Despite our best endeavours here at Cider Review there never seems to be enough hours in the day or days days in the week to cover the entire breadth of regions and producers that we would like to. One area in particular is the South East of England and whilst we have managed to share some great ciders and perries with you from Kent this year, we’ve only just scratched the surface. So I was delighted when Steve from BEARDspoon got in touch and wanted to send his three latest 750ml creations for our opinion, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, especially as 2021 marks 10 years of cider making for them.
Time is an interesting concept when it comes to cider making. For the mass produced market, cider is fermented and bottled in a number of weeks, tens to hundreds of batches being produced each year. For the seasonal craft maker, it’s the complete opposite, one attempt per year following the harvest. So whilst a decade represents a fairly long time in our lives, in reality it’s only ten attempts at the cider making art.
I first met Steve a couple of years ago but even in that time I’ve seen a producer that has challenged themselves, sought to innovate and has grown in reputation. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his last ten years for this piece, which is hugely appreciated.
CR – Can you give us a brief history of how you got into cider and the story behind “BEARDspoon”?
Steve – BEARDspoon came about from my introduction to Real cider in a local pub, which unusually for the South East had anywhere between 2 and 6 ciders on at all times.
The sheer diversity in flavour profiles and the fact that is was such a misunderstood product caught my interest and I’ve been on the look out for new ciders (& perrys) ever since.
My girlfriend (now wife) Penny bought me a small screw press with the idea of making our own cider and BEARDspoon grew from there. Using my co-conspirator Jason’s Bramley tree and as many scavenged and scrumped apples as possible we made around 100l of cider in the first couple of seasons using the classic homebrew equipment (blade in a bucket etc.) and the little press. In 2013 we increased production slightly and came 3rd in the 2014 CAMRA regional competition, by the time the 2015 season came around we had decided to up production to around 500l which required the purchase of a 40l hydropress which we still use today.
Over the next few years we increased the yearly production up to 1500 – 2000l hand picking fruit from a local small holding and buying a couple of varieties in from commercial growers, including a couple of Cider apples to experiment with. Our crowing achievement came in 2019 when we won the Kent CAMRA regional competition, a title I cheekily like to say we’ve had for 3 years running… but only due to the lack of a competition since!
CR – When you started out what were your aims in terms of product type, availability and competition?
Steve – Our love for proper cider, its culture, history, diversity and family is something that has spurred us on from the beginning, educating people on the possibility of what cider could or should be.
I wanted to make a product that was a natural as possible, showing what can be achieved with minimum intervention, maximum juice, wild yeast and local apples in an attempt to make proper cider more readily available in the somewhat barren wasteland of cider that Kent used to be. At the time we started there was a sudden increase in small producers, some who would grow up to be some of the UK’s best, some who have completely disappeared from todays market, but we have all been on the same mission, to make great cider using Kentish apples in the East Country style.
CR – This year you’re celebrating 10 years, which is a fantastic achievement, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen over that time for cider? And how has it affected the direction Beardspoon has taken?
Steve – 10 years is quite surprising, it’s amazing how one season rolls into another, especially the last 4/5 years where we haven’t changed too much year on year, in the long run this is simply an over-the-top hobby and to increase scale any further will require significant investment. Our production methods are still the same as they were after a couple of years of pressing and learning on the home brew scale, use the best apples, be extraordinarily clean in what we do, protect the juice and let the fruit do their thing.
In my opinion cider itself has evolved massively in the last 10 years, so many people now know what proper cider is and can be, the market and interest in fine ciders has really taken off and in many cases can easily replace a bottle of wine for any occasion. The step up in range of some fabulously accessible canned ciders is also pushing the way cider is viewed, purchased and consumed to a new position. That being said there is still a long way to go to break into the mainstream and ease back on the general publics perception of cider being simply a modern alcoholic alcopop style drink with various fruit (and sometimes odd) flavourings added in to make something easy on the palate.
CR – Whilst a decade sounds like a while, it’s also only 10 seasons, are there some key lessons you’ve learnt over your 10 pressings?
Steve – A couple of things stand out, make sure the apples are ripe and have not sat for too long since picking, you don’t want Russet Puree! For our scale of production you must have as many different size tanks as possible to allow cider to be stored in different quantities, there’s nothing worse then racking off a 200l tank into a 100l and a 60l to find you now have 30l of something left and only a 60l tank to put it in! Close friends with time, tools (and sometime just pity) are invaluable, I really couldn’t do what we do each year without the support of a countless number of supporters, including all the apple pickers, Head of Apple Logistics and tonne bag acquirer Matt and chief taste tester Penny.
…Also if you don’t want wet trousers and don’t remember turning the hose off when you go to disconnect it, you probably haven’t so check it first… this obviously doesn’t happen on a regular basis!
CR – More recently you’ve expanded your packaging repertoire to include 750ml bottles, like the ones I’m tasting here. What made you decide to go down that route? And how do they differ from the rest of your range?
Steve – The range of 750mls was born both from my wedding in 2018 and the now annoyingly familiar world of COVID.
Back in 2017 I started a project to produce a traditional method cider to use as our toasting drink for our wedding the following year. Half Discovery half Red Love apples the intention was to make a fizzy pink cider using the champagne method. The end result was a complete success and although a little tart it worked really well as a toasting drink and looked the part with a vaguely pink hue still apparent.
