After trying my hand at cider making, I wanted to read some more about the history of cider making and see what would be involved if I wanted to produce some starting from fresh apples (rather than using a kit). Well, I now have a whole new respect for the people at Mad Millie and what they had to do to create a simple kitset product that could produce a perfect cider in a short period of time, time after time, even if attempted by a total novice!
In their book “Real cider-making on a small scale: an introduction to producing cider at home”, Michael Pooley & John Lomax take you through the whole process starting with an introduction to apples and some history of cider-making. The domestic apple as we know it today, originates from wild species found in the mountainous forests of Central Asia. Thousands of years of breeding by humans along with processes of natural selection “have resulted in a fruit of such rich genetic makeup that the number of possible varieties is quite staggering.” The apple is quite exceptional among fruits in having such a diversity of shape, colour, texture, flavour and cropping season. Over the centuries as many as 6,000 or more varieties have been bred or discovered and hundreds of different examples still thrive today. These all have different qualities: sweet to eat, cook well, make excellent cider, and so on.
It is possible that cider has existed in some form for almost as long as there have been apples – a few thousand years. The apple tree was regarded as sacred for a long time and many cider countries have age-old customs of sharing cider out of a common vessel, as a blessing of labour and the harvest. The first official references in England to cider come from royal accounts in the thirteenth century but it has certainly been around a lot longer than that – predating Romans and likely predating the making of ale from barley and certainly beer. It appears to have reached its greatest popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when it supplanted ale as the preferred drink. Among the upper classes, some of the best ciders were compared to the finest French wines. Throughout the following centuries it remained popular and most farms and country estates would have had their own cider mill and press, and were usually more than self-sufficient in the drink. It was made largely for consumption by the farm household and workers. At that time it was so basic and unobtrusive a practice, it rarely even entered farm accounts. It has only been more recently that cider-making has become a commercial enterprise.
The book describes making your own cider press if you are so inclined. I love the comment: “Making the press – a simple and inexpensive matter – should be thought of as acquiring a piece of equipment as indispensable to the household or community in its way as, say, an oven, television or car.” They go on to describe cider making as a community activity in autumn and remark “the whole process is, of course, extremely inefficient, at least, that is, if judged by the mean calculus of how much juice is extracted from how much time and energy is put in. But it is wonderfully efficient in terms of how much sharing takes place, how much fun is to be had, and in the exercise, wit, humour, and gossip generated. It is as ‘refreshing of the spirit’ as the drinking of the cider will be in its own way in due course”.
Apparently many potentially good ciders, and certainly a great deal of effort, are spoiled for want of having spent a bit of time at the outset in getting a balanced mix (of the right sort) of apples. There are many different varieties of apples that are good for making cider (and many that are not) – with some wonderful names: Tom Putt, Foxwhelp, Brown Snout and Slack Ma Girdle! There is lots of information on different varieties and in how to blend them to produce a good result. “As with people, so with apples for cider – the more contrasting types you have together, the richer the event.”
They then take you through the process of washing and preparing the apples, milling and crushing them, and pressing the pulp. And then, if picking the right blend of apples wasn’t enough there are all the other considerations of adjusting acidity, balancing the tannin, adding pectolytic enzyme (if required) and adjusting the sweetness (important for calculating the alcoholic content). And before you start fermenting, you need to decide what sort of cider you finally get to drink. There are all sorts of different types: still, naturally conditioned, completely dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, even-sweet etc. There is a chapter devoted to the approaches you need to arrive at any of the above ciders and another on how to blend, store and serve. I vow to leave this to Mad Millie to decide, and learn that they favour a naturally conditioned cider: one in which the carbon dioxide is produced by a small secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle. “Such ciders characteristically have a fizz and sparkle and are quite delicious.”
A chapter devoted to trouble-shooting strengthens my resolve to leave it to Mad Millie, as I certainly don’t wish to deal with slimy apple pulp, sluggish fermentation, acetification, film yeasts, cider sickness, ropiness, mouse taint or haziness!
If you make it through all this, there are some lovely sounding recipes for Winter’s Delight Mulled Cider, Summer Cider Punch, Hot Cider Toddy, Pork with Cider and Cream, Chicken or Rabbit with Cider, Fish in Cider, Hereford Cider Sauce with Boiled Bacon or Ham. And the final chapters are on Preserving Pure Apple Juice and Making Cider Vinegar. There is also a glossary and several appendices with more detailed information.
All in all, it is a delightful book full of all sorts of interesting facts and comments that provide entertaining reading even if your only interest in cider is in drinking it.