Rich’s Golden Years

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They’ve come a long way since the Rich family first started making cider down on the farm 50 years ago. As you turn into the drive in Highbridge in Somerset, you are greeted by a carvery, a shop and a museum.

The orchards at Rich's Cider.

The orchards at Rich’s Cider.

The orchards still stand stoically at the back – line after line of trees – though not nearly as tall as the massive oak vats where the cider is matured – one called Gog which olds 10,000 gallons and the other Adge after Adge Cutler from the Wurzels. Adge holds 6,000 gallons and is so called because the Wurzels once played in front of it.

All of Rich’s cider spends at least some of its time in wood. After all these years, the wood is likely to be denatured and the woodiness is much more likely to be a facet of the tannins in the cider apples, but when you drink tonight’s cider it’s hard not to let your mind wander and imagine that there is more than a lick from the inside of these mighty barrels.

The mighty presses at Rich's cider

The mighty presses at Rich’s cider

Rich’s Golden Years is a limited edition cider from cider maker Martin Rich. It is made with two cider apples – a marriage of the mildly bittersweet Yarlington Mill and the sharpness of Lambrook Pippin. An easy drinking West Country cider with a fruity nose, it fills the mouths and head with oaky apple turning bittersweet, then sharp and with a ripe fruit finish.

Thornbrook Strong

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Return of the King

For those who have read JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – this is the equivalent moment of reaching the end of Return of the King. I wept like a baby when I finished that book and this is moment is no less poignant for CiderBods.

Since we launched in September last year, we have included a Thornbrook cider in each of our selections. We started with their premium craft cider, moved up to their Fat Knight, a delicious single variety made predominantly from Falstaff apples, hence the name, and tonight we go large with Thornbrook Strong – a 7.2% bad boy.

Thorn Brook's three bottled ciders.

Perfect for a picnic – Thorn Brook’s three bottled ciders with the North Oxfordshire orchard in the background.

Our sadness is two fold – first is that this is the last of the trilogy of ciders made by Thornbrook left for us to try. But much more tragic is that these are among the last few bottles of cider that Thornbrook cider will ever produce.

Moved by the decline of traditional cider apple orchards in the West Country, Jo Dakin and Tony Harrison hatched a plan to give up the rat race to make cider. They bought a ten acre field in north Oxfordshire and transformed it into an orchard by planting 500 apple trees, a mix of cider, dessert and cooking apples.

Turning the field into an orchard back in 2007

Turning the ten acre plot into an orchard back in 2007

In 2012, with orchard starting to bear fruit, they dived in with both feet and gave themselves two years to make a go of their new cider making business. And what cider they made! Sitting in between the two great cider producing regions, they decided to marry a mix of both, with a leaning toward the Kentish style which you can tell by the blissful apple nose on tonight’s cider.

With a background in biochemistry, Jo knew the fermentation process inside out and that, coupled with an academic knowledge of apples, made her a wonderful cider maker, even though she is not actually a cider drinker. Religiously knocking out any wild yeasts and using a champagne yeast for fermentation, all Thornbrook’s ciders have – or I should have said had (sniff, sniff) – an air of sparkling wine about them and tonight’s is no exception.

But alas, despite working tirelessly for more than two years, people failed to pay Thornbrook the commercial heed it deserved and they couldn’t sell the cider at a rate that made  it commercially viable. More fool you people! And so the orchard is for sale and Jo and Tony have returned to their roots in IT.

Not only is tonight’s cider wonderful in its own right, there is something wondrous about it. It is the only cider they ever made exclusively with apples from their own orchard, mainly Black Dabinetts and Yarlington Mill.

Jo says: “We think it’s a bit more appley than our others because we were able to leave the apples to ripen up for longer. The cider is also matured in old oak whisky barrels. We hope that you can’t taste the whisky (spoils the cider in our opinion!), but oak certainly takes the acidic edge out of the cider.”

Ashcombe Cider

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Eery sunlight casts a long shadow over the ancient orchards at Ashcombe

Eery sunlight casts a long shadow over the ancient orchards at Ashcombe

Step forward Ralph Rayner, Peter Webb and Bill Roper– three heroes of cider-making. Ralph owns the land, Peter makes the cider and Bill organises the rest, well roughly speaking

Tonight’s cider is made with fruit from five ancient orchards on the Ashcombe Estate near Dawlish in Devon – you know, the place where the railway line was washed away – which for tens of years was left to its owns devices.

The fruit grew, fell and either rotted or was left for the cows that grazed beneath the trees to eat. Then in 2012 in stepped Bill. He had a chat with Ralph, whose family have owned the Ashcombe Estate for three generations, and it turned out they were of like minds.

Bill said: “We both thought that it was terrible that all that fruit was simply going to waste and we wanted to do something constructive to use it and save all those ancient fruit trees from crumbling.”

Bill reckons the last time the trees were actually used for cider was between the wars. The varieties of apple trees have long since been forgotten, although Bill suspects that there are some Kingston Black in there along with some eaters and some traditional Devon varieties.

A beautiful, solitary apple.

A beautiful, solitary apple.

All the apples are bagged up together and pressed in a rack and cloth press. There ‘s nothing fancy about the process – the trio didn’t want to add any more variables than mother natures provides – just good, honest, hard work.

After making around 1,500 litres in the inaugural year, the team at Aschombe have double that on go to be bottle this year. Tonight’s potion is slightly sweetened with a little juice just to take off the dry edge.

Shake, rattle and fall.

Shake, rattle and fall.

This cider is made with the very first fruit that was picked from the orchards after all those years laying allow. Piquant apple on the nose, it is clean, crisp easy drinking with a gentle touch of woody tannin – probably down to those long lost Kingston Blacks – and a sharpness that provides a pleasant, lingering, apple finish.

Oliver’s Shezam

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The entrance to the farm in Ocle Pychard that has been in Tom Oliver's family since his great-grandfather's day

The entrance to the farm in Ocle Pychard that has been in Tom Oliver’s family since his great-grandfather’s day

In more ways than one, Tom Oliver’s life is an ever changing landscape. He grew upon on the family farm in rural Herefordshire, moved away to the bright lights of the city and walked through the revolving door of the music industry.

