Tassie is becoming the Apple Isle all over again.
Tasmania’s first apple trees were planted on Bruny Island by Captain William Bligh in the same year the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay. He anchored the Bounty in Adventure Bay and, presumably with the help of his crew, planted seven apple trees. Fire later destroyed all but one, and when Bligh returned four years later to sample the fruit he described it as green and slightly bitter.
Fast forward 170 years, however, and by the 1960s the world couldn’t get enough of the flavoursome and delicious table apples for which Tasmania – the Apple Isle – had become famous. At its peak, our apple industry was 1300 orchards strong. But that changed with the stroke of a pen on January 1, 1973, when our largest export market – Britain – joined the common market of the European Economic Community. Over the next decade about 700 orchards were ploughed into the ground. In the end only 60 commercial apple growers remained in Tasmania.
Dr Tim Jones was born a year after that devastating British decision. He retains fond memories of a childhood surrounded by apple trees. In his case it’s because he and his brothers grew up on his father’s Blackmans Bay hobby orchard with about 60 heirloom apple varieties. “We had a Sunday night tradition of sit- ting around together as a family and Dad would be cutting up the weekly apples to stew for our Weet-Bix and he’d slice off a piece and flick us different apple varieties across the couch and describe to us what we were eating,” Jones says. “I remember walking beside the orchard down to the school bus on a cold morning and grabbing a golden delicious off a tree, biting into it and feeling the intense flavouring splintering into my mouth. This might sound like bulls*** but when I was in my early 20s and I tried my first French cider it took me straight back to me biting into those apples on the way to the bus.”
Jones didn’t know it as a child, but his father’s ramblings about the different colours, shapes, sizes and most importantly flavours and aromas of these apples would strongly influence his future. Jones is now head cider maker at Willie Smith’s organic cidery, at Grove, and last month his Kingston Black Limited Release won Best in Show against 260 other craft ciders at the annual Cider Australia awards. It’s the third time in four years he’s brought that particular trophy back to the Huon Valley.
“In Tasmania we have a latent desire to like good cider as adults,” Jones says. “Because we grew up with amazing apples
all around us. It’s really easy for us to reconnect to that if we have a good local cider that we really like.”
Jones enjoys creating traditional styles of craft cider and draws inspiration from the French. He started growing cider apples on his orchard seven years ago so he could start blending more complex ciders. He says the Tasmanian craft cider industry has never been stronger. He’s talking about cider made from local apples and pears and their juice, not mass produced commercial varieties that often use imported concentrates.
More and more Tasmanian craft cider is being made every year. It’s booming. Gradually, as the craft cider category has expanded into different styles, more seasoned drinkers with more discerning palates are appreciating the variety in styles and flavours that different apples can bring. Collectively, producers from the Tasmanian Cider Trail are bringing in close to $6 million annually. Craft cider sales are in double-digit annual growth, and close to 200,000 people are flocking to Tasmanian craft cider cellar doors each year to taste the brews that are impressing national and international judges. Australia has just launched a world-first, trust-mark so craft cider drinkers now know if the fruit in their cider is 100 per cent Australian-grown.
Last month UK craft cider expert Gabe Cook visited Tasmania for the first time as part of the global launch of his book Ciderology. He’s made a career out of tasting and promoting cider to the world. He dropped into The Apple Shed at Willie Smiths to judge 32 local, amateur cider brews and was gushing in his praise for our commercial craft ciders. Cook spoke to TasWeekend after sampling Willie Smith’s, Pagan Cider and Red Sails, and described them as “spectacular” and “awesome”. He says our craft ciders are bold, rich and complex with a wonderful expression of the apple varieties used. “What I’ve tried here so far really demonstrates just how good craft cider can be. It makes sense to me that an area renowned for growing awesome apples should be making great craft cider,” Cook told TasWeekend. “Tasmania is supremely well set up to be recognised as the Cider Isle. As well as having such a strong apple growing heritage you have such a fabulous mix of skilled fermenters here.”
Australian cider has traditionally been made out of culinary apples, but Caroline Brown from Cider Tasmania – who owns Brady’s Lookout Cider in the Tamar Valley – says for the first time in Australian history more Tasmanian craft cider producers are expanding their orchards with cider apples and heritage varieties. “The cider making art that Tasmanian cider makers are globally renowned for is to blend the different juices together and ferment them to come up with their final products,” Brown says. “Tasmanian cider makers have had to develop strong blending techniques because of our inability to access a wide variety of these cider apples and heritage varieties that have only been grown in tiny quantities until recently.”
Sam Reid, from Cider Australia is also co-owner of Willie Smiths, and hopes as more distinctive Tasmanian ciders emerge from these traditional cider apple varieties being planted, Tasmania will emerge as the Cider Isle. “Tasmania is leading the way,” Reid says. “Our cider community already produces a range of ciders that have more depth and breadth than the rest of Australia put together.”
