This month we’re meeting Alex, the Charrington of Charrington’s. He’s used his life-long experience of growing and selling apples and the knowledge he’s gained to bring a fresh approach to cider making and redefine what you can do with a humble (yet perfect) apple. He’s taken time out from the orchards to answer a few questions…
Q – How long have you been farming?
A – Pretty much all my life. My father bought the farm back in the 1960s and sold class 1 apples to the big supermarkets so I was immersed in farm life from when I was very young. As I got older I’d do different and bigger jobs to help out. He was a great innovator, always improving things, like the reservoirs and irrigation system which provide us with all the water that we need. I learned on the job from the best. My young son is already showing an interest in what we do here, he loves helping out on our stall at markets and events, and is quite the little salesman! I did have a spell away from the farm, about 10 years, working for a global company. It was a very different experience and sharpened my wider business acumen, which is coming in handy as we expand the farm’s operations.
Q – What made you decide to start producing your own cider?
A – The main reason was waste and sustainability. Because of the supermarket’s very strict criteria for apples we were literally throwing perfect apples onto the ground because they were regarded as waste for being a millimetre too big or small for their packaging. It broke my heart and I decided that I wasn’t going to let any of my apples go to waste. Apple juice was the first logical step. Cider was a little trickier since conventional west country wisdom says you can only make cider from inedible bittersweet apples. A little while later we launched our Apple Crisps as a healthy snack.
Q – Which apple varieties do you use?
A – For the cider we use Cox, Russet and Bramley, the three most famous and traditional British apples. The Apple Crisps include a variety called Cheerfull GoldTM, which is relatively new and discovered nearby in Sissinghurst.
Q – And what difference do these apples make to the cider-making process?
A – We do things differently from start to finish. The apple varieties have their own distinctive flavours and, as they’re all our own apples, we make sure we press them at their peak. It also means that we can say our ciders carry our LEAF and Red Tractor accreditation and have a unique single estate provenance, which I think would be a great stretch for anyone else to be able to claim all three for every apple. The apples are also the same quality standard hand-picked from the trees apples that we sell to the supermarkets (aside from the size difference!). This means that there’s no contamination with the orchard floor and a much purer juice is fermented. Traditionally apples used for cider are shaken from the tree and swept up off the ground and will get bruised and battered. Ours are perfect. And then we use a more wine-style fermentation process.
Q – How long does it take to go from apple to bottled cider?
A – Well, the growing takes a whole year…and, in truth, the crop you have in that year is often impacted from when the tree started producing buds in the previous year. Once harvested, we will store them until the perfect moment and then the pressing and fermenting takes about a month. We then mature the base ciders in small batches for between 6 to 18 months to let flavours develop. We don’t rush. So from bud to bottle is over 2 years, which always puts things in perspective, nature has its own pace.
Q – And the finished cider is distinctive as a result of this?
A – Definitely. The way lots of customers describe it is like an “Apple Prosecco” which is pretty accurate really. There is a wine-like quality. Because we don’t use any added flavours or concentrates we also get vintages like wines. While the quality is always premium, each harvest produces natural variations in taste or texture of the apples and this passes on through to the finished cider. It’s most noticeable in the apple juice, in particular the cox juice. The past couple of years there’s been an alternation between a very clear, crisp juice with a slightly cloudier more textured juice. The Russet has a slight seasonal variation but nowhere near as marked – it’s always much richer with its distinctive nutty sweetness. It’s one of the quirks of only using only apples from our farm – you get a very specific flavour and texture and this varies from one harvest to the next. Lots of factors will contribute but weather would be a big one. It’s perfectly natural and we’re never going to try to change that.
Q – So would you say your cider is better than others because of this?
A – Not better, just different and with a very broad appeal. Everyone has different tastes, some like the taste of a traditional still Scrumpy, others prefer our more delicate sparkling ciders. Our dry Private Bin definitely appeals to the wine drinkers as it’s crisp and refined, while Cryals Classic, being a little sweeter which brings out a bit more fruit and mouthfeel, is what the cider aficionados would usually go for. We’ve won Great Taste and Quality Awards for our ciders, as well as our apple juices and crisps, but I’m not sure how well we’d do in a traditional West Country competition as we’re probably not what they’d be expecting from their traditional ciders. It’s definitely apples though!
Q – The crisps aren’t what you’d normally expect from a crisp either, are they?
A – No, that’s a bit of a pattern for us. Again we’re different in that we don’t fry or add anything. They’re just our apples that have been sliced and then air dried. We don’t even remove the cores or pips! They’re a health snack that kids like too. You get an initial crunch when you bite then but as you chew they soften and the tangy flavour of the apple is released. We like eating them with cheeses, using them as an apple cracker. They also they keep me from eating the wrong things on long car journeys, it’s amazing how they seem to keep me fuller for longer (not sure of the science behind this though). Just by replacing one of the naughty snacks we give ourselves or our kids with a bag of Apple Crisps makes quite a difference in terms of a healthy diet. They’re natural, gluten free and suitable for vegans…and even more importantly they’re very tasty!
Q – Would you combine your drinks with anything?
A – The juices are delicious cocktail mixers. Apple juice is always overlooked, but it actually goes with various spirits as we’ve discovered at markets and festivals where we’ve experimented with our neighbouring spirit stalls. The cox juice is best with flavoured gins because it’s lighter and doesn’t overpower the delicate gin flavours. The richer sweeter Russet is better with things like spiced rum or, if you’ve got a really sweet tooth, toffee vodka.
Q – What’s next for Charrington’s?
A – We’re always looking for something new. Last winter we released our Earl’s Reserve still cider which we designed to be heated and mulled. We created a spice blend that included red peppercorn and Hibiscus, giving a twist on the traditional mulled cider. It went down a storm at local Christmas events. As did the mulled apple juice. This winter we’ll probably bring out a couple of new mulling flavours. The way we do it, having the spices separately in pyramids, means that you’ll only need the one pan to heat the cider but different people will be able to have different flavours. It’s just like making a cup of tea. But watch this space for news, we’ve always got something going on. In the meantime you’ve a perfect excuse to enjoy a nice chilled cider…as if encouragement is needed! Or come and join us for an informal walk or run around the farm followed by some tasting…keep an eye out on social media for events going on at the farm.