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Cider apple varieties cannot be eaten or used for cooking, their only use is to be turned into a superbly refreshing drink, perfect for a summer's evening.

It is often thought that cider in Britain was introduced at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, but it is clear that it goes back further than this. Cider actually has its origins far back in history and is often associated with the Celts. To the Celts the apple was the food of the gods and cider was used in rituals to induce altered states of consciousness. However, managed cultivation of apples in Britain didn't begin until the 5th century AD, with the Romans. Even then, it was regarded as a poor man's drink and was made by floating apples in water.

Early fruit varieties used for cider may have been descendants of the indigenous crab apple, but as these apples produced little juice it was mixed with honey and water to make "cyder". The indigenous crab apple was later crossed with the new varieties of apple brought into Britain by the Romans; this gave improved size, yield and sugar content.

By the 7th century imported cider from Normandy was considered to be of a high enough quality to be offered alongside wine with a meal. The improvement in quality seems to have resulted from the introduction of cultivated apple varieties, possibly from Spain or Eastern Europe. It is fair to say that Normandy had a positive influence on the history of cider making. Northern France was known for the quantity and quality of its orchards. In Britain and France cider apples tend to be grown in the western extremities where the soil and climate are most suitable.

From the 13th century onwards, new varieties for cultivation were being steadily imported into Britain from Normandy, with the first plantings taking place mainly in Devon. By 1341, 74 of the 80 parishes in West Sussex were paying part of their tithe in cider. By 1300 there were references to cider production in Devonshire, Essex, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Norfolk, Worcestershire, Somerset, Suffolk, Surrey, Sussex, Herefordshire and in most counties as far north as Yorkshire. In the 14th century children were even baptised in cider as it was cleaner than most water!

The earliest written reference to cider is found in the Wycliffe "Cider Bible", printed in the 15th century. The book gets its name from the translation of the passage: "For he [John the Baptist] shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink ..." Wycliffe had cider (sidir) for "strong drink" and today the "Cider Bible" is housed in the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral.

Modern fruit varieties used in Herefordshire and the West of England can be traced back to the pioneering work of Viscount Scudamore of Holme Lacy in the 17th century. Scudamore was ambassador to the court of Louis XIII during the reign of Charles II and returned from France with a collection of cider fruit from Normandy. These he used to improve English stocks, through cross-pollination and the development of seedlings. Cider rapidly becomes the national drink. It is reputed that more cider-houses than ale-houses were licensed in London during the reign of Charles II.

Amongst these seedlings was the Herefordshire Redstrake or Redstreak, the apple that was to put Herefordshire cider on the map as one that was unequalled in Britain. Within ten years over 5,000 Herefordshire Redstreak apple trees had been planted across the West Country. However, less than a century later the apple was in decline. In part this was due to the Cider Tax introduced in 1763, which was designed to raise funds for the Seven Years War. This tax was repealed in 1766.

There were other problems for cider manufacturers to worry about. Wine merchants and their middlemen were buying juice straight from the press at low prices, fermenting it and then watering it down and selling it at a high profit in the cider houses. The Government also began to hail beer as wholesome drink, hoping it would replace the popularity of gin. As a result the market and demand for cider was greatly reduced.

By the 1800s, cheap food imports had plunged British farming into another depression and cider making went into a decline. The Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, urged farmers to improve their orchards and grow local fruit to compete with the dessert apples being brought in from the USA. Herefordshire was one of the first counties to take up the challenge.

In the 1800s, Duncumbe said "The colour of a good cyder fruit are red and yellow, the colour to be avoided is green, as affording liquor of the harshest and generally poorest quality; the pulp should be yellow, and the taste astringent. Apples of a small size are always preferred to those of a larger in order that the rind and kernel, in which principally consist the strength and flavour of the liquor, may bear the greatest proportion to the pulp, which affords the weakest and most watery juice."

All varieties of apples have their own specific characteristics, including differing harvest dates; the earliest ripen at the end of August, and the latest up to the end of December. Traditionally, most of the fruit was allowed to fall when it was ripe and then the trees were shaken to dislodge the rest of the fruit. It was found that the early-ripening varieties tended to rot if they were not washed, whilst the later ones were best stored for a while as they contained higher levels of starch which needed to break down into the simpler sugars before the yeast could turn these to alcohol during fermentation.

Cider apples are divided into four groups, according to their flavour:

  1. Sweets - low in acidity and tannins.
  2. Bittersweets - low in acidity, high in tannins.
  3. Bittersharps - high in acidity and tannins.
  4. Sharps - high in acidity, low in tannins.

The tannins give the fruit its "bite" and act as the preservative, whilst the acid prevents the taste from appearing flat. Most cider is a blend of all four types of apples, with added sugar to give it the desired sweetness.

