Well, here we are in autumn, with its velvet-soft mornings sharpened by cool, still air - a reminder that winter is on its way. This is the celebrated ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’; the time for harvesting summer’s bounty from our trees and hedgerows and I feel that arguably one of our most popular fares, the British apple, is worthy of a blog post today.
Now that we have joined other European nations as wine and Prosecco drinkers, it seems to me that we largely overlook the production and associated traditions of our own native drink, cider, which has been made in this country for millennia – indeed, when the Romans invaded, they found that the locals were already old hands in fermenting apple juice to make this delicious drink!
Yet springtime orchards in blossom are things of great beauty rivalling (and surpassing, in my humble opinion) any vineyard, and artisan cider is made with the same attention and devotion as any fine wine.
Although cider production might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you consider what North Wales has to offer, among the soaring mountains, rolling hills and glittering seascapes, that’s exactly what you’ll find: passionate, small-scale producers extracting the sweet, golden juice of our native fruit to produce their heady blend.
From ciders made from just one or two apple varieties, to those which are a blend of many, each one is lovingly crafted using methods and techniques, and of course, fruit, peculiar to each artisan, ensuring that each one has its own distinct personality.
With all this in mind, I decided to discover a little more out the tradition of artisan cider producers here in North Wales…
Dee Ciders in Flintshire is run by father and son team, Richard and Scott Johnson.
On his retirement back in 2010, Richard had a cherished dream of whiling away his quieter years with small-scale cider making, and planted some apple trees, choosing the varieties either by their vintage or the glorious silliness of their names (Broxwood Foxwhelp and Brown Snout, for instance!). He planned to make himself a simple basket press and produce enough cider to see him through the year.
Unfortunately, the first year of pressing was missed due to Richard having an argument with a chisel when making his press, resulting in a 3 day hospital stay and a prolonged period of being unable to walk!
Things improved the following year though, and a bumper crop resulted in over 350 litres being produced. Inspired by watching BBC’s ‘The Apprentice’, Scott took some samples of their cider to The Bluebell Inn, Halkyn (CAMRA Cider Pub of the Year winner), who agreed to stock them. This gave the pair the confidence to continue, and they now deliver their cider and perry to many hostelries and restaurants across North Wales and beyond.
Richard and Scott’s aim has always been to produce the highest quality pure juice cider and perry, using fruit carefully picked and processed by hand with no water or concentrates added. Several years of hard work in planting new orchards and bringing old ones to life have literally borne fruit, and the amount of cider being produced continues to increase.
Retirement – what retirement?!
After spending many memorable weekends together on the beautiful island of Anglesey, there was only one choice for husband and wife team, Janet and Ade, when they decided to relocate for a change of lifestyle in 2013.
However, they soon noticed that the fruit of many apple trees on the island was largely going to waste, and having previously produced cider on a small scale as a hobby, the couple hit upon the idea of harvesting this fruit to produce a commercial Anglesey craft cider. They put out an appeal on social media for donations of unwanted Anglesey apples and pears, and were overwhelmed by the response, with offers of fruit coming in from all over the island, from single apple trees to orchards! They now have a growing network of ‘Apple Donors’, who in return receive samples of cider the following spring.
Jaspels Cider is made from the freshly pressed juice of these apples and pears, which is extracted using a handmade traditional-style hydraulic press, and allowed to ferment before being blended to produce ‘a true taste of the island’, in the words of Janet and Ade.
They also produce a damson fruit cider and a mulled cider, which they serve at food festivals.
The couple are particularly keen to graft from old and interesting Anglesey trees, and to establish many more orchards across the island, firmly believing that Anglesey has the landscape and climate to become a prime cider producing location.
Jaspels produce 5 unique craft ciders that they sell in their own shop in Amlwch, as well as through stockists across Anglesey, North Wales and Cheshire.
Rosie’s Cider can be found in the rolling countryside of Llandegla, and was founded thirteen years ago by Steve Hughes, whose first serious attempt at cider making from his own crab apples blended with other locally sourced apples gleaned a gold medal at his very first show, the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) Bottled Cider Competition in Reading back in 2006.
There are three award-winning ciders in the Rosie’s stable: Triple D, Wicked Wasp and Black Bart, together with a Perry (pear) cider – however, Steve finds it difficult to find enough fruit to make much of this, so if you have a productive perry pear tree, let him know!
Steve now grows 860 apple trees made up of 69 different varieties, and all Rosie’s cider is made by pressing fruit with no concentrate, water or ’fruit flavours’ added, to give a 100% full-juice cider, which is ‘super slow fermented’ over the winter months, and is usually ready by the end of May the following year.
