Skip to main content area


Cookie settings
Left Navigation
Main Content Area

Making cider

In the early days of cider making all of the picking, milling and pressing was done by hand, perhaps with the help of some horse-power in the literal sense of the word! Not so long ago, when Herefordshire farms operated a more mixed economy, it was common for each one to have its own cider-making facilities. Every farmer's wife would have a few cider apple trees alongside her dessert fruit. Most farms had their own cider mill, with which it was possible to grind one hogshead (52 gallons) of cider a day.

In the autumn, when the majority of the farming activities were beginning to quieten down, cider making began to occupy the farmer's time. Opinions vary as to which type of fruit should be planted in cider orchards and regional preferences are very much in operation, but most cider manufacturers use a variety of apples in their product to give a flavour that is pleasing to the majority of the population.

When it came time to harvest the apples those that had not dropped of their own accord were shaken off the tree by a wooden pole, often with a hook on the end. The apples would then be collected together and in Herefordshire the practice was to leave the fruit out in the orchard in tumps, which were covered with straw, for two or three weeks prior to milling. The reason behind this was that the fruit would lose some of its moisture and concentrate the sugars in the juice.


When the fruit was ready it was taken to the mill. Because cider apples are relatively hard they had to undergo two processes to extract the juice. In early times the fruit was broken up by hand with a mortar and pestle or in wooden troughs. The first mechanical mill was similar to that used in other industries to crush rocks and the like. It was a circular horse-powered mill, which consisted of a large round stone, called the runner. This was around 3.5ft in diameter and 1ft wide and weighed over half a ton. In Herefordshire most millstones are made of local red sandstone conglomerate. The runner was supported on its edge in a groove in a circular stone trough roughly 10ft in diameter and called the chase. The upright stone was pivoted in the centre of the trough and drawn round by a horse or oxen.

The milling process was simple. The fruit was laid on the central pier of the mill and the horse harnessed up. The farmer would knock small amounts of the fruit into the chase as the horse drew the runner round. After a certain amount of fruit had been crushed water would be added and milling continued. When the chase was full the farmer would test the pulp by squeezing it in his hand; if it retained its shape then it was ready. At this stage the pulp would be deep brown with a strong apple smell.

Milling one load of fruit (about 150kg) would take around half an hour. The stone mill was by no means overly efficient and could not be mechanised. One solution to this problem was the Ingenio Rotary Cider Mill, which was first mentioned by John Worlidge in the 1670s. It was based on a Cuban sugar mill and consisted of a cylindrical toothed roller, whose teeth engaged with a fixed comb. Fruit that was dropped in from above was chewed as it was forced through the comb. Later versions were fitted with a pair of rotating rollers underneath to complete the milling cycle. This rotary mill could pulp several tons per hour but it did not crush the fruit as finely as the old stone mill and the pips were not broken down. However, it did improve the efficiency of cider production, enabling two or three hogsheads (one hogshead = 52 gallons) a day to be produced, as opposed to the one to one and a half hogsheads by horse mill. Further advances enabled gearing systems operated by horse-power to be added, and then for the mills to be powered by a steam engine.

In most cases the milled fruit was pressed at once but some cider makers like to leave it to stand for 24 hours to bring out the flavour. The presses used varied in design. The earliest design involved a large central wooden screw, set into a massive block of oak, often weighing up to half a ton. The strength needed to turn the screw must have been great. From the late 1700s cast iron screws began to appear; these were easier to use and lasted longer. From the 1830s onwards a new design, with the side supports for the headblock being replaced by two metal screws, was in use. These presses were much lighter than the earlier ones and enabled the cidermakers to travel with them.

Apple pulp is too wet and mushy to stay in place while being pressed and so in Herefordshire it is contained in cloths, traditionally made out of horsehair. A hair is laid out on the press bed and filled with two or three buckets of pulp, and then the corners are turned in to stop any from escaping. Another hair is placed on top and the process repeated until there are about eight layers. The apple pulp and horsehair layers were known in Herefordshire as a cheese.

A heavy wooden board was then placed on top of the cheese to spread the weight and then pressure was applied, slowly at first so the juice was contained. The cheese would be reduced to 1/3 of its original size during pressing. The dry pulp that was left after pressing was known as pomace and was often fed to the farm animals. However, it had to be fed to them on the day of pressing as if it was left to ferment there would be a few tipsy pigs wobbling around the farmyard. It was said that Herefordshire bacon tasted all the sweeter for the apples that the pigs ate.


