The first stop on my cider odyssey is Herefordshire (English pn: HAIR-eh ford sheer) which, for those of you who don't have your Engliah counties memorized, is the the west, snuggled up next to Wales. Among cider nerds, Somerset is often invoked as the mystical center of English cider-making, but Herefordshire probably has more claim. This is the home of the famous cider pioneer, Bulmers, which is now generally spat out as an insult. It wasn't always the case, though, that the world's first industrial cider-maker was associated with lowbrow stuff. And it's not incidental that the Bulmers got their start in Herefordshire: this is where the apples are.
As with any craft, cider makers each have a philosophy. I wondered, before arriving: do they tend to clump together philosophically, like the alt brewers of Dusseldorf and lambic brewers of Brussels? My sample size is too small to count as definitive, but it was interesting to find real philosophical similarities between the two men.
Both make their ciders naturally, which is to say without adding yeast, and left to ferment naturally in ambient outside temperatures. (That means the apples that come to press in September star fermenting warmer than those that linger til December.) Both eschew technical fussiness--when I asked questions like "what's the pH?" Tom gave me a wide range with a shrug and both said they don't really care. The cider takes care of itself, they believe. Both also make and are committed to perry (fermented pear juice). And perhaps most tellingly, both use the word "soft" a lot.
The other thing that really struck me--and this is partly because I'm a beer guy--is how much Mike and Tom follow their cider's lead. In brewing, you want as much control over the process as you can get. In Hereford, they let circumstances guide them. The apple harvest is unpredictable and they work with the fruit they have. Since they ferment naturally, they work with the ambient temperatures around them. They take gravity readings, but they also just watch to monitor fermentation. And the cider is ready when it's ready. They taste as they go along, waiting for all those variable to line up to give them soft, complex ciders.
Photos (from top): (1) Tom Oliver's barrels, in what was formerly a building devoted to processing hops; (2) the cider cellar at Ross-on-Wye; (3) when the ghostly hands deflate, the cider has stopped fermenting.