They’re out there, somewhere, the apple trees. I can’t reach them, but I can see them down the lens of my mind’s camera. They stand in phalanxes; in unnatural, too-perfect lines, rank by rank across boxy, hedged-in fields. They sprawl unevenly down roughty-toughty slopes of rugged turf towards streams and rivers and, occasionally, the sea. They bow and hunch in secret walled gardens, unloved; choked with bursting, parasite branches of mistletoe. All wear the same exhausted, abandoned expression; febrile sticks jutting from an iron land. They look like wooden cemeteries. But they’re not dead. They’re just asleep. This is the deep breath in.
Cold-fingered orchardists, fleeced and behatted, shuffle from tree to tree with saws and secateurs; deciduous hairdressers, pruning, trimming, cutting back, laying the ground. A nine-month performance is about to start; these are the technical checks, the set-dressings, the little touches of make-up, the compulsive details before the curtains roll.
It’s not long now until the buds emerge. Unobtrusive; you won’t see them at first, not unless you’re standing next to the tree. Little, frail, unprotected green fingertips; pathetic, kitten-weak things. A late frost would spell their death and the year over before it’s properly begun. If the winter’s not been cold enough the buds, tricked by the thwarting of seasonal expectation, emerge sooner. That’ll be what kills them.
In spring there is an eruption. A blast of floral fireworks as, overnight, the buds burst into lily-white and flashes of winter-cheeked pink. This is the orchard’s ooh-and-aah moment, the cue for festivals to strike up around the cidermaking world, Spring’s bugle sounding as the first casks of last year’s harvest break open to toast evidence of the next. They’re not quite out of the woods; the finger-tapping nervousness, the incessant weather-watching won’t stop in the northernmost orchards until May, but the exhalation has started in earnest. The snowball has begun to roll down the hill.
The miracle of apples is the degree by which they will balloon over the next four months. The blossom flutters away, leaving tiny green marbles studding the branches. You wonder, as a neutral, unversed observer, how these miniscule nuggets can possibly swell to the size, at the spectrum’s largest end, of a boxer’s fist. There are clues around the orchard; trees without a speck of fruit on them. Nurturing a crop to full ripeness is a ruinous business; biennial apple trees are legion. You’ll see their handiwork again next year if you’re lucky. If they’ve sufficiently recovered.
With ripening comes colour and shape and definition. These are the months in which the statement “cider is made from apples” becomes fatuous and insufficient. The Jerseys – Chisel, Harry Master’s, Aston Brown, bulk at the shoulder and taper at the waist; swaggering, muscular things whose physicality flaunts their resultant rambunctious flavours. Skins take on life and identity; Kingston Blacks with brooding, wrathful purple, pallid, freckled Brown Snouts, anaemic White Beech, Foxwhelps as crimson as a vampire’s kiss.
Around late August the wind picks up and the ground patters with the muffled thumps of the first falling fruit. Discoverys, Foxwhelps, Thorns. A tree-to-tree rush to bring in the more temperamental varieties. Tarpaulins down like plastic picnic rugs, muddy-wheeled pickups with little baskets and larger crates, the menacing rumble and thrash of the industrial players’ harvesting machinery. The start of three long months of bending and heaving and groaning and aching and hauling and cursing and rain-soaked, tooth-grinding drudge as, one by one, the apples ripen, the trees toss them to the ground and the harvesters bring them in. As the apples drop with little thuds so the dark, waxy leaves shrivel and flutter beside them. On at least half of the trees the fruit clings more resolutely than the foliage; by late October the leaf-bare branches look baubled with every shade of green and yellow and orange and ruby and russet. Eventually, by nature or necessity, the decorations come down too, and the gathering frosts harden the earth around freshly denuded sticks with the knackered visage of death. Locked within this cycle is the essence of what cider is; something both transient and eternal. A once and future drink. A story of apple trees.
What on earth would possess you to be an amateur cider writer? Hours and hours of squeezed-in, free-time, off-your-own-bat Microsoft Wordery, hours more of reading, planning, emailing and fretting over the best angle to come at an article on Harry Masters’ Jersey from. You’re hardly in it for the click numbers; if I’d stuck to whisky I’d get ten times the hits for half the effort. And there’s no risk of tangible gain; my bank balance would look far healthier if I were just a Strongbow-at-the-pub sort of person. The whole business, on the face of it, is completely absurd.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I suppose, if asked, my serious-faced Times New Roman answer would be that I’ve always believed, if you peel back their layers with “whys” and “whats” and “whos” and “hows”, that drinks which have a place have a soul.
