Suffolk cider maker hopes cool innovation will go down a treat over festive season
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
An East Anglian cider-making operation which began as home-brewing is now blazing a trail in top-end tipples.
Cider maker Ken Woolley began making it in his garage as a hobby, but soon discovered the 300 litres he and wife Deb were making each year were far more than they could drink.
They commercialised operations in 2014 to become Harleston Cider Company, and were able to upscale significantly after moving to a business unit in Palgrave, then owned by Hoxne Brewery, in 2016.
But the family firm's latest innovation is a long way from garage-brewed scrumpy – it is now one of a handful of UK producers of ice cider.
Dreamt up in Canada, the process involves leaving picked apples in sub-zero temperatures before they are pressed.
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Mr Woolley and his team compromise by freezing the apple juice. This has the same effect of creating thick, syrupy juice, which is then heated and mixed with Canadian champagne yeast before being left to ferment.
The result is an 8% high-end product, sought after by Michelin-starred restaurants and discerning consumers who will pay up to £70 a bottle.
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Mr Woolley said: 'To our knowledge there is only one other company in the UK making ice cider, in the West Country.'
He said Harleston Cider Company's ice cider is the result of 'a lot of research and development'.
'We first made ice cider in 2014, a run of 150 bottles, which won a Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) award. We tried again in 2015, but it didn't work,' he said.
'It is a high-end product so we said we had to do some serious R&D to work out how we can make it regularly and consistently.
'Last year we thought we had cracked it. In February we got the varieties we wanted, bought in 200l of juice, made 1,000l of product, but it hadn't worked. We ascertained it was due to the freezing process.
'But this year we have nailed it. It was tedious at times and frustrating, but we got there.'
The company will be making a limited run of 1,500 bottles of ice cider for Christmas – a great accompaniment to rich, sticky puddings and cheese, according to Mr Woolley.
Harleston Cider Company is holding an open weekend at its premises on Upper Rose Lane, Palgrave on December 16-17.
Harleston Cider Company has made around 4,500l of cider so far this year, and in the year to September 30 racked up £10,500 worth of sales.
Mr Woolley said the availability of local apples for a longer period had helped the firm's commercialisation. 'Our production window has stretched from between September and November, to between August and March or April. An eight-month window makes it far more viable.'
The majority of its apples come by the quarter-tonne from bigger orchards, but 10-20% of its fruit is still donated, while products such as Hedge Fund and Cideroad pay homage to the foraged fruit they still sometimes use.
The company also uses some of its cider to produce Fire Cider vinegar, which is infused with a mix of herbs, spices and botanicals.
Once the vinegar has infused the ingredient mix is oven-dried and ground into a powder, and sold as a spicy Fire Cider rub – making the process waste-free.
How do you make cider?
From east Suffolk to the West Country, cider production is happening around the UK. But how does it work?
Obviously, you start with apples – the rule of thumb is, if they are good enough to eat they are good enough to make cider from. You can use one variety or mix and match – Harleston Cider Company (HCC) uses a mixture.
The apples are first put into a scratter, which mills them into small pieces. They are then transferred to a press. HCC use a traditional rack and cloth press, which is operated hydraulically and can impress 25 tonnes of force onto several thin layers of apple pulp.
The juice is captured in tanks from the press – the typical yield is 60%-70% – and is fermented in large vessels which can hold up to 1,000l.
Here, 'wild yeast' or yeast cultures are added, which react with sugars in the apple juice to create alcohol. Once fermentation is complete, the sediment is filtered from the cider and it is ready to drink.