When I was at school I read Cider With Rosie. The part where the young Laurie Lee is seduced under the haycart by Rosie with a jug of farmhouse cider was exciting and memorable, and started, for me, an association with cider of intoxication, sexuality, rural life and rustic tradition. So when I was old enough to go into pubs, cider held an obvious attraction for me and became, for a while, my favourite drink.
But the cider I drank then was not the same cider that Rosie poured into Laurie’s mouth. The cider that was available in pubs was harsh, crude, factory produced stuff with no character and little flavour. I had expected something better, but accepted what I was given.
I then heard from other people about the real cider produced in the farmlands in Somerset. That this real cider was rough and powerful. That the locals called it scrumpy. Fascinated, I travelled down to Somerset to try some. Sure enough, the local scrumpy was on sale in some pubs. And sure enough this stuff was rough. So rough the locals had it served with blackcurrant juice to sweeten it down a bit. And yes, it was very powerful compared to the lower strength commercial cider I had been used to. I drank too much the first time I tried it, and my memory of that first time fades at the point I leave the pub and stagger down a dark lane. I hope there was a Rosie waiting for me at the end of the lane.
Eventually I grew tired of drinking the commercial cider. Every now and again I would bump into someone who had acquired a large plastic container containing scrumpy. And I would get drunk. That seemed the main point of scrumpy. Get drunk, behave badly, throw up. My thoughts on cider became more and more negative. Cider was either the badly made bland nonsense that was sold in pubs and shops, or it was something rough and powerful drunk straight from a plastic container in order to get drunk. I gave up on cider completely.
Until I met up with a certain Patrick “Nuffield” Schmidt. An American in Britain for the summer of 2003. We went to beer festivals together, where Nuffield had a habit of buying at least one real cider. And these ciders had nothing in common with the commercial stuff. They also had little in common with scrumpy drunk from plastic containers or with a bit of blackcurrant juice splashed in them. These real ciders had complex aromas, demandingly dry palates and fresh wholesome flavours. At first I wasn’t that impressed. They had character for sure, but perhaps a bit too much character at times. While at other times I couldn’t quite get to the flavour through a searingly dry palate. But they were fascinating, and as I tried more I discovered that my own palate was adjusting to the palate of these real ciders and I was becoming hooked.
I started to read about ciders and about the history and tradition of real British ciders. I also learned that in Northern France there was a strong cider making tradition, so made a few trips to Normandy to sample some Gallic ciders. I soon discovered that the French ciders were not to my taste. Nice ciders, and great with pancakes, but just a bit too well behaved and lacking in character compared to their British rivals.
Though there are variations, the heart of a great British cider is that it is made from whole cider apples which are picked in the Autumn and left to stand for a week or two before they are roughly crushed to produce apple pulp or pommy. The pommy is then put into a press. The old way of making the cider was to use layers of straw between layers of pommy, though rough hessian is more commonly used these days. The press handle is then turned to squeeze all the juice out of the pommy. The juice is placed in wooden barrels which are left open to allow wild yeasts to spontaneously ferment the juice. Fermentation takes several weeks. When the cider maker deems it ready he will close up the barrel and the cider will mature in the closed environment for approximately 6 months until the Spring when, with the rising temperature, it will undergo a different fermentation process from the lactic acid bacteria in the apple juice itself. When ready these real ciders are incredibly demanding and complex - very dry, and with potentially offensive aromas.
The same process is followed in East Anglia and Kent, although the tendency in these areas is to use a mix of cider and eating apples which produces an equally wonderful cider, though with a greater degree of natural sweetness. Ciders from all the cider producing areas of Britain may have natural sweeteners added to make them acceptable to those who don’t like the uncompromisingly naturally dry version. These are still real ciders. My own taste is slightly toward the sweeter versions - preferably a medium dry.
While many ciders will be blends of different cider apples and perhaps eating apples, there are producers who do concentrate on making ciders from just one cider apple - often a very ancient variety. Each cider apple will have its own character in the same way that each hop will have its own character. Some cider apples are only grown in one area of Britain, or even on just one farm. And, just like grapes, each years harvest is uniquely different. While the bigger cider producers will be concentrating on ensuring consistency, the smaller producer will be making a unique product each year.
Perry is made in the same way as cider, but using hard pears instead of apples. There are minor differences. One is the amount of time the pear is left between picking and crushing; this varies according to the type of pear, and the weather. The perry maker needs to decide exactly when the pear is ready - if the pears are crushed too soon they have little flavour, if crushed too late they spoil the whole batch. Another is that the crushed pommy needs to stand for 24 hours before being pressed.
The genuine cider and perry makers in Britain are mostly concentrated in the South, the Midlands and Wales, with just a few going as far north as Yorkshire and none in Scotland. These small companies (approx. 150 of them), often just a farm with an ancient orchard attached, account for only about 4% of the cider drunk in the UK.. Some producers are now bottling their cider and these can be bought mail order, but it’s a small proportion of what’s really available. Pubs rarely stock ciders from the smaller producers, so these ciders are often just available from the farmhouse itself or at Beer Festivals.
Westons and Thatchers are the largest independent cider makers and do make real cider, though they don’t use the spontaneous fermentation method, preferring to use their own yeast to ensure consistency. Their products are extremely tasty, though will typically lack the character of a genuine farmhouse cider.
Sadly, over ninety per cent of cider production in the UK is controlled by two companies - Matthew Clark (part of the American Constellation Brands, Inc.) and Bulmers (owned by Scottish & Newcastle). Neither of these companies makes real cider. They use sweet apple concentrate which has been treated with chemicals to kill off natural yeasts. The concentrate then undergoes a factory process before being pasteurised and artificially carbonated. The resulting alcopop is as far removed from real cider as Coca Cola is from Westy 12. But the big companies get their nasty Woodpeckers and their bland Strongbows into the shops and pubs, leaving no room for the small craft cider and perry makers who consequently make very little money.
To make the situation worse, the UK government has issued a proposal that will financially reward farmers for ripping up their ancient cider apple and perry orchards to make them qualify for subsidies. The reason for this is that from January next year orchards will not be classified as farmland. Some farmers are already destroying their orchards so the land will be ready in time for the subsidies. If the orchards are not turned into farmland by January 2005 the farmers will not be able to claim the subsidy, even if they do later chop down their orchards. It’s a do it now or forever lose out scheme. Naturally those cider makers who are already struggling financially because they don’t have the means to bottle their product and get it into shops are being pressured into cutting down their ancient, and in some cases rare or unique, orchards. Many fine ciders and perries will be lost forever.
CAMRA have set up a petition for people to sign. If you feel that this situation is as absurd as I do, then go to the CAMRA site at <A HREFhttp://snipurl.com/7jso>Cider Petition and put your name down. Let other people know about this. Let the whole world know about. Don’t let genuine farmhouse cider be destroyed.