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An Introduction to the Craft Cider Harvest Season

Apple Orchard 13-10-2022

The life of an apple tree is an annual one. It blossoms in spring; the fruit ripens over the summer and then is ready for harvesting in the autumn. The winter months, much like all of us, are reserved for recovery and pruning.

As summer closes and we head into Autumn, this period is the most important time for cider-making. Why? Because it is cider harvest season. But what exactly is harvest season, what does it mean for Sandford Orchards and what does our process look like?

What is Cider Harvest Season?

Being situated in the northern hemisphere, this is the time of year in which apples and other fruits begin to ripen naturally following the summer season. That means they are ripe for the picking and ready for use. In the words of Barny, our founder, “it’s showtime”.

Fun fact: the common term ‘windfall’, referring to an unexpected influx of money or sudden good fortune, derives from harvest season: when apples and other fruit are ripe and ready for picking, the wind can easily blow them from the tree.

Delving deeper into apples, every variety has its own ripening window, including cider apples. There is a distinct difference in the timing between the harvesting of dessert or traditional eating-apples and that of cider apples. The latter happens a little later in the season, owning to the higher sugar content which ultimately produces a fuller flavour. They are intentionally grown to harvest late to make the most of the final rays autumn sunshine for maximum ripeness.

Hand picking apples

Cider Harvest Season at Sandford Orchards

If the West of England has a superpower, it is cider-making, something we have inherited at Sandford Orchards.

At the time of writing, we’ve already started to harvest some of the early season apples, where many have made their way to the mill. The apples for our more vintage cider, such as The General or Sandford Reserve, require a little longer and so should be ready for harvesting from the middle of October. By that point it’s all systems go at Sandford Orchards as we enter our busiest time of the year.

There’s nothing quite like apple harvest season, what with all the highs and occasional lows. The harvest is, after all, the end goal of being a cider-maker. Every season brings a new promise. Ask any cider maker and they will all say that they regularly dream about the perfect harvest, where the orchards will be dry, the fruit big, crisp and sweet, and the press runs smoothly morning through night. Of course, it rarely works out that way!

This year is looking really promising for a vintage year. The very warm weather and ample hours of glorious sunshine we saw in the summer should result in very sweet apples. The team at Sandford Orchards are hopeful that this will be a memorable harvest, but time will tell.

Ask Barny what his favourite part of the harvesting season is and he will say the smell – all those wonderful flavours and aromas that distil during the milling process. The aroma drifts out of the shed and makes its way down the lanes and there’s nothing quite like it.

And the worst? Definitely the long days and the stress of the unknown: machines breaking down, for example. But no harvest season would be complete without some mishap, which only adds to the excitement.

The Necessity Of Cider Apples

A common question that we are often asked is: “what are the benefits of using cider apples?”

Can any apple variety produce quality cider? The simple answer is no. Think of winemaking: you will struggle to produce quality wine from eating-grapes. It doesn’t mean you can’t make cider from eating-apples and many do produce a white wine cider that is crisp and dry, but you will miss out on the richness, complexity and other attributes that attract people to cider.

Our cider apples have been cultivated, bred and classified for the production of cider for well over a thousand years. Try and eat one and it’ll be thick-skinned and incredibly bittersweet. But ferment it and put it through the cider-making process and you’ll end up with the perfect drink.

Cider apple orchard

What Does The Cider Harvest Process Look Like?

Ask Barny what the ideal cider harvesting looks like and he will say there is an exact science to it. The apples that arrive at the mill need to be of the highest quality. We assess the orchard; we determine when the right time is to harvest and once we’re happy, the process begins. We harvest, we mill and we press all within two hours at times. It can be longer – rarely more so than a day – but we act quickly to ensure the juice is ready to go.

The primary fermentation period, when the sugars that are in the apple juice are converted into alcohol, requires weeks rather than days. The cooler and longer the fermentation process, the better the cider. After that comes the maturation process, where the complexities that we associate with cider come together and marry. We like to make that process as long and as fulfilling as possible.

To that end, you will never find a Sandford Orchard cider that is younger than six-months old in order for the maturation process to work its magic. Realistically, it is 12 months old or older, depending on the variety and levels of alcohol.

So, the next time you pick up a glass of Sandford Orchards cider to drink, you’ll do so with an understanding of the cider harvest season. To brush up on your knowledge a little bit more, learn about the history of cider on our blog.

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