Interview with Tony Thorogood
The man behind Billy Bís Golden Malted Apple Beer
March 23, 2006
Written by mullet
Australian brewers in general are a pretty conservative lot. Most micros in these parts make serviceable pale, amber and dark ales, with the occasional wheat beer, stout or pils thrown in for good measure. Things are starting to get a bit more interesting, but the odd microbial infection notwithstanding, thereís absolutely nothing that even gets close to challenging <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=47361>Thorogoods Billy Bís Golden Malted Apple Beer for the crown of Australiaís most unique beer. Except, perhaps, <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Ratings/Beer/Beer-Ratings.asp?BeerID=46209>Billy Bís Dark Malted Apple Beer. These are beers produced using apple juice, instead of water, as brewing liquor and aged for years in oak casks. The result is something of a high-octane cross between scrumpy and oude gueuze, with loads of wild yeast character, intense fruit and even more intense sourness.
<xxyxx hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Brewers/thorogoods-of-burra/5272/>Thorogoods primarily produces ďapple winesĒ with a focus on natural, chemical-free production, traditional methods and big fruit flavour. Their house character is an intense tangy, stemmy, jelly-like fruitiness, refined oak and varying degrees of wild yeast character and acidity. They are a small producer, with their ciders only available at the cellar door and via mail order.
Cidermaker and renowned eccentric Tony Thorogood of <xxyxx hrefhttp://www.thorogoods.com.au>Thorogoods of Burra took some time out to explain about his operation, philosophy and his ďcontribution to Australian culture.Ē
Did you have a background in making or drinking cider before starting Thorogoods?
I travelled around the world for six years and at one stage I was cycling through London and was run down by a truck. I picked myself up and with one arm in plaster, I cycled down to Swanage in Dorset and landed a job, broken hand and all. From there I cycled and drank my way across Somerset. I really loved the old fashioned apples I discovered, I loved the quaint old villages and the farmhouse Scrumpy. I had a vision, I thought that cider could be so much more. I wanted to make cider that was top of the range - something very special - not a cheap pub drink.
The first thing that stands out about your ciders is the very high alcohol content. Do you do anything special to produce a more concentrated must or is it just a product of your growing conditions?
Alcohol of course is produced from sugar, and our dry conditions here in Burra give us a very concentrated fruit, concentrated in both flavour and fruit sugar. When we crush our apples we get between 9 and 11 percent potential alcohol. We mature the cider in oak barrels for three years and the conditions here in summer are such that the barrels lose water through evaporation and the cider becomes more concentrated. In a humid climate like say Germany or England alcohol evaporates out of barrels. In a dry climate like Spain, where the sherry is made and matured for years, and Burra the water evaporates out of the barrels. It seems the humidity of the air makes a big difference. I might lose 15L of liquid from each barrel over the summer period and half that for the rest of the year and I top up each barrel with cider at around 10% alcohol (same as in the barrels.) If the alcohol was evaporating as well as the water then the alcohol content of the barrels would either stand still or go down, but it goes up. I have calculated that through this method we create an extra percent of alcohol a year.
You grow seventy different apple varieties. How many are turned into cider, and how many would make it into any given final product? Do you do any single varietal ciders? Do you have a favourite variety?
We do have many varieties of apples - too many - but we planted lots of varieties to establish which types of apples make the best cider in Australia. Sometimes I think the English cider apples are useless, sometimes I think they are very good. We will see - the next few years will tell. But variety is only half the battle. The growing conditions are very important; not too much water and a cold winter but a warm summer to ripen the fruit. What we get here, which is wonderful, are high sugar levels and high acid levels at the same time. It really is a wine makers dream. We do not have a favourite cider apple yet but we do have a beautiful pink apple that we grew from seed, our own variety, and we christened it The Burra Pippin. It is very sweet and very acidic and may possibly be the perfect apple for our conditions. Finally we do intend to make single varietal ciders, in fact we are bottling four varietal dry ciders later this year - Gravenstein, Foxwelp, Kingston Black and Blenheim Orange. They wont be strictly speaking single varietal, there is a small percentage of other apples in there as well to fill out the background a little.
Your website alludes to a lengthy trial and error process before your ciders were released. What did you learn about cidermaking in this period?
