The other day I found myself with a spare afternoon and it occurred to me that I’ve not brewed any beer a good couple of years.
So I started by looking out all the numerous pieces of equipment, stowed away in various dusty cupboards and the littlest used corners of sheds. The huge stockpot that serves as my mash tun had been repurposed into a juice collection trough during last year’s pressing season and had since been stacked away along with all the other pressing paraphernalia behind two full pallets of cider! Once I had gathered all the bits and pieces together I dusted off my dog eared and much wort stained copy of Brew by James Morton which has been my go-to source of beer recipes since it first graced my shelf away back in 2016.
As I sat there perusing the various beer styles trying to decide what to make, it struck me that something was missing. Freedom. You see, deep down what I really wanted to do was ignore those tried and trusted recipes with their wee packets of dried yeast and vacuum packed hop pellets, the sacks of pre-crushed malts and the various salts and powders to make my tap water taste like London tap water. What I really wanted to do was brew forty wildly different batches of beer, let them spontaneously ferment outdoors in various wooden casks and other assorted receptacles for a few months and then upon rediscovering them in the spring start blending them by taste into whatever I wanted. This is total madness to a brewer but to a cider maker it seems like the most natural thing in the world…
Brewing you see, is a science. Beer is a recipe, and just like any other recipe if it is followed to the letter then the result will always be exactly the same. Now I’m not saying there’s no room for creativity in beer, recipes after all don’t write themselves and I’m sure that for most brewers the creation of a new beer would represent the most exciting part of their job. I’m not a brewer but my job on the stills at a whisky distillery certainly bears some resemblance to brewing, except of course we only have one recipe and it was written 200 years ago, life on the stills is many things but creative is not one of the words often used to describe it. The craft (if you’ll excuse the term) in brewing to my mind comes from recipe creation, the craft in whisky for the most part I believe, resides in the warehouse.
Now, I know not all cider is made the same way and that the guys making Strongbow for example probably aren’t exactly flexing their creative muscle on a daily basis because much like in brewing the “recipe” was created years ago and the job now is to replicate it time after time with total and unwavering consistency. Going back to my art analogy from my last post, if Henry Bulmer in 1889 was the artist then Bulmers (now owned by brewer, Heineken) in 2020 is a printer churning out millions of reproductions on a daily basis, we can’t afford the original but we can still be impressed by the copy. As an aside I wonder if Henry Bulmer would be impressed if he tasted a glass of Bulmers Original now?
This rumination on creativity got me thinking about some fundamental differences between brewing and cidermaking (that is to say cidermaking the way I do it rather than the way Heineken do it, and brewing the way Heineken do it rather than the way a Norwegian farmer might do it). I think the heart of the issue is Earth’s orbit around the Sun and Earth’s axial tilt relative to the ecliptic plane or in other words, the seasons. For people to survive the winter we need to ration out summers bounty, preserving food has always been of the utmost importance to those of us who choose to live in one place. To this end grains and hops can be dried and stored indefinitely, apples on the other hand tend to perish within a couple of months of the harvest. So while brewers can brew beer year round, cidermakers can only produce cider once per year. Now basically that means that if you want to drink cider all year round you need to make a large enough amount of it in autumn but if you want to drink beer all year round then you just have to dry and store all your ingredients and brew as and when required. The importance of this natural historical difference can’t be downplayed, while last autumns cider continues to change throughout the year, the beer is consistent because it gets brewed afresh every few weeks to the same recipe that worked last time. This historical stuff might not seem that relevant to our modern producers but its effects can be seen almost the minute you enter a brewery or a cidery. Brewers have a real penchant for stainless steel pipework with fixed pumps whereas cidermakers have a real thing for flexible pipes with mobile pumps. Cidermakers require almost endless flexibility to move stuff around all over the place as dictated by the cider itself whereas the brewing process only ever takes place in a set and highly methodical way. From a cidermakers perspective, brewers seem obsessed with control. The yeast is of lab grade purity, the malts are ordered in to match highly specific parameters, the last vestige of nature’s influence comes from the hops which are analysed to allow the brewer to tweak their recipe accordingly. Brewing often feels like a struggle against nature to bend it to our will. Cidermaking however is much more of mutual thing, working with nature or attempting to guide it to a place that suits both parties. That’s not to say there’s less care required to make cider, I mean we only get one shot at it each year so if we mess it up somehow then it’s going to be a long wait for the re-do.
Just as an aside, an interesting thing I heard said once was that most cidermakers only get 40 or 50 attempts (if they’re lucky) to get it right in their lifetime while brewers can run up hundreds of batches in a single year. For me that seasonality of cidermaking adds a certain poignancy, reflecting on the seasons gone and thinking about the ones yet to come. I always get a great sense of connectivity during the pressing season, not just the obvious connections to the season and the other cidermakers around the country but also to the past and the future. There’s a timelessness to cidermaking, storing goodness to get us through the winter, bottling a small piece of summer to give a wee bit of light in the dark winter.
But then this is only really talking about one type of brewing and one type of cidermaking. Comparing the process of brewing a Finnish Sahti with making Somersby Cider for example would flip the whole thing on its head.
In the interests of brevity I think the next part of this rambling post will be vaguely about the areas were brewing and cidermaking crossover, the shared ground between natural cider and farmhouse ale, the lunatic fringe…I may even try to speak to a brewer of such things to get their perspective.