So far on these pages, I’ve written about the most revered cider apple: The Kingston Black (with Malt’s own Adam Wells). The most ubiquitously planted cider apple: The Dabinett, and possibly the most unknown (when used in cider): The Egremont Russet. Now it’s time to talk about the most well-known apple in general: The Bramley. Looking at it another way, I’ve written about tannins and acidity in harmony, or the favour or absence of tannin, but what I haven’t covered is a pure sharp, so settle in because I’m about to focus on acid.
Whether you drink cider or not, pretty much everyone in the UK has heard of the Bramley. Because of its sharpness, size and structure (or lack of); especially after cooking, it is a culinary favourite. The apple sauce that accompanies your roast pork, the fruit in your apple turnover and if you’ve got an apple tree in your garden, it’s probably a Bramley. In fact, I would hazard a wager that Bramley is probably the widest planted apple tree in the UK, gracing many gardens with its presence.
For me, this apple is the closest to home of all I’ve spoken of so far. The original named variety tree can still be found in Southwell, a mere 25 miles from Lincoln, where I’m based. It dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and is named after a butcher who bought the house and garden containing the tree. When a local nursery owner enquired about taking cuttings and selling the fruit, Mr Bramley agreed, provided the fruit bore his name. The original named tree is still alive and along with the house, is in the care of Nottingham Trent University. Southwell embraces its heritage annually with a Bramley Apple festival on the 3rd Saturday of October and the Bramley Inn lies just down the road from the original tree: note to self to visit when possible and see what ciders are on.
Bramley isn’t just a great culinary apple though, it’s also a cider maker’s friend, widely used in blends thanks to its acidity and the absence of tannins. In my opinion, this allows balance to be created without compromising depth. It’s one of my favourite partners to blend with cider varieties to bring a fresh bright acid layer, lifting the fruit. However in most cases, Bramley is blended away as an acid addition and rarely given the chance to shine on its own, but that’s not the case with two I’ll be talking about shortly.
First though I want delve a bit more into the acid component, and there are three types that every cider maker is acquainted with: Malic, Lactic and Acetic. You’ll see why all of these are relevant when I get to the two bottles being featured today.
The main acid in apples is malic acid and sharp varieties like Bramley have it in abundance, although it reduces with ripeness. In his book on ‘Craft Cider Making’, Andrew Lea compares the malic Acid content of a Bramley >1% to a Cox 0.6% and a Typical Bittersweet (such as Dabinett or Yarlington MIll) <0.2%. So you can see how much potency the beloved Bramley has in comparison to its peers.
Makers utilising high acid varieties will sometimes do one of two things, add sugar which doesn’t remove any of the acidity but the sweetness reduces the perception of it. Or they may through time or intervention encourage malolactic fermentation. What this does is allow bacteria to convert malic acid to the softer tasting lactic acid. Last year I had a blend of eating and crab apples that were exceptionally sharp which underwent MLF (as the cool kids put it) and ended with a smoother, buttery taste and a much rounder mouthfeel. It adds a richness in contrast to the green apple flavours of malic acid. Of course, they may do neither and embrace the bold acidity in its truest form, MLF’d or not.
There is however one acid that most cider makers don’t want anywhere near them, one which Adam covered very extensively earlier in the year. Acetic acid is created by bacteria carrying out oxidative fermentation on alcohol. It’s a volatile acid so the serving temperature can have an effect on how perceptible it is. The bacteria responsible are commonly found in nature, in the air and in particular, they are found on fruit flies. In order to work, they need oxygen, so well-sealed tanks/containers and cleanliness are essential to prevent acetic acid creation. An adequate dose of sulphite can also help to kill off the bacteria. Which sounds simple enough, but actually in practice it requires robust and consistent effort. If you consider all the opportunities (pressing, in tank, racking to another container, in-tank & bottling) for oxygen to get into the process, you can quickly see how persistent attention to detail is required to keep things in check.
I myself have been caught short of too much air during bottling and not enough sulphite leading to acetic faulty cider, which I have not wanted to drink, let alone sell or share. Historically farmhouse cider probably had a fair amount of acetic acid giving it that rough, throat burning kick that some of you may have unfortunately experienced. More understandable given historic practices to ferment in less airtight barrels and containers as well as less technological support in terms of pumps, bottling and stainless steel. Today however there are less excuses even for the very small maker. Equipment providers have airlocks and seals for any kind of tank or barrel and sulphite addition is much more common and easier to use.
Unfortunately despite this, I have had many acetic ciders this year and heard many confused discussions or descriptions of “boldly acidic” or “tart/sour-sweet” bittersweet ciders, which as I’ve explained above, shouldn’t really have a strong perception of acid to them. When they do, it’s most commonly acetic acid, suggesting cider drinkers have more of an affinity for vinegar or perhaps rely on what the maker or influencer is telling them about “bold” or “funky” deliberate flavours. Or perhaps they struggle to tell or understand the difference between the types of acidity that should be there, and those that are only there as faults.
