What is Cider? (Part 3)

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, the maker only gets one chance to make cider each 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 must give each seasons cider all the time it needs to be its best. 

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 a minimum of 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; so in winter things go slow, then pick up when the weather warms back up in Spring. We call this a long, slow fermentation and it's a great way for the cider to develop complexity as it changes from juice. So for many fine ciders, the apples will grow under the summer sun, then having been pressed in Autumn, their juice will 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 their nature, will be ready earlier, such as the beginning of Spring. The key is that the maker gives the cider all the time they feel it needs to be at its best. Often, this will mean a maker giving it 6 or 9 months, a year, or even longer, and over this time it will keep on changing and developing, be it in a tank or barrel, or even in the bottle! 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? 

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, and is a huge factor in how the cider will taste. 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:  

It all begins in spring, as the trees start showing the first signs of new life and 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 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 get so heavy with apples that they hang to the ground and even snap off the tree!!

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 base, 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 might not 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.  

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