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Weekend: Food & Drink: Ancient art of traditional amber nectar; We're now drinking more cider than at any time in the last 50 years. Andrew Davies looks at the ancient tipple that's enjoying a modern revival.

Byline: Andrew Davies

Cider has been made and drunk in Britain for thousands of years, since long before the Romans introduced the nation to the joys of the grape.

It's as English as thatched cottages and Morris dancing, with which it is frequently associated, and, with its unique terminology and customs, is probably more firmly rooted in our national rural folklore than bitter beer, clotted-cream teas or the great English breakfast.

And while, ten years ago, orchards were being grubbed up at an alarming rate by farmers who considered them unviable wastes of land, now some are finding they can't plant enough apple trees to satisfy the demand for the original amber nectar.

The West Midlands and the West Country have traditionally been at the heart of cider production.

Today, Herefordshire produces well over half of all the UK's cider - an incredible 63 million gallons a year - while ancient orchards are also to be found in Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.

For the past 350 years, cider-making has had something of an up-and-down history. Traditionally, more cider has been produced at times of agricultural depression - cider fruit keeps, its size and appearance do not matter, and it is a good activity for the slack time of year when the crops and stock are safely gathered in, 'ere the winter storms begin. Arguably, at times of agricultural hardship there would also have been more demand for cider's anaesthetic effect.

Herefordshire is also home to cider giant Bulmer, now the proud owners of the world's largest alcohol container, which holds an incredible 7.27 litres (1.6 million gallons).

Grants are now available for replanting ancient apple orchards, while the Three Counties Cider and Perry Association reports that membership has never been more popular.

Association secretary Jean Nowell says: 'We have about 60 members in the three counties - Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire - and more people joining all the time. 'Quite a lot of them are doing it just as a hobby, and join to find out how to do it better and get some advice.

'Some are doing it on the scale of just a few gallons for themselves, while others are farmers doing it as a sideline. Then there's Bulmer, who is also a member - the biggest commercial makers.

'Most of our members are in what we might call the craft cider business - a lot of them are making specialist products for discerning drinkers or for restaurants locally, or farmers' markets and specialist off-licences.

'The basic figure that a lot of our craft cider-makers aim for is 7,000litres a year, which is quite a lot of cider. Demand for it is very good and growing, very much in keeping with demand for slow food - low-intensity, fresh and naturally-grown foods with few food-miles - local produce and hand-made produce.

'The craft cider is getting more popular - once you get into it, it does have some very interesting sides, such as the single-variety apple ciders, whose taste people can get to know then work out which varieties they can taste in blended ciders.'

And it's not just the varied and delicious taste that cider has going for it. Heritage and health benefits have also contributed to the drink's recent revival.

'Cider goes back before the Romans,' says Nowell. 'It goes back an awfully long way, and up until a couple of hundred years ago people were drinking it a lot because it was safer than water - the acid levels killed off any germs.

'Recently they've discovered it has very beneficial health effects - it is full of anti-oxidants and can help ward off cancer and heart disease. And there are lots of old cider-makers and drinkers around.'

There are also a lot of old orchards about, although, with apple trees living a maximum of 100 years, regular restocking is needed.

'Some of the old orchards are being very carefully looked after, but the trees do reach the end of their life and they do need replacing,' explains Nowell. 'People are planting bushes rather than trees because they're better croppers, but old trees produce smaller, tougher fruit with more sugar and better taste.'

Bulmer produces 65 per cent of the 800 million pints of cider drunk in the UK every year. Despite the current financial crisis in the Hereford-based company which emerged this week, a rebranding campaign over the last 12 years has seen sales double, says spokesman George Thomas.

'While it's true to say the market is pretty flat at the moment, when we rebranded in 1989 cider was in serious decline. We had to appeal to a younger market, who very much saw cider as a rural drink drunk by yokels, and they were not going to buy it.

'We redesigned the packaging and launched a massive advertising campaign which saw sales double, to the extent that Strongbow is now the eighth biggest-selling long drink in the UK market.'

Of the 10,000 acres currently planted as cider orchards in the three counties, Bulmer owns 3,000. Farmers are also growing apples as a serious cash crop - last year, farmers planted 4,500 acres, or two million new trees, producing the traditional English bittersweet apple, propagated by Bulmer's nurseries to supply them with apples in the future.

The commercial success of mainstream ciders also has a knock-on effect for the smaller ciders, says Thomas.

'We are in a different ballgame from the smaller niche makers like Westons, or the smaller cideries like Dunkertons or Gwatkin's,' he says.

