West Country Cider Is a Relic from Another Century

Although the UK has seen a huge resurgence of interest in commercial cider over the past decade, true West Country cider is a different beast—one that delivers a life-affirming booze kick alongside bold spice.

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Nov 22 2014, 4:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Cale Bruckner

"I've been drinking cider since I was five," Roger Wilkins tells me. "After World War II there was no mains water round here. We were pulling it up from a well. Cider was cleaner—cleaner than the water was back then, I can tell you. We'd be given it at meals by my grandfather."

Wilkins Cider Farm exists in a surreal haze. Located at the end of a winding country lane on the edge of the remote Somerset Levels, the ramshackle barn perfectly encapsulates the anarchic spirit of West Country cider. Uncarbonated, unfiltered, heavy in tannin, and high in alcohol—at least six percent, sometimes seven or higher—it's differentiated from other styles of cider by its distinctively cloudy appearance and tannic mouthfeel.

By any estimation, it is a serious drink, and one that comes with a formidable reputation amongst UK drinkers; big natural sugar levels in combination with high alcohol can produce a near narcotic effect on the uninitiated. Reason with it and you have a friend for life. Over indulge too quickly, however, and you may be in trouble—which made what Roger told me next all the more staggering.

"Round here, farm laborers would drink two to three gallons of cider a day. We're talking over 20 pints, easy. But they wouldn't get drunk; they'd sweat it out in the fields. And they'd be eating a lot, too—cheese, bread, and onions. These were heavy-duty manual laborers; serious work. Not like these days," he laughs. "People run from the word now."

apples-to-be-pressed

Three gallons of most anything is pretty serious, right? Three gallons of Wilkins' cider could render Lemmy comatose. And there lies the rub; on the one hand, cider is a drink intrinsically tied to UK festival culture and hedonism; on the other, it's a vital part of rural sustenance, unchanged for centuries. Late Clash vocalist Joe Strummer was a regular at Wilkins Cider Farm, and enjoyed the tumbledown ambiance.

"Joe used to love it here. He was a regular; he'd come down and sit in the barn for a few hours and drink and smoke. I'd cut him some cheese and bring it out to him. He used to describe it as a 'bit of heaven,'" Wilkens says. "I think people like it here because we've never really changed what we do."

Wilkins' grandfather started making cider at the farm in 1917. As I'm drinking in the barn, I'm instantly transported to a place gloriously out of step with modernity. There is no bar; no till, even. Thick cobwebs cover the walls; vast oak barrels of "sweet," "medium," and "dry" rest on the cracked stone floor; and a huge stencil of Wilkins—with rats, cobwebs and hand grenades—covers the wall of the tumble-down annex ("lounge bar") at the back, where stacks of yellowed newspapers and magazines are piled up. Random chairs and an old sofa complete the scene of oddball chaos.

"The way we make cider hasn't ever changed," Wilkins tells me, laughing. "I know exactly how it should taste. I used to help my grandfather make cider here years ago. He came to the farm in 1917, after World War I. I used to help my father before I left for school, too. He taught me the trade. I'm in my 46th year of cider-making now.''

Although the past decade in the UK has seen a huge resurgence of interest in commercial cider, due to the unfathomably popular "serve over ice" Irish brand Magners—bland, fizzy and uniform, tasting of cold acidic tin rather than apples—true West Country cider is a different beast; one that delivers a life affirming booze kick alongside bold spice. Deceptively simple in production, the finished article is anything but.

And, as with fine Belgian Lambic beer, the very fabric of the barn is present in the finished drink, pregnant with airborne wild yeasts.

"I don't test, I do it all by taste," Wilkins tells me. "I don't add yeast in. I never measure pH. We're not chemists. These days, it's fashionable to make single variety cider from one type of apple, but me granddad, he said to me when I was young, 'My son, never make cider from just Kingston Black apples on their own. It's too heavy. You want some bitter sharps to take it down a notch.' And those old boys, they weren't far off, you know."

Wilkins is passionate about preserving the classic dry character of his cider, and argues that the idea of using sweet apples to make a sweeter cider is a myth. "The yeast is in the skin of the apple. Once you've crushed it, the yeast comes alive, and the cider ferments dry. Some people will tell you they use sweet apples to make sweet cider but all cider—once fermented—is dry. If I'm making sweet cider for a 120-gallon barrel, I'll add five teaspoons of saccharine. Sweeten it with sugar, and it re-ferments. Four days later, you'll have a dryer cider than what you had before," he explains, laughing.

"Years ago, there was no such thing as sweet cider. I was brought up with dry cider and I've never liked it sweet. I think the dry is a lot more refreshing.''

Until the middle of the 20th century cider represented more than mere refreshment in Somerset, however. A vital part of the rural economy, it was accepted that casual farm laborers would be part paid in drink. It was used as local barter, with almost every farm operating a press and farmers would place flagons at either end of the field during harvest, in the hope that it would spur work with laborers rationed up to eight pints per day during harvest time.

Farms also operated as somewhat laissez-faire drinking establishments —cider houses—much like Wilkins Farm today. A rudimentary establishment serving only cider, the quintessential cider house would keep informal opening hours and would often be found out the back of a barn. Only a few remain and Wilkins is one of the last men standing. Go now, before it is too late…

"Years ago, just through this little road here, we had seven farmers. Six of them made cider. Now, I'm the only one left. All the people looking for work would go from farm to farm and try the cider. They'd only work in the places that had the best. A lot of wages was paid with cider. My grandfather used to give them a bag of potatoes, a piece of cheese, and five gallons of cider. And of course, bills didn't cost nothin' then. You didn't want much, for living."

"You'll never see cider drunk the way it was years ago though. That is gone forever. The demand for it at local pubs around here decades back was unbelievable. I used to take 50 gallons a day to some pubs," he recollects to me fondly. "I used to drink about 20 pints of it a day myself, too. I was weaned on the stuff. And it's never done me any harm. I've drunk it me whole life and never got a hangover. Why would you? There's nothing in it; no coloring, no chemicals. It's purer than the water that comes out of the taps."