’t serve wine in that size measure’. I summon my best pantomime attitude and chorus ‘Oh yes you do!’
Cider is apple wine not apple beer but it is served in the same increments of imperial pint measures as beer. Consequently it is devalued by the majority of drinkers and has long had the reputation of being merely the rough stuff consumed in a white lightning flash on a park bench with the sole aim of getting blathered. And yet cider is the reason that Champagne exists. In the mid -17th century Somerset cider makers experimented by adding sugar to still cider to create bubbles through a secondary fermentation. Merchants in London were inspired to do the same to wine and lo and behold, what was hitherto seen as a fault by French vintners and known as le vin du diable, became a popular drink prized for its nittiness as fizziness was then known.
In today’s cider making there are three standards of production. The epitome is producers who make cider from 100 per cent apple juice and add nothing. With these makers the fruit is the boss and it creates complex and grown-up ciders. Then there are the companies who make quality cider for the mainstream market. This usually involves diluting the apple juice and making an easy-drinking product that appeals to a wide market. Finally there are the producers of alco-pops masquerading as cider – made from concentrate that has a distant memory of ever having been an apple on a tree. These concoctions also have glucose, preservatives, and chemicals added, before being filtered and carbonated. Tannins and acidity: virtually nil. Headache potential: huge.
If more people knew how real cider is made perhaps they would give it more reverence and banish the idea that it is fruit beer. Cider is pressed. Beer is brewed when water, malted barley, and hops are boiled together. After the brew has cooled, yeast ferments the sugars. With cider an apple is pressed and, in a large cidery, the juice is fermented by cultured yeast. Boutique cideries rely on the wild yeast that lives on the apple skins.
Recently I visited two producers that describe their cider as apple wine. Hush Heath in Kent is best known for its elegant sparkling wines including the award-winning Balfour Brut Sparkling Rosé. Wine-maker Victoria Ash showed me around the winery and explained how they make their cider. Just as they do with their sparkling wine they employ the methode champenoise which includes secondary fermentation in the bottle, riddling and dégorgement all done using the same techniques and equipment with which the Balfour is produced. The 75 cl bottles of cider are sealed with Champagne corks and muselet. I tested a sample on a champers drinking friend. She saw the shape of bottle, saw me remove the musulet, heard the pop of the cork and assumed it was sparkling grape wine. It took several sips for her to realise that it was not her usual flute of fizz. She asked for a second serving.
Little Pomona in Herefordshire is a small cidery run by Susanna and James Forbes, both of whom have worked in the wine trade. I visited them to help make their cider. It starts by harvesting apples – tannin rich Ellis Bitter, Harry Masters’ Jersey, and Dabinett; plus the high-acid Foxwhelp (one of the oldest surviving English varietals). To do this entails brandishing a long panking pole and shaking apple laden branches. Click here for a short video of panking. The picker then spends hours on hands and knees checking and hand sorting each fallen apple for ripeness. Under-ripe or damaged fruit stays on the ground to rot back into the soil. Terroir plays a big role at Little Pomona not least because the orchard is at high altitude with a constant breeze leading to temperatures 3 degrees cooler than down in the valley. The day-night temperature differential retains the acidity in the apples. Acidity is important because it not only creates the optimal environment for the yeast but it also provides an invigorating refreshment and structure to the cider.
Once the apples are picked they are hauled into the cidery to be broken into small pieces, aka scratted in a mill. The cider maker is in search of what has been called the Holy Trinity – sugars, acids and tannins. In other words sweetness, tang, and astringency.
Next is a stage unique to cider and perry production – the building of the cheese (nothing to do with milk) where the milled apples are formed into squares and wrapped in cheese-cloth.
Click here for a short timelapse video of cheese making.
These are laid on top of each other in a Jenga-like tower and pressed gently until the juice runs out into a fermenting tank.
Click here for a short video of the cheeses being pressed.
At Little Pomona they rely on wild yeast and local microflora that lives on the skin of the apple. It is these magnificent creatures that ferment the sugars very slowly for six months or more and bestow a unique character on the cider. Some of Little Pomona’s cider is aged in oak wine barrels and some of it ages in the bottle going through the secondary fermentation, and later the riddling and dégorgement of sparkling wine production. James and Susanna have even experimented with ice cider whereby apples are frozen concentrating the sugar. Consequently a higher abv is possible. Ice-cider is dessert wine par excellence. And talking of food….. Cider’s acidity, tannins, sweetness and dryness are the properties to use when matching with a meal. The same properties that grape wine possesses.
To drink such glorious apple wines in a clunky half or pint measure is to demean them and the herculean efforts it takes to coax this pomological expression of nature from a tree to a glass. Bring on the flute, snifter, Teku or chalice and bow down in R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
If you have ever dreamed of becoming an accredited Pommelier that dream may become a reality! The Beer & Cider Academy in London now offers cider training courses. Click here for details.