Apple juice naturally contains sugar, and yeasts that are present on the apples' skin will work with this sugar to convert it to alcohol. Initially air is needed to help the yeast work, and so a hole is left open in the top of the cask to let the air in for the first fermentation stage. The casks are then kept topped up to prevent the vinegar bacteria working on the surface of the cider. After the fermentation process the cider can be poured into clean barrels and stored.

The heyday of English cider was in the 17th century, but all too soon the practice of watering down cider to make it go further was adopted. This was done by either adding water directly, or by allowing the milled fruit to soak in water for a few days before pressing.

Cider, as a drink of the common man, was traditionally served in two-handled pottery mugs so that it could be passed around the table and enjoyed communally. The mug would have been decorated with country scenes and phrases of goodwill for the harvest. The upper classes would have considered this an improper way to drink and would have served their cider in specially engraved crystal glasses. These usually had scenes of apple trees and fruit.

Hops were sometimes used as a preservative in cider making, as in brewing. The poorer, weaker cider, often known as small cider, was drunk more widely than the more expensive cider and was even paid to farm labourers as part of their wages. They were given up to six pints a day, and this could easily increase to 20-plus pints at harvest time. The labourers would carry the cider with them into the field in small wooden casks, called castrells. Cider was also used as payment of tithes to the Church and rent to landowners. It was also taken to market to help pay for essentials such as clothing and food.

The increase in the consumption of cider in the 17th century led to many more apple growers and to conditions of oversupply. Soon, with improvements in transport, it became more profitable to grow dessert and culinary apples to make cider for the industrial areas and London. During the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), when there was increased pressure on farmers to put their land to grain and livestock, the cider orchards of the county became neglected.

Historically cider was thought to have beneficial medicinal properties. Medical theories in the 17th century were based on an understanding of four humours- blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm - and the four qualities - hot, cold, moist and dry. The logic was that for a hot and dry illness you took a cold and moist remedy. Cider was classified as a moist but especially cold item and was therefore recommended (amongst other things) to combat black bile, thought to be the cause of melancholy. In the 19th century cider was even advertised as a cure for gout. There was also a remedy for scarlet fever which involved "sweating it out" with a pint of mulled cider, with various herbs added.

It was also noted that scurvy was far less common on long distance sea journeys that had started out at ports in Devon. The common factor was found to be that these ships carried - and the ships' companies drank - cider. This is because cider has high levels of vitamin C, which prevents scurvy. Captain Cook is known to have carried cider on his ships to treat his crew for scurvy.

In the 1760s there was an outbreak of "Devon Collic", thought to be caused by drinking the local cider. Victims developed paralysed limbs and some even died. It was at first thought that it was caused by high acidity levels in the cider, but other ciders were known to be just as acidic without these problems. Eventually, it was realised that the symptoms were the same as for lead poisoning and it was noted that the joints in the grinding stones in many of the presses in Devon were filled with lead, and that sometimes lead pipes were used to move the juice. Some producers were even putting lead shot in the barrels of cider as a preservative.

In 1763 Lord Bute, the Prime Minister, proposed a rise in the excise duty paid on cider, of four shillings a hogshead on cider and perry. His effigy was burnt in market squares. By the time the tax was reduced in 1766 it was too late - agriculture had moved on. The Board of Agriculture's surveyor reported that in Herefordshire farmers are neglecting their orchards for the plough and consider "cider making an intrusion on operations of greater importance". The Truck Acts of the 19th century also hit cider production. These Acts were intended to make compulsory the payment of wages in money rather than in kind (remember most farm labourers took part of their wages as cider), and also encouraged the setting up of shops where none had previously existed.

However, a revival was at hand for cider producers as the orchardist and later fruit breeder Thomas Andrew Knight was to attempt to improve cider orchards. In 1797 he published a book called Treatise on Cider, describing the different stages of production, following his work surveying Herefordshire for a government that was hoping to raise taxes to fund the Napoleonic Wars. Knight found Herefordshire orchards to be in a severe state of neglect, and in 1795 he suggested to the Royal Horticultural Society that the decline was due to each fruit variety having a limited life, coupled with a lack of good management.

In 1811 Knight wrote the Pomona Herefordiensis, an illustrated volume produced at the request of the Herefordshire Agricultural Society. The Pomonadescribes all the locally-grown cider fruit and perry pears. In the late 1700s Knight had also started to breed and graft fruit trees, and at one time he had over 20,000 seedlings. Due to the increased interest in cider, in part caused by his work, cider orchards were restored and small-scale cider making revived.

C.W. Radcliffe Cooke of Much Marcle, MP for Hereford, waged a campaign in support of cider. Known as "The Member for Cider", he later introduced Weston's Cider into the bar of the House of Commons. In the 1800s, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone urged farmers to improve their orchards and grow local fruit to compete with the dessert apples being imported from the USA. Herefordshire was one of the first counties to take up the challenge.

