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How We Make Cider: The Harvest

How We Make Cider: The Harvest

 

Ask any cider maker what their favourite season is and there’s a good chance they’ll answer with autumn. It’s certainly my favourite season by a country mile. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy summer (especially when it’s as warm and sunny as 2018’s was), spring and of course winter isn’t without its charms but autumn is a very special time for cider makers, for with the autumn comes the apple harvest.

Cider makers tend (in most cases) to be more rurally based than their brewing counterparts with many being based in or around the orchards that supply their apples. Cider is a seasonal drink, it gets made just once a year during the apple harvest. As a result of this seasonality cider makers tend to pay great attention to the changing of the seasons, each  brings its own set of jobs both out in the orchard and in the cidery (pruning, bottling, grass cutting etc.)

But autumn is when cider makers spend the most time out in the orchards surrounded by the (hopefully) fruit laden trees, endlessly attempting to estimate the crop, judge the ripeness of the apples, stress about timings and  crawl about on all fours picking up the harvest.

There’s a crucial difference between the harvesting of apples grown for eating and those destined for a higher purpose, namely cider. Apples bound for the market shelves are carefully picked from the tree (often a week or two before they’re fully ripe, especially if they’re to be exported, in an attempt to extend that all important use by date).  They’re placed gently into bins and shipped away for further scrutiny in a processing plant before going into cold storage. Meanwhile, the apples for our cider are generally allowed to fall to the orchard floor before being picked up and taken to the cidery. There’s a few reasons for this difference in approach to the harvest but basically a bruise here and maybe a bird peck there just don’t matter as much to the cider maker as they might to your casual apple muncher. Beyond the aesthetics though the cider makers interests lay beneath the surface of the apple, under the skin lies the flesh which contains all the sugars and flavours that are required to make a great cider. Ripeness is absolutely critical, we can’t stress that enough. Picking apples up off the floor can be hard on the back (not to mention the long suffering knees) but it ensures we’re definitely getting the apples at their ripest, they don’t fall off the trees if they’re not ready (strong winds aside) This hands and knees stage is also the first and arguably most important step in the cider making process, it’s here on the orchard floor that we decide which fruit goes in the mix and which doesn’t.

Often our apples are sweated/tumped (left in a pile) for a week or so prior to milling to allow more time to attain optimum sugar and flavour levels and also to standardise the ripeness of the fruit (there’s always differences from one part of the orchard to the next or even between lower and higher branches on a single tree).

We test the apples in their tump pretty much on a daily basis. We’re looking for any signs of rot (Trying to spot that one bad apple before it starts spreading its influence!), we’re also having a good sniff making sure there’s no sharp acetic notes or anything else untoward wafting about in among the lovely and unique aromas of a load of apples ripening. In addition to sight and smell we also use a third sense, touch, picking a few apples up and giving them a squeeze, when they’re totally ready to go to the mill you should be able to push through the skin with a bit of pressure from your thumb.

Our apple season can be roughly divided in to two halves, early and late. The early apple varieties such as Discovery, Major, Morgan Sweet and Irish Peach start coming in early to mid-September. These varieties rarely keep as well as the later ones so we don’t tend to tump them, instead they just go straight into the mill once we’ve enough to start it up. The later varieties such as Dabinett, James Grieve, Yarlington Mill and Hereford Redstreak tend to start coming in late-October to mid-November. Generally we start pressing the late season fruit around the beginning of December (this year we started a whole month early due to the weirdly mild weather).

This winter we are hoping to do a special late harvest of two varieties, Black Dabinett and Northern Greening, these apples never seem keen to fall off the trees up here in the Highlands giving us the opportunity to wait until they are frozen on the branches. A day or two around minus 10oC should do the trick so we will probably be out picking them in January. We will press them while frozen extracting just the super concentrated sweet juice which we will then ferment into a small amount of ice cider.

Cheers,

Ryan.

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What is Craft Cider?

 

Ever since the term Craft landed on our shores from the US there’s been debate about what exactly the term may or may not mean to us here in the UK.

The US Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as 1) Small, 2) Traditional and 3) Independent. We have no equivalent recognised or accepted definition of craft beer in the UK which allows brands such as Fosters to align themselves with the term for marketing purposes. So there’s obviously something odd with the craft beer situation in the UK but increasingly we’re seeing the term craft applied to cider.

So in this post I’m wondering what this ambiguous and occasionally controversial term means to both cider drinkers and cider makers and what it could mean in the future.

Craft beer anyone?

Now, while we don’t have an official definition of craft in the UK we do appear to have a kind of folk definition where there’s an expectation of higher quality at a higher price. The issue with a folk definition is that it doesn’t stop an opportunistic company from just putting their standard low quality product in a can / bottle with a colourful label, calling it craft and charging a higher price for it. The result then being that the customers’ perception of craft cider would be damaged to the point where craft cider becomes synonymous with overpriced cider. Just as it would if their first foray into craft beer resulted in them purchasing a rebranded, repackaged mass produced low standard beer with a colourful label and the word craft displayed prominently in the text.