Rosie’s sell cider from their own farm shop, which is open from 10.00 am – 6.30 pm weekdays, and from 9.00 am – 6.30 at the weekend, as well as to local hostelries. They also attend local food fairs and country shows.
In Steve’s words: “Good cider isn’t cheap. Cheap cider isn’t good…”
With these words in mind, and in the name of further research only, I took myself off to the Bluebell Inn, Halkyn, which serves both Dee Ciders and Rosie’s, to conduct a taste test and to chat to the friendly landlord, Gary Jones. It was a busy evening, but I managed a quick word with Gary, who took over the running of the pub 18 months ago and has carried on the tradition of selling only ciders from Wales, which, he tells me, continue to be popular.
After perusing the ‘cider blackboard’, I plumped for the Dee Ciders ‘Richard’s Dry’. It was a different experience for me, as although I do drink cider, I’m used to the widely available carbonated varieties. However, although this cider has a more complex taste than I’m used to, I did enjoy it and found it dangerously moreish!
In the interests of avoiding a hangover I decided not to try any more, but was assured by one of the locals that Rosie’s ‘Wicked Wasp’ was like ‘drinking nectar’ - in fact, he will only drink it while his wife is with him, as she keeps an eye on his intake!
I was keen to find out how this year’s challenging weather has affected cider fruit crops, and in turn, their business, so I managed an early morning chat with Janet from Jaspels Cider in Anglesey. She told me that the apple crop was slow to get started, but when the rains finally came in August there was a surge in growth which produced apples with a higher sugar content than in previous years, and although the harvest was 3 weeks early and the physical size of the fruit was smaller overall, the yield was greater.
Jaspels enjoys a steady and plentiful supply of fruit from their ‘fruit donors’ and the business is continuing to grow, with 100 new donors coming forward this year alone. Janet and Ade are continuing their search to pinpoint suitable sites for orchards across Anglesey, and they have been approached by local farmers, some of whom are already donors, who would like to work with them. She was keen to point out that comparing craft cider to commercial cider is like comparing a house wine with a fine vintage, with commercial cider only having to contain 30% pure apple juice (the rest of the flavour coming from apple concentrates and syrups). This is compared to a craft cider, which is 100% pressure-pressed pure juice, and then fermented, like wine – definitely not brewed!
Thankfully, with the advent of the ’slow food movement’ and the growing public appetite for small batch artisan food and drink, awareness of craft ciders is greatly improving, and cider production is on the increase in North Wales. Once they have established an orchard, Jaspels are also looking to reintroduce the ancient tradition of ‘Wassailing’ (from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’ meaning ‘good health’).
A crowd of people gather in the orchard for this night-time event, usually in January, and make lots of noise to scare away any evil spirits lurking in the trees (sometimes referred to as “howling”). Slices of cider-soaked bread or toast are then hung onto the branches, and cider is poured onto the roots of the trees. This ceremony is said to “bless” the trees to produce a good crop in the next year. Cider is passed around the company and drunk from a Wassail Bowl, an intricately made and decorated wood or clay bowl. Beautiful and highly decorated pottery Wassail bowls continue to be made to commission in both traditional and contemporary styles by Gwili Pottery in Carmarthen. This is an exciting development and will be an excellent new tourist attraction for Anglesey - I wonder where the nearest B&B is, because I’m in!.
CRAZY FOR CIDER?
If you are interested in finding out more for yourself, head over to Erddig Hall, Wrexham, whose own orchard contains 180 varieties of apple, where they are celebrating their annual month-long Apple Harvest until Sunday 29th October this year.
This is one of the largest Apple Festivals in the UK, featuring apple tree talks and walks, storytelling, live music, a Welsh Cider and Perry exhibition, and cider press demonstrations – amongst many other things!
Head Gardener Glyn Smith has been instrumental in the planting of a museum orchard at Erddig as part of the ‘ModernStory of Orchards and Cider Making in Wales’ Project, in conjunction with the Welsh Perry and Cider Society. He says that the project will be a real step forward in maintaining the heritage of cider apples and perry pears in Wales.
As part of the same project, 2017 saw 43 new varieties of apples believed to be found only in Wales, being discovered during research carried out jointly between the Society and the University of South Wales: “It’s incredibly exciting for us. The project has unearthed far more unique varieties than we ever expected – fruit that is probably only in Wales, and which has never been recorded. For cider lovers with a patriotic streak, it could be just what they’re looking for!” said Jayne Hunt, the Society’s Heritage Project Manager.
I hope all this has whetted your appetite to seek out our local producers and sample some of their delicious ciders and perrys, and that you will join me in raising a glass or two to this great Welsh cider revival! In the words of Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw: “Having lost its ancient tradition completely, Wales is now back on the cider map with a BANG!” – World’s Best Cider Book