Australians don’t do cider. Whatever you are buying probably isn’t the stuff. Unless you are going to Gurney’s, where two young brothers
are keeping an ancient tradition alive.
It sucks to make cider. For example: if you own some grapes and squeeze out some wine, you’re called a vigneron. If you banged some oak together with a bit of metal you’d be a cooper. Make a boat and they’ll call you a shipwright; look at wool and you’re an alnager; weave wigs and you’re a perkier; buy carcasses and you’re a knacker. Just owning a wharf makes you a wharfinger. Really. But cider makers, they don’t get no respect. There’s no single noun that refers to the ancient, noble and downright useful profession of brewing cider. And that just ain’t right.
“There’s actually no fun professional term for a cider maker,” says James Gurnett, with a sadness that couldn’t properly be called a hint. “All the other ones get one…”
Still, James is a hale young fellow. Born in Somerset, England and raised here in Gippsland, James and his brother Tom are the heirs to an honourable tradition: turning apples into booze.
Simple, you’d think. Just boil down a bunch of apples, wait a week or two, then bung the contents in a bottle. Wrong! Ciderology is both an Art and Science. And, it’s every bit as sophisticated as winemaking.
“Cider is apple juice that’s been fermented,” explains James, very patiently, as though he’s had to do this many times before. “It goes through fermentation, a yeast is added, or wild yeast already exists, and then the yeast eats the sugar, which produces the alcohol. That’s essentially it.”
But, of course, there’s a caveat. What we Australians commonly think of as cider is, in truth, a travesty. Big words – harsh words, even. But what’s being sold to you in bars and bottleshops is a watered-down, sped-up, sugar-filled fizzy drink that’s been fed to us like dopes. It’s a National Conspiracy.
“A lot of the commercial ciders, they use apple juice concentrate, which comes from
China, typically. It isn’t really apples, at that point,” says James, and he’s right. It’s not apples. “A lot of the breweries that make cider, they just get it in this really large vat of concentrate, and they ferment it out then add a heap of water to it, which is how you end up with about a four percent cider.”
What James is saying is that cider, when left to its own devices, Will naturally ferment to about eight or nine percent alcohol. We tend to think of ciders as being a beer alternative, or perhaps something fresh and bubbly, like an RTD. In fact, a canned cocktail is exactly how we’ve been trained to think about ciders. They are somehow funny, lesser, déclassé. This is yet another horrible lie.
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing,” says James, thoughtfully. “If you’re in
Somerset in England, where my family is from, then cider is King. If you’re in Normandy in France, or you’re in Asturias in Spain, then cider is King.”
James’ use of the gendered term ‘King’ (rather than its monarchial opposite, ‘Queen’) is interesting, because here in Australia, cider has typically been marketed to women; something sweeter and fizzier and more palatable than beer for the supposedly more delicate tastebuds of the fairer sex. “I think in Australia, it really is a gendered drink,” he says. “But it’s awesome going back to Somerset, where you go to a local pub and see half of the old guys drinking a pint of cider. You just wouldn’t see it in Australia at all.“
When seen in this light, the lower alcohol content begins to make sense: women can’t handle their drink, apparently. And, perhaps, so does the issue of sweetness. It’s a weird thing, but let’s address it: along with other completely arbitrary non-gendered phenomena such as pinkness or unicorns, the sensation of sweetness would most commonly be associated with females. Even though all sexes and genders probably consume sucrose equally. So, it follows that if women are going to drink cider, it’s gonna have to be sweet.
The only problem is it’s not.
“A lot of people think that good cider should taste like apple juice, and it shouldn’t,” James explains, still patiently. “The products you get in Australia, there’s a lot of back-sweetening, and a lot of the ciders have twice as much added sugar as a can of Coke.”
In a real cider – let alone good one – all of the sugar contained in the apples should be consumed by the yeast, leaving behind only alcohol, and the complex esters and flavonoids that are then released. Like wine, a good cider should be balanced, expressing both the characteristics of the original apples, and the tannic structure imparted by the skin and seeds. Furthermore, a truly great cider should have its own distinctive terroir, an aura of place, something intangible that perhaps comes from the soil, or maybe from the microbial life that lives on in the bottle.
In any case, at Gurney’s Cider, the Gurnett Brothers are only interested in the truly great.
We’re always thinking about whether we want to make award-winning ciders, or
whether we want to make memorable and distinctive ciders,” says James. “In the end, we just make ciders that we like. And if people don’t like them, that’s completely ﬁne. If they want a sweet cider, you can go anywhere and buy one.”
It’s the challenge of getting a dry cider exactly right that appeals to both Tom and James. It’s the difficulty of the process that keeps it interesting for them, and so too for us.
“We think, with a dry cider, there’s nowhere to hide. Any imperfections in the fermentation process, you’ve got to be really delicate in terms of the temperature, in terms of oxidation, you’ve got to be really careful pumping through the cider and bottling it as well,” says James. “With a sweet cider, you can have the worst base, add a heap of sugar to it, ﬂavours, colouring, and you won’t be able to taste any of the imperfections.”
