What we’re up to in October: Cider Season

We’ve decided it’s time to make a concerted effort to get our heads round cider which is why we’re declaring it the drink for us in October.

We reached this deci­sion at The Orchard, one of Bristol’s best cider pubs with a long menu of exam­ples of farm­house scrumpy.

It frus­trates us to be pre­sent­ed with so much choice and have so lit­tle clue.

We order almost at ran­dom and some­times it pays off, some­times it doesn’t.

So, that’s our aim for the next few weeks: to try dif­fer­ent mak­ers, dif­fer­ent styles, and form some Opin­ions.

We could read books – and maybe we will dip into the odd one – but this isn’t about hunt­ing down world clas­sics, it’s about know­ing which of the prod­ucts we’re like­ly to encounter in Bris­tol and around are worth order­ing twice.

By way of a base­line, we’re going to make an effort to try and think about some of the big brands, too.

It also gives us a great excuse to vis­it or revis­it all of Bris­tol’s cider pubs and under­stand bet­ter their tra­di­tions, rit­u­als and his­to­ry.

And who knows, we might even final­ly try a tin of Natch.

Mass Observation Strikes Again: (No) Village Inn, 1947

It’s worth asking next time you read an impassioned piece about villages without pubs whether they even had one in the first place.

In Tavi­s­tock last week we picked up a tat­ty copy of Exmoor Vil­lage, a 1947 book by W.J. Turn­er ‘based on fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion from Mass Obser­va­tion’. It fea­tures a chap­ter on pubs and social­is­ing called ‘Gar­dens, Pubs and Small Talk’. But our hopes of 20 pages of glo­ri­ous detail on beer and booz­ers were shat­tered with the open­ing line:

There is no inn in Luc­combe [in Som­er­set], nor any­where on the Acland Estate. The near­est is at Woot­ton Court­ney. There is vir­tu­al­ly no social cen­tre in Luc­combe beyond the doorstep and the vil­lage street.

Some of the men in the vil­lage, the author says, were in the habit of going to pubs in near­by Woot­ton or Por­lock ‘on Sat­ur­day or Sun­day – sel­dom both’:

Mr Gould remem­bers brown ale at three­pence a pint, and says he used to go every evening, wet or fine, to Woot­ton. To-day, on an old-age pen­sion, his vis­its are rare. His son is a tee­to­taller, and Bill Tame is anoth­er… Although Som­er­set is famous for its cyder, and home-brewed cyder is found at many small farms and drunk by young and old alike, Mr Par­tridge is the only Luc­combe per­son who has it. Anoth­er farmer, Mr Stad­don, prefers beer.

The true Mass Obser­va­tion touch, more lit­er­ary than objec­tive in tone despite its sci­en­tif­ic pre­ten­sions, comes through in a descrip­tion of the men at their usu­al haunt, the bar at a posh hotel in Woot­ton Court­ney known as the ‘Dunkery’:

The pub­lic bar like most coun­try bars is small, with two tables, two bench­es, and not enough chairs… A vis­i­tor at about sev­en o’clock in the evening would find Bob Prescott, look­ing tired and weath­er-beat­en, slumped up in a chair next to the bar; Mr Hales, who has cycled from Luc­combe, sit­ting in a chair by the win­dow; a man of forty-five not from Luc­combe in the next-door chair; Mr Keal, who has walked in, stand­ing lean­ing on his cane. Talk cen­tres on hors­es. One or two more men come in and join the talk… Ten men are present now, and con­ver­sa­tion round the bar is about a stony field. ‘Ay, that’s the stoni­est one you got, George, bain’t it?’ … ‘Big stones’ … ‘One along of Dunkery be stonier’ …

We assume the hotel in ques­tion is the Dunkery Bea­con Hotel which fits the descrip­tion – ‘a white build­ing with a veran­dah’ – but it does­n’t seem like­ly the bar is still there in any­thing like its orig­i­nal form. The walk from Luc­combe to Woot­ton Court­ney (or Courte­nay) is about 45 min­utes accord­ing to Google Maps. And, for what it’s worth, Bai­ley recalls hear­ing peo­ple in Som­er­set gen­uine­ly, un-iron­i­cal­ly say­ing ‘bain’t’ when he was a kid, though younger peo­ple had gone over to ‘ain’t’.