He went on the road with, among others, Van Morrison as tour manager until in 1988, through one of life’s happenstances, he was introduced to twin brothers Charlie and Craig Reid, better known as Scottish folk rock band The Proclaimers. The trio hit it off and from tour management, Tom added sound mixing to his suite of skills, and 26 years later, he’s the first the person the twins call when they hit the road.

The wooden sign outside Tom Oliver's cider barn

The wooden sign outside Tom Oliver’s cider barn

In 1999, Tom stepped back from full time touring to return to the family farm in Ocle Pychard. Once an expanse of orchards growing cider apples and perry pears, the trees were ripped up by his great-grandfather between the wars to plant hops as the favoured cash crop of the day.

When Tom returned in 1999, the Herefordshire hop industry was looking shaky. With cider-making in his blood, Tom was driven to replant the orchards and two years later, his next odyssey began.

With the physical landscape around him changing and a career coloured by a blur of towns, venues and hotel rooms on the road, he was never going to stand still as a cider maker. Each year, rather than wrestling with nature, he relies on a metaphorical musical ear and lets the fruit express itself.

When interviewed for the ‘World’s Best Cider’, a cider lover’s manual released last year, Tom told author Pete Brown: “My motto is always to take what the fruit gives, let it tell me what it is going to do best.”

Apples outside Tom Oliver's cider barn

Apples outside Tom Oliver’s cider barn

From fruit grown in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, Tom now produces 100,000 litres of cider and perry to international acclaim and is multi-award winning producer . When I caught him, he was off for a cider tasting with chef Simon Rogan who is opening his new restaurant ‘Fera’ at Claridges in London.

“Shezam is medium dry and based on a classic Herefordshire cider. It is made with a blend of bittersweet Yarlington Mill and Dabinetts, and Browns and Foxwhelp for sharpness. It is very drinkable and meant to be enjoyed. It goes particularly well with a good, spicy, medium hot curry.”

Sandford Orchards Devon Scrumpy

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Barny Butterfield’s secret weapon in his quest to find cidermaking’s sunlit uplands was not the deep red soil which paints the land around the Crediton – known as the Crediton Measures – and which stems from the slow erosion of the local red sandstone over the past three million years. This same tract of soil snakes back to Herefordshire and is what also makes that county one of the finest places to grow apples in the country.

Nor is it the warmer climate in Devon which makes the fruit a little sweeter. And nor is it Barny’s fastidious attention to detail. Not only does he measure the sugar content of his fruit, but he leaves the apples to ripen on the tree until the very last minute.

He said: “When you first start out, you are desperate to get the fruit out of the orchard. So you run around picking up the fallers and shaking the trees to get more apples to fall, although this way you still end up leaving fruit on the tree.

“Over the years, you learn the fallers aren’t worth it. They’re either rotten or they’ve been squeezed off the tree by the bigger fruit. It’s best just to leave them to rot and take the two thirds off the tree as late as you can to allow the fruit to develop.

“It’s just like when you pick a strawberry too early. It is hard and green. You can leave it on the windowsill to ripen and it will soften, but it will never be the same as a ripe strawberry picked fresh from the bush, sweet, juicy and with bags of flavour.”

It’s none of that. It is in fact Barny’s little sister Tally. Born and bred in Devon – just up the road from Crediton – Barny has been a keen cider drinker all his life. “As long as it made from apples, I’m happy to drink it and the drier the better.”

Tally on the other hand is not a cider drinker. And she brings with her an analytical approach which is more in tune with palate of the city cider drinker. Barny says: “She has got an incredibly accurate and impressive palate.”

From a shoebox operation, Sandford Orchards has grown to produce 600,00 litres a year. Barny started the business to help make ends meet while working as a farm labourer 12 years ago, and Tally joined three years ago, giving up a job in London to return to her roots.

Sandford Orchards Devon Scrumpy is still and a luscious caramel colour. Ripe banana and apple on the nose with floral hints, it reflects the sweetness of the local fruit, is full bodied with tannic, oaky notes and finishes with a bittersweet twang.

Gwatkin Kingston Black

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There's only one Denis Gwatkin: Denis wheeling a delivery of real cider up the yard at the Gwatkin family farm in Herefordshire's golden Valley.

There’s only one Denis Gwatkin: Denis wheeling a delivery of real cider up the yard at the Gwatkin family farm in Herefordshire’s golden Valley.

This week we pay homage to the Kingston Black, arguably the most famous cider apple of all, and the fearless, unbending will of cidermaker Denis Gwatkin.

Denis doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to cider – for him its wild yeasts all the way, whisky barrels and letting the character of the apple hang out. He isn’t afraid to hit you with a really dry concoction that would send the mass market running for cover. His single variety Foxwhelp puts hairs on your chest  – from the inside – and his single variety Kingston Black won’t disappoint the hardened dry cider drinker.

The Kingston Black originated from Somerset – reputedly from the village of Kingston – and is a medium-sized apple, dark, purplely-maroon in colour. The trees are notoriously susceptible to disease and tend to fruit, as is the apples prerogative, biennially.

Denis grows his own Kingston Blacks in the 12 acres of orchards he tends at the Gwatkin family farm, set in the soft rolling hills of Herefordshire’s Golden Valley near the English border with Wales. He also gathers the fruit from an orchard in a neighbouring village.

Old whisky barrels at the Gwatkin family farm in Herefordshire's Golden Valley waiting to be filled with cider.

Old whisky barrels at the Gwatkin family farm in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley waiting to be filled with cider.

Milled and pressed in the old Gwatkin press, the juice is left to ferment with the wild yeast and then mature in vast whisky barrels in the cavernous barns of the old farmyard at Abbey Dore.

The Kingston Black is a classified as a bittersharp apple, high in tannin and acid, and is a feted as a single varietal cider. True to Denis’s style, the apple is front, right and centre in this cider.

