In so far as I had a Damascus moment in my journey as a cider lover, it was the first time I came across Chalkdown.
There were one or two false dawns beforehand; the first cider I ever had – a Strongbow at a Welsh School’s leaver’s ball (a story for another day); the abandoned book I came across in a Herefordshire café that taught me ciders could be made like wine; the handful of craft ciders dabbled with during my year in Bristol that sparked interest, but not quite devotion.
But Chalkdown was my flash of lightning on the road. Not just for its flavours, although they were like no cider’s I had tasted before, but for what it was. Cider made the same way as champagne.
I could not believe that such a thing existed. In a sip and a sentence it had seized the question that has underpinned my entire existence as an interested drinker: “why does it taste like this?” and shown me a rabbit hole down which I couldn’t resist plunging, and which still holds me in its twists and tunnels today. Very simply: no Chalkdown, no Cider Review.
And yet despite being ‘the bottle that did it’, Chalkdown has never before appeared on this site. Simply because we’re protective of our independence and wary of potential conflicts of interest in these parts, and Chalkdown was one of the very few ciders my erstwhile employers sold. Them’s the breaks.
But since, as of March, I’m in a new job in which a cider-related conflict of interest is unlikely ever to arise, and since I’m currently researching an article on traditional method ciders, I thought I’d reach out to Chalkdown’s cidermaker Piotr Nahajski and pick his brains on traditional method ciders generally and Chalkdown in particular.
He was kind enough to give me an interview, and his answers were so good that I thought I’d share them here in full.
CR: So easy one first of all – can you introduce yourself and tell us how you got into cider?
Piotr: My name’s Piotr Nahajski. I started doing Wine & Spirits Education Trust courses – initially as a bit of fun, started on a Level Two course – and I thought it was fantastic. I just thought it was the best thing I’d ever done. I really, really enjoyed it. And that evolved – I did my Level Three, as soon as I’d finished my Level Three I signed up for the Diploma and by the end of the Diploma I’d signed up for a degree in wine production with Plumpton.
And I was doing a study tour in Champagne as part of the Plumpton course. We were driving around the Champagne countryside and I thought it was just fabulous – I loved what the champenois do with their fruit; how they treat it, the whole culture there. And just as you do when you’re driving around, staring out of the window, I just kind of started to have this idea “well what if we did the same thing with beautiful English apple juice?” Take great English fruit, treat it with the same reverence and respect and care that they do in Champagne with grapes, and let’s see if we can create an apple-based sparkling cider in the traditional method.
So that’s where the idea came from, and then as you research it you realise other people have started to do it – there were one or two people; one person particularly, who had been doing it for quite a while, but others had been trying. But I really wanted to take the culture, the philosophy of what they do in Champagne and bring it to English apples. So that’s where I started from.
CR: Talk to me about the cider that you make and the methods and processes involved – in as much detail as you’d like.
Piotr: Sure. So we start with the philosophy – you want clean fruit, so you start with hand-picked fruit. We then sort it when it comes into the cider shed – hand sorted again – so it’s really, really clean fruit. We want low tannins, so we go for dessert fruit; no cider-specific fruit goes into it. We want a clean press so we press lightly, and as we’re pressing I’m tasting the juice that comes off the press to look for when that tannin starts to appear. And when that tannin starts to appear, that’s when we cut off the pressure. And that sort of sets our limit for the year.
So we’re looking for clean fruit, low tannins, clean juice, and once we have it we then pump it into tanks. The press we use for apples is very different to the press used for grapes, but once we have that juice we pump it into tanks and we treat it just as you would a champagne. So we rack it overnight to let any sediment settle off – we rack it into a clean tank so it’s really quite clean juice. We innoculate it with yeast; we often use Champagne yeast, but depending on the blend of the fruit and the growing season we might use different yeasts; there are different yeasts which can correct for what’s happened during the growing season. That’s just based on my judgement of the quality of the fruit we’ve got and the blend of the fruit we’ve got. We then ferment it in stainless steel tanks, fermentation takes a couple of weeks. We then let it settle, rack it off, then let it sit in the tanks on the fine lees for about six months.
We then filter it and bottle it in April or May. The timing is partly a function of wanting to give it a bit of time to mature on the lees in the tank, which I think gives it a little bit of extra depth and roundness, but also for the secondary fermentation in the bottle what you do need is an ambient temperature of about 14 degrees [Celsius] just to help the fermentation get away securely. So that means waiting until April or May. Then we leave the cider in the bottles for a minimum of 18 months. [Secondary] fermentation’s actually completed in a matter of weeks but we leave it on the lees for a minimum of 18 months to try and develop that autolytic character. Then we disgorge it and bottle and label it and then finally we leave it in the bottle another three months just to let the cork set and for the bottle to settle down. So end-to-end it’s almost two years to bottle!
