A life of lees

Big things are happening at the intersection between beer, cider and the quasi-mysticism of natural wine, writes Katie Taylor


Any parcel of land that hasn’t been completely blitzed by pesticides or heavy machinery hosts an invisible world of microorganisms living together in harmony – or at least, as harmoniously as creepy crawlies and single-celled blobs can live. Some of them eat each other. Some of them flourish in each other’s company. This is how traditional ciders begin their lives, and what natural wines base their entire celestial spheres on; a low-interference collaboration between nature and agriculture, so that this beautifully simple juice can eventually shine, showcasing much more than the sum of its parts.

Modern tastes for the different and the brave have moved natural wines from an interesting oddity on UK wine lists to something more of us are purposefully seeking out. Natural wine can seem impossibly fashionable and intimidating, but there has, believe it or not, always been an undercurrent of natural provenance and organic farming methods in one of our oldest and most overlooked British drinks. So let’s talk about cider.

The wholesome and rustic idea of celebrating variation and locality rather than stifling it has always been a part of cider production. Cider – proper, indigenous, pressed-on-site, farmyard-scented cider – is simply apple juice left to ferment. At this point its natural yeasts – or “lees” – determine the cider’s own individual characteristics, based on the immediate land surrounding it. It’s here where similarities between cider and natural wine start to blend together. Some experimental brewers have noticed the unseen potential of cider through the prism of wine, and are using it to create brand new hybrids nobody can seem to slap a name on. This is where beer fits into the picture.

Cider lees and wild beers

Little Earth Project’s Tom Norton has been brewing sour, mixed-fermentation and farmhouse beers since 2015, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he’s using cider to create the beer of his dreams.

“We always thought cider-making was a natural process, and beer seemed mechanical; more like manufacturing. We wanted to use a more agricultural method for beer making,” he says. “When I was little, we lived in the middle of nowhere and my parents started making cider. East Anglian cider is a lot different to West Country cider; it’s not the best place to grow apples, so traditionally we use a combination of eating and cooking varieties. This makes a dry, sharp cider with a quite a bit of acidity. Knowing how these local apples ferment from years of making cider, I wanted to start using the lees to make our beers. I saw that as my way of creating something a bit different.”

Tom’s beers have deep, complex characters that are only possible through using his cider lees, and that’s what’s important about the beer he’s brewing – it is unique to his own patch of Suffolk. “We press cider made from apples grown in our own orchard, and then we leave it to ferment naturally. We try to take the yeast from our best cider, so we get the best flavour.”

On top of that, Little Earth Project grows its own barley and hops. Everything Tom brews is subject to the moving seasonality that comes with relying on your own produce year in, year out. “I suppose it’s like wine in that way,” he concedes.

Another breakthrough project that crosses the realms of cider and beer and looks towards the mysterious world of natural wine is Serpent, a beer-cider hybrid from the imaginations of Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn Brewery) and Thornbridge. A Belgian-style beer, spontaneously fermented on cider lees from the Oliver’s Cider orchard, it has the unmistakable character of dry cider, and a strong claim to being the first commercially-brewed beer of its kind.

“Of all the beers I’ve ever made, this is my favourite,” said Garrett, as he explained his rationale behind such a risky operation. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever brewed.” But where did the idea come from?

“Ten years ago, Abe Schoener from Red Hook Winery gave me a bucket of lees from a vineyard in Long Island. They told me the lees were magical – I said, ‘okay!’. We put them in with our Belgian style golden ale and we loved it. That was the start of our interest in using lees.”

For Garrett, cider was the logical next step from natural wine. “We wanted to create a lot more beer in this style, and cider lees are far more plentiful, especially in England where we had devised this project with Thornbridge. They suggested we work with Tom Oliver from Oliver’s Cider – the best in the business – and that’s what we did. To begin with, they weren’t convinced we’d sell it all, because it was so different. Over time, as the beer aged, people were ready for it. It’s like saisons; a few years ago there were none, and suddenly now they’re everywhere.”

Rob Lovatt, head brewer at Thornbridge, explained why the two breweries decided to work together on Serpent. “We’ve been friends with Garrett for a long time, and it came around that he wanted to do something different with us, with as much input on both sides as possible. Sometimes collabs can become a bit of a marketing exercise, but we were all keen for this to be a real combined effort. It was really important to us to make something remarkable.”

