Sid Spiller and his family for generations before, made cider in addition to his other activities as an arable farmer in the tiny English village of Sidford in English county of Devon. Sid’s style of cider was farm cider, sometimes called rough cider or, more commonly, scrumpy – a local term indicating that the cider was sour, sharp, strong and, some said, had a kick like a scrumpy or wild horse. The cider was always cloudy, drinkable only by the brave and, by later in the season, had threads of slime wandering in it like worms.
Sid’s cider was typical of the domestic farm cider found in the West Country of England in the mid 20th century. After that, as younger drinkers preferred to consume safer and more palatable beverages, cider production fell off and nearly died in Britain. It was the availability of wine-quality fine ciders from France that led to a resurgence with commercial cider producers updating their products, using Swiss and French methods and machinery, and introducing marketing campaigns aimed at the younger drinker.
Sid’s production methods were primitive in the extreme. Hygiene was not part of the process, the trailer bringing in the fruit from the orchard to the crush was the same trailer that had, earlier in the day, carried a load of farm manure to spread on the fields. The fruit itself, allowed to fall to the ground, was formed into a mound or ‘tump’ and left to partially rot to encourage the fermentation process.
The apples were transferred to the upper part of the barn for two or three weeks to lose moisture and concentrate the sugars (although Sid didn’t know exactly how the process worked, he just carried on the practice he had learned from his father who had learned it from his, who had….), then the fruit would be pulped by passing through a scratter mill (which would shred the fruit rather than crush it), then shovelled to the press.
The pressure needed for pressing apples is much higher than that for grapes. A large West country cider press would fill the barn and consisted of a central screw set into a wooden headblock, itself weighing one or two tons. Set into the screw would be a windlass with slots into which long poles would be placed to give extra purchase when turning the screw. As the pressing became harder a powerful shire horse or farm tractor would be harnessed to lend some muscle.
At the base of the screw would be the press block which allowed full pressure to be applied to the cheese. Cheesing was the construction of the pulp mass within the press. Apple pulp is too wet to stay in place while being pressed so straw mats are laid on which the pulp is placed, the ends of the mats being turned in and the next cloth placed on top, thus building up the cheese. It’s called cheese because the same process is used in the making of cheese.
Fermentation was natural, usually taking a week or two with a thick brown froth appearing at the bung hole on the top of the fermentation casks. Traditional makers usually had no idea what caused fermentation and would add strips of meat, rabbit skins, handfuls of grain, soil, all in the hope that it would encourage fermentation, especially in cider that was slow to ferment or that seemed dull. Unknown to Sid, the handfuls of soil and grain contained spores of natural yeasts that would re-boot the fermentation. Immediately that fermentation was thought to be complete, the cider would be poured-off into smaller casks (a 4 gallon pin, a 9 gallon firkin) for immediate sale.
Modern cider production is vastly different from that described, although the basic processes remain. Although cider production can be found in Canada, USA, South and Central America, Australia, New Zealand, most of central and eastern Europe, there is no doubt that the cider produced in Northern France is the best in the world.
Modern cider production tends to be a blend of apples and pears, the blend making up for the lack of availability of genuine cider apples. True cider apples are small and hard with high acidity and high tannins, and some producers prefer fruit with softer acids and tannins, hence the use of pears. Cider made from pears only is called perry.
English apple trees are almost all from varieties known before 1900, nothing new has been cultivated that is any better, and present day cultivation concentrates on improving the breed for high yield and better quality, also growing dwarf trees for easier harvesting. Modern stocks produce mature trees of 2 – 5 metres height yielding between 10 and 25 tons of fruit to the acre, with a planting density of 240 trees to the acre. Dense planting is now common (it’s called hedging) being efficient In land use and lending to mechanical harvesting.
Cider apples are graded into sweets (low tannin and acid) and sharps (low tannin and high acid). Sharps are the genuine cider apple (the French refer to them as acidulee or aigre) but have relatively small amounts of citric acid. Pears on the other hand have lots of citric acid, hence the apple/pear combination in production. Cider brandy production will use a mixture of cider apples and pears as providing the right balance of acids and tannins for distillation.
Apple trees will produce fruit for double the longevity of the grape vine, useful productivity starting at about six to ten years and tailing off at age 80 or so. Average production is 15 tonnes per hectare at age 18 but modern cultivation is producing varieties that give useful yields at year four with 25 to 35 tonnes per hectare at age 14. Experimental heavy croppers are showing potential for 50 tonnes per hectare and more, but at the expense of quality and taste.
Harvesting is mostly a mechanical business. Its too labour intensive to send gangs of people up trees, also too dangerous. Modern bush orchards are laid out for tractor gathering where a rear mounted shaker on the tractor fells the crop from the trees and a blower/gatherer collects the harvest, blowing the fruit from beneath the trees. The harvester gathers the fruit onto an elevator which separates the leaves, stones, animals and other material from the fruit.. Some producers prefer to have the fruit gathered into mounds, or tumps, others take the fruit straight into mellowing sheds, other known as apple tallets or pound houses.
Once the fruit is judged to be ready, it is milled (pulped) and immediately pressed. Modern presses are usually Swiss Bucher air-bag of bladder presses very similar to that used in wine making but in a larger scale. Rotary screw pulper/presses are also used which act rather like a giant meat grinder, apples going in one end, juice coming out the other. Rather a rough way to handle the fruit as everything gets pressed, stalks, pips, the lot, resulting in unwanted side tastes that are generally removed by the addition of taste modifying chemicals. Modern ciders tend to be adjusted much in the same way as a lot of bulk wines are.
Fermentation can take from two weeks to two or more months if the weather is cold. Keving, transferring the cider from a sedimented cask into a clean one (also known as racking) is carried out several times to produce a clear product whilst leaving the quality intact. Filtering provides clarity but tends to remove much of the quality.
Once the fermentation is over, the cider is vatted for a while to give some maturity. British selling UK producers is Strongbow, a strong cider that sells in various styles, is vigorously marketed at a young clientele and has certainly contributed to the binge drinking craze amongst British youth. Current consumption of cider in Britain is a mind-boggling 500 million litres annually.
French cider production covers the whole of Brittany, Normandy and Marne, in fact virtually the whole of northern France. The total arborage (orchards) here is in excess of 40 million apple trees with about five percent as much again for pears. There are thousands of brands of French cidre, if not tens of thousands. Equally there are multi thousands of distilleries, some legal, some not, making cider brandies. French sparkling ciders, especially those using natural second fermentation for the fizz, not the injection of CO2 gas, are an excellent alternative to sparkling wines and sometimes are indistinguishable from them. British sparkling ciders bear no comparisons, all having injected CO2.
The most famous French cider brandy is Calvados, a fine quality brandy produced in Normandy around the Cotentin Peninsula and into central Normandy and the Marne. The best Calvdos is made in the Pays d’Auge and when properly mature at about 12 years in oak or chestnut casks it becomes known as Hors d’age. This is really the only spirit that can be consumed during a meal without spoiling the palate for food; it is at its best with coffee.
French workers in northern France tend to start their day with a café calva, a bowl of good coffee with a stiff shot of Calvados on the side. Gets the day off to a very good start.