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The Great Cider Debate: An Innovative Tasting

As the Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler said: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” These wise words will ring true amongst today’s pioneering cidermakers, who are usingage-old traditions and heritage apple varieties to ignite an explosion of new flavours. Several of these great-tasting ciders were sampled in January at the Great Cider Debate: An Innovative Tasting. Rachel Anderson reports.

Although the Christmas and New Year celebrations had finished, there was still a festive atmosphere at the Great Cider Debate: An Innovative Tasting, held in the University of Oxford’s St Edmund Hallon 2 January. Timed to coincide with the start of the Oxford Farming Conference, a Christmas tree defiantly twinkled in the college courtyard.

The debate, hosted by BBC Farming Today’s Anna Hill, was organised by Innovative Farmers, a not-for-profit network with free membership that brings farmers, growers and researchers together to learn about and take part in farm-based trials called Field Labs. The light-hearted event, now in its third year, with previous events focusing on beer and cheese, aimedto bring all cider producers together to network and talk about the benefits of farmer-led research. Members of the 230-strong audience sat at long tables laden with cheese boards and a range of craft ciders. They were invited to sample the ciders, provided by each of three panellists – Barny Butterfield of Sandford Orchards, Albert Johnson of Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Company, and Henry Chevallier Guild of Suffolk’s Aspalls Cider.

The range of samples included:

  • Sandford Orchards’ Saint Louis Dry Hopped Devon Cider which, thanks to a collaboration between Sandford Orchards and USA craft beer-maker Dan Kopman, is infused with Ella and Willamette hops.
  • Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Company’s 2016 Raison d’Être, made in oak whisky barrels,
  • Aspall’s Organic Cyder

Westons Wyld Wood Organic Cider (medium dry sparkling) was also sampled, but the representative from Westons was unable to attend the event.

Made using UK heritage apple varieties, each of the four unique-tasting ciders were popular amongst the audience, who listened to the panel members discuss their passion for perfecting their cidermaking and apple-growing techniques. Declaring that cider has always been English ‘wine’, Henry Chevallier Guild said: “I genuinely believe that we grow the best apples in the world. And that’s what it’s all about – revealing the best of the apple in a drink in a fermented form.” He noted that his ‘organic cyder’ is “a reflection of the style of cider that we have been making for many years.” He added that he uses a combination of various fruits and ferments all his ciders in champagne yeast, “which sounds very exotic, but isn’t.”

Henry also explained that the “thousands of different and wonderful apple varieties” that are used to make cider fall into three categories. “They are sweet [dessert], they are sour [culinary] that you cook with, or they are astringent [bittersweet]. Add those three types with any number of apples and you get a consistent flavour.”

Albert Johnson from Ross on Wye Cider and Perry Company noted that his Raison d’Être Cider was made from two classic bittersweet apple varieties – Dabinett and Michelin. “We have found that these two apples on their own make a really beautiful cider.” Anna Hill observed that the Raison d’Être cider bottle features a charming map of Albert’s farm and the orchard where the cider came from.

Albert shed some light on his reasoning behind this label when he spoke to The Fruit Growerafter the conference. He said that a membership survey carried out by the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association showed that he and his fellow cidermakers are optimistic about the cider market. This is because consumers are increasingly looking for drinks with provenance, accountability and transparency. He said: “Those three ideas are at the very heart of the cider we make, and the cider made by a lot of other great producers in the UK. As a great example of that, in September I released the Raison D’Être Cider. It was the first time we had priced a cider at £10. Before that, our most expensive 75cl bottle was £6.50, but we put effort into telling the story behind the cider and obviously improving the branding. It has been a big success, so we are following it up with C1 First Press (a single variety cider made from Foxwhelp apples)andwe will see how that does.”

Sandford Orchard’s Barny Butterfield and Albert Johnson revealed that some of their techniques areinspired by old traditions. Barny said: “Innovation is about being open to possibilities that we may have dismissed before. I find that most of my ideas are stolen from 100 years ago. For example, we have done a trial where we’ve looked at something called on-leaf fermentation, an entirely new form of cidermaking that has never been done before. I got the on-leaf fermentation idea from a book that was written [by Georges Warcollier] in the early 1900s and although it didn’t do what the author wanted, I thought it could work for what we wanted to do, and it’s been really successful.” The on-leaf fermentation trials have seen Barny place fresh apple leaves into the fermenting apple juice to enhance the flavour.

Albert, meanwhile, has introduced sheep into his orchards after initially bringing them onto his farm as part of an Innovative Farmers project. Anna said: “Sheep under orchard trees. It’s something a child might draw in a picture from a long-lost era. This is not new, is it?”Helping the audience to further visualise the image of sheep amongst the trees, Albert explained that about five years ago the business, home to 20ha of commercial orchards, 100 apple varieties and 40 pear varieties, made the decision to move away from using pesticides and adopt a more sustainable approach. “We wanted to make cider in the friendliest environment possible. So, one way we decided to make up for the expected yield reduction of apples was to turn our business into two different parts, and the second part is farming sheep.”

Albert started with a flock of 40 ewes in one of his bush orchards. “The outcome from the trial was very positive, and since then, we have gone to 100 ewes that are rotated around the farm’s orchards every few weeks. They are really good for the trees because they mow the grass, so we don’t ever have to go through our orchards with tractors. They eat the leaves on the low-hanging branches, which is good for the airflow, so the trees have fewer fungal diseases and they fertilise the orchard as they go.”

Albert noted that Shropshire sheep are used because “they tend to not eat bark.” However, he did admit that, because they climb up the trees looking for more leaves, they tend to damage the tree guards. As the farm, like most, has rabbits, the trees are susceptible to being ringbarked if they don’t go into the orchard and re-attach the guards. “So that’s something we have to keep on top of,” he said.

Speaking to The Fruit Growerafter the conference, Albert said that he hasn’t noticed any negative impact on yields from having sheep grazing in the orchards. “As our trees are not heavily managed, they are largely biennial, so it means that this season a nine-acre orchard that didn’t have any apples wasn’t ‘dead land’. Instead, we had the sheep in there during the harvest season.”

Albert also admitted that: “It’s [getting] harder and harder to make money growing apples; the price has not risen in many years and, in fact, traditional bittersweets are becoming less desirable because the large-scale industrial cider producers are making their cider using recipes that don’t involve tannins – the key aspect of traditional English bittersweet varieties.” Clearly, producing craft cider and preserving our heritage cider apples varieties are not without their challenges. However, introducing innovative techniques inspired by their ancestors is helping innovative cider producers to boost their businesses. And, as The Great Cider Debate proved, there is a thirst amongst consumers for good-quality, sensitively-made ciders.