The men in the pub take snuff, smoke a lot, and talk about root crops, the pub in Por­lock, the threat of inva­sion, Ger­man air­men and the Home Guard, choco­late rationing and oth­er then hot top­ics. (The obser­va­tions on which the book was based were from 1944.) When two Amer­i­cans turn up (GIs, pre­sum­ably) they dom­i­nate the con­ver­sa­tion with talk of farm­ing back home.

If the men were only occa­sion­al pub-goers, the women of Luc­combe hard­ly ever went, and the young men of the vil­lage aren’t big drinkers. Meryn Arscott, an 18-year-old, is the case study and was­n’t a fre­quent drinker because he could­n’t afford it.

And that’s pubs done, in a page and half because ‘for the most part the men stay at home because they don’t want to go any­where else.’ That’s a thread that come out very clear­ly in var­i­ous bits of post-WWII writ­ing on pubs – the idea that men were aban­don­ing the pub not because it was bad but because home, fam­i­ly, gar­dens and allot­ments had become so pleas­ant.

If you’re inter­est­ed in coun­try life more gen­er­al­ly, Som­er­set in par­tic­u­lar, or Mass Obser­va­tion (this project was con­tro­ver­sial), then this book is worth get­ting. The 29 colour and 22 black-and-white pho­tos by John Hinde are also love­ly to look at, as are the charm­ing­ly peri­od charts and illus­tra­tions. We paid £4.99 for our copy of this book; Ama­zon lists a cou­ple for around £6.

Main image: a detail from a chart at the back of the book show­ing dis­tances from Luc­combe to key ameni­ties.

Craft Cider, 1946

While we’ve lost the will to debate the meaning of ‘craft’ in relation to beer we remain on the look out for evidence of how the term took hold.

In 1946, Bats­ford (as in the pub guides) pub­lished a book called Eng­lish Coun­try Crafts by Nor­man Wymer. Most of it con­cerns, e.g., wood­work­ing but there is a brief men­tion of cider-mak­ing:

Maybe it can hard­ly be called a craft in the strict sense, but cider-mak­ing is an inter­est­ing old coun­try work… and is, I think, worth a men­tion… Mod­ern meth­ods of pro­cess­ing and bot­tling have caused cider, as sold in most parts, to dep­re­cate in taste, while the large firms now buy up the farm­ers’ apples in such huge quan­ti­ties that the old-style cider-mak­ing has almost died out… There is as much dif­fer­ence between the machine- and the home-made cider as between mass-pro­duced and hand-made arti­cles. If you doubt it, try a glass of each and judge for your­self. Then you will see why cider-mak­ing is regard­ed as a coun­try craft.

Craft, mod­ern meth­ods, old-style, machine-made, home-made,hand-made, mass-pro­duced… How do you like them apples? (Ahem… sor­ry…)

On the oth­er side of the coin, Paul Jen­nings’s The Local (2007) quotes Charles Bar­clay of Bar­clay Perkins describ­ing him­self and his peers, in 1830, rather won­der­ful­ly, as ‘pow­er-loom brew­ers’.

Main image source.

After Craft Beer, Craft Cider

Coates's Cider mat -- detail.

We’ve often won­dered what might replace ‘craft beer’ in the affec­tions of the trend-chas­ing young folk. and, though there is now ‘craft gin’, and we’ve joked about when we can expect ‘craft mead’, it was always cider which looked most like­ly to lure their atten­tion. And it looks as if that change is under­way.

Let’s look at the omens.

Attempt­ing to trace the progress of this trend it looks very sim­i­lar to what’s hap­pened in beer, with some slight dif­fer­ences in tim­ing:

  1. 1950: a work­ing per­son­’s day-to-day drink.
  2. 1965: a com­mer­cial com­mod­i­ty dom­i­nat­ed by nation­al brands.
  3. 1970s: redis­cov­ered by the mid­dle-class­es in its ‘real’ form.
  4. 2000s: ‘pre­mi­u­mised’ by big pro­duc­ers. (Mag­n­er’s.)

