Cidermaking is hard. Not necessarily in a mind-bogglingly complex sense, though I don’t deny the intricacy of skill involved. I mean that it is hard work. I have done all of two and a half days of cack-handed picking and shovelling and lifting and sorting and washing, and they were hard. My feeble typist’s muscles ached afterwards and I was at pains to exaggerate to my friends the degree of heavy lifting with which I had grappled.
Those two days at least brought into sharp relief the physical labour involved in transmuting apples on the tree into liquid in your glass. The cidermaker’s season is a very long one. As I write these sentences in mid-November there are varieties still unharvested; still clinging on and eaking out every last bit of sunshine, every droplet of ripening potential. They will, in the fullness of time, have to be brought in. It will be cold. It will very likely rain. Fingers will be numb, bodies will be tired. Apples and pears have been falling since mid-August. That’s a quarter of the year spent bending and lifting and hauling and carrying and pressing. And apples, it need not be said, are also a good deal heavier than grapes.
The physical harvest is, in addition, only the culmination of months of weather-watching and orchard tending and pruning and mowing and worrying about late frosts and tree-murdering fire blight and ermine moths. Slowly, slowly preparing the trees as far as you can so that when the apples and pears start falling you have given yourself the best chance of a good season, albeit one still at the mercy of the vicissitudes of meteorology. Once the fruit starts ripening and falling, it is then a precision game of timing. Yellow Huffcap pears rot from the inside out on the tree. Thorn pears give you the tiniest of windows to pick and press – a “use it or lose it” pear, as James Marsden has it. Then there are the mental wrangles of calculating the storage you have against the apples you till need to pick, and the cidery becomes a giant game of tetris as blue barrels, tanks and IBCs are shifted around in a clumsy waltz with pallet trucks bearing fruit by the crateload. You get one chance a year; make what my father calls “a pills of it” and that’s all you have to sell throughout the next. Cidermaking – proper cidermaking – on a commercial scale is physically demanding. It is mentally taxing. It is hard.
And so, as the harvest is winding down and the yeasts bubble away, munching on sugar in the fermentation vessels, it feels only right that this long, difficult and painful labour should be celebrated.
In France, this “end of season” party is most famously enshrined in Beaujolais Nouveau day. Not only a celebration of the culmination of the vintage, but a taste of its very first wine. Early-ripening grapes vinified as quickly as possible through Carbonic Maceration, whereby uncrushed grapes are filled into tanks pumped with carbon dioxide and begin to ferment themselves within their skins until exploding into juicy berry-and-banana-and-bubblegum-flavoured life. For decades English merchants and casual punters have raced to Beaujolais and back, keen to be first home with the Nouveau, always on the third Thursday of the month.
This frivolity had the awkward upshot of tarnishing general Beaujolais’ image for a long time in the eyes of the British consumer, who associated even serious Crus like Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent with liquid that had been made, to all intents and purposes, for a bit of a laugh and a well-deserved party. But Nouveau day has endured, and this year cider has one too.
Tony Lovering, who we met in our discussion of Halfpenny Green and all things sparkling, was keen to pinch the idea of Nouveau day and repurpose it as a celebration of craft cider’s seasonality. He asked around to see if anyone would join his scheme, and it was picked up by wine business alumni Susanna and James Forbes at Little Pomona. James admits to having been initially sceptical, given Beaujolais Nouveau’s history, but changed his mind, saying: “Two reasons: It draws focus to cider in the winter. The notion that cider is ONLY a summer drink is tired and needs to be challenged. After all, there is plenty of fresh white wine and G&Ts drunk in the winter. It also draws attention to seasonality in true cider. This is the first cider produced commercially from the 2020 vintage. Seasonality as it is in wine is the vital and most exciting factor in cider. It’s like a band you really love releasing a new album each year.”
The idea of may have been collaborative, but Little Pomona and Halfpenny Green have made their Nouveau ciders entirely separately. Tony plumped for mild bittersweet Somerset Redstreak and sharper Browns, whilst Susanna and James worked, for the first time, with Discovery. In both cases the apples were chosen by necessity; all three fall near the very start of the harvest. To cope with the far shorter than normal window for fermentation, Tony used cultured yeast strain E1118, whilst James and Susanna gave their milled Discovery a brief carbonic maceration for 36 hours before the August temperatures – at least a month earlier than they usually start pressing – sped its fermentation up considerably. “It was fermenting as it came off the press!”
