AS the days shorten and the first bites of a chilled wind blow, while we begin the seasonal retreat indoors, the cider makers awaken and set to work, for October is when they harvest the cider apples.
Ireland has a cider heritage that stretches back through the ages; our natural climate is perfect for growing apple trees.
Malus sieversii, the wild apple native to the forests of Kazakhstan, is said to be the ancestor of all varieties of domestic apples that we eat today – including cider apples.
There are over 70 native Irish apple tree varieties, but not all are favoured and fewer still are considered the best for cider making. Crafting cider is more akin to wine making than brewing or distilling. In this way, orchard owners and cider makers are increasingly interested in cultivating Irish native apples for a new wave of cider making that embraces the ideal of a truly Irish blossom to bottle crafted cider.
I spoke to three of Cork’s premium craft cider makers to find out what it takes to craft unique ‘Full Juice’ Irish ciders.
“For us, apple juice is king,” says Daniel. This may seem an obvious statement but in Ireland there isn’t a minimum juice content required to legally define what cider is, and so stipulating Irish apple juice as the main ingredient in cider becomes essential. All that is in Stonewell Cider is apple juice and yeast – nothing more.
Daniel and his wife Géraldine have been making one of Ireland’s most popular craft ciders since 2010. They work closely with apple farmers in Laois, Waterford and Tipperary who grow dessert and cider apples.
Stonewell Cider’s are a base of cider apples back sweetened with dessert apple juice. The final blend produces either their yellow label dry or red label medium dry ciders as well as seasonal ciders, such as their award-winning Rós cider flavoured with Irish rhubarb.
Because apple juice is their primary ingredient, everything depends on a single period of harvesting every year.
“Apples are a one-hit-wonder,” explains Daniel, and if conditions aren’t perfect for blossom or fruit, it shows in the harvest.
While conditions on farms are in the lap of the gods, once apples begin arriving at the cidery they are in the control of Daniel and his small production team. It begins with every single apple being “eyeballed” - looked over for any imperfection and removed.
“We only want the best unblemished apples for our cider,” he says, but there is no waste.
All sub-par apples, and milled apple pomace squeezed of every drop of juice, is reserved, and sent to nearby farms as cattle feed. After fermentation, the lees that drop to the bottom of a tank are removed, dried, and added to compost.
“We always separate out our dessert apple and cider apple juices and store them in separate tanks. We strip out the wild yeasts and add an Australian wine yeast to the dessert apple juice and a Champagne yeast to our cider apples. When the fermentation is finished, we then blend the juices together to create our cider.
“Think of it like using the different juices as levers to control and create the particular characteristic of each of our ciders.”
Which leads us back to the many native Irish apple varieties and the prospect of creating ciders with the potential to evoke a particular terroir – a taste of place. To that end, Daniel and Géraldine are already scouting for a location for what they see as the next generation of cider making.
“We’re looking to acquire between ten and 20 acres of land which will encompass a new site for the cidery as well as an orchard for growing more specialised varieties of apples with a view to creating some unique single varietal ciders,” he explains.
It takes about five years for an apple tree to reach maturity, so this is not a project with a fast turnaround – this is slow food in action!
Earlier this year, Stonewell Cider partnered up with the Irish Bee Conservation Project. With each bottle of Stonewell Cider purchased, a donation is made to IBCP to support their continual work on all species of Irish bee, (of which there are over 100), in research, habitat creation and preservation and education.
“Without bees, our business wouldn’t be here,” Daniel says. Bees pollinate the apple trees that are essential for setting the blossom that grows the apples that goes into every bottle of cider. That’s a cause worth supporting.
Rubert Atkinson, Longueville House Beverages, Mallow
Thirty acres of productive orchards provides Longueville House with all the apples needed to create its own range of farmhouse ciders, as well as being home to Ireland’s only brandy distillery. The awards and accolades flow in regularly and, despite a challenging 18 months, Longueville’s 40 years of experience means they know a thing or two about weathering a storm.
While pubs and hospitality closed their doors, Longueville House Beverages embraced online trading and found a vital and valuable lifeline via alternative food market platform Neighbourfood, selling into forty different markets across the country.
“It was invaluable,” recalls Rubert, particularly when rising costs for everything from CO2 to transportation has risen beyond expectation - not to mention Brexit and Covid-19.
The range includes their classic Longueville House Cider which, coming into the colder months, is particularly good when mulled – perfect to wrap chilly hands around!
Mór is the same cider but aged in Longueville’s ex-brandy barrels for a year resulting in a mellow, complex and rounded cider with a higher ABV of 8%. Influenced by the UK trend for ‘table cider’, (cider that is taken with food in the same way as wine), Longueville House has recently revealed a new presentation of Mór in a 750ml bottle that is perfect for sharing with friends over food.
“The response has been really positive,” said Rubert.
“Mór is a medium-dry cider that goes well with most foods, but particularly with foods that are deeply rich, flavourful or spiced. The natural tannins in Mór help cut through the richness.”
The 750ml bottles of Longueville House Mór cider retail in off-licences at €9.60, making it both easy on the pocket and, with the lower ABV, a lighter and enjoyable alternative to wine.
There has always been an adventurous spirit at Killahora Orchards where Barry Walsh and Dave Watson manage close to 150 varieties of apple trees and 50 varieties of perry pear trees. Best known for their premium apple and pear wines, it all began with their first bittersweet cider, Johnny Fall Down, slowly and organically growing to encompass a swathe of awards, listings on the menus of Michelin star restaurants such as Aimsir, Chapter One, and Ox, as well as exporting to a number of international markets.
“We don’t add any yeasts to our drinks, it’s what is known as a minimal intervention style and suits what we are doing,” Barry says. “We make niche premium drinks. Our key focus is on quality and producing the best we can from a great place historically and climatically.”
What Barry refers to is a tradition of apple growing on the land at Killahora House of at least 200 years.
“We don’t force the trees; we don’t use any fertiliser, and we think that creates a noticeable difference in the flavours of the finished drinks.”
It’s a gentler pace of doing things for sure; Barry quips the cidery is growing at the same rate as the trees – slowly!
“We have over a thousand trees planted, but we’ve not even scratched the surface of what we can produce. We like experimenting, and collaborations are great for creating something new; we recently collaborated with Ahmet Dede [of Michelin-starred Dede in Baltimore] on a digestif for the wine pairing.”
It’s clear that the full potential of what can be made from the humble apple is hugely untapped.
“It’s about time a vocabulary was developed to explain cider,” says Barry, to give it a language to convey the different tastes, mouthfeel, aromas, and so on that cider delivers – just like we do with wine, or even whiskey.
Killahora Orchard’s range of premium drinks include a Poiré, an Irish sparkling perry; a Wild Apple Cuvee, a sparkling champagne cider; Pom’o, an Irish expression of an apple Port; and a Rare Apple Ice Wine, a dessert wine.
It’s a far cry from what we think we know about cider, so maybe it is time for a new language to express the complexity and sophistication of Ireland’s apple elixirs.
Next week: Apples Wines, putting Ireland on the map.