Adam Wells and I have had many discussions about this, especially in relation to wine, where acetic acid toleration is non-existent and it is very rare (except maybe in natural wine) even in a cheap bottle to find a faulty wine, unless perhaps it’s Retsina (many a faulty glass of that on holiday in Greece). Craft cider on the other hand seems a bit more behind the curve in education, championing good quality practice or being open to constructive criticism.
Makers may say that it’s a vital component of their flavour profile, but whether you are partial to it or not, Acetic acid in cider is a fault as Gabe Cook’s Pommelier course & Ciderology book will tell you, probably the most common fault of all. For drinkers I guess it just comes down to taste and preference, personally, I’m hypersensitive to acetic acid but for others who like the flavour, I think it helps to understand what it is and why it’s there. But I think if craft cider is to progress makers need to acknowledge, educate and share best practice when it comes to faults.
There is perhaps one exception to everything and in this case, it’s perhaps Sidra. Some Spanish ciders rely on a dutiful amount of volatile acidity but it tends to be a clean acetic flavour which is managed, and in conjunction with malolactic fermentation make a for a very geographically unique flavour profile. If you want to know more Google “acetic acid in sidra” and read the Google group chats between Andrew Lea and Claude Jolicoeur, two titans in the cider book world. However, as Adam wrote about in his visit to Basque Ciderlands at the beginning of the year, there are Sidra makers actively trying to reduce acetic levels, two of whom (Zelaia and Zapiain) are completely clean.
Rebel Root Ciderworks – Wild 2018 (5.6%) – review
Self-described “rebels” they are an experimental cider brand which is part of the Wobblegate Juice family, making small batches. Tom Stephens (Founder & Cidermaker) kindly sent me several different bottles including this one just before lockdown number 1. Based in West Sussex they do have a taproom (The Cider Tap & Orchard at Wobblegate Orchards), but the website is a bit out of date and still no online shop yet.
Colour: hazy straw, pale gold.
On the nose: opening the bottle I’m greeted with an aroma flashback to Jorvik Viking centre, it’s a little stale, with smokey hay and a savoury ‘cured bacon’ character. Poor into the glass though and it’s totally different. Green apples, citrus and a whisper of oxidisation, leaning towards a Basque sidra like scent.
In the mouth: At first the nose from the glass (not the Jorvik bottle aroma) carries through to the taste, plenty of green apple fruit, yellow citrus and then a smidge of that basque style acetic edge. The acidity feels very mild, sharpness from the fruit has been well and truly mellowed by malolactic fermentation and the short time it’s been matured, which is astonishing. I’ve pressed Bramley before that at 12 months old has still tasted as sharp as the day it was pressed. It’s bone dry, with a dutiful amount of cheek drying but that’s followed by a perceptible amount of sweetness that leaves the palate with a juicy finish.
However, I had my first sips after it had been out of the fridge maybe thirty minutes. Give it time to get up to room temperature and that smidge of volatile acidity blossoms into a full-blown smack of it. It also becomes more pronounced on the nose too, which is really disappointing. The palate is just dominated by it and sadly I cannot finish the bottle.
In contrast to this one, their 2016 Outcider (also Bramley) which I reviewed on YouTube earlier in the year was marvellous.
Tor Cider Company – 2011 (8%) – review
Straight out of Somerset, Tor make traditional method sparkling cider (this one only) and a variety of single orchard blends. I first tasted this particular bottle at the Cider Salon in Bristol in 2019. The lovely folk at Bollhayes sent me over to cleanse my palate with this after having tried their 2003 vintage and the contrast was astonishing. The label has been changed since then as “the old style labels looked a bit dated”. Personally I liked the previous label (which is still showing on the website) and foil bottle neck wrap, but the new design does have a much more modern feel.
Colour: Gold with a slight haze.
On the nose: it’s champagne…surely! Lots of bready, brioche-like yeast autolysis notes. Aged apple and brandy, it smells alcoholic/spirit like. Fresh and fruity considering it’s 9 years old.
In the mouth: all the nose is there, fruity and chewy and so smooth. There’s a creamy, viscous texture that coats the mouth. Then a crisp bitterness followed by a juicy perceptible sweetness. Whistle clean, refreshing and wonderful iteration of a champagne method cider really showcasing how acid led ciders match the method perfectly. Above all, though it’s ridiculously smooth, I mean it’s silkier than Adam’s lockdown hair.
I think there are two morals to this piece; fastidiousness and time. The levels of both have played a major part in the two ciders I’ve tasted. Bramley is an apple that evokes fond memories of home cooking; with comforting desserts and hearty roast dinners. Used in cider if given time to soften and evolve it can shine as a beautiful acid led drink. Take your eye off the ball even for a short period though and it’ll succumb to the challenges of every other cider, high acid or not. Whether you regard those challenges as ‘faults’ or not highlights a wider issue that is perhaps a conversation for another day. However, I think that if we don’t as a cider cohort (makers, sellers, drinkers and writers) start to recognise faults and challenge and call out the practice, then cider will never fully pull itself out of the perception problem pit it still suffers in.