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Big Decisions and New Opportunities for 2020

Making cider in the highlands comes with its own unique set of challenges and I think for the most part we’ve managed to turn them to our advantage and put out some really interesting ciders over the last few years. However, this season has presented us with the biggest obstacle yet. The overnight temperatures in the big orchards at Tore and Kiltarlity (which grow the bulk of the apples we use for cider making) dropped below zero on the 7th, 12th and  29th of May effectively wiping out this years apple crop. Only a handful of our late blossoming cider varieties and our reliable old Katy have managed to produce any apples.

So when that happens as a cider maker you’re left with just two options, take a year off or source fruit from elsewhere. So after much deliberation and general head scratching we’ve decided to do both. We won’t be producing any of our core range (North Shore, Strange Bru and Local Rocket) this year as the use of our locally grown fruit is so vital to not just the flavour but also the integrity of these purely Highland ciders.

But the good news is that we’ve also decided that we much prefer making cider to not making cider so to that end we’re very excited to say that we’ll be collaborating with Ross Mangles, a third generation Somerset orchardist who will be sending up a whole load of unsprayed, classic bittersweet cider apples from his orchard in Haselbury Plucknett for us to press into juice and transform into cider. The plan is to blend these Somerset grown apples with what we have of our own Highland grown varieties this year to create a small range of new ciders for 2020. Our production practices will remain completely unchanged, all wild fermented in whisky casks, a proportion of the juice being keeved and the rest allowed to ferment dry with these casks then being blended to produce ciders naturally ranging from dry to sweet.

We are obviously hoping for more favourable weather next May which will allow us to get back to making our core local range but in the meantime we’re really looking forward to experimenting with the Somerset fruit and we’ve got some great varieties to play with. A fascinating fusion of old and new cider terroir.

At the moment we’re tentatively referring to the cider as “North and South” and we’ll hopefully end up with something that reflects its roots in both the orchards of Somerset and the cold whisky casks of the Highlands.

So if you’re a fan of our current ciders hopefully you’ll enjoy next years too and with a wee bit of luck we’ll see North Shore returning again for 2021.



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How We Make Cider: Part three, Fermentation

Once you’ve got the juice from the apples then next thing to do is ferment it into cider. Fermentation is quite simply the conversion of sugar into alcohol by yeast.

Sugar (with yeast) = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide

This step is probably the most widely discussed stage in cider making and as always there are many ways of going about it.

So before we get to talking about yeast there’s a step we do for some of our cider that sits in between pressing and fermentation and it’s called keeving. So if you remember in the post on pressing (here) I mentioned that during maceration we’re aiming to get the pectin from the cell walls into the juice. The reason for this is that pectin tends in the right conditions to form a gel (kind of like jam) and as the fermentation starts the tiny carbon dioxide bubbles formed (see above) get trapped in that gel which makes it float to the top of the juice. This floating gel does a couple of handy things for us, it helps clear the juice and it also traps nutrients that the yeasts use to grow. Then we pump the clearer juice from under the gel into another barrel ready to ferment into cider. We want to remove a portion of the nutrients so that the yeasts don’t consume all the sugar in the juice, leaving us with a naturally sweeter cider.

Lots of cider makers, similar to brewers or wine makers will add a specific strain of yeast to carry out their fermentation. The idea here is to get consistency from batch to batch, consistency of both flavour and fermentation time (some large scale cider makers complete the whole fermentation in just 7 days, we’re considerably slower than that). Many excellent ciders are made using commercial yeasts but we choose to do It a slightly different way. We don’t add any yeast, instead we rely on the natural yeasts which are already present on the apples in the orchards. We do this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we believe the depth of flavour and complexity achieved from a “wild” or natural fermentation to be greater. Secondly, commercial yeast strains have specific temperatures that they like to work in and out with these parameters they tend to get stressed and create off flavours. We don’t have any form of temperature control in the cider shed so we ferment entirely at ambient temperature, which for us up in the Highlands tends to be much lower than commercial yeast can handle. It’s not uncommon for our juice to freeze several times during its fermentation with temperatures rarely exceeding 5 or 6 degrees, to attempt to use a commercial yeast strain in these conditions would be folly. Plus, on a slightly more philosophical level, we’re trying to make a purely Highland cider and to truly do that I think you need to not only be using local fruit, but also local yeasts at local temperatures. It would be needlessly difficult, not to mention expensive for us to make a cider like Strongbow or Thatchers Gold for example.

Another fermentation choice is what sort of container you’re going to use. There’s lots of options ranging from earthenware amphora or glass to plastic or stainless steel. For us the option that makes most sense is oak in the form of ex whisky casks (we are in the Highlands after all so for us they are both local and plentiful). Fermenting and maturing in oak barrels is about as traditional as it gets when it comes to cider making but it’s not without its drawbacks, the main one being they can be a real pain to clean and also the cider within is constantly changing. On the plus side the barrels themselves can impart some flavour and they’re also a great place for those wild yeasts to hang out from season to season with each cask eventually building up its own “personality”.

