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Friday, 12 November 2010

Cider: the Donkey-Dung Method

Having a pint or two in my local pub the other night, I got talking to a man who makes cider, on a small scale, in the traditional way.  I live in Devon,  part of the Southwestern counties of England long associated with apple growing and cider production, so perhaps this should not have been such an unusual meeting.  However, the cider market had been in a long decline until relatively recently, and the upsurge over the last few years has been mainly due to mass-marketed, factory made sweet and unchallenging ciders, ruthlessly targeted at a young demographic.

As someone with a love and passion for “real” food and drink, I do often wince to see a brand with a cod-Irish branding, doubtless invented in an advertising agency in central London, put together in a vast vat with apple juice and industrial alcohol (and served OVER ICE, for goodness sake) selling well in the heart of one of the areas where the traditional ciders originate, and are now little but a niche market.

My new chum, Mike, though, pointed out that the sales of all ciders, including the traditional ones, is on the up as a consequence of all that marketing, so I suppose it’s a good thing, ultimately, that the smaller guys can catch a ride on the coat tails of the giants.

Mike is not, by trade, a cider maker, but he had a little land, a disused stable, perhaps more importantly some apple trees, and he and his family like cider.  Somehow he acquired an elderly retired cider press, did a bit of inspired engineering with a couple of hydraulic jacks, and squeezed out fifty gallons of apple juice.  After asking around, and taking the advice of an equally elderly and retired cider maker from the vicinity, he added some yeast, stood back, and got himself fifty gallons of cider.  Very good cider too, it turns out, popular with family and friends, and strong.

This was around five years ago, and inspired by his initial success, his cider making has begun to steadily grow from a hobby into a small but expanding operation.  He has marketed his cider on a small scale so far; to a couple of local pubs, at food and farmers’ markets, and has recently organised bottling so that it can be sold retail directly to the consumer.

As do many enthusiasts, he has immersed himself in the lore, history and arcana of his subject; if you have found yourself in conversation with one such, you know that it can be excruciatingly boring, with your eyes beginning to glaze over in minutes, or it can be hugely interesting and entertaining.  This was the latter.

Within days of starting his brew, the exposed oak beams of his stable were coated with white yeast, spontaneously generating there.  In the real old days, cider makers would rely on these wild yeasts, as you do in the making of sourdough bread, but this can be a risky business – it’s all too easy to end up with a tub of rancid apple juice, or a very expensive barrel of vinegar.  So Mike, following more expert advice, uses Champagne yeast, a common ruse, thus getting a reliable fermentation, and seeing off the nastier of the wilder strains at the same time.

It takes a lot of pressure to squeeze the juice out of a vast quantity of apples, leaving just the dry cake.  Often, a donkey would be used, haltered to a windlass, going round and round in circles all day.  Donkeys make droppings frequently, and some of these droppings would end up in the juice (and I can easily see a bored and somewhat dizzy donkey deliberately kicking some into the vat).  This is a bad thing, one would think: not an addition most people would like in their tipple.  It turns out that the digestion system of a donkey, while it destroys most things, does not destroy the “good” wild cider yeasts, so a bit of donkey dung in the brew would ensure a good fermentation.

Happily, Mike, while a traditionalist at heart,  is sticking with the Champagne yeast, at least for now.

His cider uses a blend of forty apple varieties.  Due to the decline in local traditional cider making, he seems to have little trouble finding these, and has located many orchards where, if he did not collect them, the apples would just rot into the ground.  Whether he pays cash to the landowners for the apples, or does a deal with another liquid asset, I could not say.

He matures his cider in old whisky barrels; he would like to use rum or brandy barrels, but these are difficult to source.  The maturation is around seven months, a significant investment in time.  This autumns apples will be next year’s cider.

You may wonder why I’m not naming his brand: I do know the name (it is a pun on his surname), but my lips are sealed at the moment.  It is still a very small operation, with a few hundred gallons a year, and I doubt he is geared up for a flood of enquiries: he doesn’t yet even have a website.  But the main reason I am not naming it here is that I have not yet tasted it: it is unlikely to be available any time soon in my local due to the Byzantine rules of tied beer and cider sales in pubs (you just knew I was going to get The Cider House Rules in here somewhere, didn’t you?)  I will seek it out, though, at soonest opportunity, and give you a review.  Even so, I wish Mike all success in his enterprise, and to all the artisan food and drink producers everywhere.  Long may you all continue.

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