In which I ponder on the morals and ethics of scrumping and document my second attempt at making cider, using a hired Speidel apple mill and hydropress.
You’d think that I’d have waited a few days or weeks before thinking about having another go at making some cider, especially after the stress of the first attempt. You’d also think that the the broken crusher and finishing at 03:30 due to chopping apples in a food processor, would have dented the enthusiasm some what. Far from it though, as it was the very next day that I tweeted Virtual Orchard in Milton Keynes to enquire about hiring their apple mill and hydropress.
I figured that if I was going to hire some proper cider making equipment, I may as well make the most of it, so I spent the time leading up to the big day gathering as many apples as I could. I started to raid all the trees I’d found in verges, as well as continuing to go out to the orchard at Childerly. It got to the point where I was out collecting apples for a couple of hours before work and then again for a couple of hours during my hour long lunch break. The rear suspension on my little Saxo was getting a bit of a work out.
Yvan, who now runs the local Jolly Good Beer distribution company, mentioned on twitter that there was another orchard in the village of Over, just to the North West of Cambridge. A quick email to a friend who grew up in Over gave me an approximate location and it was off one lunchtime to see what was what. As it happens, I met Yvan there and he can attest to how, pardon my French, fucking angry I got. An absolutely massive orchard, full of multiple varieties of apple, pear and plums, all going to waste. Plums withered on the trees, tons of pears rotting on the ground and apple trees that hadn’t seen any management in years. I was absolutely seething.
I was conflicted about bothering to try and locate the owner, as it was pretty obvious that they didn’t give a stuff about their orchard, other than having cut the grass at least once that year in some of its segments. Some of it was so overgrown, it obviously hadn’t been tended in years. Don’t get me started on the state of the trees either, whacking great old apple trees that had obviously been shown a lot of love in the past, now with their centres full of small branches crisscrossing every which way; they were an utter mess.
So I went back, day, after day, after day, and filled the boot of the Saxo with buckets and buckets of apple and pears. It did think on more than one occasion, while perched on top of a wobbly ladder and reaching as far as I dared for yet another apple, that I should really have at least tried to contact the landowner. I’ll be honest and say that the more I went back, the less comfortable I became with taking all that fruit, even though it was all going to waste. I half expected to get challenged by some of the early morning dog walkers, or nearby residents, but nobody batted an eye lid.
It wasn’t just scrumping from an orchard I wasn’t 100% comfortable with either. Some of the trees I scrumped from were on the verges of back country roads and looked like they’d been put there on purpose. Yet they weren’t obviously cared for and all the fruit was going to waste. It also wasn’t totally obvious who owned the land they were on either, as they weren’t necessarily next to, or near a house. I think the chances of there being three wildlings in a row for instance, all of the same variety, is infinitesimally small.
Should I take them? Should I leave them to rot? Who do I ask to try and find out who owns them? I know that, in all good conscience, I should try and find out, but most people I talked to about the subject, just seemed happy to know that someone was making use of all the apples, as they normally just see them going to waste.
The ethics and morals of scrumping, are a difficult topic and one worthy of a blog post on their own. I think that what I did at Over orchard, while morally defensible, they were going to waste, was ethically dubious, they obviously belonged to someone and I didn’t even try and find out who. Whatever your opinion on that kind of behaviour, all told I collected around three quarters of a ton, or thereabouts, of apples and pears, the majority of which I did have permission to take.
You may be wondering why I collected the pears, as it’s not like you can make perry out of any old pears (as far as I know), like you can cider from any old apples. The reason is due to the chemical makeup of the pear, it has more sorbitol in it, which doesn’t ferment. So adding some pear juice to the cider must, results in a perceived sweeter cider than you would get with apples alone. So I’d decided to add 15% pear juice to most of the fermentors.
I should probably elucidate on the state of the fermentors at this juncture. At that point in time, I had two fermentation buckets to my name, one with 30 litre capacity, the other with 25 litre capacity. Obviously they wouldn’t be enough to hold the juice from a quarter of a ton of apples, let alone three quarters of a ton. So I begged and borrowed from friends and colleagues and ended up with an assortment of nine buckets, varying from bog standard 25 litre ones, up to a whopping 60 odd litre one. All told, it gave me capacity for somewhere in the region of 270 litres of cider. So that’s what I made.