 

 

To further confuse the UK cider drinker we have another term to deal with, Real Cider. Real Cider as defined by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) goes as follows.

Ingredients

◦The liquid content before fermentation must consist entirely of non-pasteurized apple.

◦No apple juice concentrates to be used

◦Normally, only the sugar naturally available in the fruit should be used to cause fermentation, but in years when the level of natural sugar in the fruit is low, the addition of extraneous sugar to aid fermentation is acceptable.

Process

◦No pasteurization to take place during the production process.

◦No added colourings to be used.

◦No added flavourings to be used, except pure fruits, vegetables, honey, hops, herbs and spices, yet no concentrates, cordials or essences.

◦There must be no artificial carbonation for draught products.

◦Sweetener may be added to fully fermented Cider/Perry to make it sweet or medium.

◦The addition of water is permitted to bring the alcoholic content of the Cider/Perry down to the level required by the producer. Ideally, however the minimum juice content should not be lower than 90% volume.

◦No micro filtration allowed (this takes all the yeast, leaving a “dead” product).

Now, this is a pretty good definition and it certainly conforms with CAMRA’s dedication to drinking products containing live yeast. Except, is yeast content at all relevant for a product which is typically fermented and then matured for months (or even years) prior to consumption? Real ale is brewed, placed into a cask prior to being delivered to the pub where it will finish it’s fermentation in the cask resulting in a slight level of natural carbonation (conditioning) once this stage is finished the landlord taps the cask and can begin serving the ale through a hand pump or by simply gravity. Since real cider is seasonal and made but once a year, cider could only be served in this exact way for a small portion of the year, probably somewhere between December and February. The trouble with that is twofold, firstly we ideally want cider to be available year round and secondly the cider at this time would be unlikely to be fully matured.

A cider which is fermented to dryness (that is that all the available sugar in the apple juice has been converted to alcohol) or a cider which has stopped fermenting due to a lack of nutrients for the yeast to consume will generally be stored and sold through the year (and frequently beyond) where there really is no requirement or indeed reliable method of preserving the yeast from the original fermentation in a state of health such as is required in a real ale.

Essentially in my view the CAMRA definition falls short because it attempts to make the principles of real ale fit on to cider which is after all a totally different product with much more in common with wine than beer. Although I’d have to admit that low quality industrially produced cider actually has a lot in common with low quality industrially produced beer (So maybe real ale and real cider have ended up together in CAMRA, due more to sharing a common enemy than any meaningful shared process…)

To get a better idea of how the term “Craft Cider” was interpreted I carried out some admittedly limited research on social media. I asked the question “What do you think the term Craft means when applied to a cider?” The first thing that became fairly clear was that there was a big difference in response from cider makers as opposed to cider drinkers. Makers generally dismissed the term as a meaningless marketing term at best, at worst a buzz word for low quality cider with various flavour additives (See HERE for a discussion on low quality low juice content ciders). Meanwhile, cider drinkers tended to generally view the term much more positively, suggesting they’d expect higher quality, more providence, no “chemicals” etc. (See HERE for a rant about ciders so called “ingredients”). So whether makers like it or not, the term Craft Cider certainly means something to the people who drink our cider.

To my mind that makes it the responsibility of cider makers to meet that expectation and even to exceed it, to lead the way to new flavours and tastes for cider drinkers. However, by new flavours I don’t mean flavours added by the addition of fruit juice. The current trend (actually building since about 2008 with roots stretching back well into the 70’s if we look at cider and blackcurrant for example) for ciders with various combinations of fruit juice added to them has been described in the media as both “innovation within the cider category” and also “consumer led”. How a consumer can drive innovation is beyond me, consumer led must surely simply drive the copying of existing products rather than actual innovation. And where there’s copying there’s sure to be price cutting and that gets us squarely on a track back to where the cider industry was in the 90’s, the big brands on a race to the bottom. How long until we start seeing strawberry and lime flavoured cider in plastic 3ltr bottles (this would also likely be classed as innovative)

I could easy be wrong on that though and honestly the whole “fruit cider” thing is basically a separate rant for another day.

It is my opinion that Craft Cider should be defined as that which is made from at least 85% apple juice (not from concentrate) and that all other ingredients used (if any) should be listed on the label. And that’s it, just two simple rules. Now, if a cider conforms to this criteria it doesn’t mean the cider is necessarily any good, it could be awful, it just means simply that it was made from a minimum of 85% apple juice (not from concentrate) and that the ingredients are printed on the label.  Quality and transparency are the perceived hallmarks of craft beer, why not for craft cider too?

