Bou­tique cidery lob­bies for pure fruit

The Orchardist - - Profile - By Anne Hardie

In a cor­ner of a win­ery in Nel­son’s Moutere hills, Mark and his wife, So­phie, use the acid­ity, flavours and aroma of ap­ples such as Cox’s Or­ange and Sturmer to pro­duce a cider that was named a fi­nal­ist in this year’s New Zealand Food Awards.

It’s a bone-dry cider which means the nat­u­ral fruit sugar is turned into al­co­hol and all the flavours of the fruit pulp and skins have been cap­tured in the end prod­uct. No wa­ter is added and Mark says that should be the case with any­thing la­belled cider, in the same way wine has this reg­u­la­tion.

At this stage, the cidery is a fledg­ling busi­ness that pro­duced 4,500 litres of cider for the 2017 vin­tage, but Mark has a big vi­sion for the in­dus­try as a whole. Be­cause though the coun­try pro­duces about 17 mil­lion litres of cider a year, about 13 mil­lion litres of that is wa­ter, he says.

In France and Ger­many, cider is made from pure fruit just like wine, while Mark says many other coun­tries have reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern the ingredients. Whereas in New Zealand, cider comes un­der the fruit wine ban­ner where wa­ter, juice con­cen­trate and other flavours can be added, with no re­quire­ment to list ingredients. Mark points to the New Zealand wine in­dus­try were wine only needed to be 80% from grapes un­til 1983 and then reg­u­la­tions were in­tro­duced that re­quired wine to be 100% from grapes.

“So that’s my goal with cider. Elim­i­nat­ing wa­ter is the big­gest thing for me – most peo­ple drink­ing cider think they’re drink­ing fer­mented ap­ple juice, but they are mostly drink­ing wa­ter. “The in­dus­try can’t keep on mak­ing a cheap com­mod­ity that is a wa­tered down prod­uct be­cause it doesn’t do any­thing for brand New Zealand.”

Ad­ding wa­ter in­creases vol­ume and en­ables pro­duc­ers to avoid a higher ex­cise tax be­cause it low­ers the al­co­hol level to less than 6% which is where the higher tax kicks in. Mark says fruit grow­ers would also ben­e­fit if less wa­ter went into ciders as more fruit would be used and grow­ers would make bet­ter mar­gins.

For the for­mer wine maker, pure fruit cider is the only way to go. Both Mark and So­phie grew up sur­rounded by vine­yards and wine – Mark in the fam­ily’s Wairarapa vine­yard and So­phie amid Marl­bor­ough’s vines where her fa­ther is a wine­maker. Mark went on to study wine­mak­ing be­fore tak­ing up wine­mak­ing roles over­seas and back in New Zealand, be­fore meet­ing So­phie through work in Aus­tralia.

It was dur­ing their 10-year stint in Mel­bourne, that they be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with cider mak­ing be­cause most of the ciders on the mar­ket were too sweet. Ini­tially they plucked ap­ples from a tree in their gar­den, put them through the kitchen blender and fer­mented the juice to make about 20 litres of cider – pretty sim­i­lar to the process used for white wine.Tri­als fol­lowed with other va­ri­eties to find the best flavours and acid­ity; blend­ing them to achieve the best re­sult. Through­out the process, they worked with pure fruit.

“There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween the sweet­ness and flavour from fruit ver­sus sugar and if you can get fruit sweet­ness with­out sugar sweet­ness, it’s a health­ier op­tion.”

A young fam­ily brought them back to New Zealand where they headed to the “world renowned ap­ple and pear” re­gion, Nel­son, to make cider. Some or­chardists al­low them to pick the fruit them­selves which means they can get the full-flavoured, tree-ripened fruit and they also buy in fresh­ly­har­vested fruit. Af­ter tri­alling nu­mer­ous va­ri­eties, they have found the modern ap­ple va­ri­eties lack flavour for a good cider and pre­fer her­itage va­ri­eties such as Cox’s Or­ange Pip­pin and Sturmer Pip­pin, plus true cider va­ri­eties such as Graven­stein and Kingston Black which are all used in blends.

“I’m more of a fan of blend­ing be­cause I think you get a bet­ter prod­uct. And there’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence in the way we make our cider. Nor­mally you would put ap­ple through a mill into a press and press it to get the juice, whereas we mill straight into the tank – the same as you do for red wine. We press at the end of fer­men­ta­tion be­cause a lot of the flavour of ap­ples and pears is in the skin. It’s just more flavour, more aroma and more in­ten­sity. Ap­ples and pears have quite del­i­cate flavours, so that’s the way of ex­tract­ing more flavour.”

