Robert Gorelangton

The birth of a barrel of cider

The plan was to pour the apple juice into an oak hogshead, freshly emptied of its whisky...

The birth of a barrel of cider
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The fabulous October weather is now just a memory but it made for a golden, old-fashioned apple day down in Somerset. The plan was to pick and convert a mound of sugar-rich Redstreaks — about 400 kilos — into a rather special vintage. We would pour the apple juice into an oak hogshead, freshly emptied of its whisky, to make a cider tinged with a 20-year-old malt. How good does that sound?

The idea of the get-together was the idea of designer Bill Amberg and publisher Damian Jaques, who is a cider boffin. Various friends and their families convened by an old barn with a nearby orchard. We tipped piles of apples on to a mat. The children rinsed the fruit in buckets and chucked them into a tall macerating contraption. From there we scooped the chopped fruit into a Lancman Hydropress, a lovely piece of Slovenian kit. Its big rubber bladder expands under water pressure, compressing the apple pulp against the walls of a perforated steel drum. Gallons of foaming juice gratifyingly gush forth. We swigged jugs of it. The apple fumes hung in the air. The dogs chased each other until they got bored. Lunch was bread and wedges of pongingly good cheddar bought in nearby Bruton, one stop short of Castle Cary if you are travelling west from Paddington.

Young farmers mostly drink vodka and Red Bull these days. But back in the 18th century, West Country labourers had their pay supplemented by four pints of cider a day. I had it (wrongly) in mind that Thomas Hardy offered a cautionary tale about cider abuse in Far from the Madding Crowd. In the storm scene, the slugs and toads have instinctively headed indoors and the sheep have adopted brace positions. The hayricks desperately need covering but the labourers at the harvest supper are all in a drunken slumber. On checking the novel, however, it was not cider that was to blame. It was French brandy supplied by that bounder Sergeant Troy.

By the end of the day, our barrel, an oaken depth charge, was brimming with juice. The wooden bung was split so that evening we bodged a new one on a lathe in the garage. A plastic valve allows the cask to belch up its gases as the natural yeasts do their work. Without doing very much, by next spring Bill should have on tap 440 pints of bright lovely golden cider of about 7 per cent alcohol (or if it goes wrong, not so lovely badger piss). We didn’t add a rat, by the way. Damian thinks the story about how they used to chuck a rodent into the newly made scrumpy for extra flavour is an invention. However, one year something warm and furry did genuinely crawl into his brew. He couldn’t put his finger on it but the cider, he said approvingly, ‘definitely had a meaty edge’.