Traditional cider making

by frankbeswick

Cider has been made in Western England since time immemorial, and there is much traditional skill and custom in the process.

Apples grow well in England, particularly the West country and the South West. Certain counties stand out, especially in verdant Herefordshire, which borders Wales, Somerset, the rolling shires of Gloucestershire, and more south westerly the counties of Devon and Dorset. though there are other counties also. The Anglo-Saxons drank ale and mead, so they must have learned cider brewing from the Britons, with whom they intermarried, Cider brewing and its traditions therefore go back a long way in England.

Image courtesy of Open Clip Art Vectors


In the picture below you see the ancient custom of wassailing. Some time in January, when the buds on the apple trees were becoming visible, the people of a farm would assemble in the apple orchard at night, pour a libation of cider or maybe ale onto the ground and say the incantation, which might begin 

"Old Apple Tree, we wassail thee,

And hoping thou wilt bear......."

Others might call out "Wassail, drink ale! The word wassail is Anglo-Saxon and is a cry meaning "Good Health"  and this ancient word shows the venerable antiquity of the ceremony.  In the picture you only see men [reflecting the sexism of that period] but women were and still are equal participants in wassail ceremonies.In mediaeval farms women tended the garden while men worked  the fields and the orchard, so the libation pouring was done by males most likely, but the whole family would be involved, and all drank ale or cider on that night. Furthermore, the picture shows only gentlemen, but all ranks would be included in the wassailing.Nowadays no one would be surprised to see the ceremony being led by a woman. 

The custom has not fully died out, as we British being a somewhat traditional lot have  a small number among us who still wassail their apple trees.They tend to be folklore enthusiasts and some pagans. I do not do it, but the tradition is a nice one, so why not keep it up? The aim was to honour the good Earth with a payment for what she gives to us.You can see the pre-Christian origins of this tradition in honouring Mother Earth. 

Cider, was traditionally brewed on West Country farms, where it was an important element of farm workers' wages. The workers would be fed by the farmers by being given breakfast and maybe lunch, at which they would receive their cider  ration. This meant that they got a pint of cider at breakfast and lunch. Sometimes cider would be brewed with ginger as well as yeast to make traditional ginger ale. The reformers of the Victorian period, motivated in part by puritanical ideals worked hard to suppress this custom, and to this end they developed non-alcoholic ginger ale and also encouraged farmers to give their workers tea instead. The campaigners at no point asked the workers for their opinions on the reform or indeed their consent.  

The cider that they brewed was characteristically cloudy, the cloudiness coming from a slight haze that you always get in home made ciders. The modern clear cider is what the older generations called ciderkin, little cider, and it is less strong than its ancient predecessor.<>



The Apples

The cider maker's art lay in the blending. There is a large variety of types of apple, but they fall into a small  number of groups: dessert apples, which are those that you eat; baking apples, which are a quite acidic but go into something as homely as apple pie; and cider apples, which are used in brewing.

The cider apple  tree is a large, widely spreading and abundantly fruiting tree whose tangy fruits are sour to taste, but which make the best cider.Until the period immediately after World War Two there used to be large cider apple orchards in parts of the West Country, but many were grubbed up to leave but a few. But slowly as sophisticated tastes replace mass consumption the orchards are returning, and the big cider brewers are paying for their planting. One special area is the Golden Valley in Herefordshire, said to be one of the best,if not the best areas for growing cider apples in England. This is the valley of the river Dore, a tributary to the mighty Severn. So established is cider apple production in this beautiful valley, a cider trail for tourists has been established to showcase traditions, technqiues and products. 

Yet the best ciders are not produced only with cider apples, for the art is to blend them with dessert and baking apples in the right quantities. A careful blend of apple varieties is fed into the press,  or sometimes pressed separately before blending. An especially important part of the process is to create the right blend of sweet and dry ciders, and this is done by skilled tasters.  Some farms have their own cider brewing operation and their worker and owners do the tasting. What a dream job! 

Traditional brewers used to drop a piece of raw steak into the vat containing the cider and allow it to dissolve to give the cider "body." A drink that feels thin to drink has no body. There are traditions that say that in olden times a dead rabbit might be included, but this is not done now. This tradition of dropping steak into cider was also performed with mediaeval ales. 

Traditional cider press

Traditional apple crusher
Traditional apple crusher

The Method

The brewing techniques are basically the same for all cider and its near-relative perry, and they are linked to the wine making process, for cider and perry, which is made from pears, are kinds of light wine. 