Lawrence at Virtual Orchard hires out his old mill and hydropress, the very ones he started off with, before upgrading. The hire period is for 24 hours, so if you pick it up at 16:00 one day, you have to have it back at 16:00 the following day. This meant that I was going to lose out on a bit of time, as it takes at least an hour and a half from my house to get to Milton Keynes and the cidery is on the other side of the town from where the A421 dumps you at the M1. So I asked to pick up at 17:00 on a Saturday, I think it was 17:00 and not 18:00, I can’t quite remember.
I’d been stressing during the week about not having enough Sodium Metabisulphite to treat 270 litres of cider and hadn’t left enough time to order any online. Luckily for me, I know the organiser of the Cambridge CAMRA Summer Beer Festival and he said I could have one of the tubs from the beer festival, as they didn’t really get used much. Cue desperately trying to get hold of the chap who was going to let me into the container on the Saturday afternoon.
Needless to say, things didn’t go quite to plan, he didn’t reply to my txt’s, so I waited as long as I could and then just went to see if he was there, he was, no idea why he couldn’t have txt’d me back. It wasn’t like he was just sitting waiting for me though, I had to hang around for an age, while he finished putting some sealant onto a container door. I can’t really complain though, I got a 5Kg tub of Sodium Metabisulphite for nothing. I was quite late getting to Milton Keynes though.
I think I liked Lawrence from the moment I met him, he seemed like a really nice bloke. He happily answered all my inane, clueless questions about cider without any exasperation, while also giving me a few pointers based on his experiences. He also showed me round the unit containing his cidery, very impressive. He’s got a Kreuzmayer washer elevator mill and belt press and can process somewhere in the region of 650Kg to 1250Kg per hour. Lawrence told me, that with two working in tandem, they’d been able to process a ton a day with the kit I was hiring. Quite a jump in productivity with his current setup and a lot less manual effort too.
The following morning I was up bright and early and out into the garden to get cracking. I didn’t quite know how loud the mill would be, so I left it till 08:00 before starting it up and attempting my first press. For some reason I decided that I wanted to see the pomace coming out of the bottom of the mill and if I was busy emptying a trug into the top of it, I wouldn’t see anything coming out. So I loaded the mill with pears and switched it on. Cue a distressed grinding noise and then nothing.
I’ll admit to panicking. I couldn’t believe that I’d knackered a second mill in the space of a few weeks. What was I going to do with all these apple? I rushed inside and checked the fuse box, but nothing had tripped out. In a moment of clarity, I opened the plug, noted the type of fuse and went in search of a similar one in the house. Twenty minutes later, with the fuse from the toaster in place and the mill emptied of pears, I flicked the switch. Thank [insert favoured deity here], the mill burst into life and we were off.
Wow, the Speidel apple mill is a thing to behold. No sooner had a trug of apples or pears been deposited into the hopper, than a trug of pomace appeared at the bottom. It looked nothing like the pomace I’d got from the manual crusher, or the food processor a few weeks before. This pomace was literally leaking juice everywhere and was really, really well milled, without any large chunks. I filled the hydropress to the top and before I’d even switched on the tap to pressurise the thing, I had nearly 5, yes 5, litres of juice in the container below it.
With the manual crusher and basket press, I was lucky to get four litres on a press of 12Kg, with the hydropress, I was getting in the region of 15 litres a press from 30Kg, with minimal physical effort. It was a revelation. Everything happened so fast, from the milling to the pressing and I wasn’t even going as fast as I could have. Lawrence reckoned that you could get four presses an hour in, which I totally believe, especially if there is two of you, one washing and crushing, the other pressing. I was running at about two to three and hour depending on other tasks and just got sucked into a kind of rhythm and ended up stopping trying to document what I was doing, as there just wasn’t the time.
I did try and note down the mix of apples that went into each fermentor though, as they were mostly in separate piles on the patio and all processed together. Other than that though, it was just, wash, mill, press, repeat, until I ran out of fermentors. Only then did I surface for air and take stock.
To help with the distribution of the must amongst the fermentors, I’d been storing the freshly press juice in the spare plastic kegs. When all the fermentors were full, there was still quite a bit of apple and pear juice leftover. I have a load of old brown Grolsch swing top bottles and even older internal screw top Lucozade bottles, that I’ve been given over the years. So I filled all of those with as much juice as I could, with the intention of pasteurising it at the earliest opportunity.