Gwatkin Kingston Black is dark golden in colour and pours with a gentle fizz, Salty, sour and woody on the nose, the cider hits you in the throat with an avalanche of big, woody tannins. The smokiness is amplified by its maturation in oak and yields to an acidic, sour blast of dryness, finishing on an unmistakable note of whisky.

Hogan’s Dry Cider

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Allen Hogan - every inch the convivial Irishman.

Allen Hogan – every inch the convivial Irishman.

Allen Hogan is every inch the convivial Irishman – gregarious, affable, ready to share an anecdote or a glass of cider, or in my case a cup of mulled cider. He moved to Warwickshire from his native Ireland more than 30 years with a job in IT and then almost fell into cider making.

He said: “I had been making cider for a long time before I started a business. I made it as a hobby and when I moved to Warwickshire I was introduced to this old guy who was a great local character.

“He made cider the traditional way and made 400 gallons a year – he gave half of it away and kept the other half for himself. That is quite a lot of cider to get through on your own!

“We decided to buy some kit together but no sooner had the kit arrived, but unfortunately he promptly died. I was left with a half share in a press and all this new kit so I took the plunge and the business was born.”

Hogan’s Cider has moved on from those early days and is now one of the largest smaller producers with the capacity to produce 700,000 litres – 100 fold the output of a small independent like Yarde Cider, where our current round of tastings began.

Hogan's apples come from the three counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire

Hogan’s apples come from the three counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire

Allen buys his apples from the three counties of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. The apples are pressed in a mighty belt press which delivers over a pint of juice for every kilo of apples.

Allen adds a champagne yeast in preference to the wild yeasts and the juice is left to slowly ferment in 12 stainless steel tanks. The slow fermentation lasts for four months before the cider is racked and left to mature. Another four to five months later Allen tastes and blends the cider from each tank.

He said: “You get differences across all the different tanks. In one or two the wild yeasts might have taken over. You try to balance the characteristics, qualities and imperfections you will have in one of the tanks, against the characteristics and perfections in another tank.

“Cider making is more like wine making than anything else. Some people think cider making is like brewing, that you can make a new batch every couple of weeks. It’s nothing of the sort – you get one go at it every year and that’s it.”

The mighty quarter-dozen - three of Hogan's bottled ciders.

The mighty quarter-dozen – three of Hogan’s bottled ciders.

Hogan’s Dry Cider is Allen’s favourite. He said: “It has some peaty notes and there is a smokiness to it. To be frank I don’t know where that smokiness comes from. It is not matured in wood. It could be the tannins but in all honesty I just don’t know.

“I love to drink it with some cured meat, some olives and cheese. It also goes well with smoked meat and fish. It is very drinkable. Some people say it has a farmyard type smell. Some people regard this as a fault, others quite like it!”

Joining CiderBods just got better!

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Sausage and Cider Festival

CiderBods has joined forces with the Sausage and Cider Festival Company who run a number of  . . err . . . sausage and cider festivals across the East Midlands.

Not only will we be at each of the festivals with a selection of wonderful bottled ciders, but if you are a current, paid-up member of CiderBods you will get in for free!

The Sausage and Cider Festival Company currently runs events in Milton Keynes, Leicester, Northampton, Hinckley, Brackley and Towcester, and they’re adding new festivals.

Take a look at those sausages – they are amazeballs!

Cooked Sausages

Worley’s Mendip Hills Cider

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Neil Worley inspecting a vat of cider in his barn near the Mendip Hills.

Neil Worley inspecting a vat of cider in his barn near the Mendip Hills.

Neil Worley is one of a rare breed who make keeved cider – cider which is naturally sweet and sparkling. Keeving is a complicated and fiddly business, less of a technical process and more of an art-form. It dates back centuries and although widely used in France down the ages, was nearly lost in England.

The cider maker needs to pick the right fruit and the right moment late in the year – when the temperature has fallen to less than 5°C so nature is slowed by the cold. The apples are milled as normal, but rather than pressing them straight away, they are left of macerate overnight in order to allow in oxygen. This develops the colour of the juice but also more importantly causes pectin to leach from the walls of the apple cells. The apple pulp is then pressed producing a rich brown juice.

The presence of the pectin – and an enzyme added by the cider maker – has a curious effect, creating an unpleasant layer of brown gunk which floats on top the liquid, known by the French as le chapeau brun (the brown cap).

If you get it right, bits also fall to the bottom, leaving a crystal clear natural wonder in the middle. This is siphoned off into a fresh vat, leaving behind the nutrients needed by the yeast. Starved of nutrients, the yeast is weak and because it is also cold, the fermentation slows to a crawl, allowing some of the natural sugars to remain and producing a cider which is naturally sweet, full of flavour and once bottled, creates its own fizz.

The simple sign that greets you at Worley's ciderhouse.

The simple sign that greets you at Worley’s ciderhouse.

Mendip Hills is not a keeved cider but Neil uses the same attention to detail to make it. It is made using late apples – in fact the latest Neil can get his hands on, varieties such as Dabinett, Chisel Jersey and Yarlington Mill.

Thanks to their maturity, these bittersweet fruits develop more sugar, have a higher level of tannins and a deeper flavour. They also have less nitrogen content which allows for a slower fermentation, producing a cider which retains more complexity and flavour of the fruit – as with keeved cider. Neil blends in a little a cider from sharper early season fruit to add green apple notes to the richer, fuller cider of the late fruit.

Apples ready to be washed at Worley's cider barn.

Apples ready to be washed at Worley’s cider barn.

He says: “It is a very easy drinking cider. I don’t like to make cider that is overly challenging – I want people to enjoy it for its own’s sake rather than being told how they should enjoy it. It is a lovely dark golden colour and has very light carbonation, so light it is almost imperceptible. There is a real depth of flavour. It is complex and spicey – with leathery undertones.”

Green Valley Stillwood Sparkling Vintage Cyder

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Chris Cole picking windfalls from the grassy floor of Bidgood Orchard in Woodbury Salterton, Devon.

Chris Cole picking windfalls from the grassy floor of Bidgood Orchard in Woodbury Salterton, Devon.