The early days were quite interesting because on one level I knew nothing and didnít want to know. I hate the sameness of modern wine, beer and cider and I didnít want to use chemicals and high velocity filters. I read everything I could find on English, American, and French cider making. I made cider in the way these writers suggested and made pretty ordinary stuff, so I reread the books and noted down what the authors told me NOT to do and I did that, and the results were immediate and outstanding. I have never looked back. I was thinking about whether I am in fact an eccentric or not, and the truth is we planted an apple orchard in an area were people said you couldnít even grow gum trees. We made apple wine when everyone else was planting vines and making wine and of course we made Billy Bís, beer from apples, now even I thought that was a little crazy. When we first opened wine makers would come here and laugh, they donít now, they come and ask for a job or advice!
What do you want your ciders to taste like, and how close are you to that ideal?
I made Gold Dust in its current form more or less in 1998 and I thought that I had made such a brilliant apple wine that I could never improve it. Then in 1999 I made Misty Morning and couldnít believe how good it was and I felt that I could never do better. How wrong headed I was, every year I make improvements. I look for a fairly alcoholic but mellow apple wine, at their best my wines are dry with a big fruity hit. Fruitiness is what Iím looking for as well as good body and a good clean mouthfeel. The apple wines I make must be totally natural and all the flavour must come only from apples, no flavours are allowed to be added. I do this all by experimenting with the apples and of course the oak barrels.
I know your ciders are available by mail order to Australia, but they donít seem to be in many (any?) bottle shops. How do distributors or retailers react to your products?
We made a decision early on to remain a boutique cidery, to be small and to be proud to be small. We donít believe that big companies and even medium sized companies can make really excellent products. So we are content to sell on site and through the internet which in fact reaches every corner of Australia. We send a lot of Billy Bís to outback cattle stations, it probably hitches a ride with the flying doctor.
The second major way in which your products diverge from other ciders is the abnormally long aging periods. It sounds like you donít have a fermentation schedule per se, but could you describe how the process usually unfolds?
We have a simple rule: NO SULPHUR unless it is really, really needed. We believe that adding any sort of chemicals at all is the opposite of good winemaking. We try not to intervene too much but if the fermentation doesnít take off naturally then we do add yeast. But I might add several types of yeasts to try and imitate natural fermentation. All good wines, be it apple or grape are made slowly and believe it or not it can easily take us a year to ferment our apple wines up here in Burra. On top of this, alcohol made from apples has a large dose of malic acid in it - malic acid being the dominant acid in apples - and if apple wine is bottled too early the malic acid will ferment in the bottle. Grape wine makers put apples in their wine - that is, malic acid from apples - because the acid will ferment to a lovely soft fruity acidity. So cider has to be drunk early or pasteurized or, as we do it, matured to get the malic acid fermentation going. I believe that if you plant and grow a selection of apples with different flavour combinations, pick them when the flavours of those apples are at their peak, then quickly crush and ferment those apples then you can make apple wine and ciders to be proud of.
Finally, the Billy Bís beers stand out as unique on a world scale, not to mention within Australia. What on earth possessed you to attempt such a product, and how do actually go about making them?
I have always had a love-hate relationship with Billy Bís. The first time I made it I was sitting in a rocking chair sipping my first brew one warm summerís night and I just fell out of the chair, I guess I was intoxicated. We stopped making it altogether a few years ago and a vet from Olive Downs Station in Queensland kept ringing me up and asking when I was going to make some more. He had six bottles left in his cellar, he kept them upside down to keep the corks damp, and he told me how he carried them up to the house and would open them very carefully, so I decided to make him some more. But when I did more, I just knew that a dark Billy Bís would work, so I made that crazy combination as well and it works. Not every one loves Billy Bís but I have been told that Billy Bís is my contribution to Australian culture. The making of Billy Bís is my secret but it is possibly the only beer in Australia that is matured in oak barrels. What possessed me to make it, god knows! No, the truth is that Billy Bís is part of an ancient tradition of beer making and cider making and I love old traditions and it is interesting to have a taste from the past.
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The result is something of a high-octane cross between scrumpy and oude gueuze, with loads of wild yeast character, intense fruit and even more intense sourness.
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