Wednesday, 11 May 2011

I got wood for Cider

Cider has a relationship with many things and its often these peripheral things that interest me the most. If you want to understand anything holistically, you need to study the things around it. Part of my love of real cider is its contrary relationship with wood. I say contrary because some people insist on it and others hardly consider it. Today, cider is made in many things: a variety of plastics, steel, glass, fibreglass... but traditionally, here in UK, Cider has always been fermented and or transported in wooden barrels (OK and occasionally earthenware.)
I want one please
Aging/maturing is another dark art, especially in wood where microflora are often present and add the uniquest of flavours to a product. You can taste the difference in a cider thats been matured in wood just like you can in wine, or as is more fashionable recently, in beer. It adds another dimension to the flavour and is a worthwhile endeavor if somewhat of a riskier pain in the arse, but that's another story. It photographs really well too, so I'm a fan on two levels. One advantage most artisan cidermakers have over the industrial counterparts is their product affords them a 'need' for wood in the process of cidermaking by traditional association (although many don't bother these days.) People like to believe farmhouse ciders are expected to spend some time in wood, partly because its more romantic than plastic or steel and part of ciders charm is in its rustic romance, and also for those of us that appreciate the improvement in taste. In reality, wooden barrels and vats can be an avoidable luxury as they need more care, careful cleaning and can be deemed costly. Modern materials are easier to clean and sterilise, they'll take harsher chemicals without absorbing them, will be slower to perish and often endure the hotter temperatures required or pastuerisation for longer but they won't impart any magic into your beloved juice. Some of the better artisan producers have small oak vats that they ferment or mature in and it really adds some complexity to the flavour. Larger wooden vats that hold enough cider to cope with an industrial scale are incredibly expensive to buy and trickier to maintain than steel or fibreglass, so the lucky few that still have vats big enough and healthy enough to use commercially are onto a winner, as they will be the ones with the advantage of scale, distribution and also flavour, a combination not often found in industrial cidermaking.

Recent times have seen a resurgence of interest in coopering, nothing crazy but a enough to keep it alive. Just. Coopering is a fantastic skill and we have a strong British tradition of it. It has always been  a really well respected trade that's now more uncommon than you might think here in UK, especially considering our combined cider and beer heritage and more modern wine scene.

Alastair Simms is the only Master Cooper in UK and he kindly allowed me the time to make a visit and show me through the process of wooden barrel making. Like any true Yorkshireman in this day and age, he too loves a drop of proper cider.

Photographically speaking, these were all done using available light, with the occasional bounced flash here and there. As per usual, all on prime lenses too.... mmmm, prime lenses.



  1. Hi Bill

    Who of our local guys (I'm thinking Sheppy's & Tricky's in particular) are using wood? Any of them?



  2. Needless to say, I wasn't talking about Sheppys!

  3. Hi Andrew, yes both Tricky and Sheppys use wood, Tricky use barrels and Sheppys use vats, and I think you can taste which ciders have been in the wood. Generally speaking, most small producers will use oak barrels and the larger the operation gets, the less wood gets used. Often it is used in conjunction with stainless steel for practical purposes. I should also stress many people (particularly the industrial/larger cidermakers) will often say they use wood. They may, but the time the juice spends in the wood makes a big difference, some may mature in it but some just seem to wave the juice near it vaguely for a moment or two so they can say 'we make traditional cider...'

  4. Ed French Checkley Brook Cyder

    Beautiful photos. I would love to see the process in real life. I do use food grade plastic myself though for the reasons stated above.