I’m never really sure what to think about cider. On the one hand, it conjures memories of sticky floors on uni nights out and the sweetly chemical smell (more of that later) on my hands after a shift at the pub. But on the other hand are idyllic visions of West Country Augusts, of harvests and orchards and nostalgia. So when Weston’s invited me to come and learn more about how they make their organic Wyld Wood cider*, I thought it would be a good opportunity to banish the bad memories and start my relationship with cider afresh.
I trundled down to Herefordshire in the most biblical rain, hugging the border the whole way as everything gradually grew more and more flat. When you’re used to fields being full of crops or animals, it’s a strange experience to look over the hedgerows to see miles and miles of orchards, and for all the tractors to be dragging not ploughs, but trailers piled high with apples. It turns out that all of the apples used by Weston’s come from a 40 miles radius of the farm, either from their own orchards, huge multi-acre sites or the villagers rocking up with a car load from their gardens.
Weston’s cider mill is down a country lane in a little hamlet near Much Marcle, and it kind of doesn’t get more West Country than that. As you turn down the road you smell the mill before you see it; the whole day the sweetly sour scent of apple juice pleasantly tickled my nostrils, and I grew jealous of the workers who spend everyday in this autumnal perfume.
Weston’s is still family owned, and it’s clear that they take care to retain that crucial authenticness in everything they do. The mill has grown carefully up around the original farm buildings of Henry Weston senior, the warehouses and production facilities apologetically hunkered down behind the ancient farmhouse and stables. Henry Weston junior, the great grandson of the mill’s founder, arrived in overalls and wellies to drive us around the orchards in his miniature tractor, stopping only for a bit of banter with Sam, whose harvesting machine had broken down and who joked with us in the broadest Gloucestershire accent I’ve ever heard.
So far, so idyllic.
But I was keen to learn more about the organic part of their production. It being Organic September, we were joined by the Soil Association to explain more about the organic method of farming. Much like my confused relationship with cider, organic is something that I feel like I should buy, but I’m not entirely sure why.
I always thought that organic was basically just not using chemicals, when really it’s an entirely holistic method of farming. It’s about understanding that everything in nature is linked from the ground under our feet to the food it nurtures, and about producing food in tandem with nature, letting her take her time and not adding anything to alter that process. And when you learn that in a tablespoon of soil there are 6 billion organisms, only 2% of which we actually understand anything about, it does make you think it’s probably pretty sensible not to mess with that.
Although it takes longer to rear organic animals or crops it is a much more energy efficient process. With non-organic farming it takes 10kcal of energy to create 1kcal worth of food; with organic 1kcal of energy creates 3kcal of food. That’s why organic farming is so important to the future of our climate: if all UK farms went organic it would be the equivalent of 1 billion cars off the road.
But it’s also got to taste good, right?
The Organic Production
While it takes two years for most farms to convert to organic, for Weston’s the conversion of their organic orchards took twice as long as the trunks of the fruit trees retain any chemicals for much longer. And really, this sense of time being taken reoccurs throughout the Wyld Wood production process.
The harvest kicks off on the 10th September and goes right through to Christmas. They ferment the apples immediately and hold them in huge vats as bases to be blended later on in the year. This is vital to allowing the flavour to mature as cider made straight after fermentation is, in the words of Weston’s chief cider taster Mike, ‘very green’ – which means it produces an incredibly sharp and almost undrinkable cider.
Being organic, Wyld Wood is left to mature for much longer than other ciders, as it hasn’t had anything to help speed up the ripening and maturing process of the apples. It lives in the huge oak organic vats, the very ones that the original Henry Weston first used on the farm (when of course all the production was organic). There are ten vats, and Henry had five daughters and four sons; so five of the vats are named after his daughters and the other five were named after football grounds by his sons.
Organic Cider Taste-A-Long
And now for the fun bit! Grab your bottle of cider and let’s do a tasting together.
If you’ve ever been wine tasting, the cider tasting process is much the same. They use a flavour wheel to identify the tastes and start with the colour and nose of the drink before tasting it. At Weston’s they taste at 9.30am so that everyone is under the limit by 5o’clock, but that, of course, is optional ;).
Remember in the beginning of the post I mentioned the slightly chemical-y smell of cider? Turns out that that is meant to be there! These ‘off notes’, referred to as a TCP smell, are in fact a key indicator of the complexity of the flavours of the cider.
For Wyld Wood this is especially pertinent; as fermentation takes longer for organic ciders, far more complex flavours can be developed so this smell is the proof, if you like, of its organic production. Of course, it doesn’t smell just like a bottle of TCP. To counteract the off notes, you are also looking for a sweet vanilla tone and the freshness of apple peel in the nose.
Globally, it turns out, people want a much sweeter cider than those most probably enjoyed by Laurie Lee (thanks Kopparberg). However, as with most things, people are also looking for complexity and authenticity in their cider now, not just a straight sugar hit. It is these trends that Weston’s has developed Wyld Wood in line with as an organic, vegan and gluten free drink.
So Wyld Wood is fresh and sweet, of course. There are also citrus notes which come from the natural vitamin C of the fruit which is brought to the fore during that long fermentation. There are those chemical-y off notes, but in the flavour they behave like the salt in a salted caramel; they are there as a base note to accentuate the apple-y soprano. Deeper still are oaky notes from the ancient vats and a leathery maturity.
Being organic, the apples for Wyld Wood come out however nature intends, so there are slight variations between batches depending on the conditions the apples grew in before that particular harvest. Which I actually rather love.
If my mission had been to wipe my slate clean with cider and understand how organic production impacts flavour, then I think I cracked it. Learning how organic starts with the soil and with nature, then watching how that directly demands production be a much slower, thoughtful process, and in turn tasting the difference that production made in the cider was such an enlightening experience. Food production and consumption is so disjointed, we never get to see how cyclical a process it can be. I certainly feel more conscious and connected to what I consumer now.
How about you?
*This post happened because it was sponsored by Wyld Wood Cider – although all words are mine and from the heart.