CR: You touched on visiting the champenois but what is it specifically about the champagne method that appealed?
Piotr: Well the number one thing is just the gorgeous flavour. I just love that autolytic note. And I think it lends itself really well to go with apple juice because you get that biscuity, brioche character, and I think it comes through almost on Chalkdown as a sort of apple pie, tarte tatin flavour. And I think that combination of pastry and apples together, it’s just a lovely thing!
So that’s the number one thing. Obviously bubbles are always delightful, but it’s the character, the flavour, which is why we give it that longer lees ageing. You could create something that’s fizzy much quicker, but it’s that lees ageing that really makes the difference. Hence the traditional method. You’ve got to love that whole process, you know? It’s really quite artisanal and old-fashioned, which adds a nice romantic layer over the top. But it really is about creating the flavour and that combination of briochey, biscuity flavour together with the apples.
CR: That’s worth touching on a bit – what’s happening during that autolytic process and what difference does it make?
Piotr: So in the secondary fermentation, when we bottle we add into the bottle a fresh yeast culture and a bit of extra sugar to allow the second fermentation to take place in the bottle. So what happens is as that secondary fermentation takes place it releases carbon dioxide which dissolves into the liquid which gives you the fizz. Then when the yeast’s finished consuming all the sugar it starts scavenging around for any other nutrients that it can find. And there are nutrients in the yeast cells themselves, so in the process of autolysis they actually break down the cell walls to release some of the nutrients, which the yeast is then scavenging in its final process of trying to metabolise.
And as the cell walls break down they also release other proteins and amino acids and sugars into the liquid – the cider – and those have the effect of softening the palate, rounding out the palate, and then creating these lovely brioche aromas. There’s quite a lot of contention about how long it takes to do that – depending on which academic reference you find it can be anywhere from a minimum of 12-15 months to a bit longer. 18 months, most people would agree, covers you. You definitely get that lovely autolytic note. So that’s where that character comes from. And when people taste Chalkdown a lot of them say “it tastes like champagne – it’s got that distinct champagne note” and that’s what it’s about.
CR: Sticking with lees for a second, you’ve done a 2014 extra lees aged cider. So how long is ‘extra lees aged’ and what difference does that make compared with 18 months? And finally – 2014, 8 years old, that’s beyond what some people say cider can age for, yet that 2014 still has so much freshness and fruit.
Piotr: Have you tried it?
CR: I have! So are the lees contributing to the ageworthiness?
Piotr: Ok, so let’s go back to 2014. 2014 was a hot year so the cider came out slightly lower in acidity. So we actually integrated a bit of higher acidity fruit to get the acidity up. But it had a real richness and a generosity that was just inherent in that vintage. In terms of extra-long lees ageing, it’s been on them for between five and six years, so that’s really starting to get quite a long time – even for a lot of sparkling wines that’s starting to become quite a decent period.
What does it do? That autolytic character’s more pronounced; it’s almost less biscuity and more kind of pastry. It’s richer, it’s buttery. The palate is softened. The amount of dosage I put in after disgorging just to balance the acidity is less than I did on the original 2014 – almost half – because it just doesn’t need it. It’s filled out, become more generous, more rounded, more fulsome. The other thing is that the bubbles are slightly softer, and the colour’s deepened. It’s almost like a vintage champagne, it’s just got that roundness, fullness and that slightly golden colour rather than straw/hay colour. And it’s just a lovely, lovely drink.
CR: Picking up on something you just mentioned – dosage – tell us about what that is, why it’s used and how much you use?
Piotr: After we’ve disgorged the yeast after secondary fermentation, what we do is remove the yeast from the bottles – the spent yeast that’s lying in the bottle. We riddle it, so we shake and rotate the bottles until we get the yeast into the neck of the bottle, then we freeze the neck of the bottle, pop open the crown cap which is sealing the bottle and then the pressure in the bottle blows the plug of ice in the neck out, taking all the yeast with it.
We’ve then got clean cider, and at that stage we add a little bit of dosage, which is a little bit of a sugar solution just to balance the acidity. The amount we add depends entirely on my assessment of how much we need to balance that acidity and it varies from year to year. Typically our acidity’s around 8-10 grams per litre, which is about the same as you’d get on a sparkling wine, and the sugar we add is typically in that same range.
CR: 8-10 grams? So a Brut, in champagne terms?
Piotr: Yes, a Brut by champagne. We’ve gone as high as 14, we’ve been as low as 6 or 7. But it depends. It’ll depend on the vintage and on how everything’s evolved in the bottle. And it’s a natural process so you do it by taste.
CR: You mentioned that when you made the extra lees aged you blended in some extra acid apples – what varieties are you typically using?
