Herefordshire county’s weather is ideal for growing apples used in cider making. 75% of the UK’s bittersweet cider juice is produced in the county, while 100 million gallons are consumed yearly by the people of the UK.
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Cider making dates as far back as Norman times. The industry took off in the 1600s and was at its peak throughout the 1700s. During these times cider was made on both great estates and farms that produced small amounts for their own use. In the 1700-1800s 1-3 million gallons were produced each year by Herefordshire farmers. In the 1920s and 30s traveling cider makers went from farm to farm, carting their tools with them.
Cider was part of the wages (called truck) of a farmhand, and a small cask, called a costrel, was carried into the fields for drinking during the day. The gentry used special glasses with apples and pears on them to serve cider. Traditional mugs had two handles so the mug could be passed around easily.
Today smaller operations continue the hands-on tradition, while large cider makers like Bulmers are high tech and mechanical. 180 British gallons are produced per ton of fruit.
Start a tour at Hereford’s cider museum, housed in a former cider works. It tells the story of cider making through the centuries. Cider apples belong to four main groups. Mainly bittersharp and bittersweets types were used. The high tannic content adds characteristic flavour. Sweet apples included the Morgan sweet and Eggleton Styre. Sharp varieties were Old Redstreak, and Ladies Finger. Bittersweets included Strawberry Norman, Red Norman, and White Norman. Bittersharps such as Cowarne Red, Kingston Black, and Styreme’s Kernel were grown.
The apples used in the process were knocked from trees with long ash sticks called panking poles. If the pole had a hook on one end it was called a lugg or hook lugg. The harvested fruit was laid a foot deep on barn floors and kept 2-6 weeks to mellow and soften it before milling.
At the mill a horse walked around and around moving a stone that crushed the apples. Even after being unharnessed the horses would continue walking in circles—it had become so much a part of their routine. Fourteen layers of apple pulp were then spread on blankets made of horsehair and pressure was applied to the pile. This was called a cider cheese. The juice pressed out was left to ferment using its own yeast and sugar. Mild weather meant 1 month to ferment the cider; cold weather extended it to 2-3 months. There was little control over fermentation in those early days, and sometimes things went wrong. Modern methods first kill the natural yeast, then add their own so there is more control over the fermentation process.
Also at the museum is King Offa Distillery, which produces cider brandy, apple aperitif, and cider liqueur. Cider brandy had fallen into disuse for 200 years until 1984 when the museum was granted a license to distill. Brandy goes through two distillation processes as opposed to cider’s one.
A large operation, Bulmers cider mill, was founded in 1887 as a cottage industry started by two brothers. The plant now covers 65 acres and employees 100 people. Outdoors are 11 vats, with eight of them holding 2¼ million liters of alcohol, the largest store of alcohol in the world. On hand are 7 million liters of apple concentrate. Inside the plant is a catwalk over the vast floor operations.
Bulmers consumes 70,000 tons of apples, harvested from September to Christmas. Many farmers are contract growers. Waterways wash the apples, and then they are automatically sliced and pressed. Pumice is left behind, and pectin is extracted from it. The apple juice runs off into huge stainless steel vats for fermentation at 22 degrees centigrade after water, yeast, and sugar are added.
The cider is then put in large containers and micro filtered from cloudy to clear (clear is called a bright cider). There are eight basic blends of the cider mixed in different proportions. Computers determine the formula and add what is needed. Then the cider is pasteurized again. 1000 cans a minute are bottled.
Producing half the cider in the UK, Bulmers makes 15 types, each with a distinctive taste and alcohol content. Half of that produced goes to the draft trade. The types include the #1 premium Scrumpy Jack, Handsom Walls, Sheep’s Nose, Ladies Finger, Woodpecker, a low alcohol Strowbow, and a medium dry full-bodied called Strongbow, their biggest seller. No. 7 was a popular early brand that still holds its own today. Bulmers original and special preserve are made to eat with fruit.
To see a small commercial cider making operation visit the Weston Cider Works. Henry West came to the area in the 1870s taking over a farm and cider business. He gradually expanded his orchards. Weston’s began in earnest when he was nearly bankrupt and went to see his MP, Mr. Ratcliffe, who suggested he make cider and sell it locally. It became an established family business that continues today. Weston’s uses apples from its own orchards and also from local growers.
When the lorries full of apples arrive at the cider works they drive on to a weighbridge, then empty their apples and weigh again, thus measuring the difference in weight to determine how much the farmer is paid. The apples are put into a pit that holds 30 tons. They are washed and go through a pipe to the mill. In 1922 vats were built of oakwood that held up to 50,000 gallons of juice. Weston’s has 37,000 gallon tanks producing 2½ million gallons of cider per year, whereas Bulmers produces 45 millions. Both carbonated and uncarbonated cider is produced. Another similar drink, perry, is made from perry pears.
The Hereford museum sponsors the International Cider and Perry Competition in May each year. The Cider Making Festival takes place in October. At the festival are demonstrations of traditional cidermaking, apple pressing, free samples, displays of cider apple varieties, crafts, beekeeping demonstrations, coopering demonstrations, shire horse rides, and children’s activities. Cider is a timeless drink that is pure, clear, and crisp.
Hereford HR4 OLE
Tel. 01432 352000
Tours are no longer given.
Cider Museum & King Offa Distillery
21 Ryelands St
Hereford, HR4 OLW
Tel. 01432 354207
Fax. 01432 371641
Open: year round, Mon-Sat, 10.30am-4.30pm Café; shop
Website: Cider Museum
Weston Cider Mill
The Bounds, Much Marcle
Tel. 01531 660108
Open: Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm; Sat, Sun, BH,10am-5pm; tours at 11.30am, 12.30, 2.00, and 3.30pm; phone to verify guided tour times and book a place; check website for restaurant and shop times; traditional and rare breeds farm open Easter-end Sep; carriage driving display in August
Website: Weston Cider Mill
Note: While in the area visit Hellens House.