'We have created the market place, and 18-year-olds are going to drink Strongbow rather than farmhouse cider. But eight million Strongbow drinkers will then move on and try out the independent, niche ciders, and we're quite happy for smaller manufacturers to ride in on the back of that.'

Dunkertons is one of those independent cideries. Run by Susie and Ivor Dunkerton, the organic cidery is situated in ancient barns at Pembridge, the village right at the heart of cider country and home to the ancient annual wassailing festival on Twelfth Night.

The company planted 3,000 apple bushes in 1986, and a further 1,000 in May, bringing the total up to 12 acres which last year produced around 38,000 gallons of cider. But it hopes to increase production to 100,000 gallons over the next five to six years. Staffing levels have also gone up over the last four years by 300 per cent - from one to four employees.

As well as small farm shops and farmers' markets, Dunkertons supplies Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and supermarket chain Waitrose.

Cidermaker Robert West says: 'We just can't make enough at the moment - it's frustrating.

'It's a slow business. There's alimited number of apples we can grow, and the 1,000 bushes we planted in May will take four years to crop.'

The orchards grow 123 varieties of apple including Brown Snout, Pig's Nose, Foxwhelp, Breakwells Seedling, Dabnett, Yarlington Mill, and Tremletts Bitter.

Most produce apple juice that is blended for a range of ciders ranging from traditional dry through medium dry and medium sweet to sweet, while other varieties, such as Kingston Black and Herefordshire Redstreak, produce vintage single-variety ciders.

The rare Kingston Black produced just 400 gallons of cider last year.

'For the blended ciders, it's crucial to get that balance between acid and tannin,' continues West. 'It's much like wine. Dabnett, for example, is high in tannin, which gives a good, full body, while Sheep's Nose makes lovely bitter cider, and Foxwhelp also gives it that acidity.'

This year's crop looks like being a matter of quality rather than quantity, says West.

'Most farms will be making wonderful, strong, dry cider. We haven't had the rain, but we haven't had the sun either. You would expect that amount of rain, which is much, much less than normal, to mean the juice content would be down and the sugar content to be up, but it's not. It's a slightly less-juicy pulp, but high sugar content.'

To increase output, Dunkertons takes in organic apples from other growers, and would like to get its hands on more acres to plant orchards. 'If we can get more acres or organic farmers to supply the fruit, there is a growing demand,' says West. 'But at the moment we can't meet that demand.'

Jean Nowell is optimistic for the region's cider 'as long as people keep on making it good'.

'There's a college course on it in Pershore, plus the cider museum in Hereford, this weekend's apple weekend activities and other campaigns such as the cider route, so there's a lot going on,' she says. 'And there's scope to go on improving standards - the higher the better.

'The demand is there for quality: we've got to keep it up.'

Various cider makers can be visited by members of the public. For details, pick up a copy of The Cider Route from tourist information centres.

The Cider Museum and King Offa Distillery at Hereford are celebrating cider and the apple this weekend. Call 01432 354207 for details.

Cider apple varieties

The best cider is made from traditional apples specifically grown for the purpose - eating apples produce cider that's very sweet. Popular varieties of cider apple include: Knotted Kernel Foxwhelp Brown Snout Sheep's Nose Breakwells Seedling Dabnett Court Royal Kingston Black Strawberry Norman Tremletts Bitter Frequin Roi de Pomme Bloody Turk White Norman Herefordshire Redstreak

How to make cider

Harvest the fruit from mid-September through to Christmas by pothering (knocking) them from the trees with long panking (harvesting) poles and collect them from the floor (large-scale producers have tractor-mounted tree-shakers, while apples are mechanically blown away from the tree trunks and hoovered up by a huge vacuum attachment and into a trailer)

Store the collected apples in tumps (mounds) until they become daddicky (slightly overripe)

Crush or mill the rather hard fruit using a traditional stone mill or a mechanical scratter, in the first case having rowed the fruit into the millchase with a tammus

Place the pulp between hairs (cloths stretched between ash-framed cloths) and stack to form a cheese

Place in press and turn screw so juice flows out

Pour pressed juice into large casks traditionally holding 60 or 120 gallons. Add live yeast and wait for juice to fret (hiss)

Once fermentation is over (about six weeks - longer in cooler weather, shorter in milder), hammer in wooden bung to seal from air or it will become squeal-pig (cider that has gone sour). Mature for several months in barrel. Tap belly-vengeance (cider) off into flagons, bottles etc.

CAPTION(S):

Above, cider farmers Tom Stephens and his wife Ann collect apples in one of the orchards on their farm near Leominster; below left, it's harvest time on the farm with cider apples ripe for picking Pictures/SIMON HADLEY
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 19, 2002
Words:1795
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