Yarlington Mill apples are a popular choice among
both amateur and professional cider makers
Cider making is not only an ancient tradition in this country, but it is also an important aspect of British heritage.
The Celts are known to have held the apple in extremely high regard, and there are numerous references in Celtic mythology praising it as a symbol of fruitfulness and immortality.
The apple had many uses in Celtic civilization, but perhaps its best-loved application was the production of a cider made from crabapples.
The art of cider making was improved further by the Romans, who planted well-ordered orchards of and caring for cider apple trees, and developed equipment to press the apples.
However it was following the Norman Conquest of 1066 that caused the popularity of cider to rise significantly, and cider production spread far and wide.
Cider in folklore
This love of cider and the orchards that yield it led to much legend and folklore. One of the oldest and best-known rituals is the "Wassail". The term comes from the old English "Waes hail" or "Be you healthy".
Wassailing the cider orchard (from IAMCIDER)
Dating from the 1400s, possibly earlier, this pagan ceremony involves procession and song: its purpose being to awaken the trees and wish them good health, to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest. A hot-spiced cider would be passed around the crowd, and pieces of toast soaked in the drink would be hung in the branches as an offering to the tree spirits.
The ceremony takes places in mid-January, and is enjoying something of a comeback today, with many local communities across the south-west organising a Wassail in their orchards.
The rise and fall of cider...
By the 1800s cider orchards were so commonplace across the southern parts of England that farm labourers were partly paid in cider. It was said that the more cider a man could drink the more valuable he was as a worker!
In the latter part of the 19th century it is recorded that there were over 20,000 acres of cider orchards in England. However due to a decline in the popularity of cider and with land being swallowed up by housing developments, 70% of our orchards have been lost since the 1950s.
This is not only a tragedy in terms of losing part of our heritage, but is disastrous in environmental terms too. Studies have shown that orchards are invaluable wildlife hotspots, and the trees themselves great for accumulating and locking up damaging atmospheric carbon.
...but it rises again!
Thankfully, people are beginning to realise the positive impact that growing fruit trees has on the environment, and around the country new orchards are being planted in private gardens and as shared community projects, not to mention as artisan small businesses.
There is a palpable resurgence of interest in preserving our cider ancestry, not only in terms of relearning the historic techniques and processes of producing cider but by planting and preserving traditional and heritage varieties.
All hail the Kingston Black!
Kingston Black – the perfect vintage cider apple
The Kingston Black is widely regarded to be the very finest 'vintage' variety of cider apple.
It is considered to have the most perfect balance of sugar, acid and tannin – meaning that it does not need to be blended with other varieties to produce a delicious cider.
And exclusivity is assured – not because of its strengths, but in spite of its (very minor) failings.
Larger producers understandably look for strong yields and reliability above flavour alone. In this respect, Kingston Black has a relatively low yield and a slight susceptibility to scab – not great for the mass production of cider, but perfect for amateur cider makers.
Another very popular vintage variety is Sweet Alford, an apple favoured for its good all-round qualities in cider making. It is popular with larger scale orchards and produces a decent crop of mild-bittersweet fruits.
For a bumper crop of fine vintage grade fruits, Yarlington Mill is favoured by small and large producers alike.
Any vintage variety is a good choice for the amateur cider maker, as the complexities of the blending process are avoided – unless, of course, you fancy learning the art!
It is common practice in commercial cider making to blend different varieties in order to achieve a cider that suits particular tastes. But you can do it too, and there are many wonderful varieties to choose from.
Growing cider apples
Cider apples are generally very hardy and tough and can be grown almost anywhere. However, their ideal position would be on a sunny, relatively sheltered slope, avoiding frost pockets, in a fertile but well-drained soil.
The most important factor when planning your orchard is to select trees that are suitable pollination partners for each other, and it is common practice to have one or more crabapple trees in an orchard to help with cross-pollination.
Bees are also essential to the pollination process, so make sure you give your trees the best chance by planting flowering shrubs, beds and borders nearby. Or better still, why not start your own hive?
Once established the trees require very little care, giving you more time to sit and enjoy the fruits of your labour – that delicious pint of cider in the sunshine!
Here is our full range of cider apple trees – happy growing (and brewing!).