Fermentations managed in time, Tony bottled his dry and still, whilst James and Susanna bottled theirs just before the yeast had finished its work, for a lightly-sparkling pét-nat style. And today, the third Saturday in November, is official Cider Nouveau Day which, by dint of early article publication time, Malt has the pleasure of declaring open. Obviously under normal circumstances it would be celebrated with a proper party at one or both of the cideries, but as with all things 2020, this year it has taken to zoom; glasses will be being raised digitally this evening.
In the meantime, I’m tasting the two first ever Cider Nouveaux in the hope that 2021 will see a repeat of the festival and a larger number of cideries joining in. In the usual spirit of full disclosure, James gave me a sample bottle of his ‘Disco Nouveau’, though I’ve since spent my own money on three more at £9 a bottle each. The Halfpenny Green cost £6.50. Both are available direct from the cidery, via the Halfpenny Green Facebook page or the Little Pomona website and the Disco can be picked up from Scrattings and The Fine Cider Co too. Given that both are limited releases, and that one is from the hype-wranglers of Bromyard, I’d recommend stepping on it if you fancy a taste.
One last, rather weird, aside. There seem to be two batches of Halfpenny Green doing the rounds. I got Batch J1-03/2020 which I gather is two thirds Somerset Redstreak to one third Browns. But Little Pomona was sent a batch with inverted proportions. On which basis the note below will only be particularly relevant to about half of you. Sorry.
Halfpenny Green Cidre Nouveau 2020 J1-03 – review
Colour: Mid copper
On the nose: Very delicate initially. Light apple juice. Straw. There’s a farminess of sulphur, which is something I’ve experienced previously in youthful varients of both varieties, but might also have come from at least in part from reduction. Plus a slight copper tang of old pennies. A fairly simple nose, by Tony standards.
In the mouth: Follows through almost exactly. Very fresh; the lightest, lightest brush of tannin and some crispness of malic acidity. The farmy note has toned markedly down, though there’s still a small element of it. The metallic tang – not unpleasant – remains. It’s simple, it’s young and it’s light.
Little Pomona Disco Nouveau – review
Colour: Hazy peach.
On the nose: By Discovery standards that’s a broad nose indeed, whilst still unmistakeably Disco. (I’m allowed to say that because James gave me my first taste blind and I got it right.) Red apple – skins, flesh and all – glacé cherries and cranberries. A little light banana. It’s young, it’s fresh, it’s exuberant of aroma. Just as Discovery ought to be.
In the mouth: Super tasty. A nice, tangy lick of that citrusy Discovery acidity and a fizzy strawberry laces and pink grapefruit character on top of the apple. The carbonation’s bang on to my taste – just adds a touch of body and keeps all the flavour lifted. Very minerally; there’s a real rainwater-on-granite-stones thing going on. Bright, vivacious, packed with fruit. Almost totally dry but endlessly drinkable. I love that.
Discovery is by miles my favourite culinary apple variety, and it’s an inspired choice for a Nouveau cider. I’d drink this Little Pomona over Beaujolais Nouveau twelve times out of ten. It’s a proper juice-bomb; brimming with freshness and life and joyful fruit. It’s a true celebration of cider; though, paradoxically, exactly the sort of thing I’d most like to drink on a hot summer’s afternoon. I’ve long thought of Discovery as, whilst very different in its flavours, a natural appley foil to Sauvignon Blanc in its refreshing, exuberant, fruit-forward cheerfulness. This expression does nothing to change my mind. If there’s any still left, buy it this instant.
The Somerset Redstreak-Browns blend hasn’t worked quite so well, for me. There’s a slight off note on the nose, be it from apples or reduction, and when you compare it to Tony’s other work, it’s certainly simpler fare. That said, it’s deliberately intended to be, and this certainly has some general, easy-sipping appeal, particularly on the palate.
What I’d unquestionably give full marks to though is the concept of Cider Nouveau. I think it’s a wonderful idea and a surprising, lovely celebration at a time when many of us needed one. I have all my fingers and toes crossed that more makers will join in next year and that the event can be marked with a suitably well-oiled shindig. The growers, the harvesters, the pressers and everyone else involved have certainly earned one.