Even after all of that, I still had at least another two presses worth of apples and pears left over. It seemed like such a waste to leave them on the patio, but I literally didn’t have anything to put their juice in. Yes, I could have stored it in one of the kegs for a few days and run out and bought another fermentor, but I just didn’t have any spare money. If I’d had any spare money, I wouldn’t have had to beg and borrow fermentors from friends and colleagues, I’d just have bought a few really large ones before starting all of this.
While there was a feeling of accomplishment for having filled every available container, I couldn’t relax. I had to quickly wash everything down, load the car and get it back to Lawrence in Milton Keynes. I was late again. I was also absolutely knackered, which made the jam packed M1 a barrel of laughs, even though I was only on it for a junction. I got everything back in one piece though and managed to get home safely. I still wasn’t finished for the night though.
After dinner, it was back out to the shed, as I still had to take PH and gravity readings. This also gave me the opportunity to make sure the spreadsheet I had created, was filled out with all the information I could think of at the time. Essentially which fermentors had pear juice in them, which didn’t, which fermentor I’d put 2.5 litres of bramble juice into etc. That last one was quite easy though, as the contents of the fermentor were purple. At this point, I had to stop, I’m not a spring chicken anymore so headed off to bed.
I was up early the next day so I could rearrange all the fermentors in the shed, as I wasn’t happy with how I’d left it. I also had to deal with a paddling pool full of spent pomace. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to fill the kids paddling pool, rather than just dumping it in a pile of brambles between the garden and the paddocks. As that’s where it all ended up, I was cursing my stupidity at not having just dumped it there as I’d gone along. Live and learn though.
When I made the first batch, I’d used packets of cultured yeast. This time I wanted to experiment, so I used some packet yeast, dosed some with a starter I’d made from the dregs of a couple of bottles of Orval and some I just left to do their thing. Depending on which fermentor got which yeast, they were also dosed with a suitable amount of Sodium Metabisulphite. Either enough to either kill everything, or half that amount, so bad stuff would die, but not enough to stop natural fermentation from happening.
I put a fermentor into the brew fridge, made sure the rest were under airlock and sat back and waited for fermentation to start. I waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing. So I removed that fermentor from the brew fridge and put a different one in. I knew it was too cold for those that were sitting the shed to ferment, but I was expecting the one in the brew fridge to get on with it and ferment out. So I increased the temperature from 15°C, to 18°C and sat back and waited again. Still nothing. So the temperature went up to 20°C and I waited again.
I’d just assumed that this batch of cider would ferment as easily as the first batch did. I’d assumed that I would be able to pass each fermentor, except the 60 litres one, through the brew fridge, changing them every two weeks when they’d fermented out. How wrong I was. I ended up putting yet another fermentor in to the brew fridge and bringing two fermentors into the house. This was on the assumption that, if they didn’t ferment in the house, I needed to add cultured yeast to them, rather than trying to reply on wild yeast.
After a month of waiting, one of the fermentors I’d brought into the house finally started to show signs that it was doing something. It didn’t look like a normal krausen, instead, there was green globular lumps suspended in the must and some patches of foam on the surface. I thought that this was it, any moment it would break out and start fermenting. It didn’t though, I had to endure another ten days before it really kicked off. Meanwhile, the fermentor in the brew fridge had also come to life and started fermenting, we were well and truly underway.
What was interesting, was that only one of the fermentors I’d brought into the house had started fermenting, the other hadn’t. My wife was getting rather annoyed at them taking up space in the extension, which has underfloor heating by the way, which may or may not be relevant. She complained most vociferously about the smell, which I didn’t really think was too bad, until I came downstairs one morning to find the second fermentor had finally kicked off. Jings, fermenting cider doesn’t half pong!
I love the smell of fermenting beer, it reminds me of my childhood and getting off the train at Haymarket station in Edinburgh and smelling all the nearby breweries. I do not however, like the smell of fermenting cider and had to make rather a lot of apologies to my wife, who works from home, from the dining table, in the extension. I was not flavour of the month. It wasn’t like I could moved them into the brew fridge either, as it was occupied. So they stayed in the house till the last moment, before being whisked off to the cold of the shed, just before my parents arrived to spend Christmas.