When COVID came about, both myself and my good friend, and dry cider connoisseur Dave, needed a way of filling the time, we decided to try a couple of lock down projects which included a sweet chestnut barrel matured blend and another hand disgorged champagne style cider with a more complex blend of apples. These two although made in tiny quantities sold out very quickly which spurred us on to give some other ideas a go this year.
Dab of Disco is a bottle conditioned blend I’ve wanted to try for a while. Fully fermented Discovery (50%) and Bramley (10%) were blended with Dabinett (40%) which as usual for us had a decent amount of natural sugar still remaining. Blended, bottled and left to condition for 6 months I think its a great sparkling cider to have with a Sunday roast!
Pearfect is a bi-annual hit and miss Perry which this season we felt needed to be bottled and if the mood takes it, condition itself too! We found two ancient Perry Pear trees in the grounds of a private garden near the small holding orchard we use every year. One is a variety of Huff-cap and the other is unknown but its certainly not an eating pear! Most years when they bear fruit the Huff Cap juice is incredible soft, light, floral and so very very Perry like and the other is harder, astringent and slightly sour, this year things were turned on their head by mother nature and the unknown pear was far superior to the huff cap. More often than not wild fermenting these means they very rarely fully ferment and after working out a blend of both to suit the flavor profiles we bottled it at around 1007 degrees, with the expectation that if it did decide to do any further fermentation it would still have some residual sugar left with a chance of fizz!
Barba Dicula – I do love a silly or eye catching name and if your going to make a slightly pompous product it needs a relatively pompous name… all meant in jest of course. Barba Dicula is Latin for Beard Spoon according to google translate and its our third attempted at producing a small scale Champagne Method Cider to celebrate our 10th anniversary.
CR – Lastly, what can we expect over the next 10 years for Beardspoon?
Steve – Who Knows!? Maybe I’ll let slip what BEARDspoon actually means in another 10 years…
Huge thanks to Steve for taking the time to answer my questions so candidly. Now to try those bottles, which after reading Steve’s descriptions I am very eager to open.
Barba Dicula 10th anniversary special edition (7%)
How I served it: 60 minutes out of the fridge
Colour: pure gold
On the nose: really really floral, jasmine, honeysuckle and nectarines. Followed by vanilla, honey and apple blossom. It’s like being in the orchard in spring, there’s an extremely evocative scent to this. There’s a hint of wood, red apples and brandy at the back, perhaps from that chestnut barrel?
In the mouth: orange and vanilla cheesecake! It’s all creamy vanilla with a bite of citrus acidity at the front, which then opens up into crisp juicy green apples and more of that zinging acidity that skirts the cheeks and makes the mouth water. Honey and apple fruit give a perception of sweetness but the finish is dry but not astringent, just a clean, sharp palate cleanse.
In a nutshell: a fitting bottle to celebrate a decade, or any event for that matter.
Dab of Disco 2020 (7%)
40% Dabinett, 50% Discovery & 10% Bramley – bottle conditioned naturally sparkling dry cider
How I served it: out of the fridge for 30 mins
Colour: cloudy straw
On the nose: oooh, hello! Vanilla and orange pith from the Dabinett, along with strawberries and lemons from the Discovery and finally a burst of Bramley green apple. Fascinating how all three, despite their varying percentages, all manage to come through. Fresh, vibrant, citrus and fruity.
In the mouth: to me the Dabinett is on show first, gentle vanilla, orange oil and toasted brioche from the short time on the lees. Floral flavours of honey and elderflower coupled with green acidity then follow. The finish is dry, but fruity. Not astringent, no mouth furring here, just a clean burst of acidity followed by a fruity, juicy apple finish.
In a nutshell: a stunning blend that showcases the best of all the fruit, my favourite of the three (if I had to choose).
Pearfect 2020 (5.5%)
[Ed: for another view on this perry, see Adam’s take here]
How I served it: out of the fridge for 30 minutes
Colour: hazy straw
On the nose: pear drops, honey, honeysuckle blossom, lavender and mint. Very herbaceous and floral.
In the mouth: initial sweetness greets the tongue followed by a citrus acidity that has a sour edge to it, not tangfastics, but definitely a confectionary sour sweet thing going on. Actually maybe tartness is a better way to describe it, like freshly pressed Bramley juice, sweet but sharp. Honey and those pear drops fill out the finish. No sign of the bottle conditioning fizz to mine.
In a nutshell: a journey through flower bed, herb garden and sweet shop.
Three fantastic and also very different drinks, which show a real breadth. Ten attempts isn’t many to hone your craft but BEARDspoon have certainly used their time wisely. What stands out to me is the quality of the blending, especially in the “DAB of Disco” which if I had to choose would be my favourite, although all three are superb. In fact, quality in general is on show here really, from the design of the labels, to the clean finish of the ciders and perry everything has a professional edge to it. Which is an inspiration for someone, such as myself, who is only in their third year of cider making. Huge thanks to Steve for sharing not only his bottles but also his time to answer our questions. We look forward to what the next decade brings and finally finding out what BEARDspoon means…