We started the current round of tastings with a real cider made with apples from a single orchard in Devon, and the same is true of this week’s offering. Food provenance doesn’t get much better than that and my mind still boggles that such a thing happens in this day and age.

The apples for Green Valley Stillwood Sparking Vintage Cyder grow in the Bidgood Orchard in Woodbury Salterton where farmer George Wilson and his son – George is in his 70s – pick windfalls from the orchard floor and put them in buckets. From buckets, they are loaded into sacks and make the two mile journey to Dart Farm just outside in Exeter where Green Valley’s Nick Pring and Chris Coles leave them to gently ripen and mature.

What these two don’t know about apple-growing isn’t worth knowing. Both are former head cider makers at Whiteways cider, now closed but in its hey day the largest producer in Devon and a rival to Bulmers. Chris also boasts a PhD in bio-chemistry.

Production in full swing at Green Valley Cyder.

Production in full swing at Green Valley Cyder.

When Whiteways closed in 1989, both men took their redundancy money and launched Green Valley. At their base in Dart Farm, they also run an incredibly well stocked real ale and cider barn. With 100 plus bottles from which to choose, it is well worth a visit if you’re ever down that way and the pair have just won Independent Cider Shop of the Year in the National Retail Awards.

Bidgood Orchard is a very old orchard where the trees are 60 to 80 years old and predominantly a mix of Brown Snout, Fillbarrel, Tom Putt and the wonderfully named Slack-Ma-Girdle apples. The mix of these apples, with two bittersweet and two sweet varieties, is predominantly sweet and it is the abundant sugar which gives this badboy its 8.3% kick. But it is not just the apples which make this cider such a stunner.

As well as allowing the apples to mature and therefore the sugars to develop, Chris and Nick wait 15 to 20 minutes after milling the apples before they begin pressing the pulp. Even in this short time, the cell walls in the apple break down offering up more juice and allowing the tannins to develop. They use a press made in Bristol in the 1930s and the beechwood slatted trays, fixed with copper nails, infuse the cider with wood and offer a yeast population which in unique and a therefore a taste which is unique.

The press at Green Valley: the antique beechwood trays, fixed, with copper nails, infuse the cider with a woody flavour.

The press at Green Valley: the antique beechwood trays, fixed with copper nails, infuse the cider with a woody flavour.

Stillwood Vintage is a mammoth cider. Rich fruit on the nose with notes of calvados, it is a true West County cider, with high bitterness, enormous depth and a long finish thanks to all that alcohol, with notes of wood and spirit, again thanks to its ABV.

This is a vintage cider, produced in a specific year, which in our case is 2012. What this means of course is that we’ll have to drink it all over again next year just to compare the two!

Ty Bryn Welsh Cider

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A view over the lush Monmouthshire countryside from the farmhouse at Ty Bryn

A view over the lush Monmouthshire countryside from the farmhouse at Ty Bryn.

While Ty Gwyn is Welsh for ‘whitehouse’, Ty Bryn stands for ‘house on the hill’. The things you learn on your cider travels hey! Tony Watkins’ great grandfather first moved into this house on the hill in a lush valley near Grosmont in Wales just before the start of the second world war.

Since then it has passed through the hands of three generations of the Watkins family, who have each taken turns farming the surrounding land. Already, a fresh generation is being schooled to take over the mantle – Tony’s two sons both help out on the farm.

With his brother Brian, Tony tends five acres of orchards on the farm. Only a few trees remain from their grandfather’s day – a couple of Tom Putts and three other trees, the varieties of which have long since been lost, unlike the family’s old stone press which rests proudly in the farmyard.

The old stone press at Ty Bryn.

The old stone press at Ty Bryn.

The orchards fruit both pear and apple, and sheep graze beneath the boughs on the lush, green grass of north Monmouthshire. For years their apples, a mix of Bulmer’s Norman, Michelin and Dabinett, were sold to Bulmers in Hereford, but ten years ago the brothers started making their own cider, perry and juice. Since then, like their near neighbours at Ty Gwyn cider, they have ridden the wave of the resurgent Monmouthshire cider making scene.

Ty Bryn Cider is pressed from the mix of apples grown on the farm and is then cold fermented using nothing but the wild yeast from the apple, providing it with a unique taste. It is left to mature and develop in old whisky barrels in a stone cider store built in the 1700s before being gently carbonated and bottled.

Tony says: “There is less control when you use the wild yeasts, but it is definitely more exciting and I think it gives the cider an extra, unique flavour. It is a lot less clinical.”

Brian Watkins in front of a trailer load of apples destined for the press at  Ty Bryn.

Brian Watkins in front of a trailer load of apples destined for the press at Ty Bryn.

If you’ve never come across a bottle of Ty Bryn, that’s not surprising. It is virtually only available from the farm. Full of fruit, it has bittersweet twang, a characteristic of the apples used, notes of wood and spirit from the whisky barrels, with a lasting apple skin sourness.

Ty Gwyn Dabinett Cider

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The view of Ty Gwyn - the 'Whitehouse' looking back from one of the fruit fields that surround it.

The view of Ty Gwyn – the ‘Whitehouse’ looking back from one of the fruit fields that surround it.

With white washed walls beneath a grey slate roof, Ty Gwyn stands imperiously on the upper slopes of the Monnow Valley, with wonderful views over the Monmouthshire countryside.

It is quite literally surrounded by fruit, acres of apple trees and blackcurrant bushes, many of them planted by the late James McConnel whose home this ample farmhouse was for nearly 40 years.

When brothers Ben and Alex Culpin returned home to follow in their stepfather’s footsteps, they took the name of house – Ty Gwyn is Welsh for ‘Whitehouse’ – for their cider brand. You can see the house – tripled fronted with a sun room to soak up those views – on the front of label.

Before they turned their hands to cider making, Ben and Alex had both been in the music business. Ben as a music publisher and manager and Alex as a guitarist in the 90s indie band Tiny Monroe.

Fronted by the enigmatic NJ, Tiny Monroe played Glastonbury and Reading, toured in their own right and supported Suede and Radiohead. You can see Alex playing bass and looking suitably moody in one of their music videos here.