Next? Per­haps ‘craft’ con­nois­seurism, exper­i­men­ta­tion and ‘extrem­i­fy­ing’; yeast exper­i­ments, bar­rel-aging and new ‘styles’; craft keg’? We cer­tain­ly look for­ward to try­ing a black­ened, impe­ri­alised scrumpy… (Some­one who knows about cider will no doubt tell us all of this is already hap­pen­ing.)

We’ve been say­ing for ages that cer­tain lam­bic beers share flavours with the more rough-and-ready ciders – ‘barn­yard’, ‘horse blan­ket’, ‘old wellies’, etc.. – and it won’t be much of a leap from beer to cider for those who’ve trained their taste­buds on hip ‘sours’ from brew­eries such as Brodie’s.

For now, at least, cider also has anoth­er great appeal: it isn’t taxed as heav­i­ly as beer and is there­fore cheap­er.

Don’t wor­ry – this won’t be becom­ing Boak and Bai­ley’s Cider Blog, but then we would­n’t be sur­prised to see a rash of them soon.

Green scrumpy and prat falls

Somerset Levels from Burrow Mump
Pic­ture by Steve Bridger from Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.

By Bai­ley

This morn­ing, a ques­tion on Twit­ter from Jeff Pick­thall about whether cider should smell of manure prompt­ed a vivid flash­back to an inci­dent from my child­hood.

In, I think, the sum­mer of 1988, dur­ing a heat wave, my par­ents decid­ed to have a bar­be­cue and invite a few peo­ple round for a ses­sion on the deck chairs in the back gar­den.

My fam­i­ly was liv­ing in a coun­cil house in Bridg­wa­ter, not because of the charm­ing archi­tec­ture (pre­fab con­crete) or com­mu­ni­ty atmos­phere (the local kids used to throw stones at our house and our shed got bur­gled twen­ty or so times), but because we were on our uppers. As a result, bang for buck, when it came to the pur­chase of alco­hol, was a sig­nif­i­cant con­sid­er­a­tion for my par­ents.

At around lunchtime, my Dad’s mate – a mum­bling Chew­bac­ca of a man my broth­er and I nick­named ‘Womble’ – turned up to accom­pa­ny my dad on a mis­sion: the booze run. Womble, it seemed, had a hot lead on some farm­house cider being sold at about half the price of posh stuff like Rich’s. When I say farm­house, I don’t mean rus­tic, bou­tique Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall ter­ri­to­ry: this was a Farmer Palmer asbestos barn out on the Lev­els whose own­er had a ‘relaxed’ atti­tude to tax­a­tion and the law.

When they returned, it was with a plas­tic gal­lon jer­ry can of what looked, for all the world, like the urine of a very dehy­drat­ed tramp.

It’s bloody green,” said my Dad, inspect­ing it against the light.

There were dead rats float­ing in the tank,” said Womble. (I’m not sure if he was try­ing to wind me up but sus­pect not.)

My Dad’s old­er broth­er, as I’ve men­tioned before, drank a lot of rough cider in the six­ties and sev­en­ties and, even now, can bare­ly string a sen­tence togeth­er and has no short term mem­o­ry to speak of. As a result, my Dad, to this day, is very wary of scrumpy. He and Womble took ten­ta­tive tasters. Steam blew out their ears. Their faces went through con­tor­tions. They stamped their feet.

How is it?” asked Mum.

Bloody awful,” said Dad, before he and Womble set about drink­ing in earnest.

After two pints or so each, they were talk­ing in tongues, or per­haps Unwinese, and appar­ent­ly regress­ing to child­hood. Even­tu­al­ly, gig­gling, Womble keeled over side­ways tak­ing his flim­sy can­vas fold­ing chair with him.

The cider was aban­doned with half a gal­lon remain­ing in the jug.

This is how I remem­ber it, but I’m sure Mum will call me lat­er to tell me I’m wrong.