All roads lead to cider

Helen Anne Smith makes their (long-overdue) Ferment debut

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It would be something of an understatement to say that there is no one size fits all method when it comes to cider-making.

When I first started exploring the world of cider, my assumption was that if you wanted to make cider and perry then you would need to own an orchard, perhaps one you inherited or bought outright. Which is still a pretty wild concept if you’re of my generation, where home ownership is a faraway fantasy.

But in the past three years, I have met producers operating in a wide range of different business models, from those renting orchards to those picking in community orchards, or from neighbours’ gardens. Some folk are even taking the time to grow orchards from scratch or restoring abandoned and long-forgotten ones.

The diversity doesn’t stop at where the fruit comes from either; there are cider makers pressing and fermenting in barns, industrial warehouses, their back gardens, and even in caves. 

Access to the cider industry is like no other. Regularly, I see drinks enthusiasts dive headfirst into the world of cider; it has a way of not just pulling you in with the products, but actually welcoming you into a community. You can attend tastings where the makers themselves will be in attendance and excited to talk to you about their products. There are so many cider makers, big and small, around the UK with whom you can arrange to visit. The willingness to share and connect over this long-misunderstood beverage is still going strong.

There is, however, an accessibility issue to the actual making of cider. Job opportunities at cideries are scarce as the makers themselves are either producing in their spare time alongside full-time jobs, or are just about able to pay themselves if they’re lucky. There are opportunities to work the yearly harvest, however the work can range from full-time for three months, to just a few days here and there depending on the cidery. 

The flip side of all this uncertainty is that there are no real set traditions, or rules about how cider must be made or presented. For those who are both determined and lucky enough to be able to push through these hurdles and pave their own way, the world of cider making can be uniquely rewarding.

Emma, Blue Barrel Cider © Kathryn Edwards

Emma Jordan of Blue Barrel cidery started making cider with her partner Leo while running a community garden in Nottingham. With a small basket press and a bike powered scratter, they pressed more juice than could be given away, so decided to ferment the rest.

“The next year we actively started trying to find apples, conducting an 'Apple I spy' around the city, while also teaming up with our friends' project Abundance (which sourced fruit across the city which would otherwise go to waste). We also did a shout out and found we had a big take up of people wanting us to have their apples.”

Like many makers and enthusiasts, Emma and Leo stumbled across Broome Farm, the home of Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Company, in the early days of their cider enthusiasm. They were welcomed into the Johnson family’s cidery with characteristically open arms, and what started as an impromptu visit resulted in them staying for a few days to help press. This experience inspired them to start selling their own cider.

“We were lucky to get help from the Social Farms and Gardens, who were keen to learn how other community gardens could make use of a resource and become less dependent on funding, so they paid for us to do an apple juice course at Porchester college,” says Emma. “This helped us know what we needed to do to go the next step and start selling the stuff. We then went and gave talks to other community gardens to support them doing the same.”

After ten years of working with wild or donated fruit, community orchards or even connecting with local orchard owners and obtaining apples in exchange for some orchard management, Blue Barrel is now its own entity, with both Emma and Leo making cider full-time. They planted an orchard of their own in a field owned by Leo’s parents back in 2012, which has yielded its first significant crop this year. They also have their own Community Interest Company called Trees are Good, which focuses on tree planting in local communities.

Emma continues: “We will be introducing some new blends, perhaps some dual / single variety ciders in the future. Despite having our own orchard, this won’t stop us scrumping apples, because there’s nothing worse than seeing apples go to waste.”

Wasting apples seems to be a common issue amongst orchardists, especially with larger cider companies seemingly cutting down on their apple usage. Yet there are also small scale cider makers who don’t own orchards and who are looking for apples.

Perhaps apple growers and cider makers could do with their own platform, a way of connecting with each other, sharing what is needed and what is available? A bit like Nextdoor, or Tinder. I’ve been calling this idea my “apple app” although my wife has pointed out that I might be sued for copyright infringement. Social media is a powerful tool, and it would be wonderful to see it used for good on occasion.

James, Chapel Sider

James Finch of Chapel Sider currently makes cider in a mixture of his garden and garage. Like so many, he started out making a little at home with a hobby press and scratter. Then one year, his wife bought him a Dabinett tree for Christmas.

“This coincided with helping press at Ross and them giving me 25 litres of juice to take home,” says James. “So the next year, I bought 200 litres off them. Around the same time my in-laws’ neighbours (who had been renting their paddock for horses) moved, leaving them with an empty acre of land and nothing to do with it. So I asked if I could plant an orchard and they agreed.”

Skip to now, and James’ garage is half filled with tanks and barrels. And although his orchard is too young to produce the desired yields he has ploughed on, pressing a mixture of his own apples, fruit picked from friends and local gardens, and juice from Sampford Courtney and Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Company.

“We have managed to bottle a lot, with a great blend in 500ml bottles as well as several in 750ml,” he says. “Hopefully next year will allow more time to get things off the ground and properly launch with labels and sales. I’m still working full time at the day job and that makes it very challenging, everything is done in spare time. I have thought about going part time, so I have a day a week for the cider business, but it’s not big enough yet to keep me busy every week due to the seasonality of it.”

Of course, James isn’t the only maker producing in their spare time. Barry Masterson of Kertelreiter, a cidery based in Germany, says: “We’ve been losing money on the cider project since we started, so I have not left my regular job, and I doubt I ever will be able to do cider making full time. Maybe by the time I retire.”

Barry is working to restore an old orchard, alongside planting new trees. He bought his first few plants for just 10 Euros, and a couple of years later was able to buy a small orchard of around 30 trees. Despite cider making being a hobby until 2019, his project has continued to grow.

PHOTO: Brennan's Cider

“Production is small. Last year we only made 1500 litres, but we had lost over 90% of our crop to late frosts. This year I guess we’ll do 2000-2500. Although we have enough crop to make a hell of a lot more, we don’t have the space for so many fermenters. Yet.”    

Back in England, the team at Brennan’s Cider over in Merseyside started making their cider in a garage, using apples from locals who have trees in their back garden, in exchange for some cider. They have since moved production into a disused farm building on an army camp and have been selling their cider since 2018.

“We have found that the more people become aware of us and our cider making, the more donors are getting in touch to give us apples they would normally discard,” says Karl Brennan. “We also have access to lots of wild apple trees growing on the camp and along the coast, which we pick with the permission of the landowners, and we travel to Herefordshire annually to collect cider apples from Broome Farm, Ross-on-Wye.”

My hope for the future of cider making is that there will be more formal information out there about these different routes to production. Cider education will become more prominent and the link can be more effectively forged between excess apples and budding makers. I’ve already seen a lot of change in just three years, so who knows, maybe someone will develop my apple app. In the meantime it’s up to cider enthusiasts and advocates to keep sharing these makers' stories, in order for the community to succeed.

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