A view over the rolling Monmouthshire countryside from one of the orchards that surround Ty Gywn.

A view over the rolling Monmouthshire countryside from one of the orchards that surround Ty Gywn.

Ty Gwyn Cider is one of the great success stories amid the resurgence of cider making in Monmouthshire. From humble beginnings five years ago when they made just 4,000 bottles, the brothers produced 23,000 litres last year and nearly all has sold out. As a result, they have more than doubled production and this year will make 50,000 litres.

Their single variety Dabinett Medium is made from purely Dabinett apples grown on the 25 acres of orchards they inherited from their stepfather and other trees from within a 12 miles radius. The local clayey soil is perfect for growing good fruit.

The apples are pressed on a mobile press, a great mechanical leviathan which is wheeled into the main farmyard beside the house and fed apples by the bucketload. The wild yeast is removed and wine yeast added before a slow, long eight month fermentation. The result is stunning.

Ben, left, at the helm of the mechanical beast which is the Ty Gwyn mobile press.

Ben, left, at the helm of the mechanical beast which is the Ty Gwyn mobile press.

With a nose of candied oranges, Ty Gwyn Dabinett Medium is smooth, sweet, mellow and rounded. It has notes of caramel and tarte tartin – some also compare it to a perry – and with a sweet, baked apple finish, but the abiding memory is of the satisfying, underlying flavour of Dabinett apple.

Thorn Brook Fat Knight

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Thorn Brook's three bottled ciders.

Perfect for a picnic – Thorn Brook’s three bottled ciders with the North Oxfordshire orchard in the background.

Jo Dakin and Tony Harrison are at the vanguard of a new generation of craft cider makers. Inspired by a desire to save the nation’s orchards, they turned their backs on the bright lights of the city and bought a ten acre plot of land in north Oxfordshire.

With the help of the British Trust of Conservation Volunteers, they planted 500 trees, a mix of cider, dessert and cooking apples, many of them heritage varieties, and so began their cider making odyssey.

Turning the field into an orchard back in 2007

Turning the ten acre plot into an orchard back in 2007

Planted in 2007, the orchard is starting to bear fruit but not enough to keep up with production at the aptly named Little Orchard Company so to maintain supplies, Jo and Tony buy in the bulk of their apples, mostly form Worcestershire. As the apples are mostly dessert apples, they make their cider in the Kentish style.

Fat Knight is a single varietal cider made predominantly with Red Falstaff apples, although with a few Worcester Permains and Bramleys included in the pressing to add acidity.

Red Falstaff apples: sharp and acidic, bountiful and full of that blessed juice which provides us with cider.

Red Falstaff apples: sharp and acidic, bountiful and full of that blessed juice which provides us with cider.

Jo explains: “Thorn Brook Fat Knight was a bit of a one off. One of our apple suppliers in Worcester has some Red Falstaff trees but they don’t use the fruit as the trees are pollinators for other trees. “I immediately thought of a cider with a red label – hence the red label – and of a Fat Knight after Falstaff, the vain, fat, boastful and cowardly knight from Shakespeare’s plays – hence the name.” As it fermented, the cider gave off a smell of tropical fruit and bananas. No hint of this remains with the finished article however.

A light pale colour and cheese notes on the nose, Fat Knight drinks more like a sparkling wine than a cider, a trait of Thorn Brook cider. It is sharp with bags of  acidity, characteristics of the Red Falstaff apple, further boosted by those Worcester Permains and Bramleys, and has a long, dry finish, again reminiscent of a dry sparkling wine, although with an appley afternote.

Ashridge Organic Cider 2012 Vintage

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Deep gold in colour, Ashridge Organic Cider pours with a wonderful mousse.

Deep gold in colour, Ashridge Organic Cider pours with a wonderful mousse.

Jason Mitchell uses at least 15 different varieties of apple to make Ashridge vintage cider, a range of bittersharps and bittersweets, including Tremletts Bitter, Browns, Dabinett, Ellis Bitter, Yarlington Mill and Devon’s native Sercombes Natural.

“Lots of different apples provide a complexity and depth to the cider,” he says. But this is not the only trick up Jason’s cider making sleeve. Once picked, the apples are first left in wooden crates to ripen, allowing the natural sweetness to develop.

“I don’t worry about the apples being brown, not a third or even a quarter brown. When you press your thumb into a brown apple, the juice that runs out is sweet and clear,” says Jason.

Once picked, the apples are left to ripen to develop their flavour.

Once picked, the apples are left to ripen in giant wooden crates to develop their flavour.

And then, when the apples are milled, rather than pressing them straight away, Jason leaves the apple pulp, or pomace, sitting for 12 hours, to macerate. This produces more juice and a juice with a deeper colour.

Another side effect of this process is that juice clears more readily as it ferments. This, along with a deliberately long, slow fermentation lasting up to six months, allows for minimal intervention in the cider making process. All of which preserves the natural flavour of the apple, says Jason.

A scientist by training, Jason says: “I like to steer the cider making process rather than simply follow it.” This careful stewardship goes right back to the orchards near Staverton in Devon where Jason grows his fruit.

Once owned by the family who owned and made Hills cider, once a famous name in Devon cider making, all of the orchards have been certified organic by the Soil Association and have been so certified since 2009. Sheep graze beneath the boughs and in the winter, Jason works out, pruning the trees by hand.

Cider-making is a labour of love for Jason Mitchell at Ashridge Cider: his orchards are traditionally managed each year, he prunes the trees by hand.

Cider-making is a labour of love for Jason Mitchell at Ashridge Cider: his orchards are traditionally managed and each year, he lovingly prunes the trees by hand.

Thanks to being left to macerate, Ashridge Organic Cider is a deep, rich, golden colour. It pours with a thick mousse. Sweet, apple pie on the nose, with a faint hint of cinnamon, it fills the mouth with rich, ripe fruit – intense and full with wonderful depth, flavour which lingers on the palate providing a dry, long-lasting finish.