Usually the pressed juice was put into casks or vats immediately. For the first process of fermentation nothing was added but the casks were kept topped up to the bunghole to prevent air from getting into the juice and spoiling it. A brown froth would develop around the bunghole and after a few hours or days this would turn white. Fermentation would take a week or two in warm weather but could take up to two months or more in cold weather. The slower the fermentation the better the product.

Farmers had no idea what made the fermentation happen and they added various ingredients to the cider, which they thought helped the process. Some added handfuls of earth, some wheat and barley, and in Herefordshire there was a practice of adding raw meat to the mix. Bacon was a particular favourite, but sometimes it would be the leftover joint from Sunday lunch.

Once the first stage of fermentation was over the farmer would bung down the cask and seal it with lime cement to keep out the air. For the next three months a second stage of fermentation would take place where bacteria would work on the tannins and acids in the juice to bring out the flavour. The flavour of the farm cider is somewhat different to the cider that we drink today. It was produced without added sugar as the fermentation process could not be stopped to add it. This made the cider quite rough and acidic. Herefordshire farm cider was often known as "squeal pig" cider, after the noise that you made when you drank it! The acidity of the cider did have its advantages as it meant that disease-carrying germs could not thrive within the juice and often the cider was safer to drink than the local water, which could be very polluted.

Some cider makers went to great lengths to produce a better quality cider, but this was usually the local gentry who had more time on their hands. The best fruit was selected for pressing and the casks were carefully cleaned. The pulp was not pressed at once but left for about a day in an open barrel. It began to ferment and more juice and flavour were released. The pressed juice would also be put into open-topped casks for a few days with a little lime added. Another fermentation would bring all the pectin to the top in a crust and then the juice could be siphoned off to ferment slowly. Periodically the juice was poured off the top of the cask leaving the yeast deposits in the bottom. The result was a cider that did not fully ferment, leaving it naturally sweet and clear. The drink was highly prized and would be bottled in earthenware jugs.

The Travelling Cidermaker

The introduction of the rotary mill and the improvements in the designs of presses led to the Victorian development of the travelling cidermakers. The cidermaker would have a rotary mill mounted on a low cart, with a twin-screw press on its own set of wheels. He would hitch these up one behind the other with a flat bed trailer attached on the end carrying all the accessories of cidermaking. The equipment would be towed from farm to farm by a team of horses, and later a traction engine or a tractor. At the farm the mill and press would be set up and milling and pressing began. The travelling cidermaker would call at farms where only a small amount of fruit was grown, not enough to justify installing their own equipment.

The travelling cidermaker had a very short season of work and would often work in a set route around the villages. The work was charged at piece rates - around the turn of the 20th century the rate was a halfpenny or a penny per gallon. As the amount of fruit each farmer had was small fruit from several farms would be milled at one place, thus cutting down the number of places where the cidermaker had to stop.

The travelling cidermaker would often stop at pubs where he would press the fruit that had been bought by the landlord from local farmers. As he only called once a year all fruit had to be milled at the same time, regardless of whether or not it was ready, and as such this cider was thought to be of poorer quality.

Cidermaking in a Factory

During the Victorian period cidermaking went into a decline as French wines became more popular and agricultural depression meant that many orchards were in a state of neglect. In the 1890s the situation had got so bad that it was predicted that cidermaking would die out in Britain. Fortunately for the industry events occurred to safeguard its survival. Scientists such as Louis Pasteur were responsible for an increase in the interest in the processes of fermentation, and a growth in the urban population in the industrial areas of South Wales, London and the West Midlands brought an increased market for cider.

However, the traditional cidermakers and smaller farmers did not benefit from this new interest, as they had neither the experience nor the equipment to exploit the market. Instead, groups of small factory-based cider makers began to appear in the cidermaking regions. They would buy in the fruit from the surrounding farms, make the cider in bulk and sell to the towns and cities. This was particularly evident in Herefordshire, where the coming of the railways in 1853 had helped open up the county to outside markets. Between 1870 and 1900 twelve cider factories opened around Hereford City.

These new factories led to a marked decline in farm-made cider as farmers now preferred to turn their fruit into cash by selling it to the factories rather than give it away to their workers. By the start of World War II farm cidermaking was almost a thing of the past, but even now it has not quite died out.

Through the continued innovation of factory-based cider producers cider can now be found in pubs and supermarkets across Britain and all over the world. The cider that they produce comes in many varieties, flavours and strengths, still and sparkling. Automatic bottling lines can produce over 12,000 litre bottles of cider every hour, enabling the supply of an ever-expanding market. Herefordshire is still known as one of the best cider-producing areas in the world and in spring orchards full of blossoming apple trees continue to make this one of the most beautiful counties.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]