Members of the Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club surveyed the county's orchards, aiming to identify the best local varieties. Members also brought in new varieties from Kent and Somerset to test how they performed. In 1876 the Reverend Charles Bulmer of Credenhill invited the respected pomologist Dr. Robert Hogg to attend an exhibition of fruit grown and collected by the members. It was Dr. Hogg who suggested producing a book to record all the county's fruit, and he offered to be the technical director. Dr. Henry Graves Bull became the technical editor. Some of the fruit on display was painted by Miss Bull and Miss Ellis. The resulting plates were reproduced by G. Severeyns in Belgium using the chromolithograph technique. The finished book was called theHerefordshire Pomona.

In 1883 Herefordshire had 27,000 acres of orchard (more than Devon, Kent or Somerset). By 1936, with the increase in demand for culinary and dessert apples and the decline in cider production, the acreage of Kent and Worcestershire had risen whilst Herefordshire's had dropped to 22,413. Devon's and Somerset's acreages had also declined. Of the 22,413 acres in Herefordshire set to orchard, 14,500 were cider orchards. Despite this drop in orchard acreage, Herefordshire's growers were loaded with awards at a famous horticultural show held in Rouen in 1884 for their dessert and culinary fruit, bottles of cider, and the Herefordshire Pomona.

Between 1870 and 1900, no fewer than twelve cider factories opened around Hereford. Developments had increased the market for cider from a local enterprise to a commercial business, and many other small cider companies came into being. These included Godwin's, Evans' and Bulmer's in Hereford, Ridler's in Clehonger and Henry Weston's in Much Marcle.

These new mills bought their fruit locally, but the orchards of the county were suffering from neglect and old age and yields were low. In 1903 C.W. Radcliffe-Cooke, in association with the Board of Agriculture, the Bath and West Society and the county councils of Devon, Gloucester, Somerset, Worcester, Monmouth and Hereford, succeeded in establishing the National Fruit and Cider Institute at Long Ashton, near Bristol (later known as Long Ashton Research Station). The Institute investigated the cultivation of fruit and vegetables, with special reference to cider and perry, in order to improve existing varieties and create new ones. It also researched and demonstrated pest and disease control, pruning, fermentation, preservation, pasteurisation, bottling and identification of vintage cider varieties.

By the 1900s, Bulmer's had the largest apple-pressing mill in the world right here in Hereford. By the end of the century Weston's Cider was back behind the bar in the House of Commons.

In the 1920s, economic depression in the Welsh Valleys led to the migration of many Methodists into Herefordshire to try their luck as farmers. However, as they refused to make or give cider as wages they sometimes struggled to find help with the harvest. The farmer who made the best cider or gave the best rations would often find he had the pick of the help on offer. After the World Wars the culture of offering cider as part of a labourer's wages began to come to an end with the introduction of farm machinery. Many workers were too worried to drink and then operate this new equipment. Rural workers also began to migrate to the more industrial areas of the country in order to find work. This caused a drop in the number of agricultural workers and so a drop in those needing cider refreshment. Much of the cider production on individual farms ceased.

In 1937 Dr. H.V. Taylor, Horticultural Commissioner to the Ministry of Agriculture, addressed cider makers and apple growers at Burghill Mental Hospital Farm Orchard in Herefordshire, which had been planted under the National Fruit and Cider Institute Scheme in 1908. He reminded them that the market for cider had changed in the last 30-40 years; "The bulk of cider made in this country was drunk by people in the countryside, whereas today a very large proportion is drunk by the man in the town." The implication was that the man in the town expected a higher quality cider than the "rough" cider drunk in the countryside.

A tax in 1952 of 4s 6d per hundredweight was imposed on all imported apples, from which cider apples were exempt. The Government also joined with the manufacturers in an attempt to encourage a bigger supply of English cider apples. As a result the Association for Cider Manufacturers agreed to contract with growers to pay no less than £4 per ton for four years on all varieties of cider apples.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, commercial cider makers realised that there would soon be a shortage of fruit in the UK and France. Old orchards planted at the start of the century were reaching the end of their life and farmers were grubbing (digging) them out, with the assistance of Government schemes that gave them money to replace the unprofitable fruit trees with food crops. No new orchards were being planted and those trees lost to storms or disease were not being replaced. In the early 1970s, Bulmer's was one of the first companies to introduce intensive orcharding using bush orchards.

Between 1995 and the start of the 21st century, over two million cider apple trees have been planted in Great Britain. England is the largest cider producer in the world, with South Africa second and France third.

For centuries cider has been a popular drink as well as a wage subsitute, and although the latter is no longer the case its popularity as a drink is certainly on the up. A summer evening in Herefordshire wouldn't be the same without a glass of local cider - providing you are over 18 and please drink sensibly!

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]