The apples are fed into a macerator, which chops them up and grinds them into pulp. Watch your fingers with one of these,[ especially when  trying to clean it.] The pulp is then packed into "cheeses", which are made by packing the apple pulp between layers of Muslin one atop the other and then pressing them down with a press. Look at the thumbnail and you will see a small version of this press, but the cider presses are much larger than this. There is a screw top that enables the heavy  weights in the press to be pushed down onto the apples. The juice is collected in the container around the press and drained off into kegs for fermentation.

The remnants of the apple pulp was  fed to pigs and/or cattle, whose dung then manured the orchard. Nothing was wasted.

Above you see a different kind of press, which does without the cheeses by using a millstone.I suspect that this kind of press was constructed before the barn that houses it and once the millstone as hauled into place there it stayed. The stone is so heavy that it probably was pulled by a heavy horse, such as a shire or a percheron,draft horse breeds once common on English farms before the tractor rendered them temporarily redundant, until the world's oil runs out, when we will need to call back the horse. 

Ancient cider makers relied on the natural yeasts present on the apple skins, but this is a haphazard method, and now modern brewers select specialist yeasts. When making cider I found that either a white wine or an all-purpose yeast worked well. 

Craft cider brewed traditionally has a special flavour and a good body to it, and is superior to all of the mass-produced ciders. I particularly dislike white ciders, which to me taste too acidic, and I suspect that they contain too much juice from acidic apples. In some mass produced ciders I believe that apples are merely the flavouring and the fermented sugars come from other sources. The only cider that I will drink is the genune craft cider. It is a matter of principle as well as taste.

Wassail to all.

Updated: 04/10/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/10/2024

Apple wood is not used for cask making, so a different kind of wood would be used.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/10/2024

Some Unitedstatesians avoid plastic containers for glass containers because they believe in a taste and sometimes a textural difference boring or detrimental to the former receptacle's liquid and even solid contents.

The aforementioned beliefs cause me to ponder other containers.

Cider drinks that defer to storage and do not demand immediate consumption end up in wooden vats, correct?

Might those wood vats be of the same wood as their ciders?

frankbeswick on 03/28/2022

What happened to dispossessed nobility is unclear, but it is known that some Saxons went to Dublin, where the sons of King Harold were recruiting a resistance force. This invaded England twice, but was beaten. Some nobles joined the unsuccessful rebellion of Edgar the Atheling. A long-standing pathway for Saxons was to migrate to Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard, a force belonging to the Byzantine emperor. But when the Normans of the fourth crusade took Constantinople in 1205 they did their English Normans a favour by massacring the [anti-Norman] Varangians. Any dispossessed nobles lost their titles.

I know the book of which you speak, but do not deem it particularly informative.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/28/2022

Re-visiting your wizzley called to mind what I meant to ask you after your helpful answer 02/08/2018 to my question 02/07/2018.

We discussed nobility losing lands with the outcome of 1066 (By the way, do you know the little book 1066 and All That?). What happens to dispossessed nobles? Would they become homeless? Would they lose their titles also?

frankbeswick on 02/11/2018

I am unfamiliar with the American term hard cider. We in the UK speak of sweet and dry cider, the dry being cider with more sugar brewed out of it. But thank you, it is good to know the various variations of the English language.

AngelaJohnson on 02/11/2018

I love apple cider that has not been pasteurized when it is available in the fall (in the U.S.) I've also had some good hard cider. I don't drink alcohol much and mostly red wine. I think I'll look for some hard cider the next time I go shopping.

frankbeswick on 02/08/2018

The raw steak has been abandoned.

Much of English life remained unchanged by the conquest,and daily customs carried on. After all, one bunch of exploitative nobles was exchanged for another.The statement that less than ten percent of nobility kept their lands surprises me, as I think ten percent a bit high. I know that on the English border with Scotland Anglo-Saxon nobility survived as they were needed to fight the Scots, and some stayed on in Herefordshire on the Welsh borders, but the rest were mainly dispossessed.There were definitely still Saxon landowners in the time of King John in the early thirteenth century.

The Normans loved cider and as they imported the pear to England they introduced perry. Normandy produces great ciders. So they had a vested interest in preserving cider brewing traditions

DerdriuMarriner on 02/07/2018

FrankBeswick, Thank you for the cider-making tour. Have craft-minded cider-makers today included the raw steak? Your mention of persistent Anglo-Saxon and Briton customs made me think, in another direction, of 1066, the Domesday Book. New Anglia and the coming of the King's Cloth, Queen Matilda's Tapestry, the Bayeux Tapestry to England. Did these customs persist among the pre-Norman people that the Normans didn't perceive as problematic or in need of being "Normanized"? A Yale professor says that 1066 resulted in less than 10 percent of nobles keeping their properties.

frankbeswick on 01/25/2018

Glad to have told you something new.

blackspanielgallery on 01/25/2018

I had not heard of an apple crusher before. Again, I have learned something.

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