Chris J Rouse
CAMRA prizes Real Cider and Perry, as well as Real Ale – but beer and cider are very different drinks, and are made in very different ways, while the brewing of beer, even at a small scale, is an industrial and often energy-intensive process, involving much heating and boiling of bulk liquids. Cidermaking, by contrast, is a gentler and more time-consuming affair, having in many ways more in common with the making of wine than with the making of beer.
The first skill of the cidermaker is the selection of raw materials. Classically, cider in western Britain (roughly speaking, an arc stretching from south and mid Wales, through the “three counties” of Herefordshire Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, to Somerset Devon and Cornwall, with outliers in Wiltshire and Dorset) has been made from apple varieties whose only purpose is to make cider.
In other parts of Britain, notably East Anglia and south-east England, culinary and dessert fruit has been used.
Traditionally, a blend of varieties – each bringing its own balance of fruit, acidity, and tannin (an essential element in ciders of the Western style) – was used, but in recent years “single variety” ciders – made from the juice of just one apple variety – have grown in popularity.
Once you have your apples, you need to extract their juice. First, the fruit is “milled” or crushed to form a pulpy mass. In days of old (and still very occasionally today), this was done by horse or donkey power in a circular stone trough. Most often today, however, such equipment survives only as a non-operational adornment to public buildings in the cider-making counties.
At craft and small-scale commercial level, nowadays milling is generally carried out in a mechanical “scratter” – an assemblage of rotating blades mounted within a hopper.
The scratter (or other milling process) produces apple pulp known as “pomace”. This is then pressed using either a traditional screw press (below right), or a more modern hydraulic press (below left), to release the juice. The photograph opposite shows a press being used to extract juice from a mass of pomace which has been skilfully built up in layers known as a “cheese”.
In other parts of Britain, traditions have differed – for example, pressing through layers of straw is still practised in Somerset and Devon.
In each case, the objective is to get the maximum possible amount of juice out of the pomace.
Modern technology has produced “all in one” machines that combine the milling and pressing processes, thus freeing the cidermaker to concentrate on the arguably more crucial functions of fruit selection and blending. While such equipment undeniably lacks the charm and romance of the old days, it works well, is in regular use by some of Britain’s finest cidermakers, and is fully accepted as part of today’s real cider scene.
The apple juice that first trickles, then floods out of the press is sweet and non-alcoholic. Before it can be called cider, it needs to ferment. Fermentation is a lengthy and gentle process, taking place in vessels kept in unheated barns or sometimes outdoors.
The process of fermentation, turning sugars into alcohol, requires the presence of the micro-organisms known as yeast. Several different strains of yeast are suitable for cider making. This is naturally present in the apples and in the cider house, and many cidermakers still allow this naturally occurring yeast to do its thing. Some, however, especially those in a larger way of business, prefer to kill off the naturally occurring yeast and add a dose of cultured yeast for more reproducible results.
Once fermentation is completed the sweet sugars have been converted into alcohol leaving a naturally dry product. Cider can then be sweetened by using unfermented apple juice or artificial sweeteners. (There are also techniques for arresting fermentation so as to produce a naturally sweeter product). Finally, the cidermaker may decide to blend the product of different fermentations together, either for consistency or simply to produce an interesting balance of flavours.
Whether blended or “straight”, whether served on draught or naturally conditioned in bottle (with no extraneous gas!), the product that results draws on generations of farming, fruit-growing, and cider-making experience. It awaits your respectful enjoyment.