Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Bottling at the cider mills

You may have noticed the lack of posts in the last month or two, well we've been really busy attending trade shows and getting the cider mills ready for the summer rush. Luckily inbetween all of this we found time to bottle our early '09 ciders which, after being racked back over January, are finally ready to bottle. These include our single variety ciders, as well as our farm pressed range, which are bottled young to retain more of the apple's natural fruit flavours. In fact, for some of these ciders its the second bottling run we've done in the last couple of months.

As with all of our ciders, from pressing to the finished product, we insist on full control. We do all of our own bottling on the farm and have invested heavily over the last few years in our bottling facilities. This included the commissioning of our state of the art bottling line in 2007, which has made life alot easier, in fact we can now bottle the same number of bottles in one day as we previously did in four or five days.

How the bottling line works ....

The process is mostly automated and starts with the empty bottles being hand fed onto the loading conveyor. The bottles are then conveyed into
the filling machine where they are quickly rinsed before being filled and capped at speeds of around 1600 bph (bottles per hour).

Once the bottles are filled, the cider goes through our tunnel pasteuriser which gently heats the cider up to around 64 degrees celcius for 20 minutes to kill any remaining yeast cells in the cider and make sure the product is totally stable for selling.

Once pasterurised, the bottles come out of the tunnel cooled and any excess water on the bottles is blasted off by our twin air knifes. The bottles are then ready for labelling. The filled, capped, pasteurised and labelled bottles are then shrink-wrapped and palletted, ready for storage, and eventually drinking!

Although the bottling line has made life alot easier on the farm, the line still requires a high level of human contact, as even the best technology has a habit of being uncooperative at times, and things can get very stressful when bottles start flying of the end, unlabelled and half filled!

Now, on a different note, we have now learnt that bees come with differing degrees of aggression and that simply waiting for a swarm to arrive can result in some pretty nasty bees! So plan two is to find someone reputable to buy a nucleus of friendly bees from. Recommendations welcome!

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Spring is finally here!...

...One of the best things about working at a cider farm is the fact that you get to really experience the different seasons. Spring is definitely one of my favourite seasons as the orchards fill with pink and white blossom, and come alive with colour after a long winter of spindley grey branches.

Spring is the first time we get to see what the expected apple harvest is going to be like, with the general rule being: the more blossom, the better the harvest. So far, things are looking good, the Dabinett trees in particular are blossoming well. At this time of year, however, we are at the mercy of the pollinating bees and insects which we rely on to pollinate the apple blossom. Bees are said to be responsible for over 80 per cent of orchard apple pollination so are vital to the success of our cider. This year, with this in mind, I have come up with a plan to guarantee improved pollination, and to help save our bees. I hope.

The plan is to introduce my own, well actually my girlfriend Phaedra's, colony of bees into our orchards. This should hopefully not only encourage more biodiversity into our orchards but also ensure that more of the blossom is pollinated. At least that's the theory. In practice, this has meant me spending the last couple of days frantically building our hive and its many frames so that we don't miss getting the bees into the orchards before the blossom is over.

Over the next few months I'll be posting some updates about our progress into amateur bee keeping, and hopefully its positive impact on our orchards and the local environment.

(Bee at work)

Thursday, 5 March 2009

A bit of Hedging

With a few spare moments of time at the cider mills before we start bottling the '08 ciders, our attention has turned to a bit of orchard management. In particular, the long overdue job of re-laying the south east hedge at our Knowles St Giles Orchard, which had got slightly out of control.

Re-laying a hedge is a skillful job and is one of the vital and often forgotten skills needed in the countryside. We've cheated a little here and employed a couple of local hedge-layers, but hey, if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing properly.

The theory behind hedge laying is really to remove any unwanted growth, which in this case was preventing light and air circulating into the orchard. The re-layed hedge should also encourage new growth, to improve the structure and strength of the hedge. This is done by cutting out much of the high or dense stems of the hedgerow and laying them horizontal, which acts as a kind of frame, holding the hedge into a tighter, more dense shape and guiding new growth.

The re-layed hedge should hopefully not only act as an adequate boundary and provide shelter for the orchard but should also allow more light and airflow to reach the south east corner of the orchard, benefiting our apples trees. This should equate to larger yield of Browns apples next year.

Well-managed hedgerows are also vital to encourage wildlife habits, not only protecting the many creatures which rely on hedgerows but also improving the orchard as a whole. A rich, well-balanced ecosystem should lead to improved pollination of the apple trees, as well as reducing the need for chemical sprays, by naturally combating problem pests.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Racking back the '08 ciders

We’re finally coming to the end of Racking Back our ‘08 ciders. The last of our barrel cellars is full and only thirty or forty 1500 litre tanks remain on the yard ready for pumping back into the remaining space in the cider sheds.

Racking back is simply the process of pumping out the newly fermented ciders into new clean vessels ready for maturation. The process removes the dead yeast cells known as lees left over from the fermentation. This is important as, if the cider is left on its lees for too long, it can be spoiled.

Usually the process of racking back only takes a month or two and should be finished by the beginning of February. Frozen pipes and, believe it or not, cider in January put a stop to it, as well as days lost to snow in February. Luckily the continued cold weather should mean that our ‘08 ciders won’t be adversely affected by the delay.

On the flip side, the cold weather did give us some time to get other much needed jobs done around the cider mills. For me, this meant some free time to get in the office and free up a little space on my desk, as well as giving me some time to plan our ‘09 strategy, which should become clearer over the next few months.

The rest of the cider gang turned their hands to our much anticipated new office and (small) cider lab, which will help us to keep a better check on our ciders. The new lab allows us to test for the main things which determine the quality of our ciders such as alcohol strength, acidity, C02 and S02 contents, as well as pasteurisation records for our bottled ciders.

All in all the ‘08 harvest seems to have produced another good year of ciders despite the lack of a summer. In fact, our earliest cider, the single variety Morgan Sweet bottled just three months after pressing, has gone down a treat with all three thousand bottles sold. Don’t worry, we still have plenty of Morgan Sweet ‘08 left in the cellars, which we hope to bottle in the next few weeks.