So that was cider season 2019

Time passes so quickly – it feels like we’ve only just declared October to be our month of cider and yet here we are at the end.

Did we do quite as much cidery stuff as we’d hoped we might? Not really, but we did:

Here’s a rundown of what we drank, where, and some of the (limited) conclusions we reached.

We kicked everything off with a visit to the Cider Press on Gloucester Road – an easy one because we pass it on the way home from work.

We ordered two dry ciders from (we think) Rich’s and Heck’s. So dry were they judged to be, in fact, that we were made to taste them before ordering by a barman obviously used to having to deal with put out customers.

Cider at the Cider Press.

After all the fuss, we found them not exactly sweet, but not what we’d think of as dry either.

This might be because, insofar as we know cider at all, our tastebuds have been calibrated by Mr Wilkins’s dry, which can tend to feel like putting cotton wool on the tongue.

But we also suspect that The Orchard, the splendid backstreet ciderhouse on Spike Island, would be selling these as medium, or medium-dry, or at least not making a fuss about it.

So first lesson: dry is contextual and to some degree in the eye of the vendor. (See also: hoppy.)

The following day we refreshed ourselves mid-ramble with a pint of a cider we didn’t expect to like but felt obliged to try. Thatcher’s Haze must be one of the top selling ciders in Bristol and certainly seems to be the go-to for our respective work colleagues. And you know what? We didn’t hate it.

If you think of it as a kind of soft, sweet fizzy pop, then it’s no trouble at all to drink.

The Dark Horse

The main destination of our walk that day was The Dark Horse in St George’s. It’s a fairly normal pub catering to a blend of locals (students, hipsters, hippies, hardened boozers) which we’d noticed on a previous visit has a wall of boxed cider, as well as a few on draught.

Here we hit upon the first ciders that we can actually say we really enjoyed. One was from Iford and described as medium-dry; the other was a dry cider from Tricky. The Iford in particular was like a delicious freshly-pressed apple juice with just a hint of funk and acid.

Heading back into town, we stopped off at the newly gentrified Swan with Two Necks (more on this later) where there was another Iford, Somerset Sahara – a joke about its supposed extreme dryness. Again, it was excellent, so we felt as if we’d achieved one of our aims for the month: finding a producer we could rely on and look out for on otherwise overwhelming cider lists.

After we Tweeted something along these lines,, Oliver Holtaway recommended Honey’s Midford. We happened to see a bottle of the Medium Dry in one of our local bottle shops a few days later and took ‘ee on.

Up to this point in our experiment, we hadn’t really seen any point of sale blurb about the ciders we were drinking (and indeed often struggled to work out the name or manufacturer of specific ciders from the available information) but this came with some detailed liner notes.

It was described as ‘unfiltered craft cider’, our first encounter with the C-word in the world of cider. It was ever so slightly fizzy. We really liked this, enjoying the full and complex apple foretaste, balanced with enough farmyard grit to make it feel like scrumpy. Will saying we appreciated the carbonation get us thrown out of cider club? Well, we did.

We had to fit in a visit to The Orchard where we had cooked up this daft plan and scheduled a proper Sunday sesh.

Jess began with Janet’s Jungle Juice, which is an award-winning medium-dry cider made round the corner from Ray’s parents. It’s been her default choice at The Orchard for a while so it was interesting to taste it properly with a little more contextual information. It really is a journey in the glass: it smells, and at first tastes, like a toffee apple, morphs into easy-drinking juice, then swings in with an acid kick at the end. The trick is to sip it as a gulp seems inevitably to produce a coughing fit. The Double IPA of the cider world?

Iford’s Windfall – great name – was described as medium but still tasted sweet to us, and… Look, that’s all we’ve got. It was perhaps a bit bland, or maybe subtle, and, evidently, our cider palates still need work.

We also drank a dry cider, Porter’s Perfection, that was indeed completely without residual sweetness but at the same time completely lacking sourness.

This triggered a realisation: we had been making the shortcut association of dryness with sourness which of course isn’t necessarily the case. Just as in beer, you can have a sour cider that is also sugary, and a dry cider that is super clean.

Ashridge was a disappointment. We think we’ve enjoyed this in the past but on this occasion it managed to be the worst of all cider worlds, lacking apple character while also being petrol-fume harsh. It reminded us, unfortunately, of homemade fruit wine with too much white cane sugar in the mix.

We finished on a couple of very dangerous options.

Rocky Road was described as medium but, again, tasted pretty sweet to us, with no harshness whatsoever – just like drinking apple juice, with the lethal punchline of a barely evident 6% ABV.

