The cider house rules
Boys will be boys. In a farmyard in Oxfordshire, two fortysomething men with public school accents are demonstrating, with the help of an ancientlooking press, how to turn home-grown apples into home-brew.
For the past three years, the writer William Sitwell – grandson of Sacheverell and great-nephew of Edith – and interior designer Jasper Galloway have combined forces with Toby Smith, one-time keyboard player and songwriter for the band Jamiroquai, to make some very fine cider.
Cider, with its student parties and park bench associations, has not had a good reputation lately. Massproduced cider is generally made with concentrated apple juice shipped in from abroad, bolstered with sugar and additives, and artificially carbonated. Its popularity is attributable not to flavour (although sweetness never hurts when aiming for the mass market) but to the eight per cent alcohol it delivers at a knock-down price.
Hardly rock-star chic. But now cider is undergoing a renaissance. A report by the market research company Mintel earlier this year found that 60 per cent of adults are now happy to sip on a glass of fermented apple juice. Cider is closing in on beer, drunk by seven in 10 adults but a market that is in decline, while the appley stuff continues to grow in popularity.
The revival is in part down to the emergence of artisan cider makers backed by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and enthusiasts with orchards and surplus apples – such as Sitwell, Galloway and Smith.
Galloway, a sturdily built chap in a gingham shirt, is the cider expert of the three. He comes from a Herefordshire farming background, his family have made cider for generations, and he has been maturing his own in whisky barrels at his house in Gloucestershire for years.
Sitwell, meanwhile, is new to the game. “I started off with apples from the family garden,” he says. It’s some garden. There are dozens of varieties in the apple orchard at Weston House, where Sacheverell wrote 150 books, and which is now the residence of Sitwell’s elder brother George, the 8th Baronet of Renishaw. Sitwell has the next-door rectory.
He is engagingly pragmatic. Anyone, he says, can make cider at home. “You just juice the apples in a juicer and leave to ferment. It takes about 25 apples to fill a bottle.”
When the three men started talking cider over dinner three years ago, Sitwell and Smith were intrigued by Galloway’s expertise, and before long they had bought the press off eBay and embarked on the first vintage. The apples were picked and left to soften for a few days, then put through the wood chipper to make a pulp, or “pomace”, which is poured into mesh sacks. The sacks are then squidged between the boards of the press, with pressure supplied by a a convenient car jack, and the juice is poured into demijohns (big bottles) and corked with rubber bungs equipped with air locks.
That, apparently, is it — for two or three weeks. There is enough natural yeast on the skin of the fruit for the juice to ferment without interference. When it comes to bottling, a spoonful of sugar in each of the spring-clip bottles ensures that the cider has fizz. Sitwell opened one to prove his point, and shot foam three metres over the grass, like a winning racing driver with a bottle of champagne. He looked nonplussed. “That wasn’t meant to happen.”
Charming though the set-up is, it’s amateur: “something for fun,” as Toby points out. Then came a chance encounter with the new CEO of Fortnum & Mason, Ewan Venters. “He suggested working with an established maker and producing a cider to sell,” says Sitwell.
The three men visited Wilce’s, a Herefordshire family firm who make the respected Ledbury Cider and Perry Co cider, to make a “3Cs” blend. The Cs stand for the three chaps or three counties, not the traditional cider “Three Counties” of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, but Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, where the three friends live.
While all production of the new cider will be in Herefordshire, Sitwell, Smith and Galloway have worked together on the flavour, and the
Springfield Wobbly Munk – This cider from Monmouthshire won the 2013 Camra gold medal thanks to its “fantastic balance with a pleasantly sharp aftertaste of apple and bitter lemon”. springfieldcider.co.uk
Jack Ratt Scrumpy – Made by the Lyme Bay Winery, this is an old-fashioned still cider made in Dorset with traditional cider apples like Dabinett, Kingston Black and Yarlington Mill. lymebaywinery.co.uk mix uses fruit from each of the three crops. “Home-brew is very inconsistent,” Sitwell explains. “We had to go to professionals to make something that wasn’t lethally alcoholic.”
And the experience of doing it themselves has informed the new brew. They are nothing if not meticulous. A battered exercise book holds detailed notes for each batch, from the
Wilkins Cider –A traditional Somerset cider, and the makers also supply stoneware cider flagons. Website is worth a visit (it’s pure Eddie Grundy) but orders are taken over the phone (01934 712385). wilkinscider.com variety of apple to the weather the day it was pressed. “We found that a mix of apple varieties gave by far the best depth of flavour,” says Sitwell.
The elegant printed label on the bottles they give to friends (“by invitation only” it grandly reads) shows silhouettes of the three: Jasper with a palette, Smith with a guitar and Sitwell leaning against a tree holding an open book.
The triumvirate of skills has been important. Galloway is the cider expert, Smith is the technical one who assembled the press and Sitwell is the foodie – he edits Waitrose Kitchen magazine – and the wordsmith. But three alpha males could be explosive. Are they competitive? “We are, and mine is absolutely the best cider,” Smith tells me cheerfully. Not that they take it too seriously. Boys just want to have fun.
Buy 3Cs vintage cider at Fortnum & Mason (fortnumandmason.com) this autumn. You can try the 3Cs homebrew (not the professionally made cider) at today’s Weston & Lois Weedon Flower and Food Show, Northants
Press gang (main picture): William Sitwell (right), with friend and fellow cider-maker Jasper Galloway. Inset: the finished product, along with the car jack used to help make it