Piotr: My two sort of stalwarts are Cox’s and Russets. Cox’s are the archetypal English apple, it’s got fantastic, lovely crisp apple flavours. Bags of flavour, great acidity, great crispness. It’s absolutely the bedrock of all the ciders I’ve made, and I just love it. Wonderful aroma. Russets are slightly higher sugar, and in fact they risk being slightly too high – if you just made it from Russets I’d think the sugars would be too high. But they’ve got a lovely honeyed nuttiness, so that adds a nice counterpoint to the Cox’s.
And then we’ll add other things. We’ve experimented with probably about 6 or 7 different varieties; in the early vintages we used a variety called Kanzi, which is beautiful. Not very flavoursome but it’s got a lovely perfumed aroma. They’re very hard to get hold of, so they disappeared. In 2014 we added some Bramleys; bags of crispness, loads of acidity – to my palate they don’t bring a lot of flavour but in terms of balancing the acidity they’re a fabulous addition. And sometimes we’ll talk with a grower and see what they’ve got. So we’ve used Gala; Spartan’s one I was quite excited about and has been in a couple of the blends, it repeatedly gave a sort of winey, vinous quality. But they tend to be the minority. I would say 70-80% of the blends tend to be Cox’s and Russets.
CR: You’ve talked about brioche flavours and touched a little bit on those apples, but if you’re thinking of a good traditional method cider, what are the qualities and characteristics that you’re looking for?
Piotr: It’s got to have the flavour and the character. It’s got to have the apple character and it’s got to have the biscuit, brioche character. I’m looking at the bubbles as well – if they’re the sort of aggressive, [force] carbonated-type bubbles I think that detracts from the quality of the drink. So bubbles have got to be fine, you want a nice mousse that develops in the glass and persists. You want a beautiful colour and a nice clean liquid as well.
Then you go into the mouthfeel and how it feels on the palate – the aroma catches a real sense of freshness and Englishness. Then the finish: does it endure? Does it leave a lovely aftertaste? Are you just desperate to have another glass or another mouthful? So those things. It should be complex, it should be delicate, it should be balanced – I think balance is really important – it should be poised. All those things together.
CR: Obviously you were inspired by champagne and we’ve talked about how there are some similarities in terms of the autolytic character and some of the green fruit, but what do you think are the key flavour differences between a traditional method cider and a champagne?
Piotr: Obviously the fruit character is different. Interestingly though, if you look at tasting notes for champagne, one of the things that quite often comes up is a green apple character. So you start to think “ok, there is actually some overlap”. But it’s different. It is. It goes in a different direction. So there might be a green apple character, but then it’s the baked apple that really comes through I think on the cider which I think is really rather nice.
Then the other big difference is the alcohol content, so where you sparkling wines are typically around 12%, we’re typically around 8%. And you can taste the difference, but for me the critical question, and the one I kept asking myself and coming back to was: is it balanced? Has it got that integrity? Does it feel as though it’s missing the alcoholic content? And the answer’s no. It’s absolutely 100% balanced. And actually the alcohol and the flavours, to me they balance and sit in harmony.
CR: You wouldn’t want it tasting the same of course, otherwise you might as well use grapes!
CR: It’s really key for a cider to have its own point of difference I guess? So how did customers originally respond to the concept of traditional method cider? And have you seen any evolution in that in the time that you’ve been making?
Piotr: I would still say it’s an idea that a lot of people haven’t come across. To be honest I would say it was met with some scepticism, both among customers and among trade people. Having said that, when you engage with people and they try it the reaction is just amazing. People go “wow, this is just beautiful”. We’ve had lovely writeups and great engagement from all sorts of trade professionals, masters of wine, buyers and customers.
So it’s a process of spreading the news – and slowly you start to build a customer base, and they come back time and time again, and they’re looking out for you – they buy online, they buy directly, they buy at shows and so on – and they say “yes, I always come and find you because I know you’re going to be here. So it’s a process of educating people, and I think the wonderful situation we’re in is that there’s this range of beautiful alcoholic drinks to encounter and enjoy; just so many wonderful things. And this sits there I think in that palette of wonderful drinks for people to find and enjoy.
CR: If you can’t actually put the drink in front of a customer to try first, how do you get people to engage with the idea of a cider as a really premium product? And how important is it that people start to think of cider in that way?
Piotr: You rely on word of mouth. So whether that’s friends telling friends – which definitely happens – whether that’s through newspaper articles or blogs or enthusiasts, or whether it’s sommeliers or drinks specialists in hospitality venues talking about it and enthusing about it and sharing it. It’s the tasting that definitely persuades people. Because it’s quite an unusual, small category.