Retired Middleton medical research scientist Clive Crossley has been making organic cider for more than 50 years. He grew up in Somerset, England, with cider making all around him and studied the art of cider in France. He and his partner Lynne Uptin run Red Sails and have been producing commercially at a nano level (less than 10 thousand litres) since 2009. The pair travel to Europe annually and are friends with some of the best cider makers in the world. “We’ve gotten to personally befriend most of the top craft cider makers in Europe and America,” Crossley says. “What that means is we are able to share their knowledge and that we have a constant stream of top overseas cider makers visiting us here in Tasmania.”
Thirty years ago, before other Tasmanian cider makers were doing it, Crossley was busy planting traditional cider apple trees for their rich tannin and acidity. “Apples grow so well here,” he says. “The trees are healthy and full of vigour and that’s Tasmanian’s natural advantage: it’s the best place to grow apples.” He now boasts the most mature cider apple orchard in the state. All up he’s got around 550 cider and heritage apple and pear trees made up of 42 different, mostly French and English, varieties of apple trees and 10 different pear varieties.
Crossley uses a range of mostly French methods that have been in use for more than 100 years and combines them with modern techniques he’s learnt from his international cider-making friends to make small amounts of award-winning, commercial, artisan cider more like champagne. “We practise tradition with innovation and our ciders tend to fall in the category of traditional ciders rather than modern ciders,” he says. “But I believe there’s room for both types. The market is so huge there is space for everyone.”
Crossley is helping other craft-cider makers for free by teaching them how to plant their orchards and to graft from the kind of traditional cider apple and pear trees he believes are the essence of good cider making. “When you are planting out your orchard you are really designing your cider,” Crossley says. “The amount of trees now being planted in Tasmania is rapidly increasing because people are realising to make interesting craft ciders using traditional methods you need to start with the right kind of apple varieties,” he says. “I think it’s terrific. We need more trees planted. It just seems such an obvious thing for Tasmania to do really.”
Another obvious thing is to make use of blemished fruit that farmers would otherwise be forced to discard. Flavoured cider is experiencing the biggest global growth in all craft cider styles just like the more traditional styles of craft cider making,
creating flavoured cider isn’t easy, explains Cook: “It takes skill to perfectly balance the integration of the cider and the fruit.”
Harry Moses from Pagan Cider in the Huon Valley forged new ground when he and business partner Mick Dubois made Australia’s first, and one of the world’s first, cherry ciders nearly six years ago. They solved a statewide problem in finding a use for unsellable Tasmanian split cherries. They pressed them and added the juice to a new scrumpy, dry style of cider. It allowed the cherry flavour to shine and the lessons they learnt from the brew enabled them to experiment with other fruit including quince, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, apricot and peach. “Our fruity blends have been extraordinarily well received,” Moses says. “This is the first summer we are entering with a full stable of ciders because we usually sell out beforehand.”
Moses and Dubois originally planned to sell their cider at local summer festivals. “But it took off,” Moses says. “It went nuts. There was a cider boom beginning and we happened to do some things differently that were really well received. There was a lot of luck in it, and good timing.” This year Pagan has forward orders from Asia for the cherry season so what they make is already sold.
Patrick Meagher from Simple Cider also makes a cherry cider – it’s his most popular cider – but he’s the only one in the state who ferments the fruit, not the juice. His products are poured in small bottles. “We do things quite differently here,” Meagher says. “We focus on a dryer style of cider that is naturally carbonated and bottled. We do something more like a champagne style: we don’t filter, we don’t pasteurise, we don’t use any fining agents which are things that help the liquid clarify. A lot of other people will add tannin, and acid and oak powder to their cider. We don’t do that.”
Simple Cider bottles create their own bubbles. “There’s such a nice diversity of craft cider styles in Tasmania that are complementary to each other,” Meagher says.
Cook says there is a craft cider for every palate and occasion. “One of the great things about craft cider as a drink is its breadth and diversity,” he says. He says it’s a category that will draw in wine and beer drinkers looking for low alcohol drinks.
Willie Smith’s has its more traditional craft ciders sold in cans but the company has also captured its creations in champagne-looking 750ml bottles. These bottles have found their way into some of the state’s top restaurants and are selling for $65 or $13 per 100ml glass. “There is a great amount of skill involved in making a super high-quality drink that can sit alongside fine wine but has half the alcohol,” Jones says. “If my cider is considered a serious drink and is something people will sit on over lunch and enjoy, and get full satisfaction from, and then be able to go back to work and actually function then we are succeeding. High quality cider can sit beside high quality sparkling wine but the difference is you’re not half cut at the end of the event.”
In Ciderology, Gabe Cook — aka The Ciderologist — shares his passion for all things cider, with an essential history of the drink and its production processes, and a tour of some of the world’s most significant cider makers.
Ciderology: From History and Heritage to the Craft Cider Revolution, by Gabe Cook, $27.99, Octopus Publishing Group
Willie Smiths’ apple wall.