Taking Stock 2020 – Part 1

It’s that time of year again when my cidery thoughts invariably turn in two opposing but essentially linked directions, forwards and backwards.

It’s that time of year again when my cidery thoughts invariably turn in two opposing but essentially linked directions, forwards and backwards. Let’s deal with the backwards part first.

So in the backwards direction I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a shitshow.

In cider terms it was always going to be a different kind of year for Caledonian Cider given our decision to shelve our entire core range of ciders for a year (more details in this post from September 2019). So the plan for 2020 was to make a new cider, a 50/50 blend of our local apples with apples from Somerset which we called North and South. I wanted North and South to be a gateway cider, an accessible way in to the wonderful world of full juice wild fermented cider. Half of the blend was keeved, the other half was fully dry which gave a crowd pleasing level of sweetness, packed in a 33cl bottle I wanted it to sit casually alongside the more industrialised options and catch people by surprise (by actually tasting of apples and barrels and autumn). The cider itself came out well, albeit a tad fizzier than intended. I sent it away to get bottled at a brewery in Stirling two days before Scotland went in to lockdown, which effectively meant that it had to sit in a tank at the brewery for a week or so longer that it was meant to. During this time it carried on fermenting and as the tank was pressurised it actually ended up carbonating itself (incidentally this is known as the Charmat method and is traditionally used to produce Prosecco). The cider itself came out rather well but it never really got the opportunity to surprise people in the way I wanted it to since all the pubs went and closed, instead it went predominantly to bottle shops who generally only cater to the more discerning end of the market anyway. So I’m aiming to do another batch of it for 2021, hopefully this time it will get into the hands of the Magners drinkers and set them on a fantastic full juice journey of discovery.

The other thing we did for 2020 was increase the amount of limited edition 75cl’s, there were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly to get cider bottled at the brewery I need to put together a minimum of 1000 litres. The blends often don’t work out that way so I decided to bottle the smaller blends / experimental single casks myself in the cidery and the quickest way for me to do that is in 75cl bottles.

The first of these was Craobh Làn which is quite possibly the best cider I’ve ever made. My only regret with it was the number of bottles that got broken in various depots and courier vans across the country as I tried to do online sales early in the lockdown. I abandoned the online shop after 4 weeks with just over 35% of all the orders being lost or broken. So that was definitely a lesson learned, quite an expensive one. The next release was meant to be Heavy Sun, which was a cask of the keeved cider that remained after the North and South blend. That was a particularly annoying batch because it sat there in the cask perfectly stable until June when I bottled it, a fortnight later it became apparent that it had restarted its fermentation and was on track to over carbonate itself, which would’ve resulted in gushes of white foam going everywhere once opened. Thankfully I had decided to keep it stashed away in the cidery until I was certain it was stable before selling, so I decanted the bottles back into the cask and let the fermentation finish off completely. I was more wary with the second cask I’d earmarked for Heavy Sun so I left it to sit in its barrel for even longer to make double sure that it wasn’t going to re-start in the bottle. I left this one until September and with no signs of it re-fermenting I went ahead and bottled it. That extra time spent through the summer led to pretty significant levels of malolactic fermentation lending to it a kind of savoury buttery flavour which I quite like but it possibly won’t be to everyone’s taste. The third 75cl release of 2020 was Islay Cask which is actually the only thing I released in 2020 that I had also done in 2019. I’m still figuring out how best to work with the smoky Islay casks, the 2019 vintage was much more acid driven attempting to play the smokiness off the lemony acidity as opposed to the 2018 which was more tannin driven and fizzier from the bottle conditioning, jury’s still out on which worked best. The 2020 iteration will be back to the tannins in the form of Major apples with extra juiciness from an extended maceration.

Another positive thing I can take from 2020 has been working with my cider distributors Grant (Re:Stalk) and Adam (Hard Pressed Cider) both of whom came to the rescue after the online sales debacle offering to take my cider palletised and get it around the country for me. Without them I think I would have had to drink about 4000 litres of cider myself which would have had a considerable impact on me both physically and financially, although I probably wouldn’t remember 2020 so every cloud I suppose. In fact without their work I doubt many of the people reading this blog would have ever got to try my cider at all so huge thanks to them!

I’d also like to thank Adam Wells and James Finch for their support, excellent writing and fun videos, making the cider world seem bigger and yet closer all at the same time, the bubble is definitely growing. Also I feel like 2020 would’ve been even worse if it weren’t for all the team at The Neutral Cider Hotel spreading their cidery joy and goodness far and wide (Also, buy Ciderology by Gabe Cook…)

So that was 2020, some good lessons learned and some great new friends made. Now let’s all really try to make 2021 something to remember!

Slàinte Mhath / Wassail

Next post will be all about my plans for 2021