Britain’s cider harvest got underway a month early today – with 200,000 tonnes of apples set to be picked within the next ten weeks.
The growing season started early thanks to the warm spring weather and growers are expecting a bumper crop.
Nearly half of all apples grown in the UK are used to make cider and many thousands of acres of new orchards have been planted in the last 15 years to keep pace with the increasing demand for the drink.
Gabe Cook, spokesman for the National Association of Cider Makers (NACM), said an early harvest is an encouraging sign for the industry.
He said: ”The harvest has started earlier but then we saw an early blossom in spring.
”Whilst cider makers are always happy to see the apples start to arrive, as an industry we track what happens and when to evaluate the impact of climate change as it presents real opportunities and risks to what we do.
”We are expecting a good harvest and we are especially pleased to see new orchards being harvested after the investment in planting and the time it takes to establish a new orchard.”
Many new varieties of apple which have taken 25 years to breed are being harvested for the first time this year.
The long-term project is being managed by NACM as part of ongoing research to improve the quality of apples available to cider makers.
Working on the project throughout has been Liz Copas, consultant pomologist to the NACM and a leading authority on cider apples.
One new variety has been named ‘Lizzy’ after the orcharding expert.
Liz said: ”Harvest is an important and exciting time but even more so given the time and effort invested to produce new varieties.
”We hope to prove that the new fruit offers growers and cider makers the best combination of juice quality and high yields whilst requiring limited intervention during the growing season.”
One trial site is managed by Thatchers Cider near Sandford, south of Bristol.
Other orchards involved in the work are at Perrins Hill Farm, Tintinhull, Somerset and Bulmers’ orchard at Staunton, Hereford.
Some 29 new varieties of cider apple have been created following a selection and propagation process that started in 1984.
The new apple varieties have in the main been given female names – Lizzy, Amelia, Amanda, Jenny, Hastings, Connie, Helen’s Apple, Jane, Tina, Vicky, Naomi, Nicky; Angela, Gilly, Willy, Joanna, Maggie, Hannah, Jean, Sally, Fiona, Tracey, Eleni, Betty and Debbie.
There is a royal connection with the naming of another as Prince William and three other varieties Three Counties, Shamrock and Early Bird make up the new batch.
The final selection was made in 2007 and a first crop is being harvested in this month to join the 365 varieties already grown in the UK.
It can take up to five years for new orchards to produce apples and it is typically ten years before the grower will breakeven following the investment to plant a new orchard.
Cider apples differ from culinary and dessert fruit as the cider maker is interested in what flavours are present in the apple juice to be able to produce a range of styles of cider are possible.
Hundreds of varieties of apples each offer different levels of tannin, acidity, astringency and natural sweetness – all the components that combine to produce the flavours and character in cider, just as in wine.