With a team of volunteers, friends, families and even a few of the nursing home staff, we planted the first 500 trees at the end of 2010 and 150 more the following year. We are quietly claiming to be the first orchard planted exclusively with cider apple varieties in Surrey for 70 years. Given the fact that this area does not have a strong tradition of cider-making, I expect this is no exaggeration. But I am happy to be proven wrong and potentially make a new contact in the process. The orchard itself was planted at the end of 2010 in a two acre field which had spent the previous two decades being tractor-mown and contributing very little to the estate finances.
Cider apples are characterised by their higher tannin levels. Whilst this makes the apple virtually inedible in it’s raw form, the greater depth of flavours give the end product more body than cider made from eating or cooking apples.
We are growing 6 different cider apple varieties: Dabinett – A traditional French variety, and Black Dabinett, a really exciting variation on the Dabinett which has the most fantastic purple coloured skin. Michelin, which provides good disease resistance, and is a safe bet through years when weather conditions are less favourable, and another traditional variety called Harry Master’s Jersey.
The addition of Brown’s Apple provides higher acidity crucial to the fermentation process and Morgan’s Sweet gives the juice a higher sugar content which helps us achieve higher alcohol levels. As was planned, we have enjoyed a honeymoon period whilst the trees established themselves and the management regime was both low intensity and could be mostly done by hand.
Last year, we appointed our Assistant Head Gardener, Matt, as the person responsible for managing the technical aspects of the orchard. This is a role which will grow in proportion to the trees, and the need for a larger seasonal workforce and a tractor-mounted sprayer is almost upon us. Whilst I haven’t managed to persuade Nick and Alex to lend us their sprayer, the use of their narrow tractor and muck spreader is invaluable in mulching the trees at the end of the growing season, and is one example of a number of groups and individuals with whom we are finding mutual benefits.
This year, we picked an estimated 15,000 apples, and couldn’t have done so without the help of Lorraine Yates at Volunteer Action South West Surrey. In return for a sausage sandwich and a glass of cider the group spent a very happy few hours filling almost 8cuM of pallet boxes full of apples! I am also delighted that out of this day, we have recruited the remarkably knowledgeable Chris, who now volunteers for us twice a week when he is not otherwise engaged with another charity in Guildford called The Spike. I am very hopeful that he will become an invaluable member of the orchard team in support of Matt.
To give you some idea of our scale, we had our first harvest of apples in 2013, producing about 700 litres of juice and expect the yields to double each year for the next 5 years eventually reaching a capacity of around 20 tonnes of apples, which should make around 10,000 litres of juice.
Whilst cider is currently our chief concern, I am delighted that our original meeting with Ian back in 2013 came to fruition in November when we spent a heady day watching Cory and Tom distill the remaining cider from our first years harvest.
We now intend to age the spirit in two barrels, one oak and one chestnut, possibly in the old wine cellar at Birtley, and see what exciting brandy flavours develop over the next 6 months.
We also have a sideline experiment in cider vinegar happening in the warm confines of the Head Gardener’s office, which I hope won’t sour our relationship!