Due to these fermentation choices (in our case; keeving, wild yeasts, low temperatures and ex whisky casks) it takes a long time to turn our juice into cider, about 5 months in fact! But for me I don’t think we could do it any other way and honestly say we were making a cider that truly reflects our local environment, our terroir if you like.



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Fruit Cider: Cost, Compromise & Craft

The rise of the fruit cider category over the last 10 years or so has been both dramatic and divisive in the cider community, on the one side you have the purists and traditionalists who believe cider should only contain apples while on the other you have lots of cider newcomers who are enjoying the variety of flavours on offer. Personally I’d describe myself as a fruit cider sceptic, I’m not against the concept but I have concerns about the practices at work, hopefully this post will help explain those concerns.

According to the latest cider report from Westons (available here) 40% of all cider sold in the UK is now fruit cider.

Now, another way of looking at that statistic is that 40% of cider sold in the UK is now actually not cider at all. The reason why it isn’t cider is that the only fruits legally permitted to be made into cider are apples* in much the same way that the only meat permitted to be in a beef lasagne is beef (as opposed to horse). 

So if fruit cider isn’t cider then what is it? Well on the surface that’s a fairly easy question to answer, it’s Made-Wine, and made wine is defined for us in HMRC Notice 163 as follows;

Made-wine’ means “liquor which is of a strength exceeding 1.2% and which is obtained from the alcoholic fermentation of any substance or by mixing a liquor so obtained or derived from a liquor so obtained with any other liquor or substance but does not include wine, beer, black beer, spirits or cider”

So it’s pretty much a catch all term for everything that you could possibly make that isn’t wine, beer, cider or a spirit.

A very good question to ask might be; how come a made wine can be sold and marketed as cider if it isn’t actually cider? Well, the thing is, is it? If you read the labels of most of these products they describe themselves as cider with *insert fruit here* rather than specifically fruit cider.

Kopparberg for example state on their front label Premium Cider with Mixed Fruits. So is it just that we’re calling it fruit cider instead of cider with other fruits added then? Is it just a misnomer? Well, yes and no. If I have a glass of cider and add a dash of blackcurrant then most would agree that what I’ve now got is a glass of cider and blackcurrant. What if I had a glass of blackcurrant and I put in a dash of cider, it could still be described as cider and blackcurrant which would of course still be true. But what if I had a glass of water and added a dash of cider, a dash of blackcurrant and a tablespoon of sugar, would it still be a glass of cider and blackcurrant?

In a previous post (read it here) I wrote about how shamefully low the actual apple content can be in some UK ciders, and as low as that paltry 35% minimum may seem there is no minimum amount for a made wine (It’s not a cider remember so to specify a legal minimum apple content would make no sense for a made wine). So if I made a drink that failed to legally qualify as cider due to its low apple content, for arguments sake let’s say it’s got just 15% apple content and I put in some blackcurrant and raspberry concentrate, let’s say 1% as you don’t need much to go a long way. I could then market that product as Cider with Blackcurrant & Raspberry, or probably Premium Cider with mixed fruits or something (because hey why not?) even though 84% of what’s in the glass is neither cider nor mixed fruits.

As poorly regulated as cider is in the UK, the regulations around made wine are by necessity of the breadth of its definition even looser. I was once approached by a sales rep from a Swedish company who offered a range of fruit concentrates and flavourings in various combinations, during the pitch he also pointed out that if desired his company can even provide the ethanol for your fruit cider meaning you just have to add water and bubbles before bottling.

So in general my issue with “Fruit Cider” lies with both the fruit (Frequently this is just cheaply sourced concentrate and flavourings) and the cider element (which can be made from any minuscule quantity of apple juice).

Now, it would be ludicrous for me to just say that all cider & fruit/adjunct combinations are low quality, of course there are legitimate examples out there but they are comparatively rare due to the exploitation and saturation of the category by the lower quality options, and are by necessity more expensive. The duty rates, after all, are heavily stacked in favour of a higher water content product.

A 100% juice cider at 7.4% alcohol is taxed at 50.7p/litre.

This rate rises to £2.97/litre if I were to add a handful of elderflowers to it, that’s an increase in taxation of nearly 487%. A cider that was £4.50 a bottle in a pub would become something like £7.50. The reason for this duty hike is due to cider having a list of permitted ingredients, anything added which is not on that list causes the cider to become classified as a made wine  (to see what IS on that list have a read of this previous post)

However if I add some water at the same time as my elderflowers, almost doubling the volume in fact, that would bring my alcohol content down to 4%** and would then mean my made wine / fruit cider only incurred taxation of 91.7p/litre. This water addition would lower my juice content by 46% meaning the consumer is getting almost half a pint of water in every pint of fruit cider! Now that is assuming we started off with a 100% juice cider at 7.4% alcohol but as shown in the previous post on juice content it’s unlikely the bigger producers are starting with anything like that much apple content. There’s an interesting loophole however which has been seized on by a couple of cider companies that simply provide the bar with a range of syrups to add to the glass before filling thus paying the lower cider duty rate.

