The apple fosterer: Rewe’s own champion cider maker

PUBLISHED: 11:09 03 January 2017 | UPDATED: 11:09 03 January 2017

Devon cider maker Polly Hilton

Devon cider maker Polly Hilton

Matt Austin

Cider maker Polly Hilton is nurturing a love of orchards and apples, as she tells Catherine Courtenay

Something rather momentous happened in the cider tent at this year’s Devon County Show. Indeed, the announcement of who’d won the category’s most prestigious award may even go down in the annals of cider making history. Polly Hilton not only won the Newcomer trophy, she also scooped the Best Exhibit title barely a year after the 28-year-old from Rewe started to make cider. And this was for keeved cider. Polly had used a traditional technique which can fox even the most experienced cider maker. No one was more surprised than Polly herself. “I thought they were pulling my leg,” she says. But having spent a morning with her, tasting her cider and seeing the trees she cares for, it’s really not that surprising, because this is a woman who’s head over heels in love with orchards and apples.

With a background in agriculture, an interest in sustainability and a huge love of the outdoors, Polly’s cider making career initially began with a desire to uncover Devon’s lost orchards, aided in her adventure with a map produced by the People’s Trust For Endangered Species which showed the county’s existing and potential sites. The trust was appealing for people to track down and log the orchards and their apples so Polly set about on foot, bike and sometimes car, and discovered 25 in a five-mile radius of her house.

As she talks about her cider journey Polly’s emotions reveal an energising mix of distress and excitement.

“I’d read so much about how many orchards had been lost, 90% in Devon since 1950, and so many are in poor condition. I wanted to do something because they are an amazing resource and rare varieties could be genetically resistant. It’s very important to secure them from extinction.”

After tracking down the orchards, she dropped a note through neighbouring doors offering to look after them; she was delighted when the owners of around 20 orchards got back to her. Recognising that there was no incentive, and often no time, for farmers and landowners to maintain these smaller orchards, she felt sure there could be a way to both nurture them and make them financially viable.

So came the cider making. Polly wanted to make it as naturally as possible, and also to produce a more high-end drink, something which could compete with wine on the dinner table. “With no chemicals, no fertilisers and therefore lower nitrogen levels there’s less water in the fruit and a high quality of apple,” she says. Having some knowledge of wine production from her college days, she decided to pursue two types of cider production, keeved cider and champagne method cider. It may be her love of science (she initially went to university to study marine biology), but she approached the task with an extraordinary level of commitment and detail, sampling every apple, making detailed notes, charting results on spreadsheets, and that was before the methodical process of blending and yet more recording.

“I love science, I love making stuff and I love agriculture, and this combines all three things,” she says.

She also read and researched everything she could find about cider making, even contacting renowned authors and cider makers to ask for help and advice.

“I must have read ten million books and got so much advice and spoke to so many people.”

It seems she’s absorbed every scrap of knowledge and yet still retains a great deal of respect and admiration for her cider-making seniors – with the possible exception of one occasion… She’d sent a renowned expert an e-mail asking his advice about making keeved cider. “There’s a reason why they say you should walk before you run.” was the, perhaps understandably, stern response. It had the opposite effect of spurring her on even more, with a vow of proving him wrong!

Polly began her orchard hunt in May last year and, after selecting three orchards to work with, started making her first cider the following October, using the name Find & Foster. She received a small grant to buy equipment from the Henry Plumb Foundation and is renting an old barn from orchard owner, Jim Maunder.

Her first ciders, two champagne and two keeved, are due to go on sale this autumn. Polly revels being in Jim’s old red stone walled barn, which was apparently an old apple pressing room, it’s a perfect base for her cider making activities; but she’s even more at home when working in the orchards.

Just across from her house there’s an orchard where she’s been uncovering and restoring trees that were planted by successive generations of the owner’s family. Every one is a different variety. “These are such cool trees and to think, someone planted these 100 years ago… I love the lichens and the moss, there are so many species in just such a tiny area. I love being here late in the evening with the sun setting.”

And is she confident about selling her first cider? With characteristic humour and humility she says, “I’m excited but so nervous. Every moment I open a bottle and it tastes nice I still think, ‘wow!’.”

Polly’s Top 10 Devon apples

Upton Pyne Apple: Introduced in 1910, they are large and soft, with a distinct pineapple flavour. The trees bear a heavy crop, even in the worst season and a particularly beautiful blossom. They’re named after the village I grew up in, where there is a very old Upton Pyne Apple tree still growing.

Sweet Coppin: True Devon cider apples which produce pure, sweet juice and hold the “vintage” classification, which generally means they yield cider of superior quality. I uncovered an enormous Sweet Coppin from amongst the brambles in a traditional orchard and the apples are blended in to my keeved cider.

Fair Maid of Devon: This full sharp, vintage cider apple is perfect for raising the acidity in a champagne-style cider. Since the trees show good disease resistance they work well in low-input orchards.

Devonshire Quarrendon: Beautiful little dessert apples with a vibrant, crimson skin and crisp white flesh tinged with pink and green. They’re juicy and refreshing with an almost vinous flavour. They were first recorded in Devon in 1676 and are known to survive well in windy, rainy areas, hence why they grow well here!

Tom Putt: Apparently named after Sir Thomas Putt, a landowner from Devon in the 18th century. These apples are good all round; for cider, juice and cooking. They’re bright red with stripes and the trees have good disease resistance.

Lucombe’s Pine: Raised in Exeter by Lucombe, Pince & Co, these juicy dessert apples have a highly aromatic flavour. The skin is yellow with russet dots and becomes tinged with orange where it sees the sun. The flavour is quite similar to that of the Upton Pyne apple.

Tremlett’s Bitter: They’re full bittersweet cider apples, so great for adding mouth-puckering tannin to a blend. But when you take a bite in the orchard you’re likely to spend the next five minutes trying to spit the intensely bitter taste out!

Devonshire Buckland: Excellent in champagne style cider; they’ve got a great balance of sugar and acidity. They’re also good for cooking as well as eating straight from the tree. They’re crisp and juicy with a strong perfume.

Devonshire Golden Ball: What a great name! You guessed it, these apples are round and golden. They’re great for storing and make beautiful apple sauce.

Devonshire Queen: Big, sweet, juicy apples with bright red stripes over straw-coloured skin. They’re good all round, but best blended with something a little more tannic in cider.

What is the Champagne method?

Crafted in the same way as sparkling wine but using apples instead of grapes, dry cider is bottled with champagne yeast and sugar, creating a secondary, in-bottle fermentation. The yeast ‘autolyses’ producing champagne-like flavours, and is removed from the bottle by riddling and disgorging: yeast collects in the neck of the bottle, is frozen and expelled at high pressure as the bottle is opened.

And keeving?

This ancient, artisan method produces a naturally sweet, brilliantly clear sparkling cider. A slow fermentation led by wild yeast strains develops intense flavours; the sweetness is fruity, being derived from unfermented apple sugars rather than cane sugar, and is balanced by rich tannins found in the true cider apples that must be used for this process to work. Keeved cider is bottled before the fermentation has stopped, allowing a natural fizz to develop in the bottle

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