Ev­ery sea­son will pro­vide dif­fer­ent flavours – 2016 was a warmer year, a good sum­mer, which ripened the fruit per­fectly and provided those in­tense, tree-ripened flavours. Last year was cooler and the later-sea­son ap­ples strug­gled to ripen, so that also af­fects flavours. Mark never mea­sures sugar lev­els or other as­pects of the fruit prior to har­vest and re­lies purely on the taste of the ap­ples. Once the fer­ment­ing cider reaches the bot­tling stage, a lit­tle sugar, plus or­ganic yeast is added in a process sim­i­lar to cham­pagne. The yeast con­sumes the sugar and pro­duces a lit­tle more al­co­hol, but more im­por­tantly, car­bon diox­ide for nat­u­ral bub­bles.

It’s an ex­pen­sive way to pro­duce cider and Mark refers to it as a labour of love. A tonne of fruit pro­duces just 500 litres of cider com­pared with about 800 litres in most proper com­mer­cial cideries. But they like the re­sult and be­ing a fi­nal­ist in the food awards proved they have a prod­uct oth­ers like as well.

Mar­ket­ing has been a com­plex is­sue, Mark says, with so­cial me­dia now a stan­dard av­enue to lift the pro­file of a prod­uct. Twit­ter, In­sta­gram and Face­book is one way of telling peo­ple about their cider and it’s all about get­ting ex­po­sure for their prod­uct. Mark was in­vited to join a panel at the New Zealand AgriFood In­vest­ment Week in Palmer­ston North ear­lier this year to talk about agrifood and po­ten­tial for New Zealand. That led to some­one sug­gest­ing they en­ter the food award, which in turn led to be­ing nom­i­nated as a fi­nal­ist.

In­creas­ing ex­po­sure means their Abel Meth­ode Cider can now be found in restau­rants, cafes, lux­ury lodges and re­tail out­lets through­out New Zealand and also in Aus­tralia.

Part of Mark’s vi­sion for the New Zealand cider in­dus­try is to get cider out of the beer fridge and its own sec­tion on the menu. And if he suc­cess­fully steers the cider in­dus­try to­ward pure fruit, with­out wa­ter, he is hope­ful Nel­son’s sun­shine and in­tense fruit flavours could be­come syn­ony­mous with great cider.

“Cider could be to Nel­son what sauvi­gnon blanc is to Marl­bor­ough,” he sug­gests.

When Keith Ben­netts re­tired from fruit­grow­ing he never imag­ined he would write his fam­ily and fruit­grow­ing story.

Time marched, prompt­ing Keith – who had re­tired to Alexan­dra – to con­sider record­ing the life of an or­chardist, and the Ben­netts’ fam­ily be­gin­nings as fruit­grow­ers.

“But I stalled and then was haunted by not go­ing fur­ther.”

The life of an or­chardist does not fea­ture in many li­braries through­out Otago, so to record some­thing of this his­tory Keith even­tu­ally sat down, some­times at 1.30 in the early morn­ing hours, to write of those times.

As the ex­er­cise book pages filled with the his­tory of the Ben­netts fam­ily the book started tak­ing on a life of its own.

The pa­tri­arch of the Ben­netts fam­ily in New Zealand was Keith’s great-grand­fa­ther Richard Ben­netts who was 25 years of age in 1853 when he left Corn­wall for the Vic­to­rian gold­fields.

In 1861 Richard ar­rived at Port Chalmers near Dunedin, and headed for the gold­fields of Otago, fi­nally pur­chas­ing land at Coal Creek and im­port­ing fruit trees from Aus­tralia.

In 1891 he bought 49 acres for his son John Ben­netts, and named it “Fairview”.

In those early years Richard Ben­netts spent time with his son John as they hawked fruit around the gold-dig­gings, some­times sleep­ing un­der the wag­ons.

The fam­ily fruit­grow­ing dy­nasty grew when John later pur­chased other prop­er­ties for two of his sons. He bought Te­viot Or­chard for his son Fred (the grand­fa­ther of re­cently re­tired Sum­mer­fruit NZ chair­man Gary Ben­netts) and an or­chard at Dum­bar­ton, near Roxburgh for his son Ernest.

His re­main­ing son Robin (Keith Ben­netts’ fa­ther) then took over Fairview.

When the prop­erty was sold re­cently, the book be­came more of a pri­or­ity, so four months and 150 pages later the book has been pub­lished. “Al­though I won’t have in­cluded ev­ery­thing that oc­curred through 125 years I have tried to write it as light-hearted and as se­ri­ously as the un­fold­ing events oc­curred. I have writ­ten it straight from the heart.”

From 1891 to 1986 tra­verses some fam­ily his­tory; the changes in fruit­grow­ing prac­tices – from horses to trac­tors, from har­vest­ing fruit in boxes to pick­ing in ap­ple bins, plus three ma­jor floods – through to when Keith started the first fruit “Pick-Your-Own” in Cen­tral Otago, and he lists all the staff.