I didn’t bring any more into the house. Partially as I had an inkling that it was too hot for cider, especially with the underfloor heating, but mostly because I didn’t want to get a divorce. For some reason, this batch of cider just wouldn’t ferment at 15°C like the first batch had, even the fermentors that had cultured yeast in them. They also took longer to ferment, one I ended up adding cultured yeast to after it had been sat in the brew fridge for three weeks doing nothing.
I hadn’t bargaining for things taking this long and people were starting to ask for their fermentors back, as they wanted to make their own beer and wine again. So this meant I had to do lots of moving stuff around, or decanting into one of my boilers, cleaning the fermentor and putting the cider back into it. It all depended on the size of the fermentor and if I had a free keg or not. I even gave my brother 20 litres of must from the massive fermentor, the rest was split into two smaller fermentors, when I had to give it back. It was a bit of a stress to be honest and I’m very grateful to those who lent me their kit. I still have a couple of fermentors that I’ve not yet given back (they’ve currently got some of this years cider in them).
It wasn’t until May, after nearly seven months, that the last fermentor spontaneously kicked into life in the shed. I hope that these extended periods where the must has been sitting under airlock won’t have a detrimental affect on the end product, I suppose only time will tell. The main problem with this though, is that of maturation. I was expecting to be able to drink some of each batch this Autumn, after at least nine months or so of maturation. Nine months after May though, is next year and take it from me, cider that hasn’t matured for long enough is vile.
The cider I’d made with the Abbey Community Press had to be bottled before they’d had long enough to mature, as I needed the poly cubes, as I needed some kegs. Due to this early bottling, they hadn’t undergone malolactic fermentation, so ended up being really, really acidic. I didn’t want to make the same mistake with this lot, so I tried everything I could to leave them for as long as I could. With the contents of the last few fermentors finally chugging away though, I was forced to bottle the poly cubes and a keg to make enough room for it all to start maturing.
It was at this point, to my horror, that I discovered the fermentor I’d put some elderflower heads in, had mould growing in it. I hadn’t checked it for a few weeks and one of the heads hadn’t sunk under the surface like all the rest. The fermentor reeked like blue cheese. Twitter to the rescue though and it was soon dosed up with Sodium Metabisulphite and put into a fully evacuated poly cube, where it remains to this day. As it came out of a 30 litre fermentor and the poly cube only holds 20 litres, I bottled the rest.
The reasoning behind this, was to see if it developed an infection, without having to continually sample from the poly cube. If the bottles tasted fine, then there would be no need to dump the whole lot. So far, I’ve had bottles that have been fine and some that have had a bit of a blue cheese pong about them and tasted a bit iffy. I’m going to leave it for as long as I can, then I’ll sample it and see if it’s worth bottling or not. It’s a shame, as the elderflower worked really well with it, especially on the nose.
The bottles from the other batches all exhibit various levels of acidity and yeastiness. I’m assuming that being fermented in the house and being warmed by the underfloor heating, hasn’t done them any favours. I find two of them quite hard to drink, unless they are sweetened, not to counter any acidity, but to counter the dryness and yeastiness. The third isn’t quite as dry, or as yeasty, and I can manage on it’s own, although I have had to doctor a couple of bottles. All three appear to have undergone malolactic fermentation, as they’re no where near as acidic as the first lot.
There is still 150 litres of cider maturing in the shed, five 25 litres kegs, one 20 litres poly cube and a 5 litre demijohn. The demijohn is an out and out experiment, with the cider maturing on the soles I made last years Sloe Gin with. Evidently this is a thing and the end result is called Slider. Another experiment I would like to try is dry hopping, so I need to buy some Brambling Cross hops to add to the one that I added the bramble juice too. Mainly though, they’re all just sitting there maturing for as long as I can give them. Eventually I’ll bottle them, probably in batches, as I don’t have enough of the right size and shape of bottle to do them all at once.
I learnt a lot making all this cider, mostly that you need to have patience. Lots and lots of patience and lots of fermentors. I also learnt that it’s important to have the right mix of apples, as using all cookers, results in an overly acidic cider, especially if it isn’t matured for long enough so it undergoes malolactic fermentation.
You’ll be able to find out what happened when I decided to make some more cider this year, in part three of my decent into madness. Where in, I bypass morally defensible behaviour and in desperation head straight past ethically dubious too; I’m not proud.