Yarde Real Cider

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Picking windfalls ready for the Yarde cider press in Stoke Gabriel

Picking windfalls ready for the Yarde cider press in Stoke Gabriel

Nestling on the banks of the River Dart in Devon’s South Hams is the picturesque village of Stoke Gabriel. In the church yard stands a 1,000 year old yew tree and legend has it that if you walk backwards seven times round the yew’s main stem you will be granted a wish.

Stoke Gabriel is home to Yarde cider and husband and wife cider makers Rebecca Jack and Paul Gadd who named their creation after the farmhouse in the village where they first made the cider with apples from the adjoining orchard.

Yarde cider is a rarity among bottled ciders. First, it is still. Second, it is still live, having been neither pasteurised nor sterile filtered. Third, the bottle is stamped with the specific orchard from which the cider is made.

In our case, it is the orchard at Higher Well Farm in Stoke Gabriel where a mix of heritage varieties have been growing for 70 years and where the trees are managed traditionally without chemical sprays or fertilisers.

Devon apples releasing their juice on the Yarde cider press

Devon apples releasing their juice on the Yarde cider press

Rebecca and Paul escaped to the country from London and first lived on a boat on the River Dart before moving onto dry land and taking up cider making as a hobby. Their business has grown from there and well as cider, they make apple juice and another rarity, Devon cider brandy.

Their cider is made using the only the wild yeast naturally present on the apple, no sulphites and is fermented out to dry. They make under 7,000 litres, keeping production under the duty limit, and you can normally only lay your hands on the stuff if you’re lucky enough to live between Plymouth and Exeter.

To relish the flavour, drink at an ambient temperature or only ever so slightly chilled. Sharp apple and mild, woody, barnyard funk on the nose, Yarde cider is sharp, tannic and full of fruit and mercifully not overly sweetened, offering a tantalising echo of the delicious, drier version which comes straight from the barrel in Stoke Gabriel.

The finished product - golden Yarde Cider.

The finished product – golden Yarde Cider.

Burrow Hill Perry

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Julian Temperley, calf deep in apples

Julian Temperley, calf deep in apples

Anything that emerges from the stable of Julian Temperley at Burrow Hill bears a hallmark of quality – and this perry is no exception. “The craft of cider making is how you blend the apples – that is the art of it,” says Julian, one of cider making’s high priests.

For his ciders, Julian is famous for eying in the colour of the different apples until he has the right balance. For his perry, he uses a blend of three perry pears – Thorn, Brandy and Hendre Huffcap (so-called for its elliptical shape).

“We only use proper perry pears for our perry and good perry pears are like gold dust so we don’t make too much of it,” Julian says. Some come from Julian’s own orchards, which cover 160 acres of the Somerset levels beneath Burrow Hill, a striking local landmark, a green dome with a single sycamore tree at its top. The others come from the trees of neighbours.

Each pear has its own qualities – the Thorn is a small, sharp yellow fruit while the Brandy and the Hendre Huffcap are both low in tannins – and they come together to produce a really smooth, easy drinking, delicate perry with a gentle, lingering dry finish.

Making perry is a notoriously tricky business – the trees are tall for a start, making picking difficult, and then there’s a very small window when the fruit is at the right ripeness to press. It is also a long game. Perry pear trees take a long time to mature, leading to the saying ‘plant pears for your heirs’. Or as Julian puts is: “You plant apples trees for your children, and perry pear trees for your grandchildren.”

Well, the Temperley grandchildren will owe their grandpa a big debt. Year on year, Julian is planting more perry pear trees – a mix of Thorn, Brandy and 20 other varieties. Let’s hope they cherish them.

Ross-on-Wye Dabinett Bramley and Sweet Coppin

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Every year, at the end of August, Mike Johnson throws open the doors of Broome Farm in Peterstow, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, for a party.

The guest list is limited to 500 and each year, it is a sell out. People come from far and wide, many are regulars, to camp out in orchards to enjoy Mike’s cider.

But Mike’s isn’t the only cider at the party. He invites neighbouring cider makers along to set up stalls at the farm and sell their cider too.

Mike says: “We get lots of people who come back year on year. They love it because they get to talk to the cider makers and experience the passion for what they do.”

It is a true celebration of the cider maker’s craft. And so too is this week’s cider: Dabinett Bramley and Sweet Coppin made by Mike at the Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry Co.

Mike selects only the best quality cider for his bottle conditioned range and this, as the name suggests, is a mix of Dabinett apples to provide tannins, Bramleys for acidity and Sweet Coppins for intense apple flavour. The combination makes for a beautifully balanced cider.

All of Mike’s ciders are fermented out to dry and to this cider he adds a half teaspoon of sugar to add a little sweetness and provide a gentle sparkle. The fizz for this cider is not through carbonation but from the bottle conditioning.

Open five minutes ahead of drinking to allow the sulphurous smells, a natural and normal  bi-product of bottle conditioning, to dissipate and pour gently to avoid disturbing the powdery sediment.

Ross-on-Wye Flakey Bark Perry

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People from around the world beat a path to Broome Farm in Peterstow, near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire. The reason – it’s the home of the cider maker’s cider maker Mike Johnson.

Mike has a rare talent for cider making and generously gives his time to those just learning their apple craft.

He provides us with a rare treat – a very rare treat – this evening: a single varietal flakey bark perry. If you haven’t heard of the flakey bark pear before, you can be excused.

There are quite literally only a handful of sites – five or six – where the flakey bark perry pear is still grown. It fell out of fashion, Mike believes, because it so hard to make perry from.

Mike says: “Unless you catch it just right, the juice can be very astringent. I’ve known people who have pressed the pears and then just thrown all of the juice away because it’s unusable.”

If you are a master of cider making howewer, the flakey bark is simply another challenge to your artistry.

Mike’s pears come from a clutch of six 200 year old trees on May Hill, between Ross-on-Wye and Gloucester. Local legend has it that any apple or pear grown in sight of May Hill has a special quality. Anything grown on the hill itself, one assumes, is therefore imbued with a something extra special.

The trees are tall and Mike waits for the pears to fall. They are picked over two weeks and then left to ripen in the corner of the pressing shed. This allows the fruit to soften and the natural sugars to develop, as any fruit would in a fruit bowl.