In the early 1920s John Ben­netts built a wa­ter­wheel to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity on the prop­erty un­til the Te­viot power scheme ar­rived.

Keith in his turn was a found­ing grower mem­ber of Benger Pack­ers, based at Ettrick, which was formed when the then New Zealand Ap­ple & Pear Board de­cided grow­ers should pack their own fruit.

For the Te­viot Fruit­grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, he li­aised with the fruit can­ner­ies set­ting stone­fruit prices and was also the As­so­ci­a­tion’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the Trans­port com­mit­tee when the Roxburgh rail­way was closed.

Keith says it is ironic that his grand­fa­ther John Ben­netts was a man be­hind pro­mot­ing the ex­ten­sion of the rail­way line from Beau­mont to Roxburgh and Keith was re­spon­si­ble for co-or­di­nat­ing road trans­port for fruit when the line closed in 1968.

He has self-pub­lished an ini­tial 100 copies of his book “Fairview Or­chard” from Corn­wall to Coal Creek and ad­mits to be­ing a very happy man now it has been recorded.

Bay of Plenty-based Blue­lab, which makes hor­ti­cul­tural me­ter­ing and con­trol prod­ucts, has launched a new mul­ti­me­dia pH probe (called Leap) and mul­ti­me­dia pH me­ter. The hand­held de­vices al­low grow­ers to mea­sure pH di­rect from the root zone across a range of en­vi­ron­ments, in­clud­ing soil, coco coir, rock­wool, pot­ting mix, nu­tri­ent so­lu­tion and many other me­dia types.

Blue­lab’s easy-to-use dig­i­tal probes and me­ters are gain­ing ac­claim from grow­ers lo­cally and world­wide, who rely on the equip­ment to mon­i­tor pH and EC.

Staff at Amer­ica’s third largest green­house grower, Cal­i­for­ni­abased Alt­man Plants, say the Leap probe and mul­ti­me­dia me­ters are help­ing im­prove crop qual­ity and yields. Tech­ni­cal ser­vice man­ager Javier Lopez said, “These are es­sen­tial tools we are con­fi­dent to use to mon­i­tor our crops within these two pa­ram­e­ters.” He said Blue­lab’s me­ters cal­i­brate faster than other prod­ucts he has used in the past, with a sin­gle push but­ton on the hand-held me­ter. “It’s bet­ter, more ac­cu­rate. I tried it for one year and af­ter that started to use it in each fa­cil­ity.” Ev­ery Alt­man grower has the new Leap pH probe, for so­lu­tion and me­dia pH mea­sure­ment.

Mon­i­tor­ing is key to Alt­man’s busi­ness, which sup­plies home hard­ware stores, in­de­pen­dent nurs­eries and other re­tail­ers across Amer­ica. Lopez says, “If we plant 10,000 one-gal­lon pots, we’re go­ing to sell 10,000 one-gal­lon pots, no more, no less. If some­thing’s wrong with the grow­ing cy­cle of this crop, it’s a big is­sue.” Alt­man is cul­ti­vat­ing 1.8 mil­lion poin­set­tias this hol­i­day sea­son us­ing Blue­lab’s probes and me­ters.

Ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the non­profit Cen­ter for Ap­plied Hor­ti­cul­tural Re­search Dustin Meador said com­pa­nies like Blue­lab help grow­ers by lis­ten­ing to their needs and in­no­vat­ing to pro­duce sim­ple-to-use equip­ment to im­prove plant health. “It’s im­por­tant for grow­ers to be able to eas­ily mon­i­tor pH and EC so they know the ap­pro­pri­ate level of con­trol needed for crop nutri­tion. With­out care­ful con­trols, by the time you can see a prob­lem on a plant, it’s of­ten too late to cor­rect it. Blue­lab has been re­ally proac­tive in find­ing out what grow­ers need and adapt­ing prod­ucts ac­cord­ingly.”

Blue­lab’s new mul­ti­me­dia pH prod­ucts are avail­able for com­mer­cial and home grow­ers alike: the new Leap pH Probe RRP at $207.00. The new Mul­ti­me­dia pH Me­ter RRP is $420.00.

More in­for­ma­tion:

Mark McGill with Abel Meth­ode Cider which was a fi­nal­ist in the 2017 New Zealand Food Awards.

Mark checks this year’s vin­tage. The cidery op­er­ates from a win­ery in the Moutere Hills.

From left: Fairview Or­chard’s wa­ter­wheel and John Ben­netts in the fore­ground, from the R E Ben­netts fam­ily col­lec­tion. Keith Ben­netts’ Fairview Or­chard book.

Keith Ben­netts

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