The other interesting thing is that once people get it they have no problem about the pricing. The pricing is quite high, and particularly the Extra Lees Aged, given it’s taken six years to produce I ought not to be selling myself short on it – so it’s quite a premium price. But people, when they taste it, totally get it. So that’s interesting.
I’m a very small producer; I can adjust my volumes to match what I think I can sell, so I’m not trying to change the world, I’m not trying to make it a mainstream category. I’ve worked with some big retailers before and we’ve had good relationships, and I work with lots of small retailers and sell direct to small hotels and so on. So I’m just happy when people find it, enjoy it, get it. I’m happy to produce a nice product that people love. It gives me immense pleasure when people phone up – and they do – and say “I just love your product, we’ve had it on this occasion – for our wedding, for a lovely picnic”. Those are the things that really motivate me.
CR: Talk me through your current range.
Piotr: I just do the two. So I’ve got the regular cider, which has had typically 18 months’ lees ageing, and I have the Extra Lees Aged. I only ever did 1000 bottles of the Extra Lees Aged; it is a premium product and it’s going to sell out. It’s not a big volume, but it’s still tasting remarkably fresh. Some of it was disgorged after 6 years so it’s had 18 months [since] in the bottle, under cork, and it’s still tasting fresh and lovely.
CR: As you said, there were only a couple of traditional method producers when you started out. There are a few more these days. Are there any other traditional method producers that you particularly admire.
Piotr: There are. I particularly love what Little Pomona are doing and the creativity they’re doing it with. I’ve kept my range very simple; it was a small, niche product and I wanted to make it very consistent. It varies a little from vintage to vintage, year to year, but I wanted to make it so that people could know what they were going to get. And that keeps the whole process simple, and that’s lovely. But the guys at Little Pomona – and there are others, some people doing really wacky, wacky things – I love the creativity there. They’re blending in different things, blending different fruits, blending beers, all those sorts of things. I think it’s great and I really admire their creativity. And I also recognise that to do that you’ve then got to work really hard. Every time you produce a new product you’ve got to say “well this new product, how do we sell it?” Because people love the novelty but you’ve then got to sell it every time. Anyway I love that creativity and I’m full of admiration for that.
CR: How has Chalkdown been affected by the pandemic?
Piotr: Any hospitality trade business obviously dried up. Our retail customers were down a bit, they were definitely affected, but what we did see was people ordering online directly going up. So in volume terms, volumes are down, but in terms of the mix of the business, people were paying retail prices rather than trade prices. So that saw us through. We didn’t press, because I was anxious about the balance of supply and demand. We’ve got to the point actually where our stocks are now very, very low. So we’re trying to bring those stocks back to balance – and the difficulty, of course, is you’re always playing two or three years in advance, trying to anticipate what’s going to happen. So we have some more cider on the way, which we pressed last year, so that’ll be 2024!
CR: You really are working with some long scales there! How would you like to see the very small category of traditional method cider change or evolve over the next few years? What would you like to see generally?
Piotr: I would like it to become more and more accepted and acknowledged – although I don’t want to change the world. I just think it’s a category that people would do well to discover. I just think for consumers that I think people would like it – because of the reaction I’ve seen. It’s something that’s really well suited to drinks producers in England. It’s a great mixture of a fruit that grows so well here and the increasing skills that we have in the production of traditional method wines as well. So I’d love to see that. I’d love to continue to see the creativity that we’ve discussed already.
One of the things I think has worked really well in cider is the small cider producers scheme, where you get a duty exemption if you’re a small producer. I think that encourages people to set up. I thought it was an opportunity to set up as a small producer. It gives you a little bit of a financial window to take more of a risk with. If you know you’re having to pay duty on every single bottle you produce then you’ve got to make sure it’s going to be financially viable. With a bit of a break on that I think it encourages people to be more creative. So I think that’s nice, and I wish it would continue. To be honest, if I had a hotline to the Chancellor I would say “extend it to wines as well”. Because I think it would do exactly the same for the wine sector – encourage small producers to have a go.
CR: And for Chalkdown in particular, what’s on the horizon.
Piotr: So we are going to continue to hopefully produce nice cider that people like! Although, as we discussed earlier on, you start to understand how the process works. The first few years there’s so much to learn, but now you know how to do it you feel really confident that you can produce a decent product. Every year there are challenges along the way – the fruit doesn’t come out quite as expected, some of the ferments don’t go as you expected, you have to make adjustments and corrections as you go. So continue to work on that. The other thing, which we’ve been doing for the last two years, is making wine here as well. Again, traditional method sparkling wine made with top quality Hampshire fruit – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir. The first two vintages we’ve made three wines, we’ve done a Rosé, an early-release cuvée, though it’ll still have two years on the lees, and a Blanc de Blancs which we’re planning will have six or seven years on the lees, so it’ll be a special cuvée.