When Mike judges the time is right, he presses the fruit. The juiced is fermented, partially in oak, through to dry, although there is some residual sugar which gives this perry its initial sweetness. It is then left for two years to ensure the fermentation is complete before it is bottled.

The first thing you notice is what looks like a cotton eye patch floating aorund in the bottle. This is the sediment which, for some reason, naturally binds together in perry. Needless to say, you don’t want to drink this.

Open the bottle five before drinking to clear the sulphurs which occur naturally in bottle conditioned cider and perry, and then sip – and I mean sip.

You get an immediate sweetness followed by an incredible astringency across your palate. After two of three sips, the two sensations blend together to provide a complex, demanding and interesting drink. It goes very well with cheese so if you’ve got a lump of cheddar to hand or a slice of blue, you will transport yourself to perry heaven.

Perry’s Morgan Sweet

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CiderBods

CiderBods

The CiderBods community is small, yet perfectly formed, from a wide variety of people, not all of whom are digital natives ready to embrace the TweetUp on Thursday nights.

One such person is a retired farmer, now in his 80s, who has been a cider drinker all his life. He lives on the Somerset levels, rather conveniently sandwiched between Perry’s of Dowlish Wake, makers of this week’s cider, and Burrow Hill in Kingsbury Epsicopi.

He keeps a four litre plastic container in his kitchen. On one side he has a Perry’s Cider sticker and on the other side a sticker which says Burrow Hill. Showing me, he says: “When I go to Perry’s, I hold it this way, then, when I go to Burrow Hill (turning the container round) I show it this way.”

He is full of heart-warming stories about cider and, as a small boy, remembers George Perry’s grandfather going from house to house in his village making the weekly delivery of cider.

The retired farmer tells me: “He delivered the cider in stone jugs from a horse and cart, and swapped them over whether you’d drunk it all or not. I’ve still a couple of those jugs.”

George Perry is the current custodian of the cider house which which bears the family name, a fourth generation cider maker. And it is perhaps fitting that we are drinking his single varietal Morgan Sweet cider at this time of the year.

The Morgan Sweet Apple

The Morgan Sweet Apple

The Morgan Sweet is one of the earliest ripening apples, picked in September, and as a result was traditionally used to make cider in time for Christmas.

Unlike many other cider apples, it also makes good eating, and was used as an eating apple in Wales during World War II when the apples from Kent were hard to come by. It also makes extremely good juice, which was a favourite thirst quencher of miners in the pits of South Wales, as it was a variety traditionally grown in the apple heartlands of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire.

And when you crack into the cider, you can see why the miners were so keen. Perry’s Morgan Sweet pours with a gentle fizz, has a hint of toffee apple on the nose, and drinks with a fruity twang and a lingering dry finish.

Ludlow Vineyard Clee Orchards Farmhouse Cider

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Mike Hardingham of Ludlow Vineyard in his trademark hat.

Mike Hardingham of Ludlow Vineyard in his trademark hat.

Mike Hardingham is one of those brave souls who gave up rat race to pursue a dream. He and wife Barbara had a weekend cottage in Shropshire and the draw of country idyll proved too much.

At the age of 50, he gave up his job in IT in the banking industry and the couple moved lock, stock and barrel to cultivate the vineyards they had planted on the small holding that came with the cottage and launched Ludlow Vineyard.

This year’s bumper crop of grapes promises to be the best ever year for wine production but back when they started, the yields were small so Mike turned his hand to cider making to help make ends meet.

His cider is a fusion of West Country and Kentish styles as he uses one quarter cider apples – mostly Dabinetts – and three quarters dessert apples, predominantly Coxes and Cox crosses.

He supplements his own supply of apples, grown on their orchard at Clee St Margaret just down the road from Ludlow, from others grown in Herefordshire and Worcestershire.

Mike adds white wine yeast to his juice and ferments the cider out to dry to bring the fermentation process to a natural stop. For the medium sweet we are drinking this week, he adds 12 grams of sugar to a litre of liquid to reintroduce a little sweetness.

If you’re counting calories, that works out to about half a teaspoon of sugar per 500ml bottle. The medium sweet version of the Clee Orchards Farmhouse Cider is further sweetened by the addition of apple juice – just so you know!

Cider and apple juice from Ludlow Vineyard, with the vines in the background.

Cider and apple juice from Ludlow Vineyard, with the vines in the background.

Mike and Barbara mill, press, carbonate, bottle and pasteurise all of their cider themselves – food provenance doesn’t get any better than that! Versatility is Mike’s middle name and he uses two thirds of his apples to make cider brandy, which he calls ‘cider spirit’.

Ludlow Vineyard Clee Orchards Farmhouse medium-dry is ever so slightly sparkling. Full of apple aroma from those dessert apples, it is light, easy drinking, with an acidic, tannic twang, thanks to those cider apples.

Perry’s Somerset Dabinett SV Cider

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perryslabel

There are some apples that are born to be blended. Then there’s the Dabinett. It’s up there with the likes of the Kingston Black and the Yarlington Mill. Cider apples fall into one of four classifications  – bittersweet, sharp, bittersharp and sweet – according to how tannic and acidic they are.

The Dabinett is a bittersweet and its greenish and aromatic flesh provides a distinctively flavoured juice which allows it to be used on its own to make a single varietal cider. Don’t ever be tempted to eat one raw however – they taste horrible!

This cider is brought to us courtesy of Perry’s in Dowlish Wake, Somerset, where the Perry family have been making cider since 1920.

The day to day responsibility for running the ciderie is now in the hands of George Perry, a fourth generation cider maker. He has done much to refresh the business, adding a state-of-the-art bottling plant, new branding and planting a further 11 acres of orchards.

Traditions run deep down in Dowlish Wake however – if you’re ever down that way, it’s well worth a visit – and you can still see the 16th century thatched barn where the business first started and the two presses the family have used since the 1950s.

These two beauties are still going strong, despite having produced an estimated seven million plus pints of cider each in their lifetimes. They allow Perry’s to press their juice using the traditional rack and cloth method, and then the juice is left to ferment using nothing but the wild yeast present in the apple.