Red Hen, meanwhile, was a subtle medium-dry affair which made us understand cider as apple wine – it had the crisp finish of a Riesling.

The session taught us something else which is that it is very difficult to objectively taste cider as part of a session as the previous cider really does impact on how you perceive the next one. The same applies to beer, of course, but it felt especially pronounced here, perhaps because there are relatively few variables – no hop varieties to contend with, for example.

After our enlightening visit to the CoriTap, we made a pitstop at a nearby bar where we tried Orchard Pig – the Camden Hells of cider? You wouldn’t know from the branding that it’s owned by the same people who produce Magners and, to be fair, it is a very different, more enjoyable drink – fizzy, sweet, with an accessible ABV, but definitely still a touch funky.

The Apple

Finally, last night, we made it to The Apple, a cider bar on a boat that we’ve visited several times before between us.

It seemed right to circle back to the cidermakers we started with: Rich’s (medium) and Kingston Black from Heck’s (medium-dry). Rich’s, the standard cider of family gatherings in Ray’s childhood, tasted quite sugary and fairly straightforward, with almost a touch of Tizer about it. The Heck’s seemed too sweet for the designation and had something dusty and cork-like about it.

The very last cider of cider season was Taunton Dry (‘clear-dry’ as the menu had it) which was Champagne-pale, relatively weak at 4% ABV. This one really confused us: definitely sweet but also, somehow, dry. Let’s try this again: it tasted sweet but felt dry. Or started sweet and finished dry. Or… Ah, who knows. It also seemed a bit watery as in literally watered down. Still, a wisp of countryside character gave it a bit of added appeal.

So, all in all we achieved what we set out to do – we revisited Bristol pubs known for their cider offer identified some makers that we like and would look out for in future, Iford in particular being a name that crops up all over the place.

We’ve learned that the traditional dry-medium-sweet descriptors aren’t really that helpful indicators for us in deciding whether we’re going to like a cider or not. What we want to know is how intense the apple flavour might be and how much acid to expect.

Has this month turned us into cider drinkers? Probably not. While we have much more appreciation for the variety that is out there, and will definitely continue to have the occasional cider session, it’s difficult to conceive of us choosing cider when beer is available. We find it hard to session on and hard work rather than refreshing.

Shame we didn’t get round to visiting The Long Bar or having those cans of Natch, though.

Cider Season 2019: The Coronation Tap

The Coronation Tap in Clifton is something special: it calls itself a ciderhouse rather than a pub and is famous for Exhibition, its 8.4% house cider.

Also called the Cori or the Cori Tap, it’s best known as a student hangout and every time we’ve been, we’ve felt like decrepit intruders. A 24-year-old acquaintance told us recently that they used to go all the time but felt they’d outgrown it.

Which is odd, in some ways, because it’s so… brown. Dark and old-fashioned. The place it most reminds us of is The Old Ale House in Truro and it’s supposedly been trading since at least the early 19th century.

And when you hear that young people like cider, you picture something fizzy or fruit-flavoured, not halves of fairly flat, faintly funky, scrumpyish stuff.

Oh, yes: Exhibition is not served in pints. That’s why on a recent visit we saw a young Scot stop another drinker in their tracks. With a look of sheer panic on his face he asked, “Why is everybody here drinking halves!?”

Outside the Coronation Tap.

What savvy students do, of course, having shuffled their way through the wall to the bar, is order two halves at a time, buying a round in which the other party is themselves.

We’re only a few weeks into paying cider the slightest bit of attention but we reckon we get Exhibition: it’s strong but one-dimensional, all sweetness, with the kind of apple flavour you get in pasteurised supermarket apple juice. Which is not to say it’s bad – it’s easy to knock back, offers a sugar rush to counteract the booze downer, and doesn’t demand a lot of attention.

Perfect, in other words, for teenagers trying to get loaded on a big night out.

The Cori definitely has an air of naughtiness as if chaos is only ever a moment away. Waves of shouted song break out. People stumble. Drinks spill. Lanky lads, only months out of their school blazers, stalk about in groups of seven or eight, both nervous and excited. There is frequent, loud, wild laughter.

“When I lived nearby in about 1979,” someone in The Drapers told us, “it was famous for its lock-ins. The landlord would leave the upstairs toilet light on so locals would know to knock on the door.”

It still feels like the kind of place where that might happen.

Why not make cider?

It all began with a big sign on the window of our local home-brewing shop, the unfortunately named Brewer’s Droop: ‘It’s Cider season! Borrow our cider press!’

