Cider Thoughts 2017 & Cider No.1

As the orchard matures, new trees become available and the choice can be overwhelming when it comes to choosing which to press together. Liking to keep things simple, as life can be complicated enough as is, I prefer the idea of pressing apples in batches – those that have ripened and been picked at the same time. This is how we’ve pretty much done it since day 1, and at our scale with one tree of each variety, it makes sense from a logistics point of view; no hassle with multiple single varieties all bubbling away only to be blended down the line when they’re all ready.

So every year I sit down, assess which trees are currently ready for picking and pressing, which category they fall into with respects cider making – sweets (for the sugar content), sharps (for the acid content) and bitters (for the tannin content), and how much we then need to pick from each. As is usual in the early season, we have plenty of sweet dessert apples, and the early cookers, like Queen and Peasgood’s Nonsuch, tend to be subacid, so not particularly acid. The term ‘subacid’ seems to be an old left-over description for the qualities of an apple variety that is neither particularly sweet or particularly tart – a dual-purpose for want of a better word. The Peasgood’s Nonsuch is classed as a cooking apple, but is not a bad eater in my opinion, although you’d be hard pushed to find a lunch box to pack it in to as they can larger than a baby’s head!

We have only one apple tree that falls into the “bitter” category that is ready early, and that’s the cider apple Tremlett’s Bitter – a Bittersweet apple (having both sweet and bitter qualities). However, this year it failed to fruit due to a late frost killing off the blossom, so it looks as though our Cider No.1 will be more along the lines of the South-East England method, using sharps and sweets (cookers and eaters) in a typical 2:1 ratio. It will, in theory, turn out lighter, crisper but with less body than a cider with more tannins, but that’s also something we’ve ended up with over the years from Cider No.1. It does lead me to think we’d be wise planting some other early bitter varieties as a safety measure. More on that later, as we have a few gaps in the orchard to fill, and I’m sure some serious pondering over one or two of last year’s ciders is in order!

Today we’ve picked:

  • 5% Slack ma Girdle (sweet cider)
  • 5% Elton Beauty (sweet dessert)
  • 10% Yellow Ingestrie (sweet dessert)
  • 35% Warner’s King (sharp culinary)
  • 45% Ellison’s Orange (sweet dessert)
Slack ma Girdle

We’ve included this variety purely for the sweetness factor. If we had other earlier cider varieties to complement it, I’d rather it went in there. As it was, it was ready and would otherwise be wasted!

Elton Beauty

Again, another one at the end of its shelf-life on the tree, it’s one of my personal favourite eating apples we have, along with the Ellison’s Orange below. It would have been a shame to lose the sweetness it brings to the cider.

Yellow Ingestrie

A tiny apple that people seem to find too unusual to eat fresh, though they’re actually missing out on something wonderful!

Yellow Ingestrie

Yellow Ingestrie

Once ripened properly, it turns a lovely warm buttery yellow. The shock in eating is the assumption it will be a bit anaemic in flavour and soft – like an over-ripe Golden Delicious. Nothing could be further from the truth – the flesh is fine, not gritty, almost buttery smooth, and it’s firm and sweet. They are the perfect apple for a young child’s lunch box to be honest! However, we had a good crop, so in they go to Cider No.1!

Warner's King

Warner’s King

Warner’s King

Our earliest culinary apple, over half have fallen off the tree – and these things can be huge! It didn’t look like many and I assumed I might have to pad them out with another cooking apple, but as it was they easily filled a third of the truck, leading me to look for another sweet apple to help balance out the ratios!

Ellison's Orange

Ellison’s Orange & Marsh Daisies

Ellison’s Orange

These have been a favourite at Melbourne Deli, our local customer whose customers appreciate the unusual and scarce varieties we grow here. However, they are at their best right now, and we have the Allington Pippin ripening right next to them which is also a great eating apple, so we’ve decided to pick the rest and add them to the cider mix. I’m hoping, as they’re an offspring of Cox’s Orange Pippin, that they’ll bring some of their complex flavours to the cider, although they are juicier than the Cox, in my opinion, so maybe that might come out a bit diluted. We’ll soon see!

A Full Cart

A Full Cart!

Penny the Guard Dog

No one touches Penny’s apples!

We’re leaving them outside to sweat for a couple of weeks before pressing. The press is booked for this coming weekend for plain non-alcoholic juicing, and then the weekend after for cider-making – then everyone’s happy! Even Penny, who might bag the odd apple to chew on.

Merrybower Heritage Orchard fruit can now be bought at our local Melbourne Deli!

