Not too long ago you’d have been hard pressed to find cider in an urban bar. There might be a bottle at the back of a fridge, it might be available on a single pump if the place was seriously popular with students but, generally speaking, cider was a specialist interest for rural drinkers. Now, it seems, it’s cropping up everywhere.
The interest in craft beer and British food traditions has created an enthusiasm for craft ciders, and, at the same time, a new kind of drink is taking its place in the repertoire of session drinkers. Look along the fridges and the pumps of any “vertical drinking” venue – where punters stand, rather than sit down to drink – and you’ll see a bewildering variety of “premium fruit ciders”. Beautifully packaged brands such as Kopparberg and Rekorderlig occupy the place where, a few years ago, you’d have expected to see a lager or an alcopop.
Leading beer writer Pete Brown turns his attention to cider with his book World’s Best Cider: Taste, Tradition and Terroir from Somerset to Seattle, published this month. Cider is making a long-overdue comeback, says Brown, but he is not entirely keen on “premium fruit” versions.
“In the UK, a drink only needs to contain 35 per cent apple product to be called a cider,” he told me. “The ‘premium fruit ciders’ list ‘fruit juice’ or ‘pear and apple wines’ among their ingredients, along with spring water and flavouring, but they don’t mention the only ingredient that matters: apples. Real cider is nothing but apples.”
The Ethicurean is a restaurant set in a walled garden at the foot of the Mendips – traditional Somerset cider country. It’s run by four friends – Matthew and Iain Pennington, Jack Adair-Bevan and Paûla Zarate – who cook from ingredients grown in the garden. Part of their land, originally the grounds of a great house, is turned over to two orchards, one with a mixture of more than 70 varieties of dessert and cooking apples and the other with Morgan Sweet, a Somerset cider apple.
The friends have also inherited a cider press, built into a traditional Norman-style cider barn, a circular two-storey structure. Two massive crossbeams are pierced by an ancient wrought iron screw device that brings pressure to bear on a great log slab beneath.
Like so many traditional farm preservation methods, cider-making involves the whole family at harvest time. In past years, Jack’s father Phil, a wiry 58-year-old, has directed operations in concert with Paûla’s mother Elena, but operating the press and humping plastic barrels of juice is heavy work. So this year the family is passing on the technique to Mike, a tall, saturnine individual, retired early from a career in particle physics, and Andrew, his mischievous sidekick of carefully obscured background. (Cider people tend to be colourful.)
The pickers bring in the apples in carefully labelled plastic buckets. A pressure washer removes dirt and bugs before Andrew pours the fruit into a “scratter”, a stainless steel version of a garden shredder, which roughly slashes the apples into a lumpy pulp. Phil spreads six buckets of pulp on a layer of coarse cloth on the press base and folds it to create an envelope about a metre square. He places a thin wooden frame around the envelope, lays a slatted top over it then spreads another sheet for the next layer.
Even with everyone working it takes about an hour to build six layers. By now, the weight of pulp is causing the juice to run – a kind of extra-virgin apple juice – and we taste it. With so many varieties of apple just outside the barn it’s a simple matter to adjust the mix in the last layer to make it more tart, more sweet or to introduce other flavour variations.
Mike now ducks up a twisted little staircase and uses a crank handle to lower the top of the press on to the stack of wrapped pulp. Phil produces the “key”: a 1.5m crowbar with which we manually crank down the last few turns of the screw, extracting the final drops.
In beer production the brewer must create a complex soup of ingredients before adding carefully selected yeasts. He then has to manage the long process of conditioning and ageing in the barrel. Cider-making is more gratifyingly natural. Once the juice has been strained into a plastic tank, an airlock is installed and the whole thing is stored in the barn over winter – that’s it.
The natural yeasts on the apple’s skin and stalk ferment the sugar in the juice into alcohol. Storing over the winter holds back fermentation to a nice slow pace. Some natural yeasts are slow, some fast-acting, but at low temperatures they all average out to a gentle bubble. Juice extracted today will have reliably fermented into excellent cider by January or February next year, when it can be bottled and drunk.
This is “dry” cider, the traditional drink of the English countryside. “Sweet” ciders use the same juices but are bottled earlier so the gas products of fermentation are trapped and the drink becomes effervescent. Sweet cider is more complicated to produce reliably at this small scale and requires a greater investment in glass and packaging equipment.
Fuelled as we work by fresh apple juice, the task is pleasantly slow and easy. Apart from the occasional barrel-humping, which the largest of us are required to manage, the tasks are spread between family and friends. There’s a convivial chatter throughout and it’s good to imagine that this reproduces the experience of farming families through history, quietly turning the year’s apple crop into next year’s supply of drink.
Perhaps it’s the way the process has evolved through millennia, but it seems a remarkably “right-sized” operation: difficult to imagine scaling either up or down without ruining its efficiency. Beer improves with the consistency of small-scale industrial production, but cider is best handcrafted in small batches. UK law still permits more cider than beer to be made before attracting excise duty, due to the fact that, once, very little of it ever left the farm where it was made.
Cider is a part of British food history we can truly be proud of. It is distinctive, reflecting its region and its makers. As our national interest in cider reawakens, let’s hope more of us will make the effort to seek out the real thing, entirely natural and wholly delicious.
‘The Ethicurean Cookbook’ is published by Ebury Press