Boutique cidery lobbies for pure fruit
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.