We’ve been blessed with apples this year. Or rather, with some extensive YouTube study and a five hour pruning session in February, I managed to get the unproductive tree in our rented property to produce hundreds of absolute whoppers. I have hitherto been almost the opposite of green fingered, so I’m inordinately proud of this.

We had already made pies, frozen puree, made apple butter and eaten apple pancakes for breakfast every day for two weeks. But, still, we had loads.

So I wandered into the shop to find out more and came out fixated on the idea. As in, Ray asking, “What are you thinking about?” as I stared into the middle distance pondering the process. As in, drifting off to sleep with visions of sweet juice flowing freely from the press.

The shopkeeper told me I could hire a scratter (pulper) and the press on a daily rate. I didn’t need any other kit as we already had fermenting vessels and campden tablets. That just left a couple of issues to sort before pressing day.

Firstly, it turned out that, though we were trying to deal with an apple surplus, we’d actually need more apples – “at least five 20 litre buckets to make it worthwhile,” said the helpful chap in the shop.

The poster I put up in the Drapers.

Fine, no problem: I contacted a couple of friends who also have apple trees and then had the bright idea of putting a sign up in The Drapers Arms. This turned out to be wildly successful and mildly stressful.

We had to get them from the pub to home on foot. Garvan, landlord of The Drapers, lent us his sack truck but, still, we still end up scattering apples around the pub and Hansel and Gretel style along the Gloucester Road.

It all worked out, though, and without any planning at all we hit upon a good mix for cider – mostly eating apples, a few cookers and some actual cider apples.

Unfortunately, not many people left their details so I have no way to say thanks to lots of the donors apart from here, and perhaps another sign in the Drapers. So, thank you all, it is really appreciated.

Next, I had to work out what processes to follow and how to use the kit.

Cider production, even more than brewing beer, seems to be a field full of contradictory advice and inconsistencies, with reputable sources disagreeing on methods.

“You don’t need muslin”, said the bloke at the shop – not much of a salesman, with hindsight.

“You definitely need a straining sock or something similar,” said two Drapers regulars, referring to a system for lifting the crushed apple out of the press when it’s done.

“You’ll need Campden tablets and a cider yeast,” said one; “I never use yeast, just let it do its thing,” said another.

I eventually settled on no straining sock but decided I would do the Campden tablet plus yeast thing.

The press in action.

I learned a few things in the thick of it:

> You need at least one other person, and preferably three or four. That way, you can be scratting while someone is emptying the previous pressing, or putting more pressure on the press, or making a round of tea without a break in production.

> Pulping apples in a hand cranked scratter is incredibly satisfying but the juice and pips will fly several metres as the fruit disappears into the maw, so either do it outside or cover everything.

> Yes, you definitely need a bloody straining sock. Digging out compacted apple cheese from a press is a lot harder work than digging out a mash tun, and you have to repeat it several times.

> The press can always be turned one more time, though it might not be worth the effort after a while.

> Size of apple really matters in estimating yield. “About five buckets of apples to one bucket of juice” said the chap in the shop. “About three times as many apples as volume of liquid,” said a cider making expert in the Drapers. I think my yield was more like one bucket of juice from six buckets of apples. I think that’s partly because a lot of our apples were huge – the bloke in the Drapers has a tree that produces lovely little red apples, hence, I reckon, his much better yield.

We learned afterwards, from books:

> As well as size of apple, amount of juice is dependent on when you pick the apples and press them. We don’t really have the room to do what most sources suggest, which is to pick the apples and leave them for up to four weeks before pressing, so we probably couldn’t have done this differently.

> We should have aimed for a balance of sweetness, acidity and tannin in the juice, and should have made adjustments to achieve it. Well, the juice we got was absolutely beautiful, but I’m not sure if it will have enough acid or tannin to make good cider.

We got 30 litres of juice in the end after about 17 hours of hard labour, mostly me but with Ray’s help in the evening.

That juice is, at present, still juice, as fermentation does not seem to be quite kicking off as it ought to.

The fermenting vessel full of juice.

One of the smaller carboys is going fairly well, though not spraying foam everywhere as promised; the other is more sluggish. Our massive 20 litre jar seems to be going nowhere, at the time of writing.

It’s all the same yeast so perhaps I used too many Campden tablets and killed it? We will probably mix up the one that is going with the one that isn’t and see what happens.

At the moment, then, we don’t know if all the hassle was worth it, and by all accounts, even if we do get cider, it won’t be drinkable for another year. Still, we’ve already gone from “Never again!” at one o’clock on Friday morning to “When we do this again next year…”

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.