The fact that the average punter drinking the average cider in the average pub would pour scorn on its capacity for anything worth caring about and getting excited over is the cruellest cut and coup de grâce of the industrial march away from the orchard. A march that has turned so much of cider from a drink pressed from specific apples at a specific time of year into a from-concentrate insipidness of whatever fruit’s cheapest, made in the blink of an eye whenever takes your fancy.
If cider does indeed have a soul, it is locked in the apples, in the trees, in the land and in the slow cycle of seasons that brings all three into the confluence of a unique expression. It is in the unrepeatable patterns of weather; the vicissitudes of fate that make every harvest different from the next, however subtly. It is in the gentle incline of an orchard’s bank that drains water that little more quickly, gives every row of trees that little more, little longer, exposure to sunlight. It is in the crusts of sand or clay or limestone that make each orchard geologically individual. It is in the trees that are forty years older than the trees of the same variety next door; in the small-gains increase in intensity of flavour that every passing year has cultivated. It is in the choice to plant one variety over another, not for reasons of yield or efficiency, but simply because the former variety tastes better; imparts greater qualities into its resultant drink. It is in the trimming back of the hazel thicket that casts shadows onto the apples. It is in the health of the soil, and the ways in which the orchardist chooses to maintain that soil’s condition. It is in the careful winter pruning that gives the trees a better chance of a better-tasting crop. It is in the deliberate selection of apples that are pristine and fully ripened and the rejection of those that are dirty or rotten or unripe. It is in the space between the trees, the airflow between the branches and the time between an apple’s falling and its being picked up. It is in the transfiguration of everything above and more into a liquid in our glass that offers all of the answers, if only we knew what the questions were.
We talk a lot, we online cider lovers, about makers and about method. And certainly, there is now a solid and growing corps of wonderful people making wonderful things in wonderful ways. But they’re not where flavours ultimately come from. They’re the skin that covers cider’s flesh and bones; the last coat of paint on a sculpture. And however talented a maker might be, the vintages they produce will always be finite. If aspirational cider is to thrive and endure as a whole category, then those of us who love it must turn more of our attention to that which is longest-lasting: to the apples, the trees and the land.
Because there is so much here that goes unexplored, or that is entirely unknown. Varieties, these days, are occasionally named, but seldom discussed in terms that go further than their levels of acid and tannin. We don’t know where they grow best and we don’t know why. We talk about orchards as a being something generally good, and we tut and gasp at the statistic tonnage of fruit left to rot, but we don’t ask questions about the size and styles of trees and we don’t wonder about maintenance or farming intensity. We say how sorry we are that ancient, treasured, brilliant varieties are threatened, are on the cusp of extinction, but we don’t ask how orchardists are incentivised to propagate them; we go on and on about the varying prices of cider, but we don’t ask about the price of apples. We celebrate a vintage product, but don’t talk about what each vintage was like. There is no one I am aware of who can tell me which are the best orchards in Somerset or Devon or Herefordshire, let alone anyone who could start to explain why.
“Rethink cider” was, and remains, a compelling clarion call because there was almost no aspect of cider that didn’t deserve – didn’t need – more attention than it got. And now look at us. We are a growing community fluent in and enthused by terms like “keeving” and “pét nat” and “wild ferment” and “traditional method”. We have favourite apple varieties, we have beloved makers by the score in every corner of the UK and beyond. We compare notes, we share preferences, we gather for discussion in online clubs. Cideries are challenging themselves not only to improve the quality of their cider, but the way in which it is being presented. Curious drinkers from the realms of beer and wine and spirits are taking note, to say nothing of the many drinkers who are coming to cider as their glassful of choice. An exciting base is being built. But the rethinking isn’t over, and it is time to scratch a little more deeply beneath the surface. It is time to consider – to really consider – cider.
I don’t plan to publish anything for a bit. I’ve been feeling wrung out for a while now, and I need a little time to turn my brain and my laptop off and, like those orchards, slip into winter dormancy. Whenever I return to the keyboard I hope to start asking more of those questions. To investigate what has gone into our bottles as much as who has put it there and how. To understand the orchards that cider comes from, why they are as they are, and why that makes a difference. To throw into the sharp relief of discourse the marriage of fleeting vintage with immortal land. To search in the hidden places where cider’s soul might be and perhaps, if I’m lucky, discover what it looks like.