I remember the first time I tried to make cider.
It was the back end of that long summer before I went up to Oxford. Me and my mate Simon Box spent it messing about on our bikes, doing experiments with old fluorescent tubes, blowing up bits of South Common… all the things you expect two 18-year olds with all their life ahead of them and not quite grasping the enormity of it all to do.
The bit about blowing up the Common is true.
We’d make gunpowder from varying ratios of common household ingredients—I say household, but in reality we’d spent the last term at school sneaking out quantities of nitrate and flowers of sulphur, and scratching away at pencil leads, so at least they were common to us—and by stuffing some of Boxy’s grandad’s tobacco tins we’d try to get the biggest bang we could.
Boxy had heard that you could make a fuse from permanganate crystals and glycerol, so we’d nicked enough of those ingredients to experiment as well (spoiler: it worked).
One evening, after some particularly successful bangs, we saw flashing blue lights coming up the Newark Road, so we hopped on our bikes and scarpered across Cross O’Cliff Hill.
We found ourselves in what turned out to be an abandoned orchard. There were apple trees and pear trees, swelling and colouring all around us. We made a pact to return before we went our separate ways in September, and make cider.
When the time came, we returned with our rucksacks in daylight, and filled them from what we could pick without a ladder. We spent the afternoon slicing apples (and the odd pear) and—because this is what Boxy’s grandad had said—layering the slices with sugar. We filled a 10-gallon barrel with the slices, covered with water, and left it for a week.
Then I have a memory of trying to strain the mix through funnels and muslin cloth, and at some point we might have added yeast because I definitely remember being woken by bangs of a different nature, as the bottles in my wardrobe exploded in the night.
What it tasted like I couldn’t tell you, but to those two boys, and even to me today, it really didn’t matter.
The old orchard is a housing estate now. And like that summer, the past summer is now memories.
But I have been storing away apples from the oldest three trees in our garden since they started falling in the winds; roughly chopping them and freezing in bin bags. I’ve got enough now to make a small barrel of cider, which in some circles apparently defines those three trees as an orchard. I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘barrel’ and ‘small’.
The last time I made Bronte Estate cider I gave a bottle to one of the owners of the company I work for. He enjoyed it very much, comparing it with the best of the premium ciders out there. Sadly Ian died last April, but I could hear his voice in my head as I unloaded the apples from the chest freezer into three brewing barrels in the garage on Thursday night.
Today I squeezed the thawed apple pieces in the press—three batches, and then all together for the hard press—and retrieved about 6 gallons of pure apple juice.
Camden tablets are useful for killing off the natural yeast and any bacterial nasties that will sour the mix—I used six. Stirred, and let rest, and then a sachet of cider yeast sprinkled on top.
The specific gravity is 1048. We’re looking at a final brew with a potential 6% ABV—a nice dry, crisp cider. Now the brew is in the kitchen next to the Bronte Estate Winter Lager until it stops bubbling—probably a couple of weeks. And then it’ll be into flip-lid glass bottles with a carbonation drop… and no peeking until the new summer comes warming the next season’s applets.
And the cycle starts again.