Taxing cider on it’s alcohol content isn’t a great idea from a quality perspective. If a brewer wants to make a 4% beer then they simply put the appropriate quantity of malt into the mash which results in a starting sugar content which will dictate the final alcohol content. Cider, however is NOT beer and it’s NOT brewed. Apple juice contains naturally occurring sugars which dictate the final alcohol content in the cider, there are only 2 ways of adjusting that sugar level, to lower it add water or to increase it add sugar. This difference between beer and cider is crucial because it’s as if a brewer has made a beer at 8% then just added water to make it 4% rather than making a 4% beer in the first place, the diluted beer would be inferior in every instance, likewise our brewer may have made a 4% beer then added sugar to make it ferment to 8%, again the beer would be inferior to one originally made to achieve 8% as beer isn’t simply fermented sugar, it is fermented malt as cider is fermented apple juice not just sugar. The duty system in the UK is at best a confused mess, that’s a whole other rant for another day though.

This might be a controversial statement but I strongly suspect that most “fruit cider” sold at 4% alcohol is only 4% for one reason, cost. There’s not much craft about making a product to cost and compromising on the quality. There is after all the option to just not make it rather than compromise and make something  that isn’t all it could be.

It’s clear that there is a demand for ciders with added fruits / adjuncts, unfortunately for the drinkers it’s near impossible under the current set of rules that they will be offered something that is as good as it could possibly be. Two products however that stand out for me are Tom Oliver’s At The Hop range and Turners Elderflower, both coming in at 5.5% abv the makers have made the decision to not add more water to hit the 4% mark and have taken the hit on the extra duty this alcohol incurs, that takes a degree of integrity as a cider maker and in my view should be recognised and celebrated.

So is it possible to make a genuine real “fruit cider” that isn’t overly expensive? Yes, go with the producers you trust who have the integrity to put quality before cost and list their ingredients fully.

Good luck seeking them out.


*Or pears (up to 25% of the total weight)

**Virtually all “Fruit Ciders” regardless of production scale / quality of ingredients are diluted to 4% abv e.g. Strongbow Dark Fruits, Kopparberg, Rekorderlig, Old Mout, Brothers Rhubarb & Custard, Tutts Clump Strawberry, Crafty Nectar No.8 Rhubarb, Lilly’s etc…

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How We Make Cider: Part two, The Pressing

How We Make Cider: The Pressing

Pressing an apple to release the juice held within may seem pretty straight forward, and to an extent it is, but as with everything else in cider making it’s the finer details that can make all the difference.

The first thing to consider is when to press? The apples should ideally be perfectly ripe, we judge this using a couple of simple techniques. The first thing we tend to check is the firmness of the fruit, we’re looking for it to give way under pressure from the thumb, if it’s hard like a potato then it’s not ready, if it gives like a baked potato then that’s a good indicator it’s nearly ready. Another good test is to cut the apple in half so you can see the pips, they start off white in very under ripe apples then turn brown and gradually darken to almost black in a ripe specimen. The colour of the seeds not only gives us a good indication of ripeness but also lets us judge how long it’ll be before they’re ready.

So let’s assume we’ve got our heap of apples, they’ve been harvested and tumped (see previous post) and are now perfectly ripe and ready to press. The next step is to smash ‘em up. For this we use a mill, ours is kind of like a big funnel that feeds on to a set of spinning blades. There are countless mill designs in use around the world and they all do much the same thing, they chop, crush or shred your apples into a mushy pulp. If you’re on a tight budget you can achieve just the same effect using a bucket and a heavy stick, very satisfying! Now, at this point some cider makers will put the pulp straight into their press and start extracting the juice, nothing at all wrong with that but some, us included, do it a slightly different way. We pack the pulp into barrels, seal them up and leave them for a day or two (sometimes up to 5 days if it’s very cold outside). This is called maceration and basically there’s a couple of things happening to the packed in pulp during this step. Firstly the pulp takes on a stronger colour and aroma from the contact time with the skins and secondly extra pectin is drawn into the juice from within the cell walls. Why do we want extra pectin in our juice? You’ll see in the next post on fermentation.

So after somewhere between one and five days we’re ready to load the pulp into our press. We actually have a couple of presses we use depending on how much fruit we have to press at a time. For larger amounts we use the big oak rack and cloth press, for smaller amounts we use a steel hydro press. In both cases the same thing is happening, the pulp is squeezed which forces the juice out, the resulting juice is then separated from the pulp by means of a fine mesh cloth. We collect the juice in buckets and then pour it straight into barrels to start the next and arguably most exciting stage of the process, fermentation.



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How We Make Cider: Part One, 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.