Did it go to plan? “You never really know exactly which direction a brew with wild yeasts in is going to go, but we had a good idea based on the flavour of the cider, and we are really pleased with the result.”

Acclaimed cider maker Tom Oliver’s cider lees have been busy little microorganisms. As well as lending themselves to the Serpent project, they also bring their unique characteristics to some of Mills Brewing’s beers, allowing cider attitude to bloom inside its own original takes on farmhouse brewing.

“We decided to brew a turbid wort in the style of a traditional Lambic, and ferment the wort and apple juice together in Tom’s barrels with his cider lees from the previous barrel contents,” explained Jonny Mills, who makes up one half of the Mills team. “We had no expectations really, we were just interested to see what came of it. The resulting drink did end up sitting neatly between the flavours of Tom’s ciders and a Lambic. It was particularly interesting to see the changes in bottle over the last two to three years; they seem to swing back and forth between more cider and more Lambic flavours.”

The “T” Word

The term “terroir” begins to creep into conversations when you start discussing yeast and fermentation in the way Tom, Rob and Garrett do. If you’re a fan of the way wild yeast operates it’s impossible to avoid the sorts of lingo that wine drinkers are fond of and beer drinkers tend to shy away from. While it sounds technical, it’s actually a beautiful word that succinctly describes how the unique attributes of a specific place delicately affect the flavour and character of what you’re drinking – like Tom’s Suffolk-tasting beers.

“Every area you are in has its own specific environments and different microflora and microclimate. In wine, that’s terroir.” – Garrett Oliver.

While in wine this can include anything from the drainage and position of land in relation to the sun to the types of soil the vines sit on, in cider this almost always points more directly to the types of yeasts found naturally in the apples they use. (And in a way, drainage and sunlight will affect the growth of yeast anyway. But that’s another story.) Seasoned pommeliers can appreciate these artful distinctions. Brewers like Tom Norton can tell the difference between cider made with his apples at Little Earth Project and cider made with apples from just 20 miles away. He can say, with absolute authority, that there is nothing out there in the world that tastes like cider or beer brewed with his lees. There’s something really special about that.

The future of hybrids

In creating its Foxwhelp cider-beer hybrid, which is now on its third release, Mills is pushing where cider ends and beer begins. They use older hops for this beer; Jonny explains this is because hops lose a lot of their bitterness over time while retaining their preservative qualities, which is needed to control bacterial growth, acidity and act as an anti-oxidant. This shows that along with choices about flavour and effective brewing processes, there are specific decisions being made to rein-in those beer-like qualities and encourage cider flourishes.

“Being able to work with the flavours we can’t obtain with brewing ingredients and processes such as tannins, apple-derived acids, aromatics and fermentation flavours, and combining them with what we work with as brewers – bitterness, dextrins, malt and hop aromatics – is what inspires us,” says Jonny. “I’m really excited to see what people make of our red/dabinett release later in the year. It will balance malt richness with big apple tannins, which will make a great balanced structure in the beer/cider.”

It’s interesting that the brewers at the forefront of this trend are still unsure as to what they should class their cider-beer-lees-barrel projects as. Beer-cider hybrids are still new, commercially speaking, and there’s a lot to decide – not least what they should be called. With sour beers developing an even wider fanbase, it makes sense that drinkers will continue to seek out something a little different. Cider-beer really suits those who prefer the complex, funky, bretty tones of a farmhouse beer, but there could be a whole other demographic of drinkers tempted by brews whose roots sit firmly in the yeast-rich orchards of England’s finest scrumpy producers.

“We get a lot of cider drinkers enjoying our hybrids who don’t generally drink beer,” said Tom from Little Earth Project. “It’s definitely becoming a more popular style – it’s a complex drink and we hope more people will want to try it.”

Garrett agrees. “If you look at the US, you’re looking at the future, even if you gave us the idea first. Sour and experimental beers are really popular there so it’s clear that people are getting more interested in styles like these. I’d certainly work on a project like Serpent again, and in fact I’m working on a project with wine lees right now.”

“When people try our cider-beer hybrids, one side is the interest in this style as they are a new source of interesting flavours in the world of craft beer/cider,” said Jonnny from Mills Brewing. “But our aim was never novelty, just some new routes to produce a great drink.”

At the end of the day though, are drinkers ready for cider-beer? Do people really “get” what it is? “It’s good to surprise people,” said Rob. “I’m glad we can still do that with beer.”

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