This is Kingston Black. An awkward specimen. Not the most yielding of cider apples. The tannins in the juice can be raspingly bitter. And yet aficionados seek out gnarled old trees with a grudging affection. Getting its fermentation right is a kind of Cider Holy Grail – to achieve the perfect, refreshing balance between savoury and subtly sweet.
If that sounds a mite gushing, please pardon me. I’m just gearing up for October, officially British Cider and Perry Month. Perry, cider’s pear-driven sibling, has always played second fiddle, even with its commercial moment in the sun as sparkling Babycham back in the day. Lambrini is from pears too, surely proof that class is permanent? Not.
These days both fermented apple and pear drinks are being taken more seriously by craft creators across the land. Even away from the cider heartlands of Somerset and Herefordshire. Hence I find myself in an orchard in the Borough of Trafford (though to all intents and purposes, this is Cheshire hinterland).
All the apple trees around me at Dunham Press Cider were planted by Chris Hewitt. He’s handy with a spade. A cherished further responsibility is as parish gravedigger. The family are woven into the village fabric, working the land at Boundary Farm for close on a century. There long before the Georgian pile of Dunham Massey passed into National Trust hands.
Chris’s decision to pursue cider making was a natural progression from his dad Alan diversifying into juice pressing in the Nineties. Ironically just 20 years after the original apple trees on the farm, attached to the Dunham Massey Estate, had been grubbed up.
Chris’s constant additions to the cider apple acreage (currently up to 23), his fortitude in the face of the frost and hail of northern climes, are an act of faith and an act of love.
Sharing that love with us today, and to a wider public, is the man with the Cavalier moustache and a Messianic zeal for cider, who is cutting up a Kingston Black to show us what the pips reveal about its state of ripe readiness for picking and pressing.
This windfall of an opportunity to encounter Bristol-based Gabe Cook, aka The Ciderologist, comes with the publication of his definitive Modern British Cider (CAMRA Books, £15.99),
He’s delivering copies to Chris and his wife Alison ahead of a book launch at GRUB in Manchester, where he’ll promote the virtues of the key contemporary cider makers he chronicles in his book. Not household names like Bulmers or Kopparberg (though Weston gets a shout). Samples of ciders and perries from Nightingales, Find and Foster, Ross, Olivers and Caledonian will be testimony to the diversity of the current scene.
But first there’s the joys of a cider maker’s lunch of ham sandwiches and apple cake in the folksy Apple Barn cafe that is the public face of Dunham Press. It is totemic that alongside their own delectable range, the likes of award-winning Peterloo Perry and Dabbler Medium Sweet Sparkling Cider, sit ciders from all over the UK. There are also beer cans from another of the North West’s best artisan drinks makers, Rivington (feel my love for them via this link). The farm is also gearing up for pumpkin season with 20,000 swelling in the patch and the inner pagan in all of us will be up for their annual Wassail.
Still we’re here today specifically for the ciders, from Dunham’s organically farmed, spray-free orchards, each separate apple variety hand-picked when just ready. The names have a ripeness all of their own – Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Hastings and curmudgeonly old Kingston Black. The pandemic has given Chris the chance to give the fermented juice more time in cask and bottle. All to their benefit. The path of minimal intervention has led Dunham into wild yeast fermentation with all its risks and rewards.
This is a world away from the commercial brand leaders. Yet Gabe, in his book, strikes a conciliatory note about ‘Big Cider’, arguing that Strongbow and Magners can be an entry level for cider drinkers, who might later seek out artisan tipples created on a different scale. He may rail against fruit ciders made with barely any real fruit (ostensibly no better than alcopops) or ciders made from concentrated apple juice that are then heavily watered down, but he is not dogmatic about cider having to be totally from apples, and 100 per cent juice.
‘Modern British Cider’ as a catch-all combines the innovative and collaborative with a strong sense of heritage, of back story. And we don’t mean the callow rite of passage of spewing up after a flagon of industrial White Lightning in your teens.