So now we have made a general outline of what a cider is, let’s have a quick run through of how James and Tom actually make the stuff. First, they plant a tree. An apple tree, of course, but none of your Pink Ladies or Granny Smiths. A good cider apple is not a good eating apple - you want something tart, astringent and tannic. A Ribston Pippin, perhaps, or a Champ Gaillard, some Frequin Rouge or an Improved Foxwhelp. James’s favourite is the Kingston Black, the only variety you can make a single variety vintage from. The Kingston Black is complex enough on its own to impart all of the flavours a cider needs.
This, actually, is a fascinating difference from the process of winemaking. With wines, you generally ferment a single variety, and blend your Cab Sav with your Cab Franc once they’re done. With cider, it’s exactly the other way around – all of the varieties go into the fermenter together, and begin their unpredictable journey into your gullet. “You get a bunch of different apples, and you throw them all in together,” James says. “You have to balance sugar levels, tannins and acidity to give you a really well-structured cider. It’s less about blending afterwards and starting with the right variety of fruit.”
Obviously, James and Tom couldn’t possibly source such vast amounts of fresh apples from their own modest orchard. They work with discerning suppliers (farmers who give a fuck) like Hazeldene Organic Orchards, who put aside huge quantities for the Gurnett’s to play with.
At this point, we are wading in deep. We are going to start talking about agricultural monopolies, and the loss of botanical diversity as flow-on effect of the consumer economy. Essentially, the apples you need for cider are generally classed as “Heritage” varieties, which is code for almost extinct. It’s a sad thing to think about, but our species-wide sweet-tooth is robbing the world of weirdness. And weirdness is good.
But, every problem is just a solution waiting to happen, and the rolling green hills of Gippsland, strangely redolent of county Somerset, might just be the answer. “The cold winters in Gippsland are perfect for apples. They’re really reliant on chill hours,” says James. “It’s an accumulation of how many hours we get below eight degrees. In terms of temperature, it’s really ﬁtting for a lot of the French varieties we grow here. We think there’s a lot more room for more orchards down here in Gippsland, and a lot more cideries as well.”
Until such a day as Gippsland is dotted with heritage orchards growing very ugly fruit, James and Tom need to make up the gap somehow. Their solution is scrumping.
Now, another interesting point about the cider business is that while there isn’t a proper noun for a person who makes the stuff, their is a dedicated verb for the very particular activity of stealing apples. As Bill Bailey once pointed out, ‘scrumping’ is not just any old fruit larceny. Nick a banana and you’re just a thief. But with apples it’s different. With apples it’s scrumping.
So, the brothers head out to (supposedly) public land to find wild apple trees, or ask very politely if they can climb into your yard. James scampers up top and shakes the upper boughs, and whatever the tree yields goes into the pot. And from ‘scrumping’ we get ‘scrumpy.’ It’d be a fair, but not certain, bet that Gurney’s is the only professional cider business whose scrumpy is genuinely scrumped. But it’s probably not something they can scale.
Why, you may ask, go to so much effort to steal from the trees of sweet old grandfathers and angry farmers brandishing flannel and a shotgun? Because: apples do not grow year round. Despite what your local greengrocer or automated checkout may tell you, apples are a seasonal fruit, and their season is specifically winter.
Being the upstanding young men that they are, and the standard-bearers of an ancient if fading tradition, Tom and James refuse to make cider if the apples aren’t in season. What gall!
“We only produce once a year when the apples are fresh. We do a vintage the same as wine. Typically, we get the apples at the beginning of May. We do a massive process - we pressed about 35 tonnes of fruit this year,” says James. “But
you can only produce when the apples are fresh; you can’t get them from cold storage
and make a new batch. We think good cider comes from really good apples.”
This often means that Gurney’s run out of cider. One year they only lasted three months before they had to shut down the cellar door. Since then, they’ve upped production five-fold.
Nevertheless, the production process is long. The apples are allowed to ferment in cold temperatures (and thus, very slowly) for up to three months, and then are bottle aged to continue the fermentation. By contrast, a commercial brewer can turn around a batch of cider in about a week.
“If you run cider or beer or wine hot, you can pick up a lot of bad qualities,” James says. “The yeast can become stressed, and you can have off-ﬂavours of egginess or matchsticks, and you can often lose more delicate ﬂavours that way too.”
So, the Gurnett’s take their time. The even do a Méthode Traditionelle, just like they do in Champagne, where the cider bottle ferments for up to three years, and is ‘riddled’ by hand to slowly rotate the yeast into the neck of the bottle. From there, it’s frozen, disgorged, and topped up with last year’s vintage. They are into some serious stuff.
Perhaps what’s most impressive is that these guys have only been at it for five years. It’s difficult to imagine how fanatical about this stuff they are going to be by the time they are 45 – which, I might mention, is a couple of decades off. At the moment, they are getting into Wild Yeasts, like the folks making Natural Wine. They’re building relationships with small farmers around the region to enlarge their eclectic supply. And they’re also cultivating new apple hybrids, grafted from cuttings snipped from feral trees – thus creating new mutant varieties, particular to this place, this climate, this soil.
That’s all in the future, though. And none of it need happen for the Gurnett Brothers to be a raging success. That’s happened already. But, the thing about Gurney’s is that it’s extremely hard to get your cider-drinking mitts on a bottle, as they don’t make much of the stuff. So, if you want it, you’ll have to go get it. It’s only a two hour drive.