Perry's use the traditional 'rack and cloth' method to press their juice

Perry’s use the traditional ‘rack and cloth’ method to press their juice

This is cider making at its most risky but it has the potential to produce cider with unique flavour, which is left to mature for up to two years in wooden barrels. At Perry’s, they like to boast they are “a free thinking craft cider company that doesn’t like being constrained.”

Gold in colour, Perry’s Somerset Dabinett pours with a gentle sparkle and has won a string of awards. The apple shines through with distinctive Dabinett notes and aroma, a little sweeter than the die-hards might expect, albeit with a dry finish on the tongue.

As with all the ciders on the CiderBods tasting list, enjoy chilled, not cold and never over ice!

Gwatkin Blakeney Red Perry

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A poster from the film Good Will Hunting

Perry pears are like the character played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, says Pete Brown

“If perry pears were people, they’d be like Matt Damon’s character in the film Good Will Hunting: a difficult outcast with no friends, troubled and destructive, lashing out and hurting anyone who attempts to nurture them, but with genius hidden inside, waiting to be released.”

So begins the chapter on Perry in Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw’s new book “World’s Best Cider”. It continues: “Let’s make no bones about it: perry pears are absolute bastards. The trees take ages to grow and produce fruit, and perry makers talk about planting ‘pears for your heirs’.

“The small ugly fruit is incredibly temperamental and vulnerable to pests and diseases.  It’s much more difficult to prise from the tall, high-canopied trees than a cider apple, and yet it must be collected at precisely the right time, and this varies widely for different varieties. Too early and the fruit is hard as stone. A couple of days later and it’s soft and mushy.”

Welcome then to the world of the perry maker.

Pete Brown’s words could have been written specifically with this year’s crop of Blakeney Reds in mind. “The yield this year has been disastrous – there’s hardly a Blakeney Red about,” says Denis Gwatkin, the man we met for our tasting last week and who provides us with this week’s cider – another single varietal, Gwatkin Blakeney Red Perry.

The Blakeney Red pear takes its name from the village of Blakeney on the outskirts of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where it still grows today. It is the most widely grown perry pear in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire – in the good years that is – where some of the trees are 300 years old.

The pears themselves are greenish yellow with a red flush on the sunny side, providing the pears with a host of pet names: Red Pear, Circus Pear, Painted Lady and Painted Pear. The trees grow tall and should be bearing fruit around about now.

Blakeney Red Perry Pear

The Blakeney Red Perry Pear which ‘blushes’ on the sunny side.

Denis is evangelical about the quality of the pear. “It is the queen of pears. It has so much going for it. The fruit is very tannic and very sharp. It produces a lovely, well balanced perry, full bodied and with wonderful sweetness.”

His adulation for the Blakeney Red flows into this perry: it pours with a gentle, tantalising fizz and its light amber colour is seductively inviting. Caramelised apple pie on the nose, it is full of wonderful sweetness, just as Denis describes, with Calvados notes from the barrels in which it matures.

This is Denis at his best – a delicious drink with a flavour to savour. Make the most of it while you can – there won’t be too much of this around next year.

Gwatkin Yarlington Mill

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Denis Gwatkin in his farm shop

Denis Gwatkin in his farm shop

The cider making world is full of wonderful characters. None more so than Denis Gwatkin.

He was featured in Oz Clarke and James May’s TV series Oz and James Drink to Britain and as the pair approach the Gwatkin family farm, May jests with Clarke: “As he’s one of your establishment drinking chums, he’s not going to be a great, big, hairy bloke with a huge, red beard now is he.”

May is being ironic of course – as he finishes talking, the cameras pan to Denis marching up the yard to greet his visitors. This is exactly what Denis looks like – larger than life in more ways than one. He is part hairy biker, part cider making legend.

Denis’ family has farmed this corner of Herefordshire for four generations. Their land nestles beneath soft, rolling hills near the Welsh border at Abbey Dore, in what is known locally as Golden Valley.

For 120 years his forebears have been making cider, as is the tradition is these parts, but it was not until 1992 that Denis turned what had been a family hobby into a going concern.

He divides opinion does Denis. His cider is distinctive and a bit like Marmite: you either love it or hate. He is often elusive when you try to tie him down on what makes his cider so different. “It’s my feet,” he jokes. “I wash them in it. I’ve got the cleanest feet in Herefordshire.”

Joking apart, the wild yeast plays a part. Denis adds no yeast to his juice, leaving the yeast which occurs naturally on the apple alone to kickstart the fermentation process. And then there’s the old whisky barrels in which the cider ferments and matures. The rest is Denis’ secret.

Golden Valley in Herefordshire

Golden Valley in Herefordshire

Denis tends 12 acres of orchards, growing pears and classic cider apples like Kingston Black, Foxwhelp and Morgan Sweet, and supplements his crop with fruit from neighbouring farms.

All the apples are picked by hand using a pranking pole, a long staff with a hook on the end which is used to hook round the branches and shake them in order to make the apples fall to the ground.

Different varieties are piled in the yard and then scooped up in the bucket of a digger, fed into a hopper, washed and pressed. The juice ferments and matures the oak, whisky barrels.

Gwatkin Yarlingoton Mill is a 7% single varietal cider made with nothing but Yarlington Mill apples. Yarlington Mill is a favourite with traditional cider makers due to its outstanding qualities. Denis is loathe to admit it – rivalries run deep among cider makers – but the apple originates from Somerset.

He says: “It is a really fruity apple – it has got everything going for it. It makes a full bodied cider, full of tannins yet with a honey taste. To people who are not usually cider drinkers, this cider really appeals. If you are a cider drinker, then you are away with it.”

The apples are red and yellow in colour and are harvested in late November. The juice is slow to ferment, producing a rich, red, medium cider. Woody spirit on the nose, the flavour is deep and complex. The distinctive Gwatkin twang gives way to sweet apple and a spirit finish.

But the question is: do you love it, or do you hate it?

Apples For Them

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Apples For You

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