What a week! With the fruit in the orchard ripening well in the current weather, Melbourne Deli have decided to stock our apples and pears – wow! It’s fantastic to see seven years of hard work of planting, pruning and feeding, finally coming to fruition (pun well and truly intended).

Melbourne Deli's amazing stock of hand-made and locally grown produce

It’s also extremely gratifying that there are like-minded people who not only want to buy locally grown fruit, but relish the idea of trying some of our country’s older varieties. After all, we planted everything we have in order to be as local as possible, and there are flavours here in Merrybower Heritage Orchard you will never find in a supermarket, or even an old-fashioned outdoor market! We have everything from the apple variety bred purely to make the best apple puree to accompany a Sunday roast pork, to an old 1600’s French variety for making authentic French-style Tart Tatin.

Merrybower Heritage Orchard fruit display - beautiful!

Each piece of fruit is hand-picked on the morning we deliver, checked for bruising and insect damage, washed, dried and lovingly packed into towel-lined wooden boxes or reusable plastic trays. Even the boxes are made here from wood we’ve kept, then sealed with a food-safe hard wax oil.

Shown are some of our early varieties:

Elton Beauty – from 1952, one of our more modern dessert varieties (and one of my personal favourites) which failed commercially as it missed the August markets – its sweet and juicy characteristics only really coming to the fore in September. Having said that, all of our fruit seems to be a week or two early this year, which is lucky for August buyers at the Melbourne Deli!

Worcester Pearmain – a classic popular dessert apple, nothing really to dislike about it. From 1873, it has a slight hint of strawberry in a good year, and also makes a decent stewing apple.

Yellow Ingestrie – the oddball apple from the 1800s, a small yellow variety that develops a distinct pineapple backnote as it ripens. It has Orange and Golden Pippin as parents.

Queen – an extremely handsome culinary apple from 1858 – once a very popular garden apple, especially in its native Essex, but rare to find today. It cooks to a brilliant yellow puree with a sharp and powerful flavour, but is also decent enough for baking.

Cider Making Thoughts

I’ve been reading this book – “Craft Cider Making” by Andrew Lea. It’s a mine of information, and my head’s full to popping. Not being a natural chemist (I’m more of a monkey-see monkey-do type of person), I’m still getting my head around things, but as ever I thought I’d write down thoughts here, so I can learn from mistakes and successes.

The jist of a decent cider seems to be to get the balance of certain key elements right, to get the flavour you’re after. The three key elements are sugar, malic acid and tannin. Last year we made a cider using culinary and dessert apples, which produced a sharp and acid cider, similar to that made in the South East of England. It was good – it tasted like cider, but a part of me wants to make something a bit more ‘West Country’ or ‘Normandy’. To that end, this year I’ll be looking to use our cider apple varieties, which seem to be available in a decent enough number to have a go. To try and make life easier, I’m choosing to mix varieties that should ripen at a similar time, to save having to blend juices at a later date.

The first cider will be made from:

  • Tremlett’s Bitter
  • Slack Ma Girdle
  • Catshead

The first two apples are cider varieties, the latter being a culinary apple. Tremlett’s Bitter is a Bitter Sweet apple, ripening in Early October. Slack Ma Girdle is a Sweet apple, ripening in October, and Catshead is a Sharp apple, ripening in early October. The Catshead is used to raise the acidity of the mix, which might otherwise be out of the desired range.

The second cider will be made from:

  • Dabinett
  • Medaille D’Or
  • Newton Wonder

Again, the first two apples are cider varieties, the latter being a culinary apple. Dabinett is a Bitter Sweet apple, ripening in November. Medaille D’Or is also a Bitter Sweet apple, ripening in November. Newton Wonder is a Sharp apple, ripening in mid October. The Newton Wonder may have to be fermented earlier than the two cider apples, but I can blend the fermenting Newton Wonder cider with the juice from the cider apples once they are pressed, to allow them to all continue fermenting together.

I also plan to leave the apples outside for three weeks to allow the starch present to turn to sugar, which the yeast will feed on. Having had good success with the wild yeast method last year, I’m going to go that route again – leaving nature takes its course on the pressed apple juice.

This year I will also attempt to naturally carbonate the cider, by bottling it at a Specific Gravity (SG) of 1.005 (Edit 04/11/15 – Andrew Lea of The Wittenham Cider Portal recommends 1.003 might be more prudent, to help prevent bottle bombs). If this fails, if the cider moves below that, I can add a level teaspoon of sugar to each pint at bottling stage. This way they will continue to ferment slightly in the bottle, allowing the CO2 to saturate the cider.

I’m moving to swing lid bottles rather than capping them. As it’s for our own use, they’ll be worth it in the long run, and I damaged a couple of bottles last year whilst trying to cap them – which was painful.