#7

What is Cider? (Part 3)

Time
We describe time as a tool of the cider maker, as it is an important element in making the finest cider! While a mass-market cider might be made from concentrate at any time of the year, with the fermentation taking as little as a few weeks, on the finer end of the spectrum, time is a slower thing! We've said that such makers need patience, but the best really know how to work with time and how to make the right choices at the right moments!

As fine cider making is seasonal (the apples only grow once a year, so the maker only gets one chance to make cider that year) a maker might only get 50 seasons, so 50 attempts, to make cider in their lifetime! Not only do they need to work with this cycle, fitting to natures clock; striking a balance between experimenting to explore and educate themselves, and placing their annual bet based on what they have already learnt, but they just give each seasons cider all the time it needs. 

For some ciders and styles, this will be less time, for others this may be years! But categorically, such cider takes a lot longer to make than mass-market cider - rather than a few weeks, it will take at minimum months, usually across the whole of winter and into Spring. The fermentation will slow down when the liquid gets colder, and pick up when it gets warmer (unless it gets too warm), so in winters cold things slow down, then pick up when warm the weather warms back up in Spring. We call this a long, slow fermentation and it's a great way of the cider developing complexity as it turns from juice into cider. So for many fine ciders, the apples will grow under the summer sun, then having been pressed in Autumn, ferment over winter and into spring, before the cider is ready to drink the following summer; it's a lovely cycle!

But this isn't always the case, some styles, because of how they are done, will be ready earlier, such as for the start of Spring. And often, things will be aged well beyond this 6 - 9 month period. The key is the maker giving the cider all the time they feel it needs to be at its best. Often, this will mean a maker giving it a year or two, or longer, and over this time it will keep on changing and developing, be it in a tank or barrel, or even in the bottle! So it's not just about what a maker does when (like deciding when they press their apples, and how ripe the apples are) but how long they give the cider to keep in changing. It comes down to experience and intuition, and has an element of gambling to it: is it tasting the best it can be now, and will more time help improve it, or actually make it worse? 

The 'season' of a cider (such as 2019) is the year the apples were grown, not the year the cider was resealed; it's also sometimes called the 'Vintage'. This is as the weather that year will shape the way the apples grow. But 'season' is also used to describe the events that unfold each year, the timeline if you will, as the cider is made! It tends to go like this:  

Spring
It all begins in spring, as the trees start showing the first signs of new life as the days get longer! They burst into blossom so that insects like bees can pollinate their flowers, so the fruit will eventually grow. After the petals have fallen, in their place the apples will begin to grow, soaking up the summers sun, as the tree's roots pull in water overnight. 

Summer
Summer is the time when the apples on the tree turn from little newborns, into fully-fledged fruit, as the tree is fuelled by sunlight (the more sun there is in a year, the more sugar that tends to be created in the apples, and as we know that sugar is fermented to make alcohol, the more sugar in the apples, the higher in alcohol the cider can be). In a good year, it's incredible how many apples even a fairly small tree can produce; branches can even get so heavy with apples that they hang to the ground and even snap off the tree!!

Autumn
By autumn, the trees are covered in apples; flashes of yellow, green, red, even pink, purple and gold. Some are smooth and waxy looking, others rough and russeted, some are a single colour, others a mix of colours, some are tiny, others are huge; some perry pears look like small apples, and some apples are elongated at the bade, almost a little like upside down pears!

When an apple variety is ripe and can be picked and pressed is the question on the cider makers mind! But it's not always a simple one: in the UK at least, some apple varieties will be ripe in September, but others won't be ripe until Christmas!  This can be helpful, as a maker can harvest and press different varieties at different times, spreading things out, rather than having to do everything at once.  

Winter
Once pressed (be it in Autumn, or Winter) it's time for fermentation! Some styles require the maker to be very hands-on or closely monitor the fermentation as it begins, other styles just mean leaving the fermentation alone to do its thing! So after all of the effort of harvesting and pressing the apples, winter can be a quieter time, as the fermentations begin their journey, the yeasts setting about making cider! Winter is often a time that makers and orchardists might prune their trees, as pruning can be an important part of keeping trees healthy and growing good fruit.  

Guess what happens next ...
Then the cycle starts all over again, as Spring arrives and the blossom is back!! But, that's not the end of our story...as we said, it can take years to make a fine cider, so the seasons really overlap. So in the cider makers season, there are times of intense labour and quieter times when they must simply wait. There are times of great suspense, and times of difficult decisions and choices to be made!! 

First things first, are you of legal drinking age?

No, but I'm working on it