CAMRA is strongly supportive of real cider – campaigning for vital duty reforms and publishing Gabe’s book (via a Kickstarter campaign). But the author is quick to differentiate the drink from beer brewing, which is a cooking process. Proper cider making is more akin to winemaking, a once a year fermentation from harvested raw material, usually from the immediate terroir. “Cold climate wine” is a neat phrase coined by Gabe.
In contrast, a brewer can cherry pick his hops from around the world, brew 52 weeks a year and, in the contemporary world of craft, choose from a wide variety of global styles.
Which brings us to often under the radar perry, close to Gabe’s heart since he was born in the village of Dymock, nominally in Gloucestershire but tucked into a Herefordshire terroir that has a clutch of perfect pear orchards.
Gabe recalled in an interview: “The very first drink I ever made was 25 litres of Thorn perry, the pears from the last remaining perry tree on my granny’s farm at Dymock. Big brute of a tree that’s still there – the farm’s not actually in the family any more. And do you know what, it was actually probably the best drink I’ve ever made, which was obviously down to chance.
“And I love Thorn – I love my ciders to be bold and earthy and tannic and my perries to be lean and brisk and effervescent. Great drink. And, ah, it just … my eyes suddenly opened and I could see these trees, these orchards – it’s amazing. You have like a filter sort of taken off I suppose you could say and I could just see the impact of these trees on the landscape, it’s just amazing.”
This Damascene moment eventually led to a peripatetic career in the cider industry. His time in New Zealand had him working for both the legendary Peckham Cider and a winery, Waimea Estates. He may be self-deprecatory about his own cider making ability (one notorious attempt at perry ended up tasting of sausages) but his communication skills have led him into a variety of promotional roles within the industry, culminating in a 2017 decision to go full time freelance as ‘The Ciderologist’.
Rather than an artisan polemic, Modern British Cider is a careful summation that makes you want to sample all the delights he flags up in ‘The Most influential British Cider Makers Today’ chapter. In particular, to consider the contrasts between West Counties and East Counties, ie. made from tannic bittersweet cider apple varieties on the one hand and from fresher, fruitier dessert and culinary specimens on the other.
So what did I take home from the shelves of Dunham Press? A cider style I only discovered through the pages of Modern British Cider. Gabe describes ‘Keeved’ as “A style with a record of being produced in Britain historically, but most strongly associated with the classic cider-making culture of the Brittany and Normandy region of Northern France…. Keeved cider is made using classic, tannic-rich bittersweet cider apples to provide bold structure and intense aromas, flavours and mouthfeel. Varieties that bring some acidity and fruitiness are often classically used to provide softness and balance.
“The primary defining character of these ciders is undergoing a particular process prior to fermentation, known as keeving. This process involves the precipitation of pectin out of the juice, binding onto yeast and nutrients before rising to the surface. The subsequent yeast and nutrient deficient juice is then transferred to another vessel for fermentation. This tends to be slow and incomplete, normally leading to a lower alcohol content and retention of residual sweetness. These ciders are often presented in 750ml bottle with a degree of natural carbonation.”
I find from another source (a real lingustic windfall) that the French term for the keeving process is défécation. Merde!
Master of keeving in the UK is Martin Berkeley of Pilton Cider in Somerset. It was his Tamashanta I purchased for £9 and it was a complex, mellow, slightly smokey revelation. Keeving and initial fermentation takes place in large vats, but on Burns Night (hence the name) the young cider is transferred to Scotch whisky barrels to finish and mature.
WHERE TO BUY YOUR CIDER
Shepton Mallet-based Pilton was first recommended to me by Liz Paton at Drink in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, my best local source of craft ciders, including the benchmark examples from the legendary Tom Oliver. A more comprehensive selection is available from Nicky Kong’s online bottle shop The Cat In The Glass, which has strong connections with Manchester Cider Club. And, of course, a day out at Dunham is de rigueur. You’ll find them at Sawpit Street, Dunham Massey, Altrincham WA14 5SJ. Buy some cider and drink it out in the orchard. What could be lovelier? You’ll also find their stalls at country fairs. Yes, the North definitely does cider.