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There is an expression that describes a person as someone that really ‘knows their onions’; a horticultural expert that knows every variety, nuance and use of a plant. That phrase could have been invented for David Berwick - at least it could it you swapped ‘apples’ for ‘onions’.
David is a maker from Cornwall. He is the owner of St Ives Cider, a small but growing concern which brings the ancient craft of the cider maker right up to date and with his mobile press exploits ancient trees and orchards across Cornwall. We went to the heart of the county to meet him as harvest got well and truly underway.
When Keats described the glorious abundance of our native land in his ode To Autumn I suspect the apples that bowed the branches of the "moss'd cottage trees" were a trusty old English variety like some of the many I was introduced to this week. Not, it is safe to assume, the overly sweet juice bomb known as the Pink Lady, which if it earned frequent-flyer miles would surely accrue plenty to bypass the mouth of a pom and get straight back on the first plane home.
The day we went to meet David Berwick of St Ives Cider, was the first day of harvest. It was also the day that the pump had a few troubles on the mobile press and the week that it had rained and clay-sodden earth had become a muddy mess. But that did nothing to diminish the charm of meeting the man behind one of the county’s best loved cider’s with his tanned arms elbow deep in apple pulp. It was also the day that the first crop of apples relinquished their plentiful sweet juice and the first of many bottles of the season were to be filled for the shelves of Trevaskis Farm near Hayle - and most certainly the first day that we had ever been so drenched in the true scent of Autumn fruitfulness.
Apples are abundant in the Autumn and have been valued for thousands of years. Carefully stored they can keep for months and could of course be used in all sorts of ways. They are our heritage: they've been around for long enough with the oldest English apple, the Pearmain, recorded in a Norfolk document of 1204. And we've been growing them enthusiastically since Henry VIII established the first large-scale orchards at Teynham in Kent. In fact, would Isaac Newton have discovered the theory of gravity had an apple not fallen from a tree in his mother's garden in 1666?
The sound of an apple falling from a tree is very much where this particular story begins. For that is the sound of the start of cider season to David Berwick and his friends. Nobody knows who first thought of the idea of crushing apples to gain their juice but when you see ancient granite crushes scattered liberally across counties like Devon and Cornwall, in effect as community presses for each village, you can begin to realise that this was an important part - not just of food gathering but of community life. It was a focus of thankfulness at harvest time and for celebration of harvest home. Making cider meant making a community, quite apart from the pleasures of the flavour and of the alcohol.
St Ives Cider is certainly part of the community and cider makers have a community spirit of their own. David’s membership of the South West Cidermaker’s Association means he meets with some of the UK’s best known producers regularly and he remarks on the generosity and camaraderie shown toward him and other smaller producers.
St Ives Cider is a Cornish family business owned by David and Kate Berwick that was started in 2012. As a man that escaped from life as an estate agent, David now combines his previous award-winning wine-making experience with traditional cider techniques to produce hand-crafted artisan ciders that have won awards from Taste of the West and the South West Cider Makers Association and are starting to be recognised and stocked by stores outside the county. In fact the brand is recognised at shows and exhibitions where he is often asked to judge ciders from other often more commercial producers.
But what makes St Ives Cider so special? Cider is an incredibly natural product requiring very little to alter the sweet juice into alcohol. Everything is done to an exceptional level of cleanliness, and care is taken to make sure that the right yeast strains are allowed to do the magic work. There is a lot of stainless steel involved and no longer any wooden barrels - but make no mistake this remains a traditional practice; simple and natural with no additives to alter sweetness flavour or colour. But more than the process itself, it is the apples, or the apple blend, that really makes the magic happen.
Rural England was once covered in orchards large and small. Every cottage and every farm would have grown them. Many of these have been lost as trees grew old, fell and were not replaced. In recent years many old commercial orchards have been planted which is fine when large volume production is required. But what of the ancient varieties and the lost orchards? Well, though many are lost many also remain. This was most certainly the case at Kirthenwood Orchard now supplying David.
On moving to farm the new owners began to push back the jungle of bramble that occupied a part of their land. Rather like a scene from an ancient fairy tale they didn't find a castle in the middle but a number of sleeping princesses in the form of dozens of ancient-variety apple trees. As they cut further they discovered an incredible range of sizes, colour and shapes being produced by lichen encrusted old trees and they set about identifying them. Here the story took an amazing twist as a chance conversation with a retired country house gardener from Trelissick told them that he had planted the trees 50 years earlier with the intention of preserving these heritage varieties. In effect creating a museum orchard. The orchard was a mirror of the national trust house and they were able to map the trees through this partnership as well as grafting and replacing some of the trees at each orchard that had faded with age.
Another chance conversation at the Cornwall County Show led to the forging of a strong link between landowner and cider maker and the first batch of St Ives Cider made from a mix of the ancient apples went on to win a Bronze in the International Cider Competition.
Standing amongst the trees within that orchard, the range and names of the varieties is incredible as is the idea that they have been around for so long - and yet you will find them nowhere is a shop or a supermarket. What is believed to be Cornwall’s oldest variety ‘Mother’ grows here large, pale green and slightly knobbly. ‘Devon Crimson’ are small and vivid with a flesh the colour of damsons. ‘The Duke of Cornwall’ thrives right beside Pig’s Nose and every name is carefully written on a slate beside the trunk to bring a smile of joy. Of course many of these varieties are not intended for eating as they are far too tart in flavour. They are all about juice and cider.
The trailer-mounted mobile press allows Dave to go to the apples, rather than the traditional opposite; the idea of efficiency in ‘food miles’ kicks in here, as it means that tons of fruit does not have to be hauled for miles. But despite this modern addition, the process is as traditional as ever.
The apples are chopped to a pulp which is then mounded in frames in cloth wraps separated by wooden slats. This stack of ‘cheeses’ is then put into an hydraulic press and squeezed. An old fashioned press might have managed one bar of pressure, but this press runs up to 300 extracting every drop of precious juice. After pressing, cakes of ‘pomice’ leftovers are collected to make a delicacy for the farm pigs to enjoy. The juice - flowing even before pressure is added - is pumped into a storage vat for transport back to the main site where it is either bottled as juice or fermented for cider. Fermentation in days of old was simple - the apples were naturally covered in yeast and ‘something’ would happen to ferment the juice - but the results were not predictable. So David uses a variety which he introduces to start the fermentation as it will give consistency.
The results are bottled by St Ives Cider and labelled to reflect the variety or the place that they were grown. This provenance and authenticity is vital to Dave’s ethos, and is the way that the small company makes it’s mark in the larger world of cider; “Clodgy” Farmhouse, “Smeatons” Dry, “Bamaluz” Medium and “Porth” Pear, as well as seasonal and limited edition runs from specific orchards.
David is a man with apple juice running in his veins, with apple lore seeping from every pore and with a twinkling eye that instantly tells of the joy at gaining sweet juice and perfect cider from these round red and green fruity treasures.
For more information on St Ives Cider, visit their website: https://stivescider.co.uk/
You can watch a video of our visit below:
If you’re a cider lover - then why not take a look at this Dartmoor Tankard?