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Drink up yer cider

.. but brew it yourself first. Sune Nightingale tells us how.


Cider is a wonderful brew. Golden, cloudy sunbeams waving in its depths, deceptively strong, and designed to make you merry, it used to be part of a farm labourer’s wage in the West Country (bet they didn’t get much done). It’s a funny old drink, definitely spiked with something more than alcohol. The traditional English cider makers I have met are a wonderful group of mavericks – people who have been doing their own thing for years – and who care about as much for the notion of “being alternative”, as they do for the idea of putting ice cubes in their brew… I like that.

In the UK as a whole it’s enjoying something of a revival, with new orchards being planted, and swanky London types tucking into a pint or two. Cider lovers in the West should definitely consider making their own, though. You don’t even need a dead rat. We’ve been making cider in my house for four years now and no rodent has even had a footbath in it. We make two barrels a year which works out to about 400 litres. Plenty. We gather the apples wherever and whenever we can; there are quite a few small orchards dotted about where the apples just go to waste, not to mention trees in people’s gardens. Just put the word out and you’ll be surprised what you turn up: a few bottles of cider in return and everyone’s happy.

Apples ripen throughout the year but traditionally October is cider-making time. You’ll want some cider apples for their sourness and taste (you can use some cookers too), and some desert apples for sweetness. We use mainly desert apples which seems to work fine. My advice is to experiment and don’t get too hung up on it.

We started actually picking each apple off the tree, but soon stopped that. When you are making decent amounts it’s not the time to mess about. Now we get a couple of tarps, spread them under the tree, climb up and shake it like an overexcited monkey. We then gather the tarp together, a nice pile of apples now in the middle, and get rid of the rotten ones and big twigs. We then fill two dumpy bags in the back of Martha the truck.

One day we met Phil, a local farmer who built his own cider press and mill years ago. You couldn’t find a nicer, less selfish man, a dying breed, one of the original cider mavericks. When I first went round, excited about our plans for making cider, he said: “Never you mind about all that, you come in ’ere with me!”. He sat me down to try some of his cider.

As I filled my pint glass from one of his barrels he shouted: “WHAT THE ’ELL D’YOU THINK YUR DOIN?!!!” We were off to a bad start. What had I done? “You’ve not filled yur glass right to the top, you’ll be gaspin’ for that at the end!” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

His farm has an old stone cowshed where the press and milling machine live. The press is a heavy duty metal and oak hydraulic affair, cleverly made. The mill has a large hopper from which the apples are lifted by a modified bale conveyor which then drops them onto whirring metal blades (the ‘mill’) that turns them into apple pulp which piles up underneath. Apple juice is pretty acidic: everything it touches should really be oak, stainless, plastic or similar.

A large cloth is laid diagonally on top of a square wooden former (like an empty picture frame), and a layer of apple pulp spread inside the cloth to about an inch thick. The sides of the cloth are folded over, the former removed and a wooden rack placed on top to separate each layer. This arrangement confines the apple pulp when it is being squashed and helps the juice flow out. Successive layers are piled on top of each other to form a stack called a ‘cheese’. This is the best, most sought after job – it is really satisfying to help make a nice, neat cheese, already dripping with juice.

The press then cranks into life and the cheese is slowly squashed to about a third of its height. Apples juice pours out every side at first and then gradually slows to a trickle. When it comes out it is thick and quite syrupy. “Cuts through you like a knife!” says Phil. Apparently a biker came to a pressing once, and, not heeding the warning, drunk too much juice. He had to make three emergency stops on his way home to dash behind hedges. The juice is pumped into the waiting barrels in the back of the Martha – we use ex-fruit juice barrels – they’re cheap and easy to clean. The apple pulp left over can be composted (mixes in well with other vegetable matter) or fed to pigs or cows.

You don’t need to add yeast (some people do though): after a few days in the barrel the natural yeast from the skin of the apples starts going beserk, and the juice starts frothing. Once the barrel settles we top it up with some water (or extra juice if we’ve got enough) and put the air lock on.

In a small container in a warmish place the cider can be ready by Christmas, but ours lives outside in the cold where fermentation is much slower. By February/March it is as we like it. We could leave it longer to make strong, bitter cider – Scrumpy – but we like a little bit of sweetness to remain.

To stop the fermentation we use campden tablets. There are other methods but personally I’ve nothing against using a bit of sulphur.

Many of you may not want to make anywhere near 400 litres. A  simple way of making cider at home is to use a juicer. Everyone knows someone with a once-used juicer sitting in a cupboard that they bought with the enthusiastic intention of using it every day – put it through its paces! Juice up your apples and pour into a demijohn. Leave a cotton bung in the top for the first few days while it foams, and then top up with water and add your airlock. Six to eight weeks should be enough if you keep it indoors – when the bubbles slow down keep tasting it till it is the desired sweetness, or leave it to finish fermentation if you want to make Scrumpy.

Rack off into bottles leaving the sludgy yeast sediment behind. If you are not making scrumpy then you will need to stop fermentation before you bottle or you will end up with a WMD (we once had a bottle explode glass fragments ten feet into the air!), so use campden tablets, or pasteurisation.

My next mission is to make posh, sparkling, bottle-conditioned cider like they do in Normandy. Phil, of course, tries each of our brews. We’re hoping to really impress him one of these years!


Useful stuff

“Real Cidermaking – on a small scale” by Michael Pooley and John Lomax, ISBN 1854861956 is the most practical, easy-to-read, in depth book I have found on cidermaking so far. It even has detailed plans in it for making your own mini cider press.

You can source cheap ex-fruit juice barrels from

If this has made you thirsty, and you are in Bristol, then why not pop in to the Cotham Porter Stores (in Cotham surprisingly), The Coronation Tap in Clifton or The Apple (a boat moored near the Old Duke), which all specialise in cider.

** Stop press: since 2010 you can also visit The Bristol Cider Shop on Christmas Steps for a whole range of speciality ciders

Phil makes “Stun ’em Cider”, a strong scrumpy. You can buy it direct from his farm in Codrington. They are open Mon, Tues, Wed, Sat & Sun. If no-one is about go through the door next to the rollup garage door, through there and knock on the house door. Tel 01454 312494.
Check out for local farms and much more.


Published in The Spark issue 54 - autumn 2008

details correct at time of going to press but may now have changed - please make your own checks



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