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UK Cider ingredients

Why we need compulsory ingredient labelling for cider in the UK

(And why certain brands would need a much bigger label)

 

I’m firmly in the ever increasing camp of cider makers who believe we need to re-visit the UKs legal definition of cider before the industry ends up back were it was 20 years ago (appealing predominantly to underage drinkers and alcohol dependents).

The document in question is known as Notice 162 and it defines for duty purposes what is and what isn’t cider in this country. As it stands this definition allows for a cider made from just 35% reconstituted apple juice concentrate (discussed at length here) to sit quite comfortably beside a cider made from 100% fresh pressed apple juice, both sold under the generic term of cider.

All ciders are not made equal but if both of these hypothetical products sat side by side how would a cider drinker be able to tell the difference on a supermarket shelf? They may both be in very similiar packaging, they may even both be described as Craft or Premium Cider on the label along with various claims to authenticity and tradition. The answer would surely have to be, with great difficulty! After all there is absolutely no obligation to display ingredients on a cider produced for the UK market. If there was the two products could be told apart with relative ease.

  • Cider A Ingredients: Water, Apple Juice (from concentrate).
  • Cider B Ingredients: Apple Juice (not from concentrate)

Now, I’ve assumed both these products are simple, apple based ciders with absolutely the bare minimum of ingredients. More typically on Cider A you might see;

  • Cider A Ingredients. Water, Apple Juice (from concentrate), Glucose, Malic Acid (E296), Caramel (E150d), Carbon Dioxide, Sulphite (E220), Potassium Sorbate (E202).

But do people really look at ingredients when buying a bottle of cider? I Mean most people have a genuine and perfectly legitimate belief that cider is made from apples. They would almost certainly be surprised to learn that cider (as defined by Notice 162 in the UK) can contain anything up 41 permitted ingredients, a list which begins with the mysteriously titled Acesulfame K and ends with the equally arcane Sunset Yellow…

Take a look at Section 26 of Notice 162 if you fancy reading the whole list in it’s original format or I’ve put together a table listing all permitted cider ingredients, I’ve also included a column for their uses since many of them aren’t that obvious from the title alone.

INGREDIENT USE
Acesulfame-K (E950) Artificial sweetener
Acetic acid Acid
Apple aromas (natural only) Apple Aroma
Apple juice (fresh or concentrate) Apple Juice
Apple wine Apple wine
Ascorbic acid and its salts (E300 – E302) Acid
Aspartame (E951) Artificial sweetener
Carbon dioxide Gas
Cider – out of condition Cider – out of condition
Cider vinegar Vinegar
Citric acid and its salts (E330 – E333) Acid
De-alcoholised concentrated cider (Cidrasse) Distillation by product
Dimethyl dicarbonate (Velcorin) (E242) Preservative
Lactic acid and its salts (E270, E325, E326) Acid
Malic acids and its salts (E296, E350a, E351b, E352a) Acid
Neo-hesperidine Artificial sweetener
Nitrogen Gas
Pear aromas (natural only) Pear Aroma
Pear juice (fresh or concentrate) Pear Juice
Pear wine Pear wine
Perry – out of condition Perry – out of condition
Perry vinegar Vinegar
Saccharin (and Na, K, and Ca salts) (E954) Artificial sweetener
Sorbic acid and its salts (E200, E202, E203) * Preservative
Sucralose (E955) Artificial sweetener
Sugars and sugar syrups for example, High fructose corn syrup/high fructose syrup, Fructose Hydrolysed starch/hydrolysed starch syrup, Glucose, Liquid sugars, Sucrose, Sugar Sugar (in various forms)
Sulphur dioxide and its salts (E220 – E224, E226 – E228) Preservative
Salt (Sodium chloride) Salt
Tartaric acid and its salts (E334 – E336) Acid
Water Water
Acid brilliant green BS (E142) Green Colouring
Anthocyanin (E163) Red / Purple Colouring
Caramel (E150a, E150b, E150c, E150d) Brown Colouring
Carmoisine (E122) Red Colouring
Cochineal (E120) Red Colouring
Indigotine (E132) Purple Colouring
Mixed Carotenes (E160a, E160b, E160c, E160d, E160e) Orange Colouring
Ponceau 4R (E124) Red Colouring
Quinoline yellow (E104) Yellow Colouring
Sunset yellow (E110) Yellow Colouring
Tartrazine (E102) Yellow Colouring

 

So, as a starting point I think most people would agree that compulsory full ingredient labelling is a must. Selling a product made from anything up to 41 different ingredients and not letting the consumer know what they are is quite simply unfair. In fact of all these ingredients there is only a legal requirement to display Sulphite as an allergen or if there is any artificial sweetener present.

Wine is defined in the EU legislation as a “product obtained exclusively from the total or partial alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes, whether or not crushed, or of grape must.

We’re some of way off yet but wouldn’t it be nice if cider made in the UK was ALWAYS a “product obtained exclusively from the total or partial alcoholic fermentation of fresh apples, whether or not crushed, or of apple juice”.

If nothing else the list of ingredients wouldn’t take up a sheet of A5 paper…

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How low can you go? Juice limbo with mainstream UK ciders

Britain makes a very good claim at being the home of cider. The history is there (we’ve been making cider on these islands for at least as long as anyone else has on the mainland), the volume is there (we drink more cider per person than any other country in the world!) but there’s something missing and it’s of crucial importance, Quality.

About 90% of the cider sold in the UK is made from just 35% apple juice**. That should be quite surprising to most cider drinkers but due to our current UK Customs & Excise definition of cider (a surprisingly long document known as Notice 162) it all just gets sold as cider, so long as it meets that minimum juice requirement.

This issue with our legislation has been written about and discussed at length by various champions of quality cider. Check out these blog posts by Crafty Nectar and James Beeson for starters.

This post however is about how we ended up with the lowest legal juice content for cider in the world, set at just a measly 35%.

This is going to get quite technical so please bear with me.

As ever with business we start with money. Concentrated apple juice (from here on I’ll just refer to this as concentrate) costs more than fresh apple juice. It costs money to convert juice to concentrate and so it necessarily costs more. But, concentrate has three big advantages for the industrial cider maker; 1) It can be stored indefinitely, 2) It can be shipped from other countries and 3) it can be over diluted with water to create more juice than it started out as. Points 1 and 2 are self explanatory but point 3 is the most relevant for this post.

One litre of juice typically weighs 1050 grams (g), one litre of concentrate typically weighs 1350g, during the concentration process, water is removed from the juice leaving behind the sugar and other non watery stuff (hence it weighs more). But as you remove the water obviously the over all volume is reduced. So for every seven litres of juice you get just one litre of concentrate. Theoretically then, if I add six litres of water to my one litre of concentrate I’d be back where I started with seven litres of juice (reconstituted) each weighing 1050g. But, here’s the loophole, juice is defined in notice 162 as weighing anything over 1035g per litre* so you can probably imagine what our industrious cider maker does when adding water to their concentrate…yep, they add nine litres of water instead of six giving them ten whole litres of juice weighing 1035g/l (legally defined as 100% juice)

So now we’ve got a tank full of this “juice” but if fermented it would only give us a cider with 4.5% alcohol. That would technically be a 100% juice (from concentrate) cider, but would still be a touch too costly for our industrial cider maker to produce.

The solution is to add sugar to the “juice” to allow the yeast to raise the alcohol (Chaptalizing). Sugar is cheaper than juice and if you add 182g of sugar per litre of “juice” you’ll be able to produce a 100% juice (from concentrate) cider with an enormous 14% alcohol! Another benefit to the large scale producer of chaptalizing to this extent is storage space, 50’000 litres of 14% cider once diluted makes 140’000 litres of 5% cider. that means you can get away with just a third of the tank space required by a full juice producer.

Nobody sells 14% cider of course, because our Notice 162 states that cider cannot be stronger that 8.4%, so what is actually done is that our cider maker once again turns on the hose and adds water back to the “cider” to bring the alcohol down to say 5% alcohol (a typical abv for mass produced UK ciders). Diluting the “100% juice, 14% alcohol cider” down to 4.5% abv means they need to add approximately 64 litres of water to every 36 litres of their “100% juice, 14%abv cider”…

And there we have it, a 5% abv cider that legally conforms to UK legislation and will more than likely be sold as a premium / craft / quality cider depending on when they last redesigned their labels or bought a canning line.

The fact of it is that if you thought 35% apple juice was a little slim, then consider this final bit of maths. If we ignore the 1035g/l* definition and return the concentrate back to it’s original density then you’re actually looking at an astonishing 26% juice.

In light of this, who do you think sits around the table and decides what is and what isn’t cider, in other words who has the most influence on Notice 162, the cider maker using fresh juice, selling 100% juice cider or the cider maker using concentrate, selling 35% juice cider?

If you drink cider at all then you deserve better than that. Seek out the real stuff, I know it can be hard to spot when every cider on the shelf looks the same but honestly, read the label, the good cider makers don’t keep their ingredients or processes a secret, in many ways it’s the only tool they have to distinguish their cider from the fake stuff masquerading as cider on our shelves.

Cheers and happy cider hunting!

 

*1035g/l was reportedly set as the minimum weight (or density) of juice to reflect traditional cider makers using early season apples which sometimes have a much lower sugar content than the later season apples. This makes sense, it would be absurd to say that juice pressed from an apple in August wasn’t legally juice but the loophole that it’s created for the industrial producers can